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Water: The challenge to India's development

Water: The challenge to India's development

By Priyanka Tandon, Communications, Veolia

It is now becoming paramount for the nation to invest in infrastructure, maintenance, revamp the effectiveness of water utilities and plan for a 24/7 safe water delivery strategy in all cities.

Population growth, rapid urbanisation and the competing demands for water for agriculture, energy and industry leads to an increasing gap between demand and supply which puts pressure on India's water resources. The latest census report indicates that for the first time since Independence, the absolute increase in population is more in urban areas than in rural areas. The level of urbanisation in India increased from 27.81 per cent in 2001 to 31.16 per cent in 2011 and this pace is only going to accelerate in the coming years. According to India's Planning Commission, the current demographics state that 24 per cent of the urban population lives in slums with only limited access to basic sanitation facilities and potable water.

Poor and inadequate water services lead to consumers adopting expensive coping strategies especially in the urban slums. Their inability to get authorised connections leads them to find alternative methods such as a private or “informal” water supply which is usually sold at a much higher price. The urban poor end up paying more per unit of water by installing expensive storage tanks, suction pumps and even filters to cope with their daily water needs. Those without a connection even have to queue up at a stand-post, unaware of the availability of water the next day. It is now becoming paramount for the nation to invest in infrastructure, maintenance, revamp the effectiveness of water utilities and plan for a 24/7 safe water delivery strategy in all cities.

Partnerships with the private sector can help find sustainable solutions

In recent years there have been technological advancements in the water supply industry. The Government of India has recognised the need to introduce and integrate these new trends into the cities' water supply systems. One of the solutions identified by the Government is to encourage private sector participation in the management of urban water systems, through Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs). According to the World Bank, around 5 million people in urban areas now have access to safe water round the clock through projects or institutional arrangements that involve the private sector.

The Karnataka Urban Water Sector Improvement Project undertaken by Veolia is one such example that has proven successful in demonstrating that 24×7 safe water supply can be achieved at an affordable cost for consumers. Veolia conducted pilot projects in three cities of Karnatakaû Belgaum, Hubli-Dharwad and Gulbarga serving to a population of approximately 2,11,000 people. The project has set an example showcasing that a well-operated water supply system can provide water to the residents 24 hours a day, every day, in Indian cities, at affordable tariffs even to the poor and can be sustained over time.

In India, water supply and sanitation utilities are government bodies, which often struggle to recover the costs incurred in operation and maintenance, leave alone generate revenue for capital investment. Experience has shown that private water operators bring in technical expertise for infrastructure projects and enhance operations and services. They can bring in efficiencies and better management practices along with the much needed capital investments. However, it is important that both the public and private players come together to find sustainable solutions. Patrick Rousseau, CEO and Managing Director of Veolia, India insists on the importance of the very notion of “partnership” between the two sectors. He asserts that “there are numerous operational, financial and political risks associated with urban water projects, which the public agency and the private service provider have to deal with. They need to work together to get the best results out of a public-private partnership.”

Upgrading urban water systems

In 2010, the World Bank estimated that lack of access to water and adequate wastewater services cost India nearly $54 billion a year. The Government of India has taken significant measures to provide access to such essential services for the hundreds of millions of its citizens who still lack it. Recently, the Government has taken encouraging steps to tackle the situation and upgrade some of its cities' water supply systems. In 2005, the Government launched the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) with the objective of investing $10 billion in 63 target cities. India hopes this will help establish urban infrastructure development models for the subcontinent's other 8,000 cities. Nagpur is one of the cities chosen as part of the JNNURM scheme. The city's 2.7 million people are to serve as an example to the rest of the country of 24/7 access to quality water services. The contract between the city's public utility Nagpur Municipal Corporation and Orange City Water (a 50/50 joint venture company between Veolia Water India and Vishvaraj Environment Ltd) is the first water supply public-private partnership ever signed in India. The 25-year-deal involves rehabilitating water production and distribution infrastructures and managing integrated services. Currently not a single Indian city has a supply of drinking water available around the clock as most often, service range from a few hours a day to, at worst, just a few minutes.

Providing safe water and promoting water for all

Continuous 24/7 water supply is a norm in most countries around the world. The continuity in water supply is not necessarily dependent on the abundance of water-resources or the economic strength of the country, but it is a clear indicator to better water management. Continuous pressurised water supply allows better management of the demand and supply of water. It delivers better quality for public health and significantly reduces contamination. The water provided is clean, safe and drinkable straight from the tap. Continuous and pressurised water supply also allows for leakages to be pinpointed quickly and accurately thereby reducing wastage and burden on water resources. It also makes possible the management of illegal connections as operational efficiency is achieved. The Ministry of Urban Development released a report on 'Continuous Water Supply' which states that the technical and managerial shortcomings associated with intermittent water supply lead to a steady decline in the quality of service over time. It is also crucial to ensure that the end users are aware of the benefits of 24/7 water supply for which an intense social interaction and communication campaign is required, a model that proved successful during the Karnataka Urban Water Supply project undertaken by Veolia. Similarly, in Nagpur all concerns related to metres, volumetric tariffs, role of the private operator and the effect on daily water supply can be openly discussed and addressed. When it comes to access to safe water 24/7, there is often a common assumption among people that they will have to pay more for this service. Like everywhere else in the world, only the government authority can set the water tariffs and in all projects in India undertaken by Veolia, the tariff is defined by the relevant Municipal Corporation. Water is charged as per usage thereby encouraging water conservation; therefore, the user only pays for what he uses. In the Karnataka project, a pro-poor policy was introduced that lowered entry-barriers, connection costs and other procedural costs so that even the poorest and vulnerable sections could get access to the water supply service.

Safeguarding natural resources

Water is a depleting source and while private water operators are helping citizens with accessibility to water, safeguarding and conserving the natural resources automatically is a top priority. As previously mentioned, the work of a water operator does not finish by simply providing access to services. Equitable distribution, sustainable development of resources and awareness towards conservation are equally important. Until the problem of fast depleting resources is not solved, the available resources will not suffice for India's growing population. A Government report on Urban and Industrial Water Supply and Sanitation for the Twelfth Five – Year Plan (2012-2017) indicates that cities in India worry about water, but not the waste it generates. The challenge of sewage collection and treatment has not received adequate attention. Even today, no Indian city is in a position to boast of a complete sewerage system, which can keep up with the sanitation and pollution challenge. Treating our waste properly not only protects the public's health but also contributes to the quality of life of the nearby citizens and improves the quality of water in our rivers. Water might be a depleting resource, however, it is renewable.

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