Why is water management not prioritised for smart cities?

by Ayesha Banerjee, originally posted on January 16, 2017


Water management should be at the heart of all smart city planning. While there is a lot of emphasis on transportation and infrastructure development, water management remains limited to treatment of waste water, quality monitoring, and smart metering in the government’s smart cities strategy.

No clear plans have emerged on how smart cities are to be linked with their water catchments to ensure sustainable provision of water. More clarity is also needed on wastewater treatment, both domestic and industrial.

Ganesh Pangare, regional director, Asia-Pacific, International Water Association, a London-headquartered non-profit organisation, says lakes, ponds and wetlands in urban areas are being reclaimed for building and development instead of being recognised as the critical natural infrastructure that cities depend upon. “Better management of wastewater, so that it isn’t discharged untreated into nature and ends up polluting water sources, would mean that we could reuse the treated water for industry, agriculture and even domestic use,” he says

Cues should be taken from countries like Singapore which reuse nearly all of their wastewater from domestic sewage to industrial waste. The treatment of wastewater is of such high quality that some of Singapore’s drinking water comes from completely treated wastewater.

Copenhagen too has valuable lessons in its integration of wastewater treatment, including natural methods like the use of wetlands and leading-edge technology, to find solutions to its problems. Copenhagen does not release a drop of untreated wastewater into the sea.

Cities need to connect better to water basins that supply their water, and work with stakeholders throughout the basin to ensure better water security. And it is not easy. “This requires a shift in mindset and the way we approach urban planning and management. We need to think and act cross-sectorally and break down the silos between water, energy, agriculture and urban planning,” says Pangare.

Today many water sources are polluted and others are under serious strain. Inefficiencies and water losses in urban water utility systems mean no Indian city yet supplies water 24/7 to its citizens.

An immediate priority of the government should be to ensure better management of water resources, both in the basin that supplies water to urban areas, and in urban areas. Monitoring ground water extraction is of utmost importance. Drought conditions in many parts of Indian have further strained ground water supplies.

India does have the capability to address these challenges through its Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and the Smart Cities Mission. What is important, and sometimes lacking, he feels, is coordination between various departments and ministries – for instance, urban development and water resources.

Responsibilities also have to be fixed. Local authorities have the primary responsibility to deal with wastewater management. The wastewater in Indian cities dumped into the rivers, lakes or ocean without any treatment contaminates the available water resources for both human use and ecosystems.

Treating wastewater to a high standard would provide an additional and vital source of a city’s water supply, and this reuse of water is important to reducing use of traditional sources and for replenishing those sources in Indian cities.

Wastewater also contains other valuable resources. “We can recycle nutrients, metals, plastics and other useful materials from wastewater. Perhaps most relevant, water utilities can use wastewater to produce energy. This is something that it happening around the world, and in India it could provide an important source of energy for our growing cities,” he says.

Investments also need to be made in new technologies to upgrade existing resources. Financing is a major issue. Water tariffs have not changed in India for years, leaving local authorities without the necessary funds to invest in upgrading old and inadequate infrastructure. To increase coverage of water supply as towns and cities grow bigger requires smart solutions to overcome these challenges, Pangare adds.

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