Is a 24-hour water supply possible?

An answer to this question was attempted at a workshop organised in Hyderabad, from September 23-24, 2003, by the Administrative Staff College of India (ASCI) and Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) - South Asia

By Suresh Babu S V
Published: Friday 31 October 2003

Is a 24-hour water supply possible?

Notes: 1. It is assumed that w (Credit: PRADIP SAHA)"Twenty-four hours, seven-days-a-week water supply for urban India" fuels many a dream and much debate. Is 24/7 water supply attainable? An answer to this question was attempted at a workshop organised in Hyderabad, from September 23-24, 2003, by the Administrative Staff College of India (asci) and Water and Sanitation Program (wsp) - South Asia.

The current situation is clearly unsettling. Taps run dry as the bulk of supplied water either literally goes down the drain through leakages or ends up, through theft and un-metered consumption, as non-revenue water (nrw). In Delhi, for instance, the amount of treated water that leaks out of the network is a gargantuan 855 million litres a day. Exactly 106 per cent of the demand-supply gap! The subsidised water pricing system has also taken its toll. The Delhi Jal Board, on an average, recovers a meagre 35 paise for the Rs 9 it spends in producing a kilolitre of treated water. There are, thus, no beneficiaries -- neither the provider who suffers losses and is unable to recover costs, nor the consumer who ends up paying for faulty services.

For a 24-hour water supply system, a well-managed transmission and distribution system is a must. This would not only ensure reduced water losses for the supplier, but for the consumer also such benefits of a continuous supply as better time-management and reduction of health risks (intermittent supply results in contaminated water from the surroundings getting into the supply network through leaks). Apart from ensuring a greater willingness to pay, improved services may also put an end to uncontrolled, illegal exploitation of groundwater resources.

A rapid technical assessment of the water supply scenarios in Delhi, Indore and Guwahati, recently undertaken by a team of international consultants sponsored by wsp , projected the gains of converting to a 24/7 system -- a substantial decline in water losses, ranging from 65 per cent in Delhi (Rohini) to 99 per cent in Indore. "For Delhi this could mean an annual saving of Rs 189 crore," says Sue West, member, assessment team.

Projected gains are manifold. But what would this translation entail? Rejuvenating a dilapidated supply network is in itself a big economic liability. The assessment study projects a cost of Rs 1,320 crore for translating Delhi's water supply to a continuous one. "Mobilising funds may not be a problem for metros, but what about smaller cities and towns?" fears B Srinivasa Reddy, managing director, Karnataka Urban Water Supply and Drainage Board.

The technical aspects of translation are as crucial. Experts suggest proper selection of materials for laying distribution lines along with an active leakage control strategy and constant monitoring of flows for a foolproof supply system. Power shortage is another big hurdle in attaining 24/7, which requires continuous pumping. Look at the experience of Ramagundam municipality, in Andhra Pradesh, which has tried to provide 24/7 supply to select wards since January 2003. "Erratic power supply has only increased leakages," says Satyanarayana, chairperson, municipal council. In this, India can perhaps learn from other countries. Visoth Chea of Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (ppwsa), Cambodia, says, " ppwsa has entered into a contract with the power supplier which qualifies ppwsa to claim for losses if power supply is interrupted longer than the time specified in the agreement."

Most importantly, a practical tariff plan for water would need to be evolved. To be sustainable, 24/7 would require not only a minimisation of nrw through proper metering of consumption but also a water pricing policy that ensures full cost recovery. "On an average, water would cost Rs 10-15 per kilo litre," says Stephen Meyers, member, assessment team. However, since water pricing is considered a politically volatile issue in India, it remains to be seen how the cities would go about this.

E ven as the debate goes on, there remain certain issues to attend to. Do we have enough water to supply 24/7 to every urban household? Do we first need to improve the current system and integrate rainwater harvesting and wastewater recycling to meet demand? Would institutional changes necessitated by the new system be easy to make, given the multiplicity of agencies involved in water distribution? Will 24/7 address the water woes of the urban poor as well?

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