Watering Our Growing Cities

Pune, Maharashtra, India. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

You must have read headlines such as ‘India to surpass Japan by 2025 in terms of GDP’ on one hand, and ‘Regional water wars have started after change in regime for the water in the Nira Basin’, and  ‘Major cities of Peninsular India- Chennai, Aurangabad and Bangalore facing acute water storage’ on the other. This is India’s growth story and its stark realities revolve around water. 

Water is the elixir of life. It is fundamental to agriculture, but equally important for growing cities. Indian cities are exploding at an enormous rate; soon, more than 45% of the total population will be living in tier 1 and tier 2 cities, and the GDP growth rate will owe itself to manufacturing industries and services sector based in and around these cities. Are our cities capable of absorbing such large numbers of people? Is the infrastructure ready, upright, and world class – enough to say that we are living in smart and peaceful cities?

From time immemorial, the most important aspect of any civilization is water. Water bodies have cradled cities and civilizations around the world. However, recently exploding mega cities have rendered their rivers, lakes and other water resources as insufficient for fulfilling their needs. It is only the cities that are located upstream and/or have good rainfall and storage structures that do not face much of a problem. Some good examples are the main cities of Maharashtra: Mumbai, Pune, Nasik and Nagpur.  The Sahyadri and Satpuda mountain ranges act as a sponge and the water stored in dams surrounding them is of good quality. However, any advantages thus gained are lost because  around 30% of the same water is wasted in transmission and distribution. Metered water supply can reduce the loss up to certain extent, but that is not all.

The wastewater which emanates out of these cities is of great concern for the ecosystem and agriculture. An industrial policy promoting compulsory zero wastewater discharge and zero waste to landfill should be implemented urgently. The treatment of urban wastewater and reuse of this water for agriculture can be a great boon.

It must be ensured that there is no tolerance for salt load, dreadful chemicals and heavy metals in this wastewater. Then, this treated wastewater will not harm the soil or agricultural produce. 

Maharashtra’s major cities are fortunate enough to have ample water as most of them are located upstream and have easy access to dams supplying clean water. Further, upstream watersheds have aesthetic value; these areas are popular for tourism and hence are populated by holiday resorts and other human interventions for tourism. Tourists here have increased many-fold, and we can no longer expect the upstream to remain undisturbed after the influx of such a huge (albeit seasonal) population. Hence, applying stringent norms for sustainable and ecologically responsible behaviour to the resorts and tourism industry operating in these watersheds is the need of the hour. These norms will ensure that the water is not polluted at the source and there is no epidemic-like situation downstream due to spread of water-borne diseases.   

There is a good case study on the water supply of New York city. Water is collected from the Catskill/ Delaware mountains and is further supplied, unfiltered but UV-treated, directly to the homes of New Yorkers. This is a good example of natural infrastructure. Is it possible for Maharashtra to successfully use the natural water supply infrastructure formed by Sahyadri mountains in the west and Satpuda/Vindhya mountains in the north for the cities around them? 

Care should be taken that human activities do not disturb watersheds from contributing their water to these natural infrastructures in upstream region. Equally importantly, local biodiversity should be preserved. The importance of biodiversity and its indirect benefits are always long term; one of them is in terms of clean/natural water for drinking. Again, an exploding population and increasing number of tourists flocking toward hill stations and eco-tourism is disturbing the natural biodiversity in this region. The government and local authorities should prioritise strict regulation and clear directives for ecotourism high on their agenda. There is a dire need of “eco-police” trained and equipped to handle tourists and nature with utmost care. 

Water used in cities and industries should be treated up to a level that makes it fit for irrigating parks, gardens and peri-urban agriculture. Rainwater harvesting is crucial in cities. It will help citizens in two ways: firstly, if they are using groundwater, the water will be clear and of good quality and secondly, the wastewater will not mix with and pollute the groundwater system, helping prevent water-borne diseases.  

Droughts and floods in cities are caused primarily due to improper construction and use of water infrastructure. We need to understand the behaviour of urban hydrology and groundwater aquifers. It is unfortunate that modern cities no longer have sinks in the form of lakes for flood water; these lakes can double up as sources of water during drought. Lakes also improve the aesthetics of a city; unsurprisingly, we can see such lake systems in most of the medieval cities of India. Medieval cities did not have the liberty of pumping water from distances against gravity. However, aqueduct systems were much prevalent, and their remnants still exist in many ancient and medieval cities. This shows how cities have flourished and still exist because of sustainable water. 

The ‘Namami Gange’ program of the central government is bearing fruits and showing results. Similarly, we need a comprehensive regional or river basin wide policy. Its implementation must be carried out by respective authorities and awareness must be created among stakeholders regarding resources in their surroundings, their utilisation, and conservation. If we focus on water resources with perspectives of ecology and upstream-downstream impacts caused by cities, we should be able to solve more than half the problems we are facing in domestic water use, because ultimately, water is not only linked to development of cities but also to the environment and people of this country.  

Dr Santosh Deshmukh

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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