I’m over halfway through my water journey, and I wanted to post about some of the big problems I’ve seen and discussed while here. This is not an exhaustive list, but certainly some of the important things people are discussing.
Where – regional
Lack of information on where water is, where it’s flowing, and how much will be replenished by natural sources, either to the ground or from rainfall.
Where – last mile/infrastructure
Surprising lack of information on the actual physical location of water infrastructure. Instead of looking at civil engineering plans, the general MO is to just dig up the ground and see where the main is. Also, virtually no water metering except in advanced campuses or in pilot programs in cities.
Big problem around leaks and leak detection. Some estimates show Delhi losing 60% of its water in the city through leaks or theft. That’s a lot, but people don’t have a good system in place to a) detect those leaks and b) fix them.
Water quality testing happens on a piecemeal and intermittent basis, so there’s not always a reliable understanding of what sort of contaminants are in which water sources. Also, the information is somewhat unreliable, as some independent groups will come in and test a region for arsenic, while the government will deny there is actually arsenic there.
Both electricity and water are not available 24/7 in most places in India. As such, knowing when you will have either is a big problem. Companies like NextDrop are trying to tackle this problem.
Groundwater mapping is difficult in rural areas because famers don’t want to give up info and don’t want to subject themselves to monitoring by the government (there’s a similar problem in the US). Water and electricity is ostensibly free for irrigation, so why would farmers want to let anyone come in and monitor that?
How much is enough (for farmers)
Farmers either don’t understand how much water is the right amount for crop growing, or just leave the pumps turned on because they only get electricity for a few hours a day. Either way, it is likely that most farmers are overwatering their crops by a large margin.
The also are some perverse incentives in place that cause farmers to want to pull groundwater to grow rice/wheat when instead they could use rainwater to grow something like millet or sorghum. Chiefly, capital and a guaranteed buyer (the government) is available for groundwater/rice combo investments, but neither for the latter systems.
Usage (and prioritization)
Agriculture – overuse
The lion’s share of India’s water is used for irrigation. As such, groundwater levels in productive agricultural regions drop considerably during the dry months.
Water rights and prioritization
Urban areas get higher prioritization for water – they need more because they have sewage systems and need the water to keep things flowing. Even moreso, farmers often get priority for water because they are such a strong political force.
Regional flow and water management
Inter-state water flow has been a big source of internal conflict in India, where one state upstream will choose to build a dam or divert a large portion of a river’s water for their own economic advancement (factories, powerplants, irrigation), and the city downstream will be left dry, or with only highly polluted effluent from upstream. There doesn’t seem to be a great system in place to resolve these inter-state water management issues right now.
Contamination is relatively new…
An interesting revelation I made a few weeks ago – contamination, especially non-biological, is a relatively new phenomenon in India. Naturally occurring arsenic and fluoride are a product of tapping contaminated groundwater sources because the surface water is too contaminated with biological contamination. Other heavy metals and chemicals are a product of industrial waste. Nitrates are a product of fertilizer use.
The human waste factor is huge, especially with a nation full of open-defecation and open-sewage systems. The Ganges, near Varanasi, has levels of fecal-coliform levels sometimes 300,000 times higher than what is deemed safe by international standards. It’s estimated that almost 3 billion liters of human waste is discharged into the Ganges daily.
Building code in big cities like Delhi mandate that large commercial buildings or residencies have zero liquid waste discharge. This law is largely ignored/bypassed, save for a few shining examples like Infosys.
A negative externality of the green revolution (that has helped provide food for India’s exploding population) is the fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide runoff into both surface water and ground water sources. Many areas have groundwater contaminated with unsafe levels of sulfates and nitrates from fertilizer. Rivers and lakes are similarly contaminated downstream.
All sorts of chemicals from untreated waste effluent enter the surface and ground water. High levels of chromium and other chemicals from industry turn some lakes vibrant colors. Waste water is legally regulated but there is little to no enforcement.
Overall poor potable water quality
For the wealthy, water from the municipality or from groundwater sources is treated with an in-home RO system; it’s generally considered unhealthy to drink. I measured the TDS from tap water in most places I visited and it ranged from 900ppm to over 2500ppm. Acc to the EPA, a TDS reading of 500ppm is considered unsafe for human consumption, and most tap water in the US is ~100-200ppm. What is in it? I don’t know entirely, but it’s a lot of salts, hardness (Ca+), minerals, and other contaminants mentioned before. In Kolkata, my skin was salty after taking a shower – as if I had jumped into the ocean.
Spatial and seasonal variability
India, as a whole, has plenty of water per-capita (though this is changing over time and won’t be the case in a few years). The problem in India is that there are large geographic variations in water resources (Rajasthan, desert, vs West Bengal, marsh). More than that, the rainfall comes in bursts in the monsoon season. As such, you get 3 or 4 months of heavy rain, then nothing the rest of the year. Rainwater harvesting seems to be a very attractive opportunity here, which is something I hadn’t really given much thought to in the US (since we don’t have a monsoon cycle).
Electronic city example
A few years ago in the Electronic City, outside Bangalore, the city was without water for a week. A week! So, major tech offices in the area like HP and Wipro had to shut down business for that whole week. The only place that remained open was the Infosys HQ – the campus had enough storage and waste recycling facilities to stay open without missing a step, even for the large population at that campus (~30,000). As such, businesses now see water (and energy) security as a business risk.
Contaminated surface water has driven those who have the money to tap groundwater sources for fresh water. This wouldn’t be an issue if there were comparable recharge – but there is not. So, in big cities like Delhi and Bangalore, groundwater tables are dropping rapidly, down several hundred feet in some areas. Similarly, in highly productive arid regions like Rajasthan or Punjab, the same issue exists – overdrawing groundwater is making it more expensive, and dropping tables are allowing mineral seepage of arsenic and other dangerous chemicals. Some places are even tapping hard-rock aquifers, which is troublesome – hard rock aquifers are ancient underground sources that don’t get naturally replenished. It’s like drilling for oil – once it’s gone, it’s gone.
Rivers are drying up
It’s tragic, in a nation that literally worships the rivers, mismanagement is causing many of them to dry up and stop flowing.
Muni’s don’t have 24×7 water
According to a panel on municipal water in Delhi, not a single city in India has 24×7 continuous piped water. That really surprised me. Some cities are beginning pilots now in small districts, but it will be a long time before this is ubiquitous. As such, residents are forced to drill borewells (dropping groundwater levels) and have roof-top storage tanks.
Tech doesn’t make sense for india
I was speaking with a private company in Punjab selling treated water for a profit. We were discussing their financials, and he kept mentioning how electricity was their biggest cost component. Since they don’t need consistent electricity to power their system, I asked why they didn’t consider a solar-based solution, which would pay off over time and be cheaper than the local utility’s power. I didn’t expect his answer: “Because it will get stolen overnight.” Ah, right.
Another anecdote about solar – I was in a bus in UP and I saw a big solar array on the top of a government building. Unfortunately, it was covered by maybe a quarter-inch of dust and overgrown by a plant. I’d say the array, if functional at all, could produce at 5% its potential.
And yet, public perception is king. Lower-income people (who have some knowledge of their poor water quality) want RO treated water, even in places where it is unnecessary to treat with an RO system; they want it because that’s what rich people have in their homes. This drives up the cost of treated water in locations where it could be much cheaper.
Seems to be a bit of a gap in mid-level financing for water projects. Many people I spoke with pointed to lack of access to capital (at a $1k-100k level) as the reason why a project didn’t get off the ground. I am skeptical that capital was the primary reason, but it’s still an interesting perspective.
As with any emerging market, especially one as big as India, getting goods and services through to the last mile is notoriously hard. And yet, Coke and Nokia and Tata Sky (dish TV) are everywhere. Ask someone in a general store in a rural area (where they sell water filters and solar lanterns and books and food) what their largest seller is. It’s probably Garnier Fructis, because people want to look like bollywood stars. Distribution might be more of a push vs pull problem than a logistics problem, if you ask me.
For any rural water project to be successful, getting the community involved in the whole process is mandatory. I don’t have the data, but I’m sure one would be hard-pressed to find an example of any development project that was just dropped off in a rural village and ended up being successful. The villages I visited in Punjab, UP and WB all had great community engagement programs, with most of the water treatment facilities being managed directly by people using the systems.
Government enforcement and corruption
India actually has very good water regulations, but the enforcement is virtually non-existent (as with most of their laws). Many of these issues can be traced back to a local politician’s eternal pursuit of reelection. Or, a pursuit of lining one’s own pockets.
Education around health, water and sanitation is severely lacking in India. Most people don’t understand the root of disease – they think they get sick because of a change in weather, or because of some karmic backlash. Starting in schools and educating young people on bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins, etc – and what to do to keep from getting sick – should be a national priority.