How to Make India Water Resilient?

Read Time:11 Minute

According to Ms. Mridula Ramesh, CEO, Sundaram Climate Institute, it is possible to work within the existing limitations to develop practical solutions to ensure water resiliency in India. “How to Make India Water Resilient”—a report compiled by her was launched recently.

If you take 100 people in the world, 18 of them are Indians. But if you take 100 water drops in the world, only three of them are from India. So those 18 people have to make do with almost three water drops. That’s India’s problem. Parts of India are worse than dry regions like Rajasthan. Cities have less water and more people. The water available per person per day is falling, and it is falling fast.

Indeed, many people say that by 2030, India will be unable to meet half of its water demand. That’s already evident across the country. This year promises to be what is called an El Nino year, which is a year with typically low rainfall. Some of the major El Nino events in the past have resulted in famines that have killed millions of Indians. We forgot it, but less than 140 years ago, millions of Indians died in an El Nino year. So what does that mean?

Need for Data

When I left McKinsey, I joined the textile company that my mother runs, where we were implementing TPM (Total Plant Maintenance). The one thing that TPM emphasizes is data. If you want to solve a problem, you can’t do it sitting in an air-conditioned room, on an easy chair. You have to get out there. With water, I didn’t have the data to understand the problem. That’s why Sundaram Climate Institute began gathering data on water and waste, which, to me, are the most important issues for India to address in its climate battle.

There’s a piece of good news if you want to see the cup as half full. India’s water largely comes from the monsoon; and this feature is common across geographical regions. So lessons from one city are applicable to others.

Our study focused on Madurai. Over five years, we spoke to 2,000 households. That’s important because if I had spoken to only 30 or 100 households, we would have obtained very different answers. If we hadn’t collected data year after year, the answers would have been different. The situation we found in 2018 was different from the situation on the ground in 2020. The water in one neighbourhood differed from that in another neighbourhood. The water in T. Nagar in Chennai is very different from that in Sowcarpet.

Need for Storage

Again and again, storage, especially water body storage, becomes important. We spoke to thousands of people to gather groundwater data across water bodies and understand why some water bodies are very effective in recharging groundwater while others fail. India recently released its first census report on water bodies across the country. In Tamil Nadu, we found that nearly half of them are not in use. So why have they disappeared? What are the key questions we’re trying to answer? Where does a typical Indian city get its water from? How is that water used? What risks does it face? And what can we do about it?

Our data is from Madurai, but many of the realities in Madurai apply to other cities. Most cities in India rely on a combination of water sources, including rivers, rainfall, groundwater, private water sources, and treated sewage. Rainfall, which is one of the main sources of water for many Indians, is highly variable. India probably has one of the most seasonal rainfalls in the world. We experience very few rainy days, and most of India’s rainfall occurs within 100 hours. But can we go without water for drinking or washing purposes on the remaining days? The one thing we need then is storage. Climate makes the water supply even more volatile, seasonal, and increases demand.

Dysfunctional Rainwater Harvesting

We conducted a survey of 2,000 households to assess the functionality of rainwater harvesting systems. The results were surprising, considering Tamil Nadu’s early legislation mandating every household to have rainwater harvesting. We found that half of the households we surveyed did not have a functional rainwater harvesting system. They had something that met the requirements on paper but didn’t actually work. With our water bodies disappearing, it’s like cutting off our leg before starting a marathon. Losing water bodies has severe consequences.

We face both perennial and seasonal water demands. During periods of abundant rainfall and when rivers are full, water access is possible. However, during dry periods, access becomes limited. Cities across India are now looking to build water supply systems by sourcing water from distant locations. For instance, Mumbai is going 200-300 kilometers away, and Delhi is also exploring similar options.

Paying for Water

In dry years, like the summer of 2019 in Chennai, only half of the households received regular water supply. So, what do people do when they don’t get municipal water? They tap into groundwater. Around 60% of households rely on groundwater, while the poorest 40% resort to buying water. The idea of free water is deceptive. These households spend around 500 rupees a month to meet some of their water needs. Essentially, they are burdened with an El Nino tax every few years, which they can’t afford.

Subsequently, compromises are made. If they can only afford 25 liters of water per day or per week, they will prioritize giving it to their newborn child while letting their two-year-old suffer with whatever dirty water is available. This is why India loses numerous school days due to diseases like diarrhea. The poorest segments of society pay the highest price for water.

What about sewage? Countries like Israel and Singapore treat and reuse their sewage. I consider sewage a hidden asset. We produce it every day, and it’s not dependent on seasons, like rainfall. However, India treats very little of its sewage and often releases it into rivers. The condition of the Cooum river is a clear illustration of this reality. If we treated sewage, we could achieve water resilience.

Measure to Monitor

Managing demand is crucial for solving the water problem. Do households have water meters? While my house has one, very few households actually have a meter to measure their water usage. Without knowing how much water they are using, it becomes challenging to manage and address the issue effectively. You can’t run a company without knowing its revenue, similarly, understanding water demand is essential. However, most people have no idea about their water usage. In our survey, only those who collected water in pots and faced scarcity knew the exact amount they were using. When I give speeches, I often ask the audience how much water they use, and most don’t have a clue.

Nevertheless, we found some interesting patterns. People with flushable toilets consume more water compared to those with common or non-flushable toilets. Similarly, those with access to borewells use more water than those without. We also discovered that 3% of the people we surveyed had dry borewells, indicating they were already living in a water-scarce situation and used the least amount of water.

With Growth Comes Demand

Combining these findings, it becomes evident that wealthier individuals tend to consume more water. As India’s population grows and cities become wealthier due to urban migration, urban water demand is projected to increase by 20 to 30% in the next five years. However, corporations don’t have sufficient funds to build the required infrastructure, and people aren’t willing to pay for good quality water provided by the government. Pricing options become limited. Therefore, any solution must address these realities.

Many people argue that the government should develop effective water policies. However, when we asked people if they would consider water as an election issue, even during the drought in Chennai in 2019 when water scarcity was severe, it was not a significant concern for voters. These are the constraints we face.

Considering the problem at hand, our studies indicate that we need storage facilities. We should also explore treated sewage as a potential water source. However, people are unwilling to pay for water, and it is not a voting issue. With these constraints in mind, what can we do?

The Need to Collaborate

We need to collaborate with various stakeholders because this is not a journey we can undertake alone. It requires funding, corporate involvement, implementation organizations, and research institutions to work together. Those providing financial support are aware that there are many demands competing for their resources. Therefore, it’s crucial to allocate funds wisely.

Our ancestors constructed numerous water storage structures throughout the country. Surprisingly, recent government reports indicate that nearly half of Tamil Nadu’s water bodies are not in use. It remains unclear why such a mistake was made initially.

Water tanks play a crucial role in groundwater replenishment, which is essential for maintaining water resilience in cities. For example, in T.Nagar, long ago, there used to be a large tank where the Madras Boat Club held their regatta. However, it has now vanished, and the area faces flooding and water problems. I live in Chokkikulam, Madurai, where we ran out of groundwater after extracting it from a depth of 550 feet. The Chokkikulam lake is long gone. Constructing water tanks is vital for building water resilience in India.

Rejuvenating Water Bodies

We also examined satellite data to understand why some tanks perform better than others. We identified three factors: the inlet or feeder channel is critical for maintaining a healthy tank, the land use pattern (green and blue areas), and the number of months the tank holds water each year. However, community connection remains the underlying factor. The surrounding community must care about the tank. During our visit to a crowded neighbourhood, we encountered a small town where the community prevented people from approaching the tank and even requested visitors to remove their slippers as a sign of respect. Unfortunately, in many cities, the community isn’t even aware of the existence of a tank in their vicinity.

Where does this community connection come from? Consider your family—why are you connected to them? It’s because you receive something from them, such as love, food, and protection. Similarly, in rural communities, the connection to tanks stems from monetary benefits, water for livestock, fishing rights, and sacred significance. However, in cities, these factors no longer hold. Tanks are seen as a nuisance and valuable land. People wouldn’t sacrifice land to create a lake.

However, opportunities exist. Many organizations are working on water body rejuvenation. But before performing interventions, it’s crucial to understand the issues through comprehensive assessments. Just like you wouldn’t undergo heart surgery without conducting tests, you need to evaluate what’s wrong with the tank to determine the appropriate interventions. After implementing the necessary actions, re-evaluation is essential to ensure the desired outcomes are achieved. Collaboration with various organizations can facilitate this research. Our report is open source, so anyone can access it and follow the process. It involves conducting before and after tests for interventions, enabling prioritization of efforts.

Therefore, our approach suggests intervening where necessary, focusing on areas with low groundwater levels and particularly vulnerable tanks. There are also areas where intervention is unnecessary.  Just do nothing and you can save valuable resources.

The 4Ps

Partnership and Prioritisation are the first two steps. The third step is Preaching or raising awareness. The fourth P is Prosperity.

When we asked people about their role in managing water, most admitted they had no idea. If people don’t take responsibility for their water usage, addressing the problem becomes challenging. Since water is not a voting issue, policies may not be effective.

Many households are unaware that sewage can be treated and reused. These are potential opportunities for improvement. In urban areas, residents don’t realize that having a functional tank in their neighborhood can contribute to increased groundwater levels and flood resilience.

How can we promote prosperity? Our study demonstrated that an urban tank, with appropriate infrastructure, can provide a minimum of 100 jobs. Developing walking paths, cycling paths, benches, selfie spots, Wi-Fi hotspots, and performance spaces can attract food stalls and create employment opportunities. The Kodaikanal Lake supports approximately 1,000 jobs. Similarly, the Vandiyur Thepakulam, which we supported in our study, went from zero to 123 jobs. Building connections between the urban community and water bodies is essential.

Decentralized sewage treatment is also necessary. Treating just half of the sewage in Chennai can significantly impact the city’s water balance. Though the water problem is serious, we believe it is solvable within the constraints we face by focusing on community connection and sewage treatment.

In summary, solving India’s water problem requires collaboration among stakeholders, prioritizing interventions, raising awareness, and promoting prosperity. Water storage structures, treated sewage, and community engagement are vital aspects of building water resilience. While constraints such as unwillingness to pay for water and lack of voting support pose challenges, by working within these limitations, we can develop practical solutions to ensure water resiliency in India.