India’s Water Woes: Solutions from across the globe

Image for representation/ Water scarcity in India/ New Indian Express

India needs a comprehensive water strategy

There is no question today that India is facing several water-related issues including flooding, drought, solid and liquid waste management, sewage treatment, sanitation, health etc. A country like ours with a vast geography and the population of more than a billion people naturally needs solutions that are innovative and scalable while at the same time being cost-effective. What compounds water management in the country is the lack of awareness among the masses that are poverty-stricken or under-educated. More so, increasing population, non-availability of land resources and internal migration has led to issues such as non-biodegradable plastic waste, water body pollution, waterborne diseases etc in urban India. The other important issue connected with water resources in India is the agriculture sector which contributes 18% to the country’s GDP as well as the source of informal employment in the vast hinterlands of rural India. The agriculture sector still heavily relies on the monsoons, which have over the last few remained unpredictable and the situation is further exacerbated due to climate change.

Hence, water is a comprehensive issue that overlaps with various other sectors and a holistic outlook needs to be established to deal with it in the short as well as the long term. In this context, it is heartening to notice that the government of India formed the Ministry of Jalshakti by merging the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation Authority and the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. This enables dealing with multiple issues as a single common theme centred on water and enables pooling of the resources of and collective action. Nonetheless, more fundamentally, the infrastructure related to water, needs to be treated on par with critical infrastructures like roadways and railways and as a model for growth and economic activity. Investment today in water-related infrastructure will pave way for better distribution of industry and job opportunities that today are mostly relegated to a few metro cities. Equitable distribution of water resources can prevent mass internal migration and can improve agricultural productivity and make farming a viable option for self-employment and lucrative business. The article initially identifies the opinions of Indian experts and thereafter discusses various water management solutions from across the globe.

Local solutions for local problems

Solutions such as interlinking of rivers across the length of the country have been mooted in order to harness water from flooding from one part of the country to be utilized elsewhere. Nevertheless, the practicality of such ideas is being questioned by experts who opine that the diversion of floodwater from one region does not necessarily address the drought in other regions as they may not occur simultaneously. In addition to this, other issues such as the cost-effectiveness, interstate water disputes, environmental issues including loss of habitat for wildlife as well as the requirement of lift irrigation in peninsular areas poses severe limitations. Therefore, most experts advocate for the need of dealing with issues locally on a case to case basis within the confines of various the states. Take the case of Maharashtra for example, the Konkan region sandwiched between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea receives rainwater in excess to the state average, while the Marathwada and Vidarbha regions suffer from drought every year in the dry season. In such a scenario water storage area in the vicinity of the Western Ghats needs to be augmented such that it can be utilized later and cater to the requirements of the other regions of the state. Similarly, megacities like Mumbai that are closer to the coast need to be equipped with seawater desalination and water recycling plants to cater to the local consumption including industrial needs. This allows water that is being supplied currently to the metropolis to be diverted for consumption in other regions of the state during the dry season.

Solutions to address the demand

Vikas Brahmavar of Boson White Water’s displays the demo system of the equipment before delivering it to the client. Courtesy: yourstory[dot]com

Water recycling

Israel is a country that recycles 85% of its wastewater making it a world leader in water reclamation technologies. The quality of the reclaimed water is superior and can be used for household consumption as well as for agricultural and industrial purposes. For a water-starved country like India with supply tankers transporting water to households in cities like Chennai, Hyderabad and others, recycling should be a priority. In addition to the Israeli technologies, Indian start-ups have also recently come up with recycling systems that are portable and can be installed in places like shopping malls, tech parks, gated communities etc. Water from sewage treatment plants can be treated locally and can be used for consumption purposes as demonstrated by the Bengaluru based start-up Boson White Water who have already installed their systems in several locations and are estimated to save from 3.5 million to 4.8 million litres per month which is equivalent to 500-800 tankers with 6000 litre capacity each. More importantly, the consumers in Tech parks or shopping malls have to pay only for the operational and recycling costs which are lower than tankers while the systems are installed by the organizations. In effect, the use of tankers and the mafia that controls them can be entirely bypassed.

Vertical membranes in an Israeli desalination plant. Courtesy: israel21c[dot]org

Desalination

With a coastline of more than 7500 kilometres, the potential for seawater desalination plants is immense. Despite concerns of the process being energy-intensive, shore-based industries especially heavy industries with large water consumption should ideally work towards installing desalination plants. The city of Chennai is the front runner in installing seawater desalination plants. So far two plants with a total capacity of supplying 200 million litres per day (MLD) have been installed catering to the needs of the people. Desalination works via reverse osmosis mechanism and the process is energy-intensive. With Prime Minister Modi’s solar power initiative, India should install new desalination plants powered entirely through this energy resource which has already been demonstrated by IIT Madras. Even though panels require a larger space, desalination plants should be mandatory in coastal areas where heavy industry is located. Such plants can address the industrial demand while the water stored used by them currently can be diverted for public consumption. There are concerns that desalination results in brine solutions that have heavy concentrations of hazardous chemicals. However, a recent study by MIT demonstrates the extraction of useful chemicals like Sodium Hydroxide, Hydrochloric Acid etc from the brine solution which can be an economic resource in itself. Also the cost of production of kilolitre of water calculated to be approximately INR 36. Israel is a pioneer in these technologies and NITI Aayog is currently conducting a viability study on desalination plants to be set all along India’s coast.

Rainwater harvesting (RWH)

RWH is the easiest and the least sophisticated of methods to replenish aquifers and groundwater. Despite awareness about this in urban India, most residential constructions are not equipped with RWH systems. Mandating the construction and maintenance of RWH systems in areas where water scarcity’s impact is the worst should be accorded legal sanctity, thereby compelling constructors as well as residents to include them in the plans. Such water can be processed and used in the dry season.

Indian farmers have started utilizing drip-irrigation systems with the technologies being transferred into India from Israel. Courtesy: netafimindia[dot]com

Drip irrigation for agriculture

Drip irrigation has transformed the desert landscape of Israel and paved the way for green farms and fields. The drip irrigation technology provides the optimal water necessary to maintain a healthy growth rate of the farm plants and prevents excess water usage and plugs wastage. Agriculture being a water-intensive activity, especially in India where regulations on groundwater drawing pump capacities hardly exist, drip irrigation should be the way ahead. It also saves the costs of energy that are expended into drawing water using electric-powered pumps thereby increasing the profit margins for farmers and make it more lucrative. Perennial water supply can be ensured through drip irrigation and farmer suicides due to the lack of yield or debt can be avoided.

A solution to tackle flooding

Tokyo flood prevention system

Tokyo is a city with a significant part of its territory lying below sea level. Tokyo sits on the basin of eight rivers from the surrounding mountains which culminate in the Tokyo bay area. The city receives 60 inches of rain annually on an average and is affected by cyclones all of which can result in severe inundation and flooding. The city’s planners addressed this issue by constructing an intricate network of underground tunnels and concrete silos in challenging earthquake-prone terrain to divert excess water from flood-prone areas to other rivers where the risk of flooding is less. Moreover, the earth removed for these mega constructions was used to construct embankments to prevent inundation of low lying areas. The concrete silos each have a diameter of 32 metres and a height of 65 metres and are connected to 6.4 kilometre long tunnels located 50 metres below the surface which then is connected to a water tank 25m X 177m X 78 m. Flood water collected into this is pumped into the Edo river at the rate of 200 tons per second using jet engines. Such flood control systems can be constructed in especially cities like Mumbai and other coastal cities with the risk of inundation also from climate change. After all, coastal cities are lifelines of the country with the majority of the trade occurring through them.

The underground cathedral-like concrete structures forms the intricate network of tunnels and silos to prevent flooding in Tokyo. Courtesy: New York Times.

Flood water capture

Even though only 11 states in India are identified as prone to flooding, the recent floods in Karnataka and Kerala pose a serious question on the validity of this claim. Both Kerala and Karnataka are home to the Western Ghats where it rains incessantly in the monsoon season thereby increasing the possibility of flash flooding. Floods can be averted by dam and reservoir construction or by increasing green cover in the catchment area to prevent runoff. Most of the frequent flooding in India occur in the North by virtue of the locations of states like Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and Assam etc all in the vicinity of the Himalayas and the rivers flowing out. These areas are densely populated and hence the incidence of damage to public infrastructure and human life is high. The only alternative solution is to construct dams in the mountainous regions to serve the purposes of water storage, flood prevention and energy production. Also, with the economy showing trends of an imminent long-lasting slowdown, the infrastructure spending will spur economic activity, reduce unemployment and increase consumption.

In conclusion, the challenges for the Indian society with regards to water resource management are immense. Adopting novel techniques for water resource processing and management will be the first step towards self-sufficiency. Dealing with issues at a local level within the state boundaries is essentially the way forward. Water recycling, desalination etc are efficient techniques that need to be implemented in a time-bound manner with the former in urban areas of the hinterland while the latter in urban areas are closer to the coast. At the same time, flood control and water diversions systems should be seriously considered keeping mind the rapid expansion of the country’s urban agglomerations thanks to internal migration of people for economic opportunities. Providing efficient and reliable water delivery even in rural and semi-urban areas coupled with good physical infrastructure will lead to a situation of the movement of the industry into rural areas thereby ensuring employment opportunities as well as put an end to the rapid expansion of Indian cities. Water-related issues should be seen in conjunction with solid waste management, sanitation and healthcare-related issues for a better consolidated and joint effort. Climate change will increasingly result in below-average rainfall in some areas and flooding in others and the country needs to be prepared to tackle this. In short, water infrastructure should be treated on par with other physical infrastructure such as roads, railways etc. to achieve any meaningful outcomes.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Surya S.K. Guduru

Surya SK Guduru is a Research Intern at The Kootneeti. He holds a Master's degree in International Studies from Symbiosis International University & a PhD in Engineering Physics from Politecnico di Milano. He can be reached at sameer.guduru88@gmail.com

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