No More Dry Days! Why the Next Delhi Government Must Prioritise 24/7 Water Supply
Residents fill their containers with drinking water from a municipal tanker in New Delhi (File photo: Reuters)
New Delhi: Delhi, the national capital and the latest battleground for political parties, has seen many promises to improve its water supply situation. The current ruling party, too, has been talking about it, and has promised 24/7 water supply for the city in its manifesto for the polls held on February 8, with results to be out on Tuesday. While many of the major cities of the world already have, or are working towards, round-the-clock water supply, there’s a question mark over Delhi’s readiness.
Currently, there is a significant demand-supply gap that the government plans to bridge by building new water treatment plants and creating more underground reservoirs. These activities, however, are time-consuming. We should not forget that Delhi doesn’t have water of its own; it is highly dependent on upstream states to release the allocated quantum of water, which, in peak demand season, is often less than the agreed amount. Groundwater is Delhi’s largest source, but one cannot bank on it in the long term. According to a NITI Aayog report, Delhi is one of the 21 cities in India that will soon run out of groundwater. Plans for getting water from other neighbouring states and Union Territories like Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir might not be sustainable. In case of an emergency, each state would, naturally, prioritise water supply for its own residents rather than give it to other states. Also, there have been instances of social unrest, where the water supply to Delhi from the upstream states has come under threat.
So, the question is, do we have enough water to ensure 24/7 supply for even the next five years?
According to the Economic Survey of Delhi 2018-19, about 83.42% of households have access to tap water within their premises. The next important step for round-the-clock water supply is to ensure 100% connection to all households. Even if sufficient water and 100% connections are ensured, the leakage/losses in Delhi are quite high. Some of the reported figures suggest leakage/losses to be around 40%. A significant amount of water is lost before it even reaches the consumer; this can be another big hurdle for the 24/7 scheme. Metering all connections is a must, as is having meters at main pipes to keep an account of the water lost in conveyance. This will help in tapping the water being lost/leaked. For round-the-clock water supply, it is also important to have a leak-proof pipeline network as well as constant water pressure. The old infrastructure in the city needs to be changed if we are to ensure the successful implementation of non-stop water supply.
Water has been at the core of political agenda to lure voters. Subsidising bills and tariffs may increase the vote bank, but it results in the misuse of a finite resource. Highly subsidised tariffs, if clubbed with a 24/7 water supply scheme, will lead us into a dark zone. Instead of providing some units of free water, there should be a consumption-based pricing mechanism. Such a mechanism, along with round-the-clock supply scheme, can help in creating awareness about the value of water among consumers and help in recovering the cost of the system, thus making it a sustainable solution.
Along with the abovementioned supply-side strategies, there is a need to sensitise users about the importance of 24/7 water supply and introduce demand management strategies – practices that are undertaken by consumers to reduce their demand. These mainly include technology-based interventions such as installing water-efficient faucets, faucet aerators, dual flushing systems, low-flow showerheads, rainwater harvesting systems, etc. Sensitising people will also help in bringing a behavioural change that encourages adoption of water-efficient practices, which will ultimately lead to lower water demand/consumption. The government should offer incentives for consumers to undertake water conservation practices. Furthermore, the concerned urban local body should strengthen its consumer grievance redress mechanism for ensuring smooth functioning of the scheme.
There are many lessons to be learned from the pilot-scale of the 24/7 project in Delhi, which, despite its small scope, faced several hiccups. The pilot project, however, went beyond the expected timeline to solve issues pertaining to infrastructure replacement, community sensitisation, non-availability of permission from land-owning agencies, leakage losses in consumers’ underground storage tanks, etc.
It will take a lot to make the nonstop water supply scheme a success – bridging the demand-supply gap, relaying the pipe network across the city, metering, introducing a rational tariff structure, and creating awareness among people. Considering these prerequisites, the 24/7 water supply scheme seems like an over-ambitious target for the next five years. Nevertheless, it will be a worthwhile attempt at supplying quality water to all with minimum wastage. Round-the-clock water supply promises many benefits – if it is adopted with due consideration of all techno-financial, social and institutional aspects.
(Sonia Grover is a Fellow and Niyati Seth is a Research Associate at Water Resources Policy & Management in TERI. Views expressed by the authors are personal)