Smart Urban Water options: Harvest rainwater, Protect water bodies

Municipal water supply systems in India are struggling to meet the demands of the burgeoning population in cities. Rapid urbanisation is increasing the freshwater demand for different purposes. Ground water being used to meet water shortages has fallen to dangerously low levels. The solution to the urban water crisis lies in harvesting rainwater and reviving local water bodies and wetlands which can store the water and help replenish ground water. It is also imperative that water is used judiciously and leakages in the distribution system are plugged.

Scarcity in water supply: Municipal agencies are struggling to supply water as water levels in reservoirs are plummeting because of the deficit rainfall in 2015. For instance, as of Jan 2016, the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) has suspended accepting applications for new supply connections until the onset of monsoon. To tide over the water shortage, the NMMC has disconnected many illegal connections, many in slum areas. It is also taking measures to prevent theft and plug leakages to bring down distribution losses which are currently 19% of the water supplied.


Due to increasing demand for water and supply shortages from centralized water distribution systems, water is being sourced by tapping the ground water. Over 50% of water demand in urban India is met by ground water. Water tanker businesses have come up in many cities which peddle ground water pumped out illegally from bore wells over exploiting water aquifers in the process. Individual households also tap ground water. See this post from SANDRP for details of the state of ground water in India. Here are some key urban groundwater issues.

Scarcity: According to the CGWB, around 39% of the wells are showing decline in ground water level.  2015 saw a 14% deficit in southwest monsoon increasing the dependence on ground water. The week monsoons also failed to sufficiently replenish the ground water.


In July 2015, it was reported that Vadodara was headed towards a serious drinking water problem. With increase in high-rise buildings, drinking water demand of the city has increased which is majorly being met through ground water, leading to exploitation of ground water. Bore wells in the city have gone as deep as 450 feet in few areas with an average depth of 150 to 200 feet. Concrete carpeting and absence of initiatives to promote rainwater harvesting have led to depletion of groundwater at much higher rates than is sustainable. As a result, the quality of groundwater in the city is fast deteriorating, as revealed by a study by the Gujarat Ecological Society. The total dissolved solids, salinity and fluoride content in the city’s water table are steadily increasing as bore wells are going deeper. There is also the risk of saline water seeping into the ground water which would be hard to reverse.

Alarming depletion of groundwater table ranging from 6.83 ft to 24.57 ft in most parts of Telangana has strained the drinking water sources as of Feb 2016.  Official sources admitted that drinking water scarcity is likely to stare at more than half of the State before March-end itself due to the deficit in annual average rainfall until end of January taking a heavy toll on the groundwater table as well as on water bodies such as tanks and reservoirs.

Pollution: Ground water quality monitoring by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) has indicated that the ground water at many places is contaminated by Fluoride, Nitrate, Arsenic and heavy metals such as Lead, Chromium and Cadmium. If heavy metals enter the groundwater, they can at best be diluted but can never be removed. Polluted water in lakes, rivers and other water bodies and also leachate from cesspools and waste dumped on land contaminate the groundwater.

Precious groundwater is being rendered unusable at many places because of unregulated pollution from industries and urban garbage dumps. One such instance is the groundwater pollution in Aravalis, which is being caused by huge amount of untreated waste being dumped at defunct waste treatment plants meant for Gurgaon and Faridabad. The Haryana government has now identified a landfill site in Aravalis for garbage generated in Gurgaon and Faridabad which is a bad idea as the Aravalis function as a major water recharge zone.


Unplanned Urbanization: Planned urban development is the need of the hour to safeguard the ground water recharge mechanisms. Water bodies, including rivers, ponds, marshes, lakes and other wetlands and flood plains as also forests, which help ground water recharge, have been destroyed or gobbled up by encroachments and urbanization blocking the natural recharging of aquifers. Real estate projects are coming up on and along flood plains of rivers such as in the case of Greater Noida and the Yamuna Expressway. Underground constructions of basements are severely affecting the groundwater hydrology. During de-watering of flooded basements, huge amounts of groundwater is simply pumped out and discharged into drains.

The NGT appointed a commissioner to prepare a report on the massive concretisation of Ghaziabad (Uttar Pradesh), which has witnessed a fall in the ground water level of over 3 metres in the span of 5 years making it a ‘critical area’ as per the CGWB. Various construction projects are reportedly exploiting groundwater.

Efforts by the government: As per new guidelines issued by the CGWB in Nov 2015, ground water abstraction is permissible only for government water supplying agencies and for domestic use where public water supply system does not exist in the notified areas. Water meter installation is mandatory in case the abstraction is done other than by an individual household. However, enforcement of such groundwater usage norms is a challenge. CGWA or CGWB have very poor track record. Implementation has been difficult in Gurgaon district where extraction of ground water has been prohibited by a series of notifications since 2000. However, most of Gurgaon depends on illegal borewells for water supply and the CGWB has itself reported that the extraction of groundwater continues to be high in some parts of the city. 

In a typical case of playing the blame game by government authorities, Delhi’s water minister Kapil Mishra said that Delhi’s groundwater is made unfit for consumption by dirty water seeping into the ground from industries. But, he said, Delhi Jal Board or Delhi government had no mandate over the problem and the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the CGWB were responsible for it. This was not really correct since DJB regulates groundwater use in Delhi, and could certainly raise the issue through various forum including judicial actions. Delhi Pollution Control Committee under Delhi Government that can look into this issue.

While rain water harvesting is mandatory for every new house in Delhi with a rooftop space of more than 100 sqm, most of these norms are only on paper. There is no monitoring to check if rain water harvesting systems are functioning and no agency seems to take the responsibility. More importantly, Delhi needs to target institutional and government buildings as these have larger roof spaces and resources and monitoring their functioning would be easier. These can include all government buildings, embassies, hotels, commercial complexes, multiplexes, malls, railways stations, metro stations, hospitals, colleges and schools, parks, fly overs, among others. Unfortunately, Delhi Jal Board seems more preoccupied with sloganeering rather than targeting such low hanging fruits.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has now ordered that rainwater harvesting be ‘adopted as a rule’ in all government projects and institutions. The tribunal directed inspection of groundwater levels and status of rain water harvesting systems and took several hospitals, malls, hotels and companies to task for not complying with its orders on installing rainwater harvesting imposing fines on some violators. The Supreme Court also issued notice to the Centre and Delhi government asking them why extraction of ground water through borewells should not be regulated and meters installed to curb wasteful use.

Delhi Government, Delhi Development Authority and Union government are also guilty in allowing and encouraging floodplain destruction activities like holding of the private function of 35th anniversary of Art of Living on the Yamuna floodplain. This demonstrates lack of understanding of the crucial role of the floodplain in recharging groundwater, among other functions and the AOL has completely destroyed that – a fact that the NGT appointed committee has also pointed out.

Citizen efforts: Initiatives by citizens and NGOs have shown that while the strategy may vary in different climatic zones, the returns of rain water harvesting are always very high as compared to the simplicity and low cost of establishing and using the system. Installed systems help in reducing the dependence on municipal water supply and groundwater.

Proactive citizens are taking efforts in some cities such as Bangalore, Pune, Delhi to revive and save local water bodies to help recharge aquifers. 

A New Delhi based NGO, Sulabh International is providing drinking water in areas in West Bengal where the groundwater has high levels of arsenic. The NGO treats pond water using filtration technology and has succeeded in mitigating the arsenic problem in the area. The ponds and surface water bodies naturally harvest rain water.

Urban areas have to adopt rain water harvesting to harness the available water, rather than rely on expensive and unsustainable means of procuring water from long distances. Ground water could offer a way out of the water crisis in ever expanding urban areas where the population always outstrips the infrastructure, provided there is sufficient recharge and regulation. Regulated withdrawal of groundwater and local distribution in small neighbourhoods can meet the needs of dynamic populations. However, the government and citizens need to plan and invest in replenishing the water being pumped from the aquifers to facilitate such solutions and prevent drying up of the water table from unchecked exploitation.



Leakages: Leakages in city water distributions are a huge loss of precious fresh water and a drain of finances. According to one source, 52% of Delhi’s water supply is lost to leakage. The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) chairman said in Nov. 2015 that 48 – 50% of the water is not accounted for as it is either lost or used illegally. In Chennai, over 50% of potable water is lost or unaccounted for due to leakages in the distribution network. The Pune Municipal Corporation faces a 30 – 40% leakage in its water pipeline network, which has to be repaired on a regular basis. The city is also lagging in metering of water connections.

According to a study by an NGO, 30-40% of potable water supplied in the distribution system in Salem city is going waste due to leakages. The NGO identified various reasons for water leakages. Majority of the taps were found leaky or broken.  Poor quality of PVC ball valves used in taps also caused leakages. In places where brass ball valves were used, there were issues concerning its theft. Many leaks were observed in newly laid roads. Valve leaks were detected in most of the junctions. Continuous leakages of water on roads resulted in the damage of the roads. At several places, due to leakages there was increased possibility of sewage mixing with drinking water.

Government proposals for conservation: The government is in the process of restructuring the organisations responsible for regulating the use of water resources, with the objective of bringing in greater efficiency, better planning and increased emphasis on conservation of water. According to news reports, the Central Water Commission (CWC) and the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) are likely to be restructured and a National Water Commission is proposed to be set up in their place. Officials said the idea behind the organisational restructuring is to ensure that all water resources in the country are managed in a holistic manner and not separately as surface water, ground water or river water. An effort is also being made to move away from engineering solutions like construction of large irrigation dam projects and towards more sustainable ways of water use. A large number of sewage treatment plants, being built as part of the Clean Ganga initiative that will eventually spread to other rivers as well, will hopefully provide a new source of water that is fit not only for industrial use but also for irrigation and many other purposes. This is provided small, decentralised STPs are set up and their governance issues are properly addressed at the outset.

The government is planning to come out with a new draft National Water Framework Bill – on the lines of the one in effect in Europe. While existing laws on water mainly deal with the pollution aspect, the new draft would enforce measures for efficient use of water. Union minister for water resources Uma Bharti said that a committee has been formed to come up with a law to put a cap on drawing of water from rivers and underground sources and also regarding the quality of water released into the rivers.

Setting up of an autonomous body – the National Bureau of Water Use Efficiency to control and regulate efficient use of water – was also among the proposals to be taken up by the water resources ministry in 2016.

It is hoped that some of these proposals see the light of the day and are implemented to successfully reduce wastage of water. India has been endowed with bountiful water resources. Planning and good governance based on thorough understanding can make water available to every one. This is also demonstrated by Singapore’s success story.

Singapore – an example: Singapore imported 55% of its water for consumption from the neighbouring state of Malaysia, in 1965. Since then, the basic philosophy has been that “every drop of rain that can be captured, should be captured, and every drop of wastewater that can be safely reclaimed, should be reclaimed.” and the country has transformed its water scenario.

Singapore has neither much groundwater nor many natural freshwater bodies, and its compact landmass poses a major challenge for storing rainwater. Up to the mid-1970s, rivers were not suitable catchments, as the large amounts of sewage and pollutants that they carried would contaminate rainwater. With only 5% of land area as “protected catchment”, Singapore started demarcating a large number of “partly-protected catchments” where prior treatment of wastewater was mandatory before discharge. Rivers and canals were cleaned up to act as water catchments. Storm water drains were separated from sewers for developing water catchment areas in the urban zone. In the 2000s, reclamation plants were set up that treated wastewater to produce water (known as NEWater) to WHO standards. In 2005, the country also started desalination of seawater.

Water demand in Singapore has grown 5 times from the 1960s to 2014, but access to clean water has been 100% for over three decades. NEWater currently meets 30% of Singapore’s water needs, while desalination plants and water from reservoirs each meet another 10%. Singapore has built adequate capacity to reduce its vulnerability to imports of water. Unaccounted for water has been brought down from 11% in the 1980s to 5% in 2015, by far the lowest of all countries.

Like Singapore, India also needs to adopt the motto – ‘capture every drop of rainwater and reclaim every drop of waste water’ to ensure water security in the future. The next post in this series shall focus on India’s performance in the recent times in treating and reusing wastewater.

Conclusion: Water needs to be used judiciously. Losses from leakages have to be plugged and unaccounted for water has to be reduced. The government and the citizens have to make efforts for conservation. Serious steps need to be taken towards rainwater harvesting which is a cost effective method to guarantee water security. Rainwater harvesting should be taken up on a large scale in parks, commercial buildings, bridges, malls, flyovers and schools. Revived wetlands can provide storage space for surface water and much more recharge, which can be utilized through groundwater extraction.

More than anything, we need to address the governance deficit in water sector to ensure greater transparency, participation and accountability. Today governance is not having any credible norms on any of these counts. The recent episode of how a private function of ART OF LIVING was allowed to destroy over thousand acre of Yamuna floodplain in Delhi and where central and state government functionaries participated, does not show any encouraging sign, unfortunately.

Anuradha uv.anuradha@gmail.com, SANDRP

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