What do we mean when we say a city will run out of groundwater?
Let me explain with the example of Bengaluru. Here in the centre of the city, groundwater
levels have been consistently rising for a long time due to leakages from the piped water supply. At least in Bengaluru, a substantial proportion of groundwater recharging is happening from leaking pipelines. There is also leakage of sewage. In the centre of cities, very few people are pumping water, too. The groundwater level is quite shallow.
As soon as one leaves the centre of the city and reaches peripheral areas where piped water supply is not as robust, there is no leakage and people are pumping aggressively for water, so it’s a very different story. You may dig very deep and still find hardly any water. Groundwater levels
are depleted despite rain. Seven kilometres away from where I live — where we have our ATREE office — our 800-foot borewell is also dry. There is a very substantial spatial difference within almost all our cities.
The bigger worry is our inability to manage our waste water. In almost every city, 75-80 per cent of the water that comes into the city is released as waste water. The consumptive water is substantial. Very little water is stored in bodies — almost everything is emitted one way or the other as waste water. The urban water problem to my mind is not one of not having enough water but not having enough clean water.
Even with the Har Ghar Jal scheme, we are focusing on water through taps but not looking at treating the water used and converted into waste.
The Ganga, Yamuna, Musi, Mutha, Adyar, Cooum — no matter which one you look at — are open drains. If you look at the Mississippi river in the US — and I know it’s not fair comparison because the climate is so very different — its water is used several times before it reaches the sea. The water is treated, reused, and subject to all kinds of secondary and tertiary treatment.
So, what have we created? Cities that will need to look further and further or deeper and deeper for clean sources of water and no method or system in place to reuse or treat the waste water. That’s why the ponds and lakes in Bengaluru, have all this froth and chemicals. In Bengaluru barely 30 per cent of the waste water is treated. The rest finds its way into these water bodies. Citizens are concerned, at least in Bengaluru. There is so much activism and people are so motivated to clean up the lakes — they plant trees, they clean the garbage around the lake or pond, but they cannot ensure clean water in the lake. This cannot be done individually and is a more systemic problem.
Why has this happened?
We have severely underinvested in waste water treatment. We charge for water a minimal amount and we don’t charge
anything extra for providing sewerage service. As a result, every water entity is cash-strapped.
How can we solve this problem?
We need to change our mind set. Start considering the possibility that waste water can be cleaned and reused in some way. We have to change the financing. Water utilities have no incentive as of today to invest in waste water treatment. This has to change.
It can be done through some kind of subsidy from the government, paying the utility for every litre of waste water treated to a certain set standard. Currently, whatever the government gives the utilities is not linked to any outcome.
This has to be done at the municipal level. At least in rich cities, you need
to get consumers to pay for sewage and waste water treatment. Operational costs can be met through user fees. Then, the government can separately create a fund to pay utilities for achieving certain targets.
In many countries, people are now treating and using their waste water very creatively. Better-off citizens must realise their obligations and start paying for such services. Those who cannot afford it can continue to be given free water and so on but those who can afford it must pay.
There is a second fundamental problem with our water utilities. They are staffed with only engineers or even retired engineers as consultants. There are very few public finance or environmental or social science professionals in these utilities. This doesn’t work. The approach has to be holistic.