Urban water: A crisis due to mismanagement

Asit K. Biswas

WATER CHALLENGE | October 8, 2012

There is no valid reason as to why an urban centre, with a population of more than 200,000, cannot have access to safe drinking water 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Why then is this not happening?

Providing clean water to urban households is not rocket science. Nor is the development of a viable and sustainable model. Solutions have been known for years and yet their implementation is conspicuous by their absence. Urban water mismanagement is currently widespread in developing countries. Ask any person to name five cities in the developing world that have a continuous water supply, which the inhabitants perceive to be safe to drink. He or she would be unable to do so. From Bangkok to Buenos Aires and New Delhi to Nairobi, people do not trust in the quality of water they receive.

Accordingly, people have developed their own system to cope with this mismanagement at high costs. Households have become mini-utilities. They collect water of indifferent quality, store in underground tanks and then pump as and when required to overhead tanks. They then treat the water, sometimes with filters, but increasingly with membranes to produce their own drinkable water. Independent studies in Bangkok, Thailand, show that only about 2.4% of the residents drink water directly from the tap. The situation is very similar in nearly all urban centres of the developing world.

Yet, it does not have to be so. At present these mini-household utilities are paying high coping costs to make the supplied water drinkable. If the utilities can provide clean water to start with, these coping costs could be reduced by some 35% to 45% for significantly better quality of water. Since the service has been terrible for several decades, people are not even aware that a good drinkable water service at a cheaper cost is possible.

Politicians, sadly and erroneously, think that they will not be elected if they charge for water. Recently, a Chief Minister (CM) of an Indian state asked my advice as to how provide clean water on a 24×7 basis. The CM only had two requirements: everyone, rich or poor, should receive clean water and water should be free. The first is eminently possible, but the two are not compatible. I told the CM that the state will not be able to provide clean water to its population in a million years!

Consumers, rich or poor, must pay for water. The tariffs should be such that no household pays more than 1% to 2% of its income on water. Subsidies must be targeted only to the poor. Utilities must be financially viable from the income of selling water to its consumers and not be dependent on financial subsidies from municipalities, which are invariably irregular and mostly inadequate. Equally, utilities must be run by professional competent managers who must be responsible and accountable for their performances. They must have reasonable time to turn around these poorly-performing utilities with agreed benchmarks along the way. Sadly, the average stay of a water utility manager in Mexico is 18 months and in a major Indian city about 30 months, and 90% of them have no expertise in water or no experience in running a utility. This is a sure recipe for the continuation of their poor performances.

The world’s urban water problems are solvable. The fact that they are not is because, as Shakespeare said:

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

Article published in Water Challenge – a blog by Peter Brabeck, October 8, 2012