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Policy and Technology Challenges in Managing Water Supply and Consumption in India

By Amrita Chowdhury

The way forward might be for city and state administrators to actively manage water supply and reduce loss and leakage. Technology enabled smart metering could be the game changer. However, technology coupled with regulatory changes can truly unlock transformation.


Water is a critical scarce resource in India and will dwindle further as the population increases to 1.6 billion by 2050. Water-related conflicts of 2016 may be prescient of a future where individuals, businesses, cities, and states struggle over limited supplies. ASSOCHAM estimates that the riots in Bengaluru over Cauvery waters in 2017 led to INR 25,000 crores in losses to the state of Karnataka.

The way forward might be for city and state administrators to actively manage water supply and reduce loss and leakage. Technology enabled smart metering could be the game changer. However, technology coupled with regulatory changes can truly unlock transformation.

Defining India’s Water Availability Challenges
India has one of the lowest per capita availability of water in the world, and that availability is set to decrease further as its population increases. A report from the Water Resources Information System of India (WRIS) suggests that India has 2.4 percent of the global land area, 4 percent of the global water resources, shared between 17 percent of the world population.

River Water
Despite its wet and warm climate and extensive river system, ground level water retention is low across the country. The WRIS report further suggests that despite 4000 km3 of average annual rainfall and snowfall in India, the country has a deficit of usable water. Much of the rainwater evaporates or flows into the rivers, and a large fraction of river water is unusable due to inaccessibility. Central Water Commission data from 2000 suggests that only a third of the water potential of the river system is usable. Comparing rivers, it estimates that less than 5 percent of the water of the Brahmaputra is usable, due to topographical challenges. In contrast, a significant fraction of the waters of the Ganga, and a large fraction of the waters of Godavari, Krishna, Indus, Narmada, and Cauvery are usable.

An analysis paper published in the Journal of Earth Science System in 2008 posited that groundwater availability was even lower than estimated by policymakers. Research conducted subsequently by Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) verified this position and further found that loss of water through evapotranspiration equaled or exceeded its replenishment through annual rainfall in the northern states and the Indo-Gangetic plains. A McKinsey report published in 2009 suggested that India will only be able to meet half of its water requirements by 2050.

India relies heavily on monsoons to replenish its aquifers and water bodies. While there is great media focus on monsoonal rains, which influence short-term cropping patterns and efficiencies, there are several other factors influencing the long-term availability of ground and surface water, even when the rainfall is adequate.

Factors Impacting Water Availability
Rapid urbanization and poor regulatory norms have led to excessive pumping of groundwater. Gurgaon is held up as a case in point, but similar scenarios exist in high density, high rise, high-end enclaves around the country, and even semi-urban areas in water-deficient states. Large-scale deforestation has led to the reduction in moisture in the air and an increase in ambient temperature, further increasing ambient water loss. Air quality pollution can influence the pattern of trade winds and monsoonal rains. Government subsidies and incentives have encouraged farmers to shift to water-intensive crops in water-deficit states, severely affecting the availability of water. This includes practices such as growing rice in Punjab or sugarcane in Maharashtra.

Water sharing agreements have been put in place globally to manage water flows across geographies and national boundaries. India shares its water from rivers that originate in neighboring states. But this situation is affected by geopolitical sensitivity and questions around water flow and quality data.

Furthermore, improper disposal of sewage, industrial waste, and chemicals runoff from farms has contaminated India’s water systems and rivers and reduced access to clean water for domestic, drinking and industrial usage. Lower availability of water has a further downstream effect on quality of life indicators such as hygiene, sanitation, and prevalence of water-borne diseases. In fact, the water project suggests that creating access to safe and clean water leads to improvements in economic outcomes of a nation.

Defining India’s Water Consumption Challenges
India’s water predicament is further influenced by its unique consumption patterns, leakage and loss patterns, wasteful consumption behaviors and regulatory policies that do not reflect the criticality of the challenge. India has traditionally focused on increasing water supply. However, Indian utilities lose roughly 40-60% of their water compared with 3.7% loss in Tokyo and 7% loss in Phnom Penh. Estimates from the Third World Center for Water Management indicate that less than 10% of wastewater generated in India is treated and recycled.

Consumption Patterns
India’s water consumption patterns are uniquely different from developed markets. Agriculture accounts for highest water usage, largely because most farmers still use flow irrigation rather than advanced, water efficient practices such as drip irrigation. Lack of regulatory incentives for agricultural water conservation leads to greater inefficiencies and water wastage. Europe consumes 33% of water for agriculture, 54% for industry and 13% for domestic usage. Central Water Commission reports suggest that over 85% of water in India is used for agriculture. Clearly, just increasing supply is not the answer. Shifting consumption patterns and reducing inefficient use of water will be key.

Central Water Commission reports suggest that mere 7-8% for domestic consumption, and the rest for the industry, energy, and other uses. It projects that the usage of water by agriculture will decline marginally by 2050, with most of this being used for energy generation.

The predicted usage of water is set to increase across every sector, with a disproportionate increase in industrial and domestic usage as urbanization happens and population and affordability increase. While the per capita consumption of water in the United States is projected to decrease by 2050, the per capita consumption of water in India is set to increase substantially. India already consumes a lot more water than the USA and China, and our per capita consumption of water is slightly lower than China currently. As India becomes the most populous country in the world, its requirements for water will increase further.

Infrastructure and Distribution
Indian utilities spend on water infrastructure has lagged. There is incomplete coverage. Only 49% of Indian household have access to the formal water distribution network and piped water supply. Poor infrastructure, older technologies, and aging systems have led to ineffective management of water.

Non-revenue water rate, due to theft or loss, stands at 41% in India compared with 21% in China. It is significantly higher than the global average. This has led to the proliferation of informal water networks and costlier water supply options. Asian Development Bank’s 2004 report estimated that Delhi had 53% non-revenue water, whereas Dhaka at 40% and Hong Kong at 25% showed better water security. In contrast, Delhi had 32% metered connections and 19.9 staff per 1000 connections, compared with 50% metered connections and 11.6 staff per 1000 meters in Dhaka and 100% metered connections and 2.3 staff per 1000 connections in Hong Kong.

Clearly, lack of metering and manual infrastructure leads to poor water outcomes. In contrast, in 2004, Chengdu in China was making one of the highest capital investments in water and showed 18% non-revenue water, 98.5% metered connections, and employed a large force to manage distribution and collections with 33.8 staff per 1000 connections.

In recent times, City Reports published by Ujjain Municipal Corporation, for example, estimates that 25% of its water supply gets lost during the distribution and transmission stages. Physical losses due to leakage and illegal connections account for most of these losses. A smaller fraction is lost due to unbilled consumption or other reasons.

Critical Imperatives to Solve India’s Water Shortage
India requires a comprehensive water management approach, from better management of watersheds and rainwater harvesting to improve supply side to water monitoring, wastewater recycling and usage led behavior change on the supply side. There are key imperatives for the government at the central, state and city levels as well as for each category of users.

While programs such the ambitious US$ 150 Billion Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) by the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) to interconnect 30 rivers through 15,000 km of new canals can also have unanticipated ecological effects, easier solutions such as rainwater harvesting at the city level can improve supplies.

The demand for water is fast outpacing supply and the situation will only worsen. Hence India needs to focus more on managing demand to reduce water shortage.

• Given that agriculture consumes over 80% of available water supply, the government should create incentives for efficient watering mechanisms and mandate consumption monitoring.
• While agricultural subsidy management may be a contentious and political issue, two key investments can significantly improve infrastructure, availability, efficiency and revenue generation in urban water distribution.
• Investments and incentives to build wastewater and sewage treatment infrastructure and increase adoption.
• Regulatory changes to create consumption linked tariff structure for domestic and commercial establishments in conjunction with smart metering initiatives to encourage judicious use of water and monitor for losses and theft.

Using Technology Enabled Smart Metering Solution
In Systems Thinking approach, monitoring and minimizing water consumption at the household or commercial establishment level may be a small fraction of the overall water requirements for the country, however, it can have a disproportionate impact on the availability of water in urban areas.

Recent government initiatives are encouraging researchers and practitioners to use Artificial Intelligence, satellite and groundwater data imagery to map a more accurate picture of India’s water availability or map the pollution and contamination levels in rivers and lakes. Massive investments were allocated for the Namami Gange project, however detailed project and impact reports are needed to understand the progress.

However, given that roughly 40% of available domestic water is lost due to illegal connections and another 40% lost due to leakages and wastage, huge changes can be made by simply focusing on metering. Ensuring complete coverage of metered connections, especially smart meters that give granular information on consumption and losses, is an easier change.

Sensor-enabled smart metering infrastructure can enable cities and utility service providers to monitor and manage water supplies at the distribution level, as well as monitor and manage water consumption at the building level. Changes in regulation will be needed to create incentives for measuring water consumption at the household level. The end to end, source to user solution encompasses pipes infrastructure, smart meters, communications platforms, data aggregation and visualization platforms. Aggregating and visualizing data across households, buildings, wards, or cities will allow administrators to identify patterns, monitor consumption, and track losses.

Using Automated Metering Infrastructure (AMI) solutions, water service providers and utilities can measure real-time consumption data on daily basis. This data offers providers visibility into usage patterns by ward, locality, building or consumer type and help them understand consumption patterns by day, time, month or season. Providers could integrate automated billing and payments systems, offer online records, and improve the efficiency and cost of their operations. Furthermore, this data can be used to manage and optimize distribution, measure consumption, create usage-based tariff structures at the building or house level, identify leaks or losses, and enable measurements driven behavior change to prevent wasteful usage.

Even without the regulatory change of allowing water to be chargeable at the individual household level in buildings and housing societies, AMI technology can offer transparency and visibility. However, in the longer run, water regulation and taxing policies will need to be revisited.

While India has seen a handful of pilots of Automated Meter Reading (AMR) technologies, it does not offer the deeper benefits of real-time data and thus dynamic optimization that will be required over the coming years. The country needs to leapfrog into the next generation of AMI technology. Under the Smart Cities Mission and additional funding available through the AMRUT program, cities will be able to access funds for the much-needed water infrastructure improvements.

Using Policy to Direct Water Consumption
The real challenge in water is the lack of regulation and the ability to monitor misuse, wastage, or illegal consumption. Both create inappropriate behaviors that further exacerbate an already critical problem. Regulatory changes are needed on many fronts to address this. Demand for water is expected to rise in the coming decades, and supply will remain constrained. Hence, it is critical to manage the demand-side parameters to create incentives for conservation and charge based on actual consumption.

Firstly, farm water regulation and tariffs can influence behavior on conservation and need-based usage. Easy technologies like remote switching off or timer based switching off of irrigation pumps or drip irrigation methods can reduce water wastage. But lack of regulation or tariffs create disincentives for deploying such technologies.

Secondly, commercial usage of water can be regulated and monitored, encouraging them to use grey water sources and reduce leakage. Surat Municipal Corporation recently deployed smart metering solutions in commercial establishments, along with other water distribution and management strategies, to help manage and reduce consumption.

Thirdly, policy directives should influence municipal decision makers to better deploy the funds available under AMRUT, for greater metering of cities. Consumption tariffs were introduced in electricity a while back. However, water is charged at the building level based on the size of homes or flats, rather than actual consumption. Again, this does not create incentives for citizens and homeowners to regulate consumption and wastage. In contrast, many parts of many cities do not get 24/7 water and require tank water substitution to meet their needs.

Water availability is fast becoming the most critical challenge of our times. It affects farmers, businesses, and citizens – and the acute shortage is being felt by every citizen from every walk of life. India needs to focus attention on both supply-side measures and demand-side measures. It may need to create the intent, commitment and processes to enable early wins – such as mandatory water harvesting, wastewater recycling, and automated metering infrastructure solutions – to create a platform on which larger reforms and high budget, high impact initiatives can be built. It needs to consider a partnership approach – between cities and water service providers, between water service providers and real estate developers, and between cities and citizens – to ensure the success of this effort.

About the Author

Amrita Chowdhury

Amrita Chowdhury is Director of Gaia, a smart feedback, and automation firm, focused on Human to Machine and Machine to Machine data acquisition and analytics. She is a business strategist and innovator. She has led growth and early-stage businesses in India.

Prior to this, she served as President of DY Works (Future Group); Country Head for South Asia for Harlequin; and Associate Director, Education for Harvard Business School. Before this, she provided strategy consulting and Board advisory for Fortune 100 clients with AT Kearney in the US and Oppeus in Australia, working across sectors. She is an independent director on the board of BSE listed Simmonds Marshall. She holds 7 US patents in semiconductor manufacturing for work done at Applied Materials. Amrita holds degrees in B.Tech from IIT Kanpur, MS from UC Berkeley and MBA from Carnegie Mellon- TepperBusiness School.

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