S Janakarajan, professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), conducts research on urban and peri-urban issues, disaster management and livelihood resilience. He emphasises the need for an inclusive approach to urban planning to cope with increasing demands for water The rapid unplanned expansion of cities in India and South Asia provides a big challenge when it comes to ensuring access to water
On coping with increasing water demand in urban areas
The demographic shift from rural areas to urban areas after economic liberalization in 1991 has placed tremendous pressure on ecological resources of urban and peri-urban ecosystems. As a result, our cities are plagued with various problems: over-exploited and depleted water table; irregular water supply and sanitation problem. Inadequate land for housing means mushrooming slums and encroachment. Traffic congestion and bio-medical waste disposal, too, are worrying matters. Such problems lead to low quality of life in the city.
At present, peri-urban and rural areas are victims of the city’s apathy. Groundwater is brought in from peri-urban areas, land around water bodies is encroached on, the drainage system is improperly planned, and rural areas are used to dump solid waste and biomedical waste. Such a state of things is contributing to the depletion of resources and degradation of the environment of areas skirting the city.
The current system reflects ad hoc urban planning. An inclusive approach to urban planning is necessary so as to integrate the needs of urban, peri-urban and rural areas in the development of a city. Such efforts require commitment, improved governance and a long-term vision.
I have been involved in a project that studies how the harvesting of local water resources can be optimised. According to his study, Chennai’s demand for water increased from 200 MGD (million gallons per day) in 1971 to 600 MGD in 2007. There was a huge shortfall in supply, making the per capita water supply in Chennai one of the lowest in the country. There were 500 water companies in Chennai catering to the city’s need for water.
Such a demand for water implies that the city is vulnerable to risks associated with climate change. The tremendous demand for groundwater means that the vulnerable poor would face water shortages and sanitation problems in the future.
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