The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has underlined the need to address the country’s looming water crisis. It has become a pressing issue for the government given the fixed supply of freshwater coupled with the declining groundwater table and deteriorating quality of waterbodies. So far, the efforts to provide access to safe water and sanitation to all have been successful in bridging the demand-supply gap for the unserved and underserved only to some extent. However, the virus outbreak has highlighted the need for more ambitious government initiatives to expand access to water services across the country and bridge the existing infrastructure gap.
While the lockdown imposed to contain the spread of Covid-19 led to an increase in domestic water demand, there has been a decline in demand from the industrial and commercial segment due to stalled activities. In addition, the generation of waste has increased multifold, including biomedical, hazardous and toxic waste, adding to the concerns of urban local bodies (ULBs). These utilities are struggling to put effective management mechanisms in place, and are paying hefty amounts for safe disposal and incineration facilities. As per a report by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the available incineration capacity for biomedical waste is about 840 tonnes per day (tpd) against the total generation of about 710 tpd. Of this, the generation of Covid-19-related biomedical waste stands at about 101 tpd. On an encouraging note, there have been some positive externalities of the lockdown with water quality in rivers and other waterbodies improving markedly.
The virus outbreak has opened up opportunities for technology adoption at the city level. ULBs have responded to the pandemic by laying greater emphasis on the deployment of information technology (IT) solutions for effective water and waste management. There is widespread use of smart technologies to track people’s movement in cities, to ensure compliance with physical distancing rules. Apps too are being used to monitor infected people. The integrated command and control centresoperationalised in 45 smart cities have played a key role in better managing traffic, handling biomedical waste and extending healthcare facilities. Further, a digital tracking system to track Covid-19 waste disposal, check spillage and ensure that waste is properly segregated has been launched by the CPCB for effective waste management. Besides these, a number of new digital tools and solutions such as smart water metering, online bill generation and payment, dashboard-based monitoring of projects, and remote asset monitoring are being implemented by the ULBs.
Indian Infrastructure reviews the impact of Covid-19 on the water, wastewater and solid waste segments and the execution of projects in these segments…
Impact on project implementation
The Covid-19-induced lockdown that began on March 25, 2020 led to a sudden halt in construction activities for almost all water and waste projects. However, construction work on water supply, sewerage and solid waste projects was resumed early, as they fall under the essential services category. In the past six to seven months, substantial progress has been made under key flagship programmes of the government, such as the NamamiGange Mission, the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) and the JalJeevan Mission (JJM), with few disruptions in the supply chain, timely disbursal of funds by the government and adequate availability of labour.
According to the Ministry of Jal Shakti, about 2.5 million new connections have been provided during the ongoing pandemic under the ambitious JJM, which aims to provide piped water connections to all households by 2024. During the first phase of the lockdown, the ministry expeditiously dealt with the necessary paperwork with the states including approvals of state and district action plans and completion of detailed project reports. As a result, the target timelines under the mission have remained unaffected. Further, progress under the NamamiGange Mission and AMRUT has also been uninterrupted with the respective implementing agencies prioritising the timely release of payments to executing agencies and contractors for smooth project implementation.
However, the lockdown has impacted the on-ground progress of projects within containment zones, pushing out the timelines for several planned and announced water and waste projects in cities such as Gurugram, Mumbai, Mohali, Ranchi and Bhubaneswar. The bid due dates for some of the under-bidding projects have been shifted several times. The delays have been aggravated due to the financial crunch being faced by several contractors. At present, the main priority of the ULBs and private players is to complete ongoing projects at the earliest.
Response to the pandemic
In the wake of the pandemic, the focus of ULBs has shifted towards ensuring uninterrupted water supply to all areas, with the ultimate aim of providing 100 per cent coverage. The local bodies have resumed work on ongoing water supply and sewerage projects, adhering to safety and physical distancing norms. They are also mobilisinglabour from neighbouring states so that construction works can be expedited.
Besides, the ULBs have deferred payments of water bills or waived late penalties to minimise the financial burden on consumers during the crisis. They have come up with unique tax collection schemes that incentivise big consumers to make prompt payments. Options are also being provided to consumers to pay their water bills in instalments. For instance, the Delhi government has introduced a scheme that offers a one-time waiver of water bill arrears and late payment surcharge until September 30, 2020. It has granted the waiving of penalties on pending water bills partly or fully depending on the housing category.
Further, in order to effectively manage the increased waste generation, the ULBs have expedited implementation of projects involving setting up of waste treatment facilities. For instance, the Maharashtra government has already set up 30 common facilities across 36 districts of the state for scientific disposal of the biomedical waste generated from Covid-19 centres, isolation wards and quarantine facilities.
Technologies at the forefront
There has been significant growth in the deployment and penetration of IT in the day-to-day activities of local bodies. In the post-Covid world, ULBs will have new possibilities and greater opportunities for technology penetration in water supply and waste management. At present, about 48 cities with operational integrated command and control centres are successfully using these centrally controlled systems to better manage traffic, healthcare and waste, ensure safety and security, and expedite emergency response in their respective areas. A case in point is the Bruhat Bengaluru MahanagaraPalike which is using a “Covid-19 war room” for the collation of data on solid waste management on a common dashboard.
Further, utilities are generating online water bills through readings from automatic meters, avoiding any physical contact with consumers. The CPCB has also created a digital system to track Covid-19 waste disposal, check spillage and ensure that waste is properly segregated. The application monitors the life cycle of waste from collection, segregation and transportation to incineration. The board has asked the states to deploy the digital tracking system, following which some states such as Telangana have been working on special mobile applications to manage Covid-19-related waste.
In another major development, a Chennai-incubated start-up, Antariksh Waste Ventures, has developed a smart bin system enabled by internet of things (IoT) to prevent the spread of Covid-19 through waste generated at contagion-vulnerable points. The bin enables remote monitoring of the waste accumulated and its clearance, through IoT systems. In the long run, the use of IoT-enabled solutions can also be used for segregation of waste at the time of generation. Overall, the adoption of technology has eased operation and maintenance activities for local governments during the pandemic, without compromising the health of front-line workers.
The way forward
Covid-19 has highlighted the urgent need to step up the development of water supply and waste management infrastructure in the country. New and advanced remote monitoring systems and solutions for asset and workforce management will need to be adopted. The demand for advanced technologies such as smart water meters and sensors, supervisory control and data acquisition systems, GIS-based mapping and GPS-based tracking is expected to increase in the years to come.
On the policy front, a dedicated national-level policy to mandate the use of treated wastewater for non-potable purposes by all industries and commercial establishments will be essential to reduce the exploitation of depleting freshwater resources. Besides, greater attention needs to be paid to enhancing the capacity and financial health of ULBs through special capacity-building programmes and improving their creditworthiness. The private sector will have to play a greater role in driving technology adoption and innovation in the post-Covid world.
The pandemic has highlighted the vast scope for scaling up infrastructure and improving services across the water and waste sector. Thus, delegation of operations to the private sector with performance-based contracts is expected to go a long way in improving efficiency and providing better service delivery. Also, ensuring waste segregation at source, adopting decentralised wastewater treatment, deploying mobile solutions and sensitising citizens have now become more important than ever.
Nikita Chhabra and Garima Nain