Combating the Crisis: Impact of Covid-19 on the water and waste sector

Impact of Covid-19 on the water and waste sector

The severity of the water crisis in India has been increasing every year, and the Covid-19 outbreak has further intensified the dire situation. Over the past one year, central and state government agencies have been using a variety of resources to tackle the water crisis. Urban local bodies (ULBs) across various states have been leveraging advanced technological tools and exploring new methods of raising capital in a bid to address the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic to the water and waste sector.

Further, cities across India have been taking up new initiatives for efficient disposal of municipal solid waste. Urban India generates 62 million tonnes (mt) of waste annually, and the amount has been predicted to reach 165 mt in 2030. The size of landfills in India is constantly increasing, which is fast becoming a major concern. Efficient disposal of solid waste is thus the need of the hour. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has also led to a huge spike in the generation of biomedical waste. India generated 56,898 tonnes of Covid-19-related biomedical waste between June 2020 and June 2021.

On the policy front, the central government has been working extensively to ensure that the water and waste sector is able to become sustainable in the long run. As private water operators bring technical expertise to infrastructure projects and improve operations and services, most of the policy initiatives have been aimed at increasing private participation in the sector. Centrally sponsored schemes such as the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM), the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) and the Smart Cities Mission are expected to provide several opportunities for private players in the water sector.

Indian Infrastructure reviews the key developments across the sector, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the sector’s response to existing challenges and the road ahead…

Impact of Covid-19

The Covid-induced lockdown in March 2020 led to a halt in construction activities for almost all water and waste projects. By the third quarter of financial year 2020-21, almost all activities had returned to normalcy, as major issues related to supply chain management had been addressed. In the past one year, considerable progress has been made under key government programmes such as the Namami Gange Mission, AMRUT and JJM. The second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country during April-May 2021 posed several further challenges to the sector due to many states imposing partial lockdowns; however, construction activities of major projects were not adversely affected due to the sector being better prepared this time.

As far as revenue generation is concerned, the Covid-19 pandemic has put various ULBs under financial stress, due to which alternative sources of revenue are being explored. The Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC) has started generating huge revenues by supplying treated water from the Tapi river to industries. SMC has been supplying 115 million litres per day of water to local industries. With 99.5 per cent of the sewage treatment plant network being completed, SMC has ensured that only treated water is released into the river. SMC has been able to generate nearly Rs 1.4 billion in revenue through recycling of water. Meanwhile, the Mysuru City Corporation revised the water tariff for non-domestic, commercial, bulk and industrial users from January 2021. The decision to hike the water tariffs was taken in view of the impact of Covid-19 on the civic body’s revenue generation.

The pandemic also had an adverse impact on groundwater levels in various states. Hyderabad district witnessed a huge depletion in groundwater levels during the two waves of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Hyderabad Ground Water Department observed that in May 2020 and May 2021, the groundwater depleted between 0.34 metres and 5.27 metres in depth below ground level. Due to the lockdown, residents could not leave the city, and so they extracted more water during the peak summer months.

The sector is now gradually returning to normalcy, as many states across the country are reviving operations. In January 2021, the West Bengal government relaxed some of the austerity measures that had been introduced earlier in April 2020 due to the pandemic. Departments such as the public works department, irrigation, public health engineering, urban development and municipal affairs are now allowed to initiate new schemes worth up to Rs 30 million. Meanwhile, all other departments have been allowed to introduce new schemes worth up to Rs 5 million. The decision was taken in light of improvement in the state’s revenue generation and a decline in Covid-19-related costs.

Technology uptake

In the post-Covid world, there has been significant growth in the deployment and penetration of IT in the routine activities of ULBs. Digitalisation has gained traction across the sector, as many activities are now being carried out remotely. Meanwhile, internet of things (IoT)-powered smart waste management solutions are being introduced by ULBs to increase focus on improving the total efficiency of waste collection and recycling.

In a bid to deliver the targets set under JJM, the Ministry of Jal Shakti has recommended the adoption of the IoT-based JanaJal Water on Wheels (WOW) to states and union territories. Monitored via global positioning system, JanaJal WOW is a battery-operated three-wheeler with zero carbon emissions. It also uses an innovative anti-counterfeiting technology-based solution to prevent unauthorised refilling of water and ensures delivery of safe drinking water, complying with Bureau of Indian Standards and World Health Organization standards.

Further, bubble curtain technology is being used for the first time in India to stop plastic from entering the Yamuna river. Geocycle, the global waste management arm of building solutions provider Lafarge Holcim, is implementing innovative bubble curtain technology on the Mantola canal of Agra city, which carries 40 per cent of the city’s storm and waste water.

In Telangana, calculation of groundwater data in six districts will now be facilitated by modern technology. A digital water level record (DWLR) is being deployed to measure groundwater in the six areas selected for the pilot project. Groundwater will be measured for the first time in these six areas with this approach. Earlier, groundwater department officials used to go to each area once a month to calculate the water level. DLWR measures groundwater every six hours using technology that uploads the data to a server over a network. Groundwater pressure, along with groundwater level, is measured by temperature and barometric pressure. The project is being implemented by the National Hydrology Project in collaboration with The World Bank.

In sum, the adoption of technology has eased operation and maintenance activities for local governments during the pandemic and has helped in creating a road map for the water and waste sector towards a sustainable future.

The road ahead

The Covid-19 pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges to the water and waste sector, due to which ULBs across the country have had to change their methods of operation. Civic bodies in major Indian cities have been leveraging technological tools in order to adapt to the new ways of carrying out routine operations. New and advanced remote monitoring systems and solutions for asset and workforce management have been adopted, as many of the operations of water utilities are being carried out remotely.

Going forward, the trend of technology adoption is expected to continue, as advanced technological tools not only assist ULBs in addressing Covid-19-related issues but also ensure efficiency in operations.