The arid city

Asit K. Biswas

THE INDIAN EXPRESS | July 7, 2012 

Water management in India’s big cities is worse than ever, though both technologically and economically, there is no reason why citizens should not have uninterrupted access to safe water. The problems and solutions are well known, and yet, the situation has only deteriorated in cities like Delhi, Chennai or Mumbai.

The standard excuse, that there is not enough water, seems valid on the surface, but further study reveals that the urban water crisis is avoidable, and entirely created by institutional and management deficiencies and lack of sustained political will.

Take the case of Delhi Jal Board (DJB), from whom it is impossible to get any reliable information. When we forced the DJB to provide available data under the Right to Information Act, we were surprised at how a utility with over a billion dollars in assets could be run in such a cavalier fashion, with unreliable or anecdotal information. For example, it does not reliably know how many consumers it has, what their per capita water use is, how much water it loses due to leakages and unauthorised connections, how much staff it has per 1,000 connections. It does not have a business plan on cash flow and expenditure for the next five years, let alone over the long-term. It is simply impossible to manage any large business, public or private, without a good, functional and up-to-date management information system.

Furthermore, the DJB’s management process is fundamentally flawed. In other countries, water utilities are managed by professionals who are responsible and held accountable for their performance. The head of DJB is an IAS officer who, when she or he takes charge, knows virtually nothing about water, or how a large and complex utility should be professionally managed. The average tenure of such officers is short, usually two-and-a-half to three years. By the time they understand the complexities of the problem and start planning solutions, they are gone. They are never held accountable, for their performance. In contrast, the average stay of a utility head in an important US or European utility is around eight years. They are selected on the basis of their ability to run a major utility, and directly accountable for the performance of the utilities.

Unless Indian megacities also hire professional utility managers, their water-related problems will only get worse. Current water losses from major urban centres run from 35 to 60 per cent. This means some one-third to two-thirds of treated water never reaches the intended consumers. Yet, a city like Phnom Penh has reduced its water losses from nearly 80 per cent in 1993 to 5 per cent in 2011 through professional management. The current director general of Phnom Penh’s water supply authority had spent some 18 years on the job. During his tenure, the city successfully provided clean water that could be drunk straight from the tap. Water is available 24 hours a day for both rich and poor households. Every household pays for clean water. Phnom Penh’s is a public water utility where consumers pay for operation, maintenance and investment costs. It does not receive any funds from the city. It provides excellent service and has been consistently profitable over the past decade.

In contrast, each household in a city like Delhi has been forced to become a mini-utility. When water comes for a few hours a day, each household stores it in underground tanks, and then pumps it to an overhead tank. Each household has its own treatment system provided by the private sector. Ten years ago, people used simple carbon filters, now they are being forced to use membranes and reverse osmosis to treat water because of the steady deterioration of water quality.

Even when households receive water free from a city, they pay for construction of underground and overhead tanks, cleaning of both the tanks every two months, electricity costs for pumping up water several times each day, and operation and maintenance of water treatment systems from a private sector company. Our analyses for Kolkata show that if the corporation provided water service efficiently, and if all households paid for these services fairly, they would save at least 35 per cent of what they are paying now.

Unfortunately, all households in cities like Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai or Chennai are now paying first-rate costs for third-grade water delivery services. Cities have been offering many excuses for this incompetence, but there is no persuasive technical, economic or social reason why Indian cities cannot have 24-hour drinkable water services. The fact that not a single Indian city has such a service is an indictment on the terrible status of urban water management.

Asit K. Biswas is the founder of the Third World Centre for Water Management and Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore.