Rahul, maine kahaa thaa naa?.... Paani chalaa jaaegaa!!
I grew up in the 90’s and vividly remember this ad – although I have forgotten the brand: a kid playing music and dancing around in the shower with the slightest bother about water wastage and when water runs out, looks at the shower that is now just trickling a few drops - with sadness and disappointment on his face (make this line better). In 2020 this is all too real - if you are in Bangalore, you probably faced this a couple of times already. We are all staring at empty showers and taps and what will remain will be only sadness and disappointment for our future generations – if we don’t fix this fast.
The Composite Water Management Index report, published by NITI Aayog in June 2018, mentions that India is undergoing the worst water crisis in its history and nearly 600 million people are facing high to extreme water stress. The report further mentions that India is placed at 120th amongst 122 countries in the water quality index, with nearly 70% of water being contaminated. By 2020, 21 major cities of India will run out of water and face ‘day zero’, it said —entire cities running out of water! Let that sink in for a moment.
We have about 17% of the world’s population, only 4% of the world’s fresh water, and 70% of it is contaminated. Availability was always a problem, quality for us became secondary. We are OK with any quality, because that is how important water is. Is there a way out?
How Did We Get Here?
It is probably not because of Rahul, though Rahul does make it worse. We can’t really think of solutions without looking back and seeing how we got here. What are we doing wrong?
4% of the world’s water for 17% of the people is skewed and sounds terrible, but it is still A lot of water. We probably can manage very well with that.
According to World Bank reports, agriculture accounts for 70% of all water withdrawals globally. In India this is upwards of 80% and a lot of that water is not managed properly, resulting in wastage – as high as 60% for some crops. Now, irrigated land is more than twice as productive as rain-fed cropland, so we can’t really ask farmers to stop taking water.
But we can make the process more efficient and reduce wastage and we can get farmers to try for more water-efficient crops, especially in water stressed areas. But the math is simple – if we are able to reduce 20% consumption in agriculture, we double the water available for all other uses combined!
Unsurprisingly, India is the largest drawer of ground-water in the world. Our over reliance on ground water irrigation purposes is definitely a huge reason for our current dilemma. That’s because it is easy - just dig wells and draw water - next year, dig deeper. As you read this - you will realize how unsustainable and how absurd it is. But it is easy - so we have been doing it for decades. When we draw faster than these wells can recharge - they dry up.
But we will not stop drawing ground water unless we have better, easier options. This means investing in irrigation networks, adopting newer & better recycling technologies and closely monitoring water supply, demand and wastage. To
start, we must move to crops that use less water in water stressed areas for sure and enable farmers with technology to ensure wastage is reduced. For many farmers the most high-tech option they have is still building bunds! But as you can see - this is now in the realm of policymakers and bureaucracy. In other words, it will take time to implement across the country.
In developing countries like India, urban population growth is more than twice the rate of overall population growth. Reports say up to 200,000 people migrate from rural India to cities and towns areas every day – which means less water / head every single day. So we need to move really fast. Below are a few (obvious) things we need to address.
Pricing & Leakage
If we start practicing the basic principles of Architecture, we can make situation better as living in harmony with nature is quintessential and we have seen many examples of the consequences of disturbing the equilibrium
I don’t have a report on this for India - but the USA wastes 20 billion litres of water every day just from leaks. So for India, it is not unfair to assume that things are as bad or worse - we have water pipelines that thousands of litres of water every day that remain unfixed for weeks on end. Many of our pipelines are decades old so there is no point blaming anyone - but we need to prioritize fixing water pipes. It is not just the leakage - when a pipe is broken, it means external contaminants can enter the water supply line - imagine a broken pipeline alongside a broken sewage line. Remember, a drop a second is 130 liters a year - so you can imagine the scale.
For tankers running across the cities - we already pay a slightly higher price. But city supply does not usually include total cost of infrastructure, treatment and disposal - that is perhaps why most cities do not have sufficient budgets to maintain and upgrade the supply lines and even set up treatment plants. I might rake up a mini storm here - but we need to charge more for the government to make water supply fair and sustainable. In fact, a lot of countries charge for the water disposal as well - so there is metering for both incoming and outgoing water from a house! Installing water meters at individual home level, across apartment complexes will be a good first step.
Decentralized Treatment Systems
According to estimates, major Indian cities have less than 30 percent sewage treatment capacity currently. Though most large cities have centralized wastewater treatment systems - they were mostly setup a long time ago and most of them don’t have the capacity to process current wastewater volumes. How do we reduce the load? We can’t, till we reduce consumption - but since urban growth rate is so high, this is not an avenue we can explore. Sewage lines were also setup several years ago and in some cases decades ago, sewage line connections to these centralized recycling plants don't exist - so large sections of society remain uncovered by these treatment plants.
Though capital intensive, we need to setup more centralized treatment plants for sure - maybe at ward level. But to reduce the load and improve efficiency of treatment and filtration - we need to make decentralized recycling systems (at building level) mandatory - they are in some cities like Bangalore, where it is implemented to a large extent. But this needs to be the norm and implementation must be made mandatory for existing buildings as well, even for small towns. So we can reduce consumption, reclaim and reuse whatever we can, and discharge pre-treated water to centralized treatment facilities, so they run more efficiently.
Rain & Surface-Run Off Harvesting
We need to be future focused - think a century ahead. We need a more sustainable plan. That will not be possible without harvesting rain and surface run-off water and using it to recharge our depleted wells, lakes and aquifers. Simple calculations can be made for projected demand for, say, 2050 and build trenches and tanks to harvest rain-water at building level and community/ward level. If done well, over a few seasons - we will be able to see dramatic improvement in water table levels. That is the only sustainable way for us to go forward. Yes, we may be generating water out of thin air - but we can't place bets on that just as yet.
To summarize, policy level changes to make agricultural irrigation more efficient, invest in distribution infrastructure, decentralized treatment systems at building complex levels and rain/surface run-off harvesting systems along with increased water tariffs to ensure maintenance and technology upgrades for water treatment & distribution are taken into account - will make things better for our future generations.
Let our future generation not ask us – humne kahaa tha naa?