India and the Urgency of Creating a Water Wise World

Arriving in Bangalore I was greeted by a warm sunny day and clear blue skies. It was a very different welcome from the smoky haze extending around Mumbai’s mass sprawl that greeted me where I first landed in India. It doesn’t matter how many pictures you see of this Indian mega-city, Mumbai (literally) takes your breath away. Its modern and efficient airport sits right next to one of India’s largest slums, and this contradiction is something that confronts you in the world’s largest democracy.

I was visiting India to participate in the IWA Water Loss Conference in Bangalore, and it made me reflect upon the living conditions of tens of millions of people in the world’s second most populous country. Is clean, safe water available? How is water delivered to these areas? What about sanitation? How was this managed in a huge informal settlement that was growing faster than the infrastructure needed to service it?

In Bangalore, the discussions on water loss had a strong focus on global development needs, and the enormous challenges these presented. India exemplifies these challenges. In one of the fastest growing economies on earth, there are towns that only have water supply for one hour every three days. To overcome this difficulty, people store water in containers, which can become a breeding ground for mosquitos, a source of concern for public health. The current Zika virus outbreak is an example of how the failure to deliver piped water 24/7 can have serious health impacts.

Even where India has the infrastructure, water loss from leaking pipes or illegal connections are above 50% in many areas. IWA’s Water Loss specialist group chair, Ronnie McKenzie, pointed out that with water loss figures of this scale, the financial return on the necessary infrastructure investment can be achieved within six month or less. This is attractive for investors, but requires community and civil society involvement for water loss initiatives to succeed.

Local politicians, such as Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, pointed out that effective and safe water services requires local authorities to understand financing mechanisms, and needs the active involvement of local communities. On the flip side of this argument, Indian water specialists stressed that political will is key to give the urban poor a better quality of life. The Indian water profession had an ally in the Minister for Bengaluru Development and Town Planning, K J George, who spoke passionately about delivering better, more sustainable water services.

A success story of political will combined with effective water management to reduce water loss, comes from India’s neighbour, Bangladesh. The Dhaka Water and Sewerage Authority, faced with many of the same challenges that face utilities in many emerging and developing economies, has successfully implement strategies that reduced non revenue water by nearly 50 per cent. Water loss in Dhaka has been reduced from 40% to less than 22%, and in some areas to less than 10%. These efforts have made the Dhaka utility one of the leading public service utilities in South East Asia.

Watch the video of Dhaka Water and Sewerage Authority’s Taksim Khan discussing this work

Rapid urbanisation, population growth, and a massive increase in water demand driven by domestic use, industry and agriculture, are all putting India’s water resources under pressure. Improved water management,and a dramatic increase in financing for infrastructure, are needed to ensure sustainable water resources and a functioning water supply system for a rapidly growing urban population. A critical component to deliver the water and sanitation needs of India’s vast population is water loss reduction.

Even so, urban water systems will challenge the sustainability of ground water reserves, which are being depleted faster than they can be replenished naturally. With increasingly unpredictable rainfall patterns, there’s a need to find better water management solutions and to re-use water. Citing the example of Singapore, where people have been drinking recycled water for years, IWA’s Asia-Pacific director, Ganesh Pangare, pointed to the need for better regulation and for an educational drive that leads to a perception shift on water reuse.

Finding the right solutions to address water sustainability, and to deliver water solutions for a sixth of the worlds’ population, is critical and urgent. There are significant challenges, but the message from both politicians and water professionals at the IWA Water Loss Conference in Bangalore was that, by working together, it can be done.

Rui Veras

Communications Officer
  Rui is a communications professional trained as a political scientist with a focus in international relations and global environmental governance. As a perception strategist  he is keen on sustainable social evolution. He has developed his ca... Read full biography