A Critical Challenge: Integrated approach essential to ensure water security

Vikas Aggarwal, Partner, EY, with Pankajkumar Londhe and Mrudula Patil, EY

Water, being the most abundant natural resource on the planet, is the core of sustainable development and is critical for healthy ecosystems, food and energy production, industries, households, and other activities. According to the European Investment Bank, although water covers 70 per cent of the Earth, less than 3 per cent of the planet’s water resources are fresh water, and only around 1 per cent of that is easily accessible. This highlights the shortage of freshwater resources and the need for its conscious use now and in the future.

Rapid urbanisation and economic growth have added to the pressure on freshwater reso­ur­c­es, resulting in a rise in water scarcity in most parts of the world. Currently, 36 per cent of the world’s population lives in water-scarce regions. According to NITI Aayog, urban areas currently accommodate over 50 per cent of the global population, and by 2050, it is expected that 70 per cent of the population will reside in urban cities. India, being one of the most populated countries in the world, has 35 per cent of its population concentrated in urban centres. Ad­ditio­na­lly, the impact of climate change is evi­dent through extreme droughts and floods in most parts of the country. Considering the exis­ting trend of freshwater resource exhaustion and rising demand, wastewater reuse and recycling pro­vide a sustainable and efficient sol­ution. In India, wastewater generation is estimated at 39,604 million litres per day (MLD) in rural re­gions while in urban areas, it has been estimated to be 72,368 MLD in 2020-21. At the heart of India’s unprecedented growth story lies a critical challenge — the management of its water resources.

Trends shaping the sector

India is witnessing a seismic shift in the water and wastewater sector, driven by diverse trends that mirror the country’s dynamic landscape. Exponential population growth, rapid ur­banisation and expanding industrial activities have led to an unprecedented surge in water de­mand. This convergence of growing cities and industri­es is exerting immense pressure on water reso­ur­ces, necessitating the develop­me­­­nt of robust infrastructure and efficient ma­nagement practices.

In the face of India’s uneven water distribution, overexploitation of groundwater and erratic weather patterns, India is grappling with water scarcity and stress in various regions. This reality has birthed a greater emphasis on water conservation, efficient utilisation and innovative ap­proaches such as rainwater harvesting and wa­stewater recycling. The rise in urbanisation and industrial activities has led to a significant inc­rease in wastewater generation. Consequen­tly, the focus has shifted beyond mere wastewater tr­eatment to embracing wastewater reuse. Ini­tiatives such as sewage treatment plants (STPs) and recycling efforts are progressively mitigating water scarcity and stemming pollution. Other key initiatives include:

  • Advanced water metering for stable data on consumption and pressure
  • Stringent monitoring of treated water quality, focusing on parameters such as residual chlorine and turbidity
  • Cutting-edge leak detection systems to tackle water wastage, and water network modelling to ensure real-time oversight of flow and pressure
  • Sustainability taking precedence, with efforts to minimise carbon emissions from wa­ter treatment processes.

In the bid to address wastewater concerns in rural and peri-urban locales, decentralised wastewater treatment systems (DEWATS) have emerged as a guiding light. These solutions, in­tegrating affordability and sustainability, champion local wastewater treatment and reuse, thus reducing the burden on the centralised infrastructure. This decentralised approach aligns wi­th the realities of diverse communities and their unique wastewater management needs. Additio­nally, the infusion of technology into wa­ter management through the integration of internet of things (IoT), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and information technology-operational technology (IT-OT) systems has revolutionised water management.

Policy impact and progress

The intersection of policy and progress has transformed the water and wastewater landsc­ape, moulding it into a more sustainable entity. The National Water Policy, 2012 provides a co­mprehensive framework for conserving, managing and optimising water resources. By advocating integrated water resource management and demand-side control, it has sculpted water governance and planning at the national and state levels. The Clean Ganga Mission la­un­ch­ed in 2014 envisions the revival of the Ganga through pollution control, ecological fl­ow pre­servation, sustainable water re­so­urce usage, etc. The mission has catalysed the constructi­on of wastewater treatment plants, sewerage infrastructure and pollution control measures along the Ganga River. Furthermore, initi­atives such as the Atal Mission for Rejuve­na­tion and Urban Transformation are elevating water supply, sanitation and wastewater management in both urban and rural settings. Si­mul­­taneously, the Jal Jeevan Mission, launch­ed in 2019, is pro­viding piped water supply to rural households, promoting local water sources and community involvement.

The National Policy on Faecal Sludge and Septage Management, 2017 emphasises the adoption of decentralised approaches, public-private partnerships and capacity building to promote safe collection, treatment and disposal of faecal sludge and septage, addressing the challenge of inadequate sanitation infrastructure in urban and rural areas. The focus on ur­ban sanitation and wastewater treatment has led to the construction of public toilets, sewerage networks and wastewater treatment systems. This has significantly improved sanitati­on infrastructure in urban areas.

Unaddressed challenges

Amidst the progress, India’s water and wastewater sector is grappling with a series of challenges that demand strategic intervention. The distribution of water resources remains uneq­ual, leading to regional water scarcity. Over ex­ploitation of groundwater is amplifying the crisis, necessitating a comprehensive strategy en­compassing efficient management, equita­ble allocation and conservation practices. The current wastewater infrastructure falls sh­ort of handling the burgeoning volume of was­tewater. The absence of proper sewerage networks in urban areas is resulting in untreated dischar­ges, contributing to environmental pollution. Therefore, expanding and fortifying wastewater treatment systems is imperative.

As India leans heavily on groundwater for various purposes, its unchecked exploitation is leading to declining water tables and depleting aquifers. The remedy lies in regulating ground-wa­ter use, promoting sustainable irrigation me­thods and initiating measures to recharge aq­ui­f­ers. Water pollution remains a widespread concern, stemming from industrial discharge, un­tre­ated sewage, agricultural runoff and inadequate waste management. Rigorous enforcement of pollution control measures, adoption of cleaner industrial practices and stringent waste management are crucial for combatting this menace.

The water and wastewater sector faces a significant funding gap with respect to infrastr­ucture development and upgradation. Mobi­li­sing funds, attracting private investments and implementing innovative financing mechanisms are pivotal to bridging this gap and ensuring sustainable development. As climate change intensifies, the water sector grapples with altered rainfall patterns, frequent droughts and floods. Integrating climate-resilient measures into water resource management strategies, adopting sustainable practices and building adaptive infrastructure are paramount.

Shaping the future

As India journeys toward water security and sustainable infrastructure, several strategic focus areas emerge that demand proactive measures and technological interventions. The road to efficient water management entails adopting an integrated approach that holistically considers surface water, groundwater and ecological systems. This strategy would ensure optimal utilisation and preservation of water resources.

Addressing water scarcity relies on promoting water-efficient practices in agriculture, in­dustries and households, while also imple­me­nting water pricing mechanisms and advancing rainwater harvesting techniques. Harnessing technology-driven solutions, whereby conventional methods would evolve into dynamic, data-centric processes, is the need of time. Through the integration of IoT, SCADA and IT-OT centra­li­sed platforms, the industry is moving towards enhanced efficiency, sustainability and resili­en­ce. The combination of technology and water management marks a new era of unprecedented insights and reshapes water management, providing real-time insights for sustainability.

In conclusion, as a nation where water scar­city, pollution and inadequate infrastructure co­exist, it is important to adopt a multidimensional approach to tackling these challenges. India’s water and wastewater sector is at a crossroads – a juncture where policy, technology and public awareness converge. To ensure a sustainable future, India must not only confront its challen­ges, but also invest in innovative solutions that leverage technology, strengthen policy frameworks and foster behavioural change.