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What are the major challenges facing urban drinking water supply in India?

Effective governance is crucial for addressing the water sector challenges and ensuring sustainable water management. This article is by Amita Bhaduri

Chennai’s reservoirs became empty in the summer of 2019, prompting the government to truck in 10 million litres of water per day. “This was remarkable for a city with an annual average rainfall of 1,400 mm, more than double what London receives.” (Kaushik Deka, India Today, 2021) In the heart of India’s bustling cities and towns, this battle rages amidst the daily chaos every summer. The once-dependable water supply begins to falter, taps began to sputter, offering only feeble drips as summer’s scorching heat settles setting the stage for a looming crisis. Soon the scarcity turns into an everyday reality with residents across the city finding themselves navigating an unforgiving terrain of long queues at water tankers and anxious glances at empty overhead tanks.

Inadequate coverage, sporadic supplies, low pressure, and sub-standard quality are some of the most noticeable drawbacks in the water supply in Indian cities. “By 2050, at least 30 Indian cities will face a grave water risk, according to the WWF.” (Living Planet Report, WWF, 2020) The problems range from “poor management of water sources, contaminated supplies, leaky distribution networks and vast volumes of untreated wastewater being poured into India’s rivers.”  Water delivery in Indian cities is becoming increasingly difficult due to the city’s continued growth and high urban population growth. These challenges impact the availability, quality, and sustainability of water resources.

India is experiencing rapid urbanisation, leading to increased demand for water in urban areas. “India’s urban population growth in water-scarce regions was projected to be much higher than other countries , increasing from 222 million people to 550 (376–644) million people in 2050 and accounting for 26.7 per cent (19.2 – 31.2 per cent) of the world’s urban population facing water scarcity.” (He et al, Nature) This puts pressure on existing water infrastructure and resources, often resulting in inadequate supply to meet the growing population’s needs.

Uneven distribution of water resources (Neeraj Singh Manhas, The Water Diplomat, 2023) across different regions of the country leads to disparities in water availability. While some regions face water scarcity, others have an abundance of water, causing challenges in transferring water from surplus areas to deficit areas. Changing weather patterns and increasing temperatures can affect water availability (Manish Kumar Goyal, 2018), precipitation patterns, and water sources, leading to increased uncertainty in urban water supply.

Many urban areas in India face water scarcity due to over-extraction of groundwater (Mihir Shah, 2014), unsustainable water management practices, and changing climate patterns. This scarcity is exacerbated during dry seasons and droughts. Groundwater supplies provide 48 per cent of India’s urban water supply, according to a report by the Centre for Science and Environment, and in seven of the country’s ten most populated cities, groundwater levels have drastically decreased over the past two decades. Overreliance on groundwater, often through unregulated borewells, leads to the depletion of groundwater levels. This results in land subsidence (Gurinder Kaur, 2023, Alakananda Dasgupta, 2022), reduced water quality (Aarti Kelkar Khambete, 2021), and long-term damage to aquifers.

Poor water quality (TERI, 2018) due to pollution and inadequate sanitation facilities is a significant concern. Contaminated water leads to waterborne diseases and health issues among the urban population. Many urban areas lack proper water supply infrastructure, including distribution networks, treatment plants, and storage facilities. The existing infrastructure is often outdated and unable to cope with the increased demand. “The quality of water produced at filtration plants may be top-class, but its quality worsens as the water travels through the trunk mains to service reservoirs.” (Dhaval Desai, 2019)

The drop in water quality can be attributed to insufficient maintenance of the last segment of pipeline networks. This issue is particularly prevalent in informal settlements where pipelines are often placed near open storm-water drains or in proximity to urban sewers. With water availability being irregular, the pipes experience full pressure for merely a few hours daily. During prolonged periods without water supply, contaminated groundwater from the vicinity seeps (Anagh Pal, 2023) in when pipe pressure drops to zero. As a result, this contaminated water is what eventually flows from taps when the municipal water service is reinstated.

High levels of non-revenue water(Indian Infrastructure, 2023), which includes losses due to leakage, theft, and unauthorized use, contribute to inefficiencies in the distribution system. An example is of Nagpur where “about 39 per cent of water distributed through piped connections does not earn any revenue for the Nagpur Municipal Corporation (NMC).” (Proshun Chakraborty, The Times of India, 2022) This affects revenue generation for water utilities.

A study of Bangalore examined the issue of non-revenue water (NRW) in urban India. The study by Maitreyee Mukherjee et al, 2015, uses empirical evidence from a survey conducted among 601 low-income households. Its key findings are (i) public stand posts and public wells, which supply free water, are a non-trivial source of NRW, and (ii) revenue generation from metered tap connections is sub-optimal. The study observes that potential revenue is being shifted away from the public water utilities toward private providers, as several households pay for water obtained from neighbours, tankers, or other private sources. Mukherjee et al proposed a new tariff structure for urban water utilities and reviewed the implementation of prepayment metering for public stand posts in other developing countries and its feasibility in Bangalore.

Inefficient governance and management practices in the water sector result in inadequate planning, monitoring, and resource allocation. “In some Indian cities, people living in planned residential colonies are not receiving sufficient quantities of water for daily consumption from the municipal agencies. Although water supply infrastructure exists in the colonies and water is released in the piped network, most households still face the problem of water shortage. A situation analysis reveals that the problem exists not as much due to less availability of water with the supply agency, but is more a result of administrative mismanagement and civic misuse.” (Rumi Aijaz, ORF, 2021) Lack of coordination among various government agencies further compounds the problem.

Socioeconomic disparities often result in unequal access to water supply and sanitation services. “No city in India can claim for universal coverage with continuous pressurized water supply.” (ADB, 2020) Marginalised communities are more likely to face inadequate water supply and poor sanitation facilities. “Access to safe water remains a vexed issue for the urban poor living at the bottom of the pyramid. In absence of public services, households depend on multiple sources of water. This ranges from procuring water from private players or some form of provisioning which is difficult to access such as water tankers by public utilities.” (Priyanjali Bose, WaterAid, 2017)

Limited public awareness about water conservation, pollution prevention, and sustainable water management practices contribute to the degradation of water resources. Many urban water utilities struggle with financial sustainability due to low tariffs, inadequate revenue collection, and high operational costs. This affects their ability to invest in infrastructure upgrades and improvements.

Water governance – urban sector
Water governance encompasses a spectrum of political, legal, societal, economic, and administrative frameworks established to facilitate the proficient oversight of water resources and their distribution across various strata of society. In India, municipal bodies, parastatal entities (such the Public Health and Engineering Department), and other statutory institutions are each given a fragmented portion of the responsibility for managing urban water supply. Urban water supply is a state subject, but the centre is in charge of creating sector-wide policies, standards, and investment guidance. Development, funding, and cost recovery for water supply and sanitation are the duties of the state.

Institutional categories are expected to vary in their degree of autonomy. There is no inter-se accountability between the entities in charge of planning, funding, development, and O&M. The case for decentralised administration of urban water supply is compelling in theory. Adopting a similar state-wide strategy is likely to have issues given regional variances in circumstances, water supply, capacity, and willingness to pay. Furthermore, elected urban local bodies members don’t have much control over state-level institutions.

However, changing the institutional framework alone will not lead to anything. There have been several attempts for urban water supply reform since the middle of the 1990s, including the transfer of certain tasks from state level entities to properly elected urban local bodies. “Until the early 1990s, India’s urban local bodies (ULBs) were under the complete control of the states, having little functional, financial and administrative autonomy. The 74th Amendment Act of 1992 sought to make ULBs self-governing institutions. Many salutary provisions were made in the Act and there have been certain positive outcomes since it came into effect in April 1993. However, many key issues have remained unresolved and at present, the states continue to dominate the ULBs.” (Ramanath Jha, 2020)

Further, the transfer of employees or finances has not received much consideration or attention. “In the bulk of our cities, operations for providing water do not even cover O&M expense” (MoHUA, 2018). Additionally, the ULBs lack the technical staff (NIUA, 2014) needed to oversee these activities. In this case, just shifting the functions will only put more strain on urban local bodies resources and capabilities, setting them up for even greater failure.

Addressing the urban water sector challenges requires a multi-faceted approach involving policy reforms, investments in infrastructure, improved governance, community engagement, and the adoption of sustainable water management practices. Collaboration among government agencies, private sector, non-governmental organisations, and local communities is essential to ensure a reliable and equitable urban water supply in India.

(Courtesy: India Water Portal/