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Solving India’s Water Security Puzzle

By Archis Ambulkar

Realizing nature’s water cycle, its varied fates within the community and their interdependency, all these different water forms carry peculiar significance towards reaching a sustainable solution. Present article attempts to overview various such topics aimed towards India’s water security goals.

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India’s population growth, urbanization and migrations from rural areas to cities accompanied by changing weather and precipitation patterns are impacting water supply-demand dynamics in different parts of the country. Water security, conservation and management have become the priority issues at regional and national levels. Governments, private institutions and environmental organizations have undertaken several programs to meet these growing water needs. As such, water security is a grave concern today and solving this complex issues will require a thorough understanding of the problem as well as initiatives at technical, social, financial and political platforms. Considering the future challenges, nation needs to find realistic ways to resolve this crisis on a long-term basis. To achieve this, a comprehensive approach encompassing different forms of water such as freshwater, utility water, wastewater, rainwater and ocean water is necessary. Realizing nature’s water cycle, its varied fates within the community and their interdependency, all these different water forms carry peculiar significance towards reaching a sustainable solution. Present article attempts to overview various such topics aimed towards India’s water security goals.

As a first and foremost consideration, the impact of country’s ongoing transformations on existing domestic water and sanitary sewer infrastructures should be evaluated. As one travels across the country, many structural changes can be observed in small towns and metropolitan cities. Urban areas are expanding and experiencing significant vertical growths. Independent houses or empty lots are getting converted into apartment complexes, high-tower buildings, business centers and malls. These changes are indeed affecting existing drinking water, utility water and sewer systems. Utilities that were originally designed for individual customers are now required to serve multiple dwelling units. Such rapid growths are increasing pressures and possibly overloading the water infrastructures. To manage these changes, avoid blockages, overflows or pipe bursts, a proper assessment of water and sewer pipes will be required. Additionally, associated structures such as conveyance mains, pump stations, manholes and treatment plants will need to be reviewed as well. Timely upgrades are necessary to minimize losses, leaks and deliver uninterrupted services to the communities. Proper planning, design and execution of water and sewer infrastructure improvement projects can smoothen operations of these public works utilities. Water reclamation, recycling and reuse will take societies one step closer towards the sustainability goals.

Another key result of urbanization is the rise in impervious area and associated stormwater runoffs. Construction of newer buildings and roadways are increasing impermeable areas within the cities and towns. These newly developed areas tend to reduce percolation of water into ground during rain events thus generating excessive surface runoffs. Such water can create potential flooding in residential areas and ponding of water. Additionally, rainwater runoffs also tend to carry suspend solids, oils, and other pollutants as they get collected from roadways and other ground surfaces in contact. Thus, municipalities shall study these evolving hydraulic as well as pollution patterns and perform renovations accordingly. Provision of appropriate road slopes, water collection channels, catch basins, solids capturing screens or filters and other techniques can help to drain urban areas quickly as well as remove basic pollutants from water before it enters the collection pipes. This process will avoid flooding of residences and minimize environmental impact to a greater extent. Areas susceptible to high precipitation shall accommodate sufficiently sized conveyance pipes and rainwater drainage system. Tree plantation along roadsides and provisions for grass strips can alleviate some of the pollution issues. Plants have the tendency to retain water, hold soil as well as uptake nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorus) and filter out other contaminants thus assisting with pollution reduction. Vegetation also adds to aesthetics and cleaning air quality.

Further to the above mentioned infrastructure upgrades, India’s new look is desperately demanding rainwater conservation and harvesting for developing sustainable water supplies. Majority of India relies on the rainy season for its freshwater supplies. Precipitation helps to fill surface waterbodies as well as replenish groundwater levels. However, many cities fail to capture this water source to its full potential due to lack of dedicated rainwater collection systems. On the other hand, in many cases underground systems have inappropriate connections between sewers and stormwater drains. Due to poor conditions of sanitary sewers and inflow or infiltration issues, precipitated water enters sanitary sewers, gets polluted and becomes inaccessible for direct use without significant treatment. Such large volumes of runoffs also tends to overload existing sanitary sewers and downstream wastewater treatment plants causing seepage, manhole overflows and other problems leading to unhygienic situations. Lack of proper separation between storm and sanitary systems not only reduces the chances for reusing rainwater, but it further complicates health issues. Such observations are more evident in metropolitan and mid-size cities, especially during major rain events once the monsoon arrives. Keeping weather unpredictability aside, the issue is not always about lack of water but it’s the inability to capture it in the right form. Hence, to make stormwater readily available and reduce burden on sanitary systems, it is necessary to develop advanced rainwater collection system and isolate inappropriate connections with sanitary sewers. Once separated and isolated, rainwater can then be diverted to replenish desired waterbodies for its sustainable use. Realizing complex nature of existing underground sewers, costs for complete sewer separations can be substantial and impractical in many cases. This problem needs to be approached on case by case basis to find a reasonable way out.

After solving stormwater collection problems, next step becomes properly conveying this water to reservoirs. Societies rely on the surface water and groundwater resources for their day-to-day water needs. This dependency is more in dry regions and areas that receive limited precipitation. Majority of cities in the country have river, lake or some other form of reservoir that serves community’s water needs. Pipes, canals or culverts can be constructed to carry rainwater runoffs to these existing waterways. Sufficient storage of water in the water reservoirs can ensure ample supplies throughout the year. Such provision will be more forgiving and could accommodate extended period of natural droughts or dry runs. Proper management of naturally available water can avoid drying up of rivers, lakes and lowering of groundwater table which are commonly observable these days. With stormwater system upgrades, newer opportunities will arise to utilize this easily available water form for drinking or utility purposes. Apart from domestic use, plenty of water could become available for agriculture, food production and industries.

Retaining water within reservoirs is one aspect, however keeping it reasonably clean is another. Many times, waterbodies experience pollution and contamination issues resulting into water quality degradation. Thus, for maintaining water quality, pollution from point and non-point pollutant dischargers (such as industries, municipal treatment plants, agriculture and so on) shall be minimized. Also, already polluted reservoirs shall be cleaned up via sediment dredging, conditioning, treatment, abandoning of direct sewer discharges and other relevant techniques to regain the water quality. With right approach, changes could soon become visible in smaller creeks, rivers and lakes. This process may take longer time for major rivers and lakes in India.

Oceans and seas are another comparatively less explored or utilized surface water sources for public use and consumption. This vast reservoir is getting more and more attention as the freshwater bodies on land are drying up or becoming less available. Such alternatives are more relevant for coastal areas than the interior cities. While the focus is on rainwater collection, ocean water can solve a sizable portion of water security issue if it can be converted to freshwater economically. Desalination and other emerging technologies for conversion of saline water into more usable freshwater form are making waves in the water industry and can potentially change the future of India.

Governments and institutions will play a vital role in making all these changes possible. To tackle water security issues on a broader scale, upgrades to existing infrastructures are a must. Grants, loans and incentives towards implementing such projects can catalyze the water segregation and conservation process. Construction of new water infrastructures as well as restoration of existing systems can bring about a major transformation in the water conservation arena. Since the scope and extent of this issue is vast, various local, state and federal institutions can approach these problems in a phased manner. Multifaceted programs with significance workforce will be required to achieve real life changes on the national platform.

Finally, irrespective of technical, administrative and financial initiatives this dream cannot be fully realized without public support. Public awareness and participation is necessary towards such endeavor. No doubt, environmental awareness in India has grown in recent times. By understanding gravity of crisis and importance of water conservation, people can take actions to keep reservoirs clean, minimize pollution from anthropogenic activities, use water wisely and ensure proper discharge of wastewater to sanitary sewers. Rainwater harvesting, water recycle and reuse on small-scale levels can go a long way towards realizing India’s water security objectives. Task is big but not impossible. It will need sacrifice and contributions of current generation so that the progeny can have a better life and plenty of water to enjoy their life. This practical scheme implemented with an integrated effort and right spirit can bring about meaningful “water revolution” to accomplish India’s water security objectives.

About the Author
Archis Ambulkar is a globally-renowned environmental expert with significant contributions towards the water and wastewater fields. His work has entered prestigious Britannica Encyclopedia and Oxford Research Encyclopedia. Mr. Ambulkar is the author of book Guidance for Professional Development in Drinking Water and Wastewater Industry by International Water Association Publishing, UK. He has served as an expert on many international platforms.

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