Go local for long-term water sustainability

To my mind, there is no other sector that has as many complex dilemmas and striking contrasts as the water sector. To some, there is no value or worth of water as it appears to be in abundant supply at hardly a price. To others, getting a glass of clean drinking water or getting enough water for meeting basic needs seem to be a struggle not knowing how safe is the water for drinking and whether the tankers will supply water that day. Take another stark irony. On one hand, city’s water tables are drastically falling and on the other, one heavy downpour is enough to cause severe flooding and water logging; and its indeed a pity that we cannot save or store the rain water to spruce up our water table. 

We are ourselves responsible for this “Catch 22” situation. As authorities, as town planners, as community and as citizens, we have not been sensitive to this vital resource on which not just life, but the entire industry and economy is based. We have not planned for water– its efficiency, conservation, recycling and harvesting – to ensure its sustainability. In order to garner more and more land for real estate, we have ignored the local hydro-geology and bulldozed our natural drains, low-lying recharge areas, the green belts, the ponds and the johads. As the city got more buildings, paved roads, concretised streets, it kept losing its pervious ground surface that could absorb and retain water.   

Traditionally, habitations have conserved and stored local sources of water. Even today, progressive cities around the world conserve local water and involve the citizens in its upkeep by creating picnic spots around ponds, lakes and water reservoirs. Water recharge areas are well-marked and depicted on maps and travel guides. In fact, cities are even using technologies to convert sewerage water for drinking purpose. (Singapore supplies sewerage treated water to homes and its citizens drink that water directly from the taps). We instead have increased our reliance on long-distance water transfers from rivers and fresh water sources. Our low-lying areas, ponds and johads have dried up, levelled up for land use or converted into waste dumps.      

Gurugram is largely dependent on water from Yamuna River and groundwater. Since water from the river is brought from long distance – it is chanelled through the Western Yamuna Canal near Sonepat and then through the 70-km Gurgaon Water Supply Canal from Kakaroi village to Basai in Gurugram – Gurugram loses nearly half of its water due to poor storage and distribution infrastructure, evaporation and diversion to nearby areas. More distance from the source means more losses and higher spent on infrastructure. Along with better infrastructure, water metering can improve water efficiency. But despite its introduction more than a year ago, metering has had a slow start and a large section of the city still continues to pay a fixed rate for water. With no financial incentive, wastages are common.

Canal water does not reach the entire population of the city due to lack of piped infrastructure. As a result, ground water has been extracted indiscriminately, through private tubewells and borewells to meet both residential and commercial needs. The reckless extraction has not been countered by proportional recharging. Result: Water tables in Gurugram are falling by 1-3 metre every year. The dip has been particularly sharp in the last two decades. As per a specific study, between 2005 and 2014 water tables have already fallen by 74 per cent. Groundwater extraction needs to be checked by strict monitoring of all the tube-wells and bore-wells. If data on groundwater level and quality for every sector in Gurugram is put in the public domain, there is a good chance that school students, RWAs, councillors and citizens can be involved in monitoring and building up this reserve.

Rain is the most important source of recharge, yet rain drains away quickly in Gurugram and is wasted. Ideally, every single drop of rain should be seized through rainwater harvesting, storage tanks and pervious surface. Recharge structures along storm water drains can be built to stop rain water from flowing out as well as to stop flooding. Rainwater harvesting can be done at rooftops, parks and paved areas. What is important, however, is the use of right technology to ensure its effectiveness.

Besides, natural recharge areas like the Aravalli, low lying areas and water channels need to be made a part of a Natural Conservation Zone (NCZ) and preserved for all times to come. Gurugram had some over 350 small and large water bodies (talabs and johars) that served the purpose of natural water storage. We must prioritise a plan to revive atleast some of them in Ghata, Sukhrali, Sikanderpur and Badshahpur.

More and more sewerage needs to be treated and reused. Just like kitchen waste can be turned into compost, waste water can be recycled and put to use for flushing, washing, gardening, landscaping, etc. Gurugram has set itself a target of meeting 30 per cent of its water demand through recycled waste water. This would mean the city has to increase its sewerage treatment capacity as well as put additional lines to supply it. The best bet would be to encourage decentralised sewerage treatment plants by providing incentives to housing societies. Besides, industries too need to be incentivized for re-use of waste water.  

Lastly, we all can do our bit in conserving water. We can install rainwater harvesting systems at our homes, use low flush toilets, efficient faucets, sprinkler devices to control water flow from taps, opt for a bucket bath rather than a shower or tub bath and disuse pipes for car wash and gardening. In fact, there is a deep emotional, historical connect that people have with water in this country and that should be positively cultivated through dialogue and interventions to inspire people to conserve water. Once the collective consciousness is raised, saving water will be a natural choice. Water will also become an equitable resource, available for all.   

The operations and maintenance of water systems as a function has shifted from HUDA to Gurugram Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA). And while GMDA is planning to put in new infrastructure to improve city-wide distribution, treatment and sewerage treatment of water, it must remember that long term water security lies in going local – improving local recycling and harvesting capacity by activating local citizenery’s connect with water.

They say that we never know the worth of water till our well dries. Let us not be too late in realising water’s true worth.

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