The ‘Day Zero’ stories from Cape Town and Chennai have taught us – if nothing else – that urban water crisis is real and imminent. In January 2018, the city of Cape Town in South Africa announced that it would completely run out of water in three months. Three years of continuous drought had brought water reservoir levels in and around the city to a record low. In the three months that followed, the city strengthened its water management to a point that they averted ‘Day Zero’ indefinitely. This year Chennai too faced a similar situation after experiencing a deficit of almost 40% rainfall. However, unlike Cape Town, Chennai eventually had taps running dry. What can Indian cities learn from the Cape Town experience to avoid a similar crisis and prioritise sustainable urban water management?

The Jal Shakti Abhiyan (targeting water conservation) recommends that cities increase their water reuse for industrial and agricultural purposes. Additionally, to conserve water, cities would need to fix and upgrade urban water supply, distributions and wastewater treatment systems currently riddled with inefficiencies. In most Indian cities, on an average, 39% of the water is lost before it reaches our homes. Old and crumbling distribution networks with leaks, water theft fed by growing inequity, lack of finance for operation and maintenance, lack of water pricing, etc. make matters worse for water utilities. To build water secure cities, India would first need to draw inspiration from good water governance and management practices that were set in place in Cape Town even before the water shortages began.

First, Cape Town has for a long time demanded great accountability from its water utilities. Accountability, is a primary tenet of good governance, and, in broader terms, of a democracy. In terms of access, Cape Town’s Water and Sanitation Department had successfully connected all formal households to a metered water connection with sufficient water flowing in – a discernible indicator of an accountable water utility. Further, in Cape Town, water utilities are responsible for poor performance in service delivery, and there are incentives for those with a good scorecard. Hence, it was hardly surprising that Cape Town leapt to action immediately in the face of crisis, given the accountability the utility held in the eyes of the administration, and consequently, the public.

Second, the city deployed innovations in water supply and demand management through technology and communications. Water management devices and stringent restrictions were deployed to limit water supply to households. The promise of free water of 6000 litres per month for households was removed for non-indigent households. In order to get consumers to value the water they use and promote judicious usage, water tariffs were raised significantly during the crisis. Innovative public communications including websites displaying dam water levels, advertisements highlighting tips on water savings, and a water map helping households check their consumption in real-time, also helped significantly to raise citizen awareness on coping with the crisis.

Third, proactiveness of the water utility set the stage for greater collective action from all stakeholders, especially consumers. Before the water shortages, Cape Town’s citizens had already been encouraged to report water leaks and sewer blockages, along with raising queries related to billing and consumption issues. In 2018, citizens helped deal with the crisis by limiting their water consumption to 50 litres per capita per day. Also, hotels and businesses encouraged their guests and employees to cut down water usage.

Lastly, the presence of developed data monitoring systems was crucial in tying all these efforts together. The city currently handles crucial data from more than 130 reservoirs, almost 700 pump stations, 17,600 kilometers of pipelines and 13 water treatment plants. Since 2010, an automation-led and web-based monitoring system called the Data Integration and Monitoring Systems (DIMS) has been in place. During the crisis, DIMS ensured that water managers were equipped with access to data on water sources. Moreover, smart metering provided them with critical information on consumption patterns. Cape Town demonstrated that ‘what gets measured, gets managed’.

Indian cities have immense scope to improve on all fronts of water management and security. While Cape Town’s water management was supplemented with some good rains later, closer home Chennai continued to reel under a dry spell for a long while. India needs to adapt to such glaring climate uncertainties as well. While bridging water access gaps should be prioritised, empowering water utilities will be paramount for cities to become water-secure. The government must also focus on incentives for water utilities to achieve improved service delivery and also enable investments for newer and advanced water management technologies. Further, utilities must convince urban water users on the importance of water savings via effective communications.

We need not wait for crisis to loom at our doorstep to learn from Cape Town. Cape Town displayed resilience and readiness. Indian cities too need to be equipped with a resilient water management regime ready to tackle challenges posed by rapid urbanisation, environment degradation, and an uncertain climate.

Views are personal.

Kangkanika Neog is a programme associate at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), an independent not-for-profit policy research institution. She works on urban water resources management and policy.

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