Sustainable water management ideas for post-Covid India

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By Sharad K Jain

Covid-19 has already claimed more lives than any pandemic in recent years. The new coronavirus that causes the disease is a highly contagious and no vaccine is available so far. Hence, the only available option for people to contain its spread is to follow personal hygiene and social distancing norms. The pandemic may continue its destructive run for another 6 months, or even longer. As the governments across the world are fighting the menace along with citizens, many changes will be seen in the way we interact, do business, and carry out day-to-day chores. This article tries to look at the impact of the pandemic on the water sector and what actions need to be initiated to mitigate its adverse impact.

Various countries enforced lockdowns of different intensities, lasting for a few weeks to a few months, as a measure to contain the spread of the pandemic. In some cases, public movement and commercial/industrial activities were halted. In India, a lockdown of about 2 months was enforced which was good for the environment. It resulted in lower emissions of greenhouse gases (CO2, CH4, NOx) and sulphate aerosols. As a result, air quality improved dramatically everywhere, more so in metro cities. Further, the size of ozone hole in the stratosphere has shrunk. However, since the lockdown is being lifted and the normal industrial and transport activities are being restored, greenhouse and aerosol emissions will gradually rise to pre-Covid levels. Hence, in the long run, the global warming and climate change related impact of Covid-19 are likely to be marginal.

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Lockdown period had many beneficial impacts on natural water bodies. Withdrawal of water for industrial uses almost stopped and much less pollutants were released into water bodies. As the lockdown period in India coincided with the harvest period, demand for water from agriculture sector (which is a major consumer of water) was also small. The result was amazing — rejuvenation of rivers, lakes, and aquifers (to a lesser degree as groundwater responds slowly) in a short span of time. Dramatic improvements were observed in the flow magnitude and water quality of many rivers such as the Ganga, Yamuna, Hindon and Vrishabhavathi in a short span of time due to lower inflow of pollutants. There was also significant improvement in water quality parameters such as dissolved oxygen, BOD, and total/faecal coliform.

Some news reports say that the Ganga water in Uttarakhand is now fit for drinking. This goes on to prove that nature has immense self-cleaning and rejuvenation capacity helps in keeping water bodies in healthy condition if large quantities of waste are not dumped in them. Healthy water bodies provide a range of benefits in normal times and during pandemics. Broadly, change in human behaviour regarding water bodies is needed and people need to conserve water at every opportunity. The data from the lockdown period show that good water quality and adequate lean season flows can be attained in the rivers with some efforts.

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Water and personal hygiene

Good personal hygiene and keeping immune levels high are the key strategies for protection against coronavirus. Individuals are now advised to frequently wash hands, take bath, wash clothes and disinfect raw vegetables and fruits. These actions would require more good quality water and will lead to generation of more waste water. Water use for sanitation by majority of Indians is less than the norms at present. It is likely that post Covid-19, water use for cleaning /sanitation by higher and middle-income group will rise significantly and that by the lower income group may rise marginally. Water use in washing pavements and spraying sanitizers will also rise. At the same time, the amount of waste generated would also rise proportionately.

Experts say the requirement of water for sanitization is also set to rise significantly from various sectors, such as construction, manufacturing, mass transport, aviation, health, hospitality, shopping areas, restaurants and offices. Requirements of water from schools, colleges, training and coaching centres and hostels will also increase. In brief, all the places /activities where people are expected to gather even in modest numbers will see high use of water for sanitation. Hence, overall, water demand is likely to rise in the short term, although this may fall after some time.

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Municipal water suppliers need to provide this additional water of desired quality and arrange for treatment of higher amount of sewage. If they are unable to meet the needs, those with money power will tap alternative sources that may not be good for the environment and for deprived sections. Use of RO (or other means) may rise which entails wastage and higher energy consumption. Finding sustainable sources of good quality water in adequate quantity to meet additional demands will be a challenge in many parts of the country. At present, very small quantity of water is recycled in our cities and small towns. Increased use of recycled water (but of acceptable quality) would reduce the use of raw water.

News from business suggest that many companies (particularly those in IT, customer care and finances) plan to allow a significant fraction of their employees to work from home in the next few years. This is likely to obviate the need for employees to stay close to office or metro stations and a section of city dwellers may gradually move to suburban areas. If this happens on a large scale, the pressure on infrastructure, including water would fall in metro, tier-1 and tier-2 cities and more population will be residing closer to natural environments.

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Water management post Covid-19

Suggested steps for better water management post Covid-19 include all the initiatives that have been discussed earlier. Both demand side and supply side options would be necessary. As water demand is the highest in the agriculture sector, greatest saving possibilities are also present there. With the rising population, food security is going to be a challenge for India and water scarcity will make the goal tougher to attain. NITI Aayog has stated that states should start using a water lens while developing agricultural policies and incentives. More crop per drop and per unit land is an old slogan that needs to be revisited and practiced more vigorously. However, water use efficiency in agriculture presents a paradox when assessed at larger (say, river basin) scales because the water “wasted” by upstream users often becomes supply for downstream users.

Vegetarian diets are more water efficient. For example, 2,500 litres of water are required to produce one kg of rice but 1 kg beef requires 15,500 litres of water, 1 kg of chicken requires 4,300 litres of water, and so on. Hence, a shift to vegetarian food items by a large segment of the society can help reduce water consumption in the food sector. However, what someone eats is his/her personal choice.
Industrial sector also offers possibilities for reducing water demand by improving water use efficiency, checking leakages/wastage, and recycling of water.

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Water quality issues

Quality of water in many rivers, lakes, ponds, and shallow aquifers in India is poor. With higher use of chemicals for sanitisation post Covid-19, water quality may become even poorer unless adequate remedial steps are taken. A slightly old report by UNICEF and FAO points out that 45% of India’s children are stunted and 600,000 children under five years die every year (68 every hour), largely because of inadequate water supply and poor sanitation. Sincere efforts are needed to ensure good water quality to citizens. Investment in providing good quality water will have cascading benefits that include large savings in healthcare expenditure.

Making users pay

More funds will be required to provide adequate amount of good quality water and treatment of waste. To ensure sound financial health of water suppliers, price of water should be set by following the “users pays, polluter pays” principle. The prices should be set so that people have incentive to save water. Targeted subsidies can be provided to the weaker sections and low prices may be offered for those who use lower quantities. Water suppliers need to collect water charges to fund maintenance of the system and for capacity expansion.

Since construction of new mega surface water projects is becoming progressively difficult and India is already the largest user of ground water, more attention should be paid to sustainable management of surface and ground water resources.

Future perfect

Broadly, challenges in water management in India are: (a) water availability, variability and increasing withdrawals, (b) water quality and environment protection/ rejuvenation, (c) project construction, (d) water related disputes, (e) water governance and institutions, and (f) additional stress due to climate and land-use cover changes. India needs to invest in research and development to improve water use efficiency across and develop cheaper water treatment techniques using local materials. As India is trying to attract industries from the other countries and these will also require water, we need to find a way to meet the increased demand. Finally, conservation of water and management of variabilities and disasters should be a cornerstone of water resources management in India.

(Dr Sharad K Jain is Visiting Professor, Civil Engineering Department, IIT Roorkee. Views expressed here are personal.)