A blind spot in India’s water governance landscape is costing the country more than a third of its ready-to-use water, Muskan Saxena, Himmat Singh Bakshi, and Eeshan Chaturvedi write.
Of the total water available on earth, only around 2.5 per cent is fresh water consumable by human beings. Of this, only 0.3 per cent is in liquid form. Water is a scarce resource and requires management, treatment, and conservation, and large parts of India are running dry. This raises the question: what is to blame?
In recent years, India has seen a major depletion of its most valued natural resource: water. Regular news reports declare that Chennai and Bengaluru are moving towards ‘day zero’, the day when there is no water available for even basic supply and taps run dry.
There are various causes for this water scarcity, including the ever-worsening impacts of climate change. Yet most discussions of water scarcity pay little to no heed to one of its largest causes: the water that is wasted before it can ever be used. Studies indicate that between 35 and 60 per cent of water meant for use by ordinary citizens is wasted.
This wasted water is termed non-revenue water (NRW) because the government does not gain revenue from it, and it is calculated by finding the difference between the amount of water put into the distribution system and the amount of water eventually billed to consumers.
The volume of NRW in India is a testament to the inefficiencies of its public utility systems which are unable to curb water loss despite having water conservation as their primary purpose.
Such water loss can be due to malpractice of citizens, and miscalculation and clerking errors on behalf of the metering authorities, but the majority of this lost water simply leaks away.
In India’s capital city of Delhi, some water pipelines are more than five decades old. Lack of proper maintenance and an unfocused approach by municipalities, state governments, and most citizens have contributed the current dismal state of water conservation in India.
There are, however, ways in which such water loss can be curbed. Dividing the network into smaller sections – or district metering areas – is an efficient technique that makes prioritisation and planning easier for operators.
On top of this, pressure management is considered to be the single most cost-effective leakage prevention activity, and the government should invest in improving it. Most pipe bursts happen due to ongoing pressure fluctuations that constantly force pipes to expand and contract, resulting in stress fractures. Pressure should be kept at a minimum to protect pipes, though it should not be so low as to affect a consumer’s needs.
There is the technology for this. Water utilities typically maintain a constant inlet pressure to ensure that consumers have the pressure they need at any time of the day.
With advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) systems, a module could take readings of water consumption on an hourly basis to ensure pressure is at a safe level.
These improvements to utilities can reduce NRW and, as a result, reduce the amount of water that facilities must pump and treat to meet demand. This would also reduce the amount of energy required to pump the water and the amount of carbon emissions produced, providing other tangential benefits.
Despite the existence of these technologies and the scale of the problem, not a single piece of central legislation deals with NRW or water loss, let alone one that mandates the use of such systems. This is because a single piece of umbrella legislation governs India’s water conservation, the ‘Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974’, and it largely concentrates on abating water pollution.
Since NRW is ready-to-use water, it does not come within the ambit of the legislation, and is a blind spot in India’s water governance landscape. Without a legislative solution, a huge amount of ready-to-use water will continue to be lost in India.
There is one major complication to this. In the Constitution of India, water is listed as under the control of state governments, leaving the central government unable to legislate of its own accord.
This water crisis demands new legislation mandating these changes be drafted and implemented by state governments in India to conserve water. The central government can and must use its influence with state governments to push this process along.
Without these efforts, the onus to solve the problem will continue to be on the consumer alone, ignoring the much larger impact that faulty public distribution systems have on India’s seemingly perennial water shortages.