17 December 2020 | 7 minutes.

India’s urban water security challenge

Ambika Vishwanath
Founder and Director, Kubernein Initiative and Transboundary Water Security and Diplomacy Specialist

Ambika Vishwanath, Founder and Director, Kubernein Initiative and Transboundary Water Security and Diplomacy Specialist

As the world become increasingly urban, propelled by a lifestyle change and economic opportunity, almost 70 percent of the population is expected to live in cities by 2050 according to a 2018 report by United Nations. In India, the estimates state that by 2030 urban residents will be over half the population. For rapid urbanization to be sustainable the implication of delivering water to residents needs to be at the centre of the city, state and national level development agenda. In the wake of the ongoing pandemic, as India debates the evolving concept of space, infrastructure, health and opportunity in crowded urban areas, it is imperative that India integrate urban water security into the wider conversation.

Some of India’s cities – including Mumbai, Bengaluru, Surat and Chennai – are some of the fastest growing in the world, both in terms of population and economic growth. Many of these cities are also some of the most water stressed in the country, stemming from a number of problems including access, governance issues and poor quality of potable water. In India urbanization is currently driven by a complex set of factors, where the availability of clean sustainable water is not usually considered an issue. While focusing on the access to water along with employment opportunities, clean air, and health care should be an important consideration, current migration movements indicate that in less than a decade by 2030, about 160 million Indians will live in cities that are water stressed. The Central Water Commission states that in 91 important reservoirs across the country, levels have not crossed more than half the total capacity in the past five years, though owing to a good monsoon this year 103 reservoirs have more storage than the average of the last decade.

A water tank in a mosque in Bhopal City. Small water tanks in religious establishments are used as natural water storage units and also to replenish groundwater, though many have now been paved over or concretised. Photo: Hoshner Reporter.

Water accessibility for all

The Central Government’s Jal Jeevan Mission marks a shift from the earlier practice of community water supply to providing portable water to all households; which will vastly benefit urban slums and poorer urban communities that often depend on community taps or expensive tankers. No Indian city currently provides 24/7 clean water to all of its residents. It is often the marginalised communities, illegal settlements, and the floating population that pay more and bear the brunt of water stress. If the mission succeeds, it could be a game changer not only for India but also provide a model for other developing nations to study and to adapt. The provision of potable water to every household not only addresses health issues exacerbated by global pandemics and localised epidemics, but also reduces the stress on women and girls who oftentimes bear the brunt of lack of access, especially in poorer communities and slum areas of cities.

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