Posted in Urban India

Looming Water Crisis in Indian Cities


While the pollution of cities like New Delhi grabs world headlines, with the Supreme Court threatening to ban all private vehicles in the national capital, there is little public and media interest in another looming catastrophe for all Indian cities – the deteriorating water supply.

India’s water consumption is projected to touch 843 billion cubic meters (bcm) by 2025 against the current availability of 695 bcm. By 2050, the country will need 1,180 bcm of water, and at the same time groundwater is being depleted at unsustainable rates. These are the conclusions of a new report by the Niti Aayog (formerly the Planning Commission), and its author, Avinash Mishra, goes on: “We’re in dire straits and we need to change our approach to tackle the crisis, otherwise the situation will become so grim that the shortages will knock down our GDP by 6 percentage points in over a decade.”

The water situation has worsened gradually over the years and is rooted (as most of India’s problems are) in too much politics, and too little governance.

The problems begin with sourcing of water for big cities like Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi. At the institutional level, urban local bodies do not have control of the source which is either with the Irrigation Department or parastatals, whose first priority is, naturally, agriculture.

Secondly, the groundwater of a city remains largely in private hands and is tantamount to theft, as the aquifers supplying water to private wells are a common natural resource for everyone. The Groundwater Surveys and Development Agency (GSDA) of the State Government has identified 4,500 wells in a major city like Pune, but only 200 borewells are registered with the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC). The result of this discrepancy has been the growth of a tanker mafia, with the average citizen at its mercy for his/her daily water supply. Again, only 150 water tanker suppliers are registered with the Corporation, while hundreds more operate below the radar – often tapping the PMC’s own supplies illegally, to sell at a premium to the hapless citizen.

The ‘Dynamic Ground Water Resources of India’, a report published by the Central Ground Water Board, defines the stage of development of groundwater as the percentage of utilisation of groundwater with respect to recharge. The chart below shows the extreme overutilization of groundwater in major Indian cities:

Groundwater in Major Indian CitiesMeanwhile, unchecked extraction by urban farmers and wealthy residents has caused groundwater levels to plunge to record lows, and the 21 major cities shown above, are expected to run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting 100 million people.

To make matters worse, an estimated 70% of India’s water is contaminated with arsenic, fluoride, salinity, nitrates, industrial effluents, organic and inorganic solid waste. Further, only one-third of its wastewater is currently treated, meaning raw sewage flows into rivers, lakes and ponds – and eventually gets into the groundwater.

A municipal corporation’s woes though, are only just beginning – having made this low-quality water drinkable at great cost in terms of treating agents and electric power for purification, it must further spend millions to distribute the treated water through an antiquated distribution network, losing further through illegal tapping and leakages in the system – often as high as 40%. The heavy physical losses, low pressure and intermittent supplies, lead to back siphoning and further contamination of water in the distribution network.

Of course, the consumer at the other end is never happy with the result, curses the Corporation for not providing water 24×7, and will take to the street to protest even a paltry hike in his monthly bill. Water, it is argued, is a ‘gift of nature’ and should be free. In reality, the heavy subsidy on drinking water is the main reason for the impoverishment of municipal bodies the world over. The Pune Municipal Corporation, for instance, spends Rs 11 to provide 1000 litres of water, and recovers only Rs 5 – a subsidy of Rs 6 for every thousand litres, multiplied a thousand-fold, takes a heavy toll of its inadequate resources.

The financial situation of municipal bodies was not helped by replacing buoyant local taxes and levies (like Octroi) with grants from the Central kitty, routed and delayed by the State Government. It is estimated that although the Centre will compensate cites like Mumbai on par with their last receipts when Octroi was replaced by a consolidated Goods and Services Tax (GST), the loss to the Municipal Corporation in terms of the buoyancy and immediacy built into Octroi, could mean anywhere between 10-15% loss of revenue.

The problem arising from the complexity of the institutional arrangements, the machinations of the informal water sector, and the huge imbalance between revenue and expenditure, all make urban water supply a city manager’s worst nightmare.

However, all is not lost – municipal bodies themselves can do a lot to improve operational efficiency in the sourcing and supply of water to their citizens. An effective, professional and dedicated workforce will go a long way in preventing the massive losses through illegal connections and leakages. Most municipal bodies have water supply departments which are grossly understaffed, and this increases their dependence upon private contractors whom it can neither monitor, control nor regulate. This adds greatly to the inefficiency of the city’s water supply as a whole.

Municipal Corporations must also stem the leakage losses due to the corruption amid its own staff, whereby private contractors will fit a broad-gauge supply line to a particular building or locality, while it is shown at half that gauge in the municipal records.

Demand side management of costing and pricing of water also needs to be modernized, learning from good practices across the world. Currently, most Indian cities have only a fraction of their connections metered, but the bulk of their non-commercial users pay a lump sum as part of their annual Property Tax – and this has no relation whatsoever, to the actual quantity of water used in a year by that property owner. As the poor are limited in the amount of water they can store, the greatest beneficiaries of the subsidy are the middle class, who may indiscriminately use the expensively provided water for drinking, bathing, flushing their toilets, or washing their cars. While a more discriminatory pricing system like the Increasing Block Tariff or IBT will ensure that the available subsidies go to the deserving, the conservation of water through rainwater harvesting and recycling schemes could also be incentivized through a system of rebates on tariff.

Sadly, one thing is clear – just like climate change and air pollution, dwindling water supplies must be tackled by all countries on a war footing. There simply aren’t enough tomorrows left with the human race…


I am a trainer of Government Officials and Elected Representatives, specializing in the urban and municipal sector. I have also written extensively on Urban Governance, Poverty, Development, Social Accountability and Municipal Management in the Indian context, and wish to share these writings with you through this blog.

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