Water Conscious: Utilities focus on new technologies and greater privatisation to improve water services

Utilities focus on new technologies and greater privatisation to improve water services

Recognising the need for modern infrastructure facilities and improved service delivery, a number of urban local bodies (ULBs) have turned to advanced technological solutions for efficient water supply management. Over the past decade or so, most ULBs have launched projects to deploy advanced flow and pressure management systems, leak detection devices, and asset management systems. Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, geographic information systems (GIS), satellite surveillance and remote sensors are being deployed for monitoring collection, distribution and treatment systems. The results of these initiatives have been quite encouraging. Cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Surat and Pune have been witnessing impressive growth rates on most key parameters. These include bill collection efficiency, reduction in non-revenue water (NRW), water availability and quality, metering of connections and leakage control.

A few cities have engaged private entities to improve service delivery and introduce professional and technical expertise in water supply management. This has resulted in some noteworthy improvements in operational performance, such as reduction in water losses, expansion of the customer base, and improvement in billing and revenue collection mechanisms. Some of these deals involve the privatisation of water supply services in Nagpur (Maharashtra), Salt Lake City (Kolkata), and the Malviya Nagar, Mehrauli and Vasant Vihar areas in Delhi.

The government too is making concerted efforts to improve water network management practices through flagship schemes such as the Smart Cities Mission (SCM) and the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT). In the past two years, there have been some visible improvements in municipal solid waste management at the city level, in terms of projects undertaken, capacity added, and technologies and best practices adopted.

That said, there is great scope for improving service delivery across the sector. For this to happen, user charges have to be rationalised, ULBs have to be strengthened, new sources of funding projects have to be explored and new markets have to be created for recycable and reusable wastewater.

A snapshot of the notable trends over the past year and the outlook for the water and wastewater sector…

Trends and key developments

  • Dwindling freshwater resources and rapidly increasing demand putting pressure on existing infrastructure: The demand for water from different consumer segments has been increasing steadily. With the supply of water resources being fixed, demand will far exceed availability before 2050. In volume terms, water supply in urban areas of the country has increased from 77,000 million litres per day (mld) in 2015 to 89,000 mld in 2019 (per capita water consumption assumed at 180 litres per capita per day). Wastewater generation too is increasing rapidly, and in the absence of adequate infrastructure for collection and treatment, the already depleting freshwater reserves are being polluted. Sewage generation in urban areas has increased from 62,000 mld in 2015 to 71,000 mld in 2019. However, over the past few years, the sector has witnessed some important trends and developments. Decentralised sewage treatment facilities are being set up. Recycling and reuse of wastewater is gaining acceptance. Advanced treatment technologies are being adopted for water and wastewater treatment. ULB capability is being strengthened. Also, more and more utilities are recognising and practising 3R (reduce-reuse-recycle) or 4R (reduce-reuse-recycle-replace) concepts.
  • Significant financial support from the government: In the past five years, the government has introduced a number of Programmes and schemes to improve the country’s water supply and sewerage infrastructure. The SCM, AMRUT, the Namami Gange programme and the Swachh Bharat Mission were launched to help scale up infrastructure capacities. These projects are estimated to entail an investment of over Rs 3 trillion. Over the past two-three years, there have been visible improvements in  water supply and waste management at the city level. There have been some improvements in the financial and operational capabilities of ULBs. Under the SCM, a total of 336 projects involving a total investment of Rs 266.24 billion have been approved for the water and wastewater sector. Meanwhile, projects worth over Rs 732 billion have been completed under AMRUT.
  • Private sector to play a bigger role in infrastructure creation and service delivery: As the sector’s long-term investments cannot be met by public sector expenditure alone, the private sector has an important role to play in the water supply and sewerage sector. Therefore, private sector participation is being encouraged in areas such as providing 24×7 water supply, and setting up sewage treatment plants (STPs), waste-to-energy (WtE) plants and recycling and tertiary treatment facilities. In the past few years, a number of projects have been implemented on a public-private partnership (PPP) basis. A new PPP format, the hybrid annuity model, which is a mix of the engineering, procurement and construction and build-operate-transfer models, is being used for setting up STPs under the Namami Gange programme. ULBs are entering into long-term (15-20 years) operations and maintenance (O&M) contracts for operating and maintaining water and wastewater treatment facilities.
  • Deploying technology for better service delivery: The use of technology in the management of water supply and wastewater services has increased. ULBs are introducing online portals for civic services, and deploying advanced treatment technologies for water and waste treatment and automation and instrumentation tools and solutions for asset monitoring and maintenance. Also, advanced solutions such as SCADA systems, GIS, satellite surveillance and remote sensors are being deployed for monitoring collection, distribution and treatment systems. ULBs in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Surat, Pune, Delhi, Bengaluru and Chennai have deployed a number of online systems to enhance customer satisfaction.
  • Greater attention being paid to capacity building, recycling and reuse, rationalising user charges and NRW: Strengthening the capacities of ULBs is one of the top priorities of state governments today. They have been incentivising and encouraging local bodies to become self-sufficient and mobilise resources through instruments such as municipal bonds. Six cities – Pune, Greater Hyderabad, Bhopal, Amaravati, Ahmedabad and Indore – have issued municipal bonds to fund infrastructure development. As part of the reform process under AMRUT and the SCM, a number of ULBs have shifted to computerised accounting systems and e-service delivery platforms. Industries are also becoming receptive to the idea of deploying advanced technologies to treat effluents as well as recycling and reusing the same for non-potable purposes. District metered areas are being established to better manage water distribution networks. Pipeline repair/replacement works are being carried out to plug leakages, reduce NRW and replace obsolete pipes.

Future outlook – Moving ahead with technology interventions and greater private investments

Rapid population growth, combined with declining freshwater water resources in the country, is expected to drive the adoption of innovative technologies and improvement of service delivery mechanisms. The private sector needs to play a larger role in driving this trend in innovation.

Technology penetration in the water and waste segment is a much-needed component to ensure efficient urban service delivery. Large volumes of NRW and inefficiencies and water losses in urban water utility systems implies that most Indian cities are still unable to supply 24×7 water to their citizens.  Therefore, there is an urgent need to deploy “smart solutions” – solutions that incorporate science, information technology and internet of things.

Most cities have launched projects to incorporate advanced technologies and information systems into their water distribution networks. The Pune Municipal Corporation is planning to install 275,000 Sensus iPERL (digital water meters) across the city. So far, the civic agency has installed 5,000 water meters in the Nagar Road areas. The Tiruchirappalli City Municipal Corporation has deployed automatic meter reading devices for three major bulk water consumers in the city on a pilot basis. The Delhi Jal Board (DJB) is deploying the revenue management system 2.0 to further automate revenue collection services.

The recycling and reuse of wastewater will continue to be a major thrust area for the government. The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai has made setting up of a common STP mandatory to meet excess water needs of establishments that have a built-up area of over 20,000 square metres. DJB has made it mandatory for all properties with an area of 100 square metres and above to have functional rainwater harvesting systems.

While the SCM is a big leap forward, certain measures need to be taken to ensure that it meets its purpose and targets. Equally important is the need to focus on mobilising new funding sources. ULBs also need to build financial and operational capacity.

Going forward, as most state governments strive to improve infrastructure facilities to meet the increasing demand for water, better technologies and processes are likely to be deployed. However, the success of these initiatives will depend on the capacity and financial health of utilities and local bodies, quality of manpower, rational tariff structures, and consumer awareness and adaptability to new technologies.

Nikita Chhabra