Bringing Water to Parched Indian Cities

July 26, 2012


  • India’s water supply is precarious, and no Indian city has piped water 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  • As the country undergoes massive urbanization, the government is spending billions to revamp urban water and sewer systems.
  • The World Bank has released a report and is convening a series of workshops to share international expertise.

Temperatures have soared in India this summer. The scanty monsoon rains have been unable to replenish reservoirs or recharge diminishing groundwater. Much of the country is reeling under acute water shortages. In water-starved cities like Delhi, those who can afford it pay large sums to private suppliers to fill up household tanks.

The poor rise at unearthly hours to store a few bucketfuls from an erratic municipal supply, or push and shove to fill buckets and pans from government tankers that visit their area only occasionally. Fights over water are common.

India’s burgeoning cities, already bursting at the seams, are struggling to provide their residents with basic services. No Indian city receives piped water 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Raw sewage often overflows into open drains, polluting ponds, rivers, and groundwater.

Although cities like Delhi receive with 220 liters of water per person per day – much more than Paris, for instance – some 40-70% of this water is lost due to physical and financial leakages.

Consumers bear the brunt of these inefficiencies. Nor are municipalities any better off. They are only able to recover a mere 30-40% of their operations and maintenance costs, leaving most to survive on government subsidies to meet their O&M costs as well as capital investment.

Massive urbanization

There is a clear need to revamp the system. No time can be lost, as India is in the throes of an unprecedented urbanization, the second in the world after China, with a further 10 million people expected to move into the urban areas each year.

Recognizing this, the Indian government has been implementing an ambitious urban renewal program for the past five years. About 70% of the $12 billion allocated for the program – the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) – has been earmarked for improving water supply and sewers. It is estimated that the sector will need a further $140 billion in capital investment over the next 20 years. 

Learning from others’ experience

There is a growing realization that creating infrastructure alone will not solve the problem; the management of urban water supply services will also need to be addressed to arrive at a sustainable solution.

To find a way forward, the World Bank and India’s central Ministry of Urban Development, recently brought out a report, Improving Urban Water Supply and Sanitation Services – Lessons from Business Plans for Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Haryana and International Good Practices.” The report, released at a recent workshop in New Delhi, seeks to address the key issues facing the sector in India’s states and cities.  

The report highlights the different water supply scenarios prevailing in the country today. It looks at three states that present a similar picture in terms of access to piped water supply but differ considerably when it comes to the quality of service provided. The report finds that while towns in Haryana, for instance, had the highest average quantity of water available per person per day, supply was irregular and varied widely between seasons. Towns in Maharashtra, on the other hand, had less water available but benefited from a more regular supply. Rajasthan, the desert state, had the least availability of water and the least reliable supply, with only 162 out of the state’s 222 towns receiving water every day. The cost recovery scenario presented an even more diverse picture. While the average recovery rate in Maharashtra was 68%, it dropped to 35% in Rajasthan and a mere 11% in Haryana.

" Capital expenditure alone is not enough to meet the gaps. The governance gap is very profound. "

Kamal Nath

Union Minister for Urban Development

Although there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, the workshop provided an excellent opportunity for government officials, as well as national and international experts with a broad range of experience – from Brazil, Australia, Algiers, and Scotland – to share insights and experiences on which India’s 4,000-plus towns and cities can build.

“Providing basic urban services to a vast number of citizens, particularly the urban poor, is a serious challenge,” said Kamal Nath, India’s union minister for urban development. “It needs not only the right policies but careful planning, as well as good execution and management and monitoring. Capital expenditure alone is not enough to meet the gaps. The governance gap is very profound. This will be an important challenge that we are going to face.”

Three key areas for reform

The workshop identified three key areas of reform that will be needed to develop a sound modernization program:

1. Address the huge losses of water, because if leaks are plugged, some 40%-70% more water will be available at no extra cost. The workshop highlighted many good examples from Australia, Algiers, and Brazil where water utilities started with a similar scenario but managed to reduce their inefficiencies over a span of 5-10 years. In India, Maharashtra has already begun to address this challenge.

2. Create institutions with clearly defined roles and responsibilities between policy makers, designers, and service providers, along with clear lines of accountability. Johannesburg has shown how separating policy and regulation from other functions can improve a utility’s management. Brazil and Australia provide examples of models that can suit municipalities of different sizes and capacity.

3. Build the human resources that are capable of designing, creating and managing the complexities of urban water provision. For this, a municipal cadre of dedicated professionals will be needed to provide the highest levels of service to consumers. Capacity can be built through classroom training, twinning with the state-of-the-art utilities, or contracting out to professional service providers or public-private partnerships (PPPs). A number of models can be explored under the capacity-building program of JNNURM II.

Given the critical nature of the subject, the Indian government has asked the World Bank to organize similar workshops in each state to carry forward these vital messages.