24/7 water supply revisited
David Foster, Adviser at the Administrative Staff College of India, Hyderabad, is a champion of 24/7 water supply for cities. His talk is compelling and makes us ask and reflect why we do not have 24/7 pressurised water in our pipes. He was in Bangalore recently at a workshop organised for water and sanitation practitioners from all across India in their annual meet called ‘Solutions Exchange.’
Mr. Foster mentions city after city in Africa and Asia, and particularly Phnom Penh, where 24/7 water is available not for the rich as a luxury but to the poor too. The key advantage of 24/7 supply is that the distribution pipes are always under positive pressure and, therefore, even when it leaks, it leaks out. When the pipes is not under positive pressure — that is when pipes are running dry — there is negative pressure inside the pipes and this sucks in water or sewage and, therefore, ends up contaminating water when it flows in the pipes.
In cities such as Bangalore and Hyderabad, water is supplied two to four hours every alternate day. It seems impossible to even remember that in the 1970s, Bangalore had almost 24/7 water supply. Why is it that quality of the service provided deteriorated so fast over time? Why have sumps, pumps, overhead tanks and water treatment devices become the norm rather than the exception and adding a huge burden to house construction? Why do poor people pay the highest price for water and the rich who have piped connection get the cheapest water in our cities? Why is there an outbreak of water-borne disease frequently from polluted water? The answer lies in the lack of investment in infrastructure, the inability to price water correctly to recover costs and to keep systems in repair, the lack of accountability which we place on our utility service providers and the breakdown in governance especially of our water and sewerage.
The result is cheap water for the rich and the middle class, limited access in quantity and quality of the water supplied to the poor, a huge amount of time spent by the poor and especially women in hauling water and regular outbreaks of cholera and water-borne disease again among the poor.
The result also is a hugely leaking infrastructure with close to 40 per cent of the water put into the system simply leaking away either as direct physical loss or as financial loss and euphemistically called non-revenue water.
It results in institutions not being held legally responsible for the quality of water they supply. It results in the consumer having virtually no rights for service either in terms of quantity or timeliness of supply or the quality of the water delivered. So we live at the mercy of the service provider and get water based on the whims and fancies of the staff involved.
The flip side of 24/7
Unfortunately reforms in the water have not been focussed on serving all, especially the poor, and have become a privatisation or private sector participation initiative. Pro-poor policies are defined in a completely undemocratic and non-participative mode. Contracts are awarded to large multinationals whose intentions and reputation are not exactly covered in glory. Prepaid meters are proposed for the low income and slum communities. No effort is made to plug leakages and to target subsidies and take them away from the rich.
These are but some of the problems in bringing reform in the water sector. Unless we get our act together and ensure justice and equity as the fulcrum of reform and accountability of our service providing institutions our water and sanitation sector will continue to flounder holding back economic growth and negatively impacting the health and well being of a large section of our populace.