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On 24/7 water supply for urban India

August 3, 2013

In the water sector the name with a number is 24/7 and as in idea it is deceptively simple yet we wrestle with it in India. It means that water should be available on tap all through the day and at adequate pressure and quality. This would mean that there would be no need for storage at individual building levels whether below the ground or on the roof and the use of pumps to stock up on water when it comes and to reticulate it during the time of the day when water is not available in municipal pipes. This is the minimum standard of supply in most developed countries and this is what China is aiming for for all its cities.

In India one of the first experiments to get 24/7 water supply has happened in the cities of Hubli-Dharwad, Gulbarga and Belgaum. Certain wards were selected for their ‘hydraulic integrity’ i.e. ability of the piped network to be isolated and improved so that full pressured water could be delivered 24/7. In these wards so selected, for example 4 wards in Hubli and 4 wards in Dharwad, a judicious mix of poor and rich people including slums were also criteria for selection.

24/7 has since been implemented and vital lessons learnt yet the discourse has not captured the mainstream in India. A recent study by scholars from the University of California at Berkeley and presented in Dharwad revealed some very interesting data and information. For example the quality of water was much better in 24/7 water supply zones than in the Intermittent water supply zones. That the first flush i.e. when water was supplied after a break of many hours or days , had a lot of contaminants especially bacteriological ones in the form of e.coli and total coliform. The study also revealed that the poor were the most benefitted because 24/7 saved them many hours of water collection time and in general delivered better quality of water. A large majority of people actually preferred 24/7 to intermittent water supply. In these zones the quality of pipes used was substantially better and that leakage of water was considerably reduced.

However there were other warnings with 24/7 water supply. The poorest people had an additional burden of cost which could be as high as 6 % of their reported monthly income to pay as water tariff. That poor people continued to store water for drinking and cooking especially if they had to collect water from a common connection and that secondary contamination of water was occurring.

Since these were the first pilot projects ever it is important that these and other concerns with 24/7 water supply be addressed and improved in the subsequent roll out of new projects. For example how are the needs of travelers and migrants to be met if all public stand-posts are to be removed in the 24/7 water supply zones? How are the needs of birds, animals, cattle and nature to be met if the design does not provide for them?

In time to come much more transparency in the system will improve these inefficiencies and 24/7 water supply, safe and affordable to the poorest of the poor in India will become the norm rather than an exception as a pilot.

It is time to learn lessons, incorporate them and roll out 24/7 water supply to urban India. This would be water wisdom.

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