May 2023

Water resources in India (and across the world for that matter) are under pressure due to rapid urbanisation and rising industrial demand, while climate change is making precipitation patterns unpredictable. This problem is especially acute in India where most municipalities have inadequate capacity, low financial resources and old, poorly maintained infrastructure.

Going by UN guidelines, Sustainable Development Goals include the provision of clean drinking water to all by 2030 and for this, it is necessary to, in practice, provide clean running water 24×7 in urban areas.

Achieving water security and meeting escalating needs will require a combination of smart policy and capacity building to meet future demand by renewing existing infrastructure, creating new infrastructure, and inducting technology across the entire water management system.

It is necessary to find new sources of water supply and to create enough capacity to deliver adequate water supply per capita and to ensure that none of this goes to waste and becomes non-revenue and, therefore, to meter usage and charge for it.  It is also imperative to treat sewage and wastewater from industrial processes effectively, to recover and reuse.

Managing these value chains requires the end-to-end implementation of different technologies, ranging from efficient and sustainable desalination and wastewater treatment methods, to digitalised smart metering and internet of things (IoT)-driven sensors to monitor and detect pipeline faults and leakages. It is also necessary for municipal corporations and other water management utilities to induct IT in order to ensure that collection methods, network maintenance systems, etc. are efficient.

The digital transformation of water infrastructure is key for optimal water network management. Smart metering and digital supervisory controls and data acquisition, and IoT-driven sensor networks offer a range of benefits.

At the policy level, mandates already exist where industries such as thermal power plants, metal smelters and cement manufacturing units must have zero liquid discharge (ZLD) systems, and residences as well as industrial facilities must have rainwater harvesting systems. Treatment can be undertaken through methods such as ultrafiltration, reverse osmosis, crystallisation and fractional electrodeionisation.

It is also necessary to improve the financial conditions and monitoring systems of municipalities. This extends far beyond water management of course. But the transformation of the water sector is impossible without efficient urban local bodies (ULBs) that can audit and manage their own cash flows and raise more resources as needed.

Some policy change is visible with the AMRUT framework. GIS-based master plans have been prepared for 152 cities under AMRUT using common digital geo-referenced base maps and land use maps. The use of SCADA is also becoming prevalent across sewage treatment plants. ZLD mandates are applicable to new industrial facilities and most parts of the nation now have rainwater harvesting mandates. Coastal cities in Tamil Nadu and Gujarat are utilising desalination to tap seawater resources.

The principles of a circular economy are also penetrating the planning and distribution systems of large industries, water utilities and ULBs for recycling and reusing wastewater. Still, less than 50 per cent of wastewater is currently treated and very few ULBs offer 24×7 services. This needs to improve on a war footing. There is ample opportunity for the private sector to participate in this transformation and to drive it.