Indian women push a food cart stall in floodwater at Marina Beach on the Bay of Bengal coast after heavy rain in Chennai on November 3, 2017. The arrival of the northeast monsoon in recent days has brought heavy rains to southern India's Tamil Nadu, submerging parts of the state capital Chennai. Devastating floods following the northeast monsoon in south India in November and December 2015 killed more than 500 people and displaced almost two million others. Photo: AFP / Arlin Sankar

The Indian government runs a “smart cities” program, which involves some massive investments. One would expect this program to define what a water-smart city is and also come up with a National Urban Water Policy. But the program has no such norms or policy. In fact, the cities included in this program are unlikely to qualify as water-smart cities.

Amid rapid urbanization and increasing per capita demand, India’s urban water footprint is rapidly increasing. To meet the need, city water managers are looking at big storages for a dependable source of water. But such big storages are far off from the cities, created behind costly dams that have social and environmental impacts, and increase risks of disasters.

Cities compete for their share of water from these sources – either existing, under construction or to be constructed. This creates conflicts and potential water disruption and scarcity, such as what national capital New Delhi frequently faces.

Cities in arid areas are not the only ones looking for long-distance water sources. Even the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, with an annual average rainfall of 2,400 millimeters, looks for big dams and river diversions in far-off areas, including even a river-linking project (Daman Ganga-Pinjal Link).

Groundwater depletion

Typically, Indian cities generate sewage equal to 80% of the water they consume. Yet not a single city in India is able to treat the sewage it generates. Not even the national capital.

This mostly untreated sewage pollutes the rivers flowing to downstream areas, and even the groundwater in many places.

When cities are unable to meet the water demand, their residents start using groundwater directly through their own bore wells or indirectly through water tankers. These tankers mostly source their water from groundwater at the city’s borders.

At the same time, cities destroy nearby forests, concretize open spaces (thereby reducing water percolation), and destroy local water bodies in several ways. The Delhi Ridge and Yamuna floodplain in the national capital; the mangroves, Sanjay Gandhi National Park and Mithi and other rivers in Mumbai city; the lakes in Bangalore city; and the wetlands in Kolkata city have all been victims of urbanization.

The combination of groundwater overuse and the destruction of natural resources leads to groundwater depletion, depriving people of a fallback mechanism during times of water scarcity.

Man-made disasters

In the past decade, India has witnessed several water-related disasters, such as floods in the cities of Mumbai (July 2005, August 2017 and another could be beginning as I write this in June 2018), Surat (August 2006), Srinagar (September 2014), Chennai (December 2015, November 2017), Patna (August 2016) and Ahmedabad (July 2017).

Shimla, a hill station, suffered a hepatitis outbreak in December 2015 from a polluted water source, and continues to reel from its effects. Its residents are currently dealing with a severe water scarcity.

The neglect and deterioration of wetlands, lakes, water bodies and floodplains, rapid concretization, encroachment, silting up and non-maintenance of drainage systems, reduction in flood-carrying capacity of city rivers and impact of climate change mean that the frequency of such events is likely to go up in coming years.

Riverfront development is also proposed as a solution for saving urban rivers, but that is a misleading and misconceived concept. The encroachment of riverbeds and floodplains for real-estate development is an invitation to disaster.

Take the case of the Sabarmati front in Ahmedabad, Gujarat state. The Sabarmati River was not cleaned or rejuvenated; instead, its pollution was transferred downstream of the city. The process killed the Sabarmati as a river – what is left is just a concrete channel, not a river. The water that is seen in this channel in Ahmedabad is not from the Sabarmati, but the Narmada River, to which the city has no rights.

What urban water needs

The Maharashtra city of Pune, with at least five rivers flowing through it, is considered hugely vulnerable to floods as all the rivers are facing silting, drainage congestion, pollution and encroachments, in a major way by the government, in spite of repeated judicial orders against it.

At a recent meeting in Pune, it was emphasized that India urgently needs a National Urban Water Policy that would guide cities in managing water in an optimal way.

India’s National Water Policy of 2012 is clearly unable to play that role – as has been proved in the past years – because it lacks necessary content. India needs a policy focused on various aspects of the urban water sector, and one that can help meet the considerable current and future challenges of this sector.

The last four decades and more have shown that the massive, centralized sewage-treatment plants that are currently prevalent are not working. Cities have better options such as decentralized sewage treatment and eco-friendly options like bio-remediation, constructed wetlands and in-situ treatment. Such options are not only low-cost, low-capital and less land-intensive, but also help make the recycling of treated sewage feasible.

As the 12th Five-Year Plan Working Group Report on Urban Water said in 2011, rainwater, local water bodies, rivers, groundwater aquifers and treated sewage are key resources that need to be exhausted before any external long-distance water option is considered.

Reduction of transmission and distribution losses, disallowing unjustifiable and unnecessary water-intensive activities, and management measures on the demand side will also play key roles.

Policymakers, decision makers (such as government ministers and bureaucrats), and all other stakeholders need to be made aware that freshwater supply is limited, since a lot of people seem to believe and behave as if there is unlimited water.

A key component of the smart Urban Water Policy would be participatory, transparent, accountable governance, and also a right to water. The public health cost of pollution from water that cities leave untreated is unaccounted, is massive and should be unacceptable. It is invariably borne by the poorest.

This is the second part of our series on the water crisis in India. You can read the first, on policy gaps that led to a water crisis in the tourist hill-station Shimla, here.

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Himanshu Thakkar

Himanshu Thakkar is a coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People.