Article | September 25, 2013, 4.59 PM IST

Why water management is key to India’s progress?

With an eye on inclusive and sustainable growth, the government’s Twelfth Five-Year Plan (2012-2017) seeks to address the water-related challenges that India’s burgeoning population faces.

Most rural regions and many semi-urban regions in India still do not have access to clean drinking water and lack proper sanitation facilities. Without proper sanitation, contaminated water can enter the human chain and cause serious health complications.

The Plan highlights that despite urban development, a large percentage of population in major metros is not connected to the sewer system. It emphasizes that urban planning must give top priority to toilets and sewage treatment plants.

The Plan also addresses the issue of depleting groundwater resources. The Plan suggests that an aquifer (rocks that contain or transmit groundwater) mapping programme be put in place along with groundwater recharge initiatives.

Water and the Indian economy

According to the Plan, economic growth of 8% - 9% is only possible if water requirements of the expanding population can be met.

Studies show that the total demand for water by 2031 is likely to be 50% higher than that of today. This gap has to be bridged if the projected GDP growth is not to be compromised. Nearly 20% of this gap can be bridged by ensuring additional storage of water and by employing groundwater retention techniques. The rest of the problem can be solved by using water more efficiently.

In the last 60 years, there has been a marked increase in the expenditure on irrigation and flood control projects. Many of these irrigation projects have suffered from time and cost overruns. As a result, the Plan rightly proposes that completion of ongoing irrigation projects be given the highest priority and new ones be taken up only if needed. The Plan also observes that a new legislative framework is necessary to manage India’s water resources better.

While water conservation is definitely on top of India’s development agenda, another issue that receives attention in the report is that of wastewater management.

Managing wastewater and water pollution

Even as urban areas stare at a water crisis given their increasing population, an even bigger problem is management of wastewater or sewage.

The 2011 census shows that only 32.7% urban Indians are connected to a sewer system and that 12.6% of those living in urban areas still defecate in the open. These statistics show that providing adequate sanitation to citizens still remains an enormous challenge. What worsens the situation in urban India is the construction of illegal structures and slums. Such establishments are usually not connected to the city’s sewage systems. It is therefore important for cities to invest in building affordable and scalable sewage systems.

In India, Bengaluru leads the way when it comes to sewage systems. It has nearly 3610 km of sewage lines and 14 sewage treatment plants. The city generates an estimated 800-1000 MLD (Million Litres per Day) of sewage and has the capacity to treat roughly 721 MLD. However, the treatment plants only receive 300 MLD of sewage, showing that despite having the capacity, they operate at sub-optimal levels.

If adequate sewage treatment systems are not in place, then it is difficult to control water pollution. According to Central Pollution Control Board estimates, India has installed capacity to treat only about 30% of the sewage it generates. This means that there is a risk of nearly 70% sewage entering lakes, streams and rivers and polluting them.

Delhi and Mumbai, which generate around 17% of the country’s sewage, have nearly 40% of the country’s installed capacity. In most other cities, only a small proportion of sewage is transported for treatment. Urban planners must ensure that not only are there enough sewage treatment plants, but also mechanisms to transport sewage to these plants.

If left untreated, sewage poses a number of health risks and in some cases, even death. Once treated, it can serve the non-potable needs of industries, irrigation and urban areas. This way, reusing and recycling sewage water also reduces the demand of fresh water.

Invest in water and sanitation
Having realized the importance of water conservation and proper sewage systems, the reform agenda for the Twelfth Plan chalks out the following thrust areas:

1. Investments in water supply will focus on demand management, reducing intra-city inequity and on quality of water supplied
2. Protection of water bodies
3. No water scheme will be sanctioned without a sewage component
4. Plan deliberately for recycling and reuse of treated wastewater
5. Plan on a regional scale

It is commendable that the Plan recognizes the water-waste connection and emphasizes the need for integrated water and wastewater planning, at both local and regional levels.

Source: XII Five-Year Plan

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