Inside Odisha's Efforts To Get 24x7 Clean Drinking Water To Its Cities
If you happen to be thirsty in Odisha's coastal city Puri, you could go to any nearby tap and drink water without any worry of contamination. At least that's what the state government claims.
Last month, the Odisha government said Puri became the first city in India to have round-the-clock supply of water that's completely safe for consumption directly from the tap. It also said the city now has 100% household water metering—that every drop of water being consumed is being accounted and paid for.
The state now aims to build on Puri's success and expand the project—Sujal Mission—to 16 other cities by 2023.
What's acceptable as safe drinking water can be tricky to define. The quality will depend on the water source, the treatment methods and the neighbourhood where the water sample is collected from. When Odisha says Puri has drink-from-tap water, what that means is it's compliant with the Bureau of Indian Standards' IS 10500 specifications—the acceptable quality of drinking water in India based on over 30 parameters. There are other standards also like the ones established by the World Health Organization or the Environmental Protection Agency in U.S.
That isn't to say that Puri is the only city complying with the IS 10500 norms. In a 2019 survey, the BIS had found that Mumbai, too, had water that was safe to consume directly from the tap. Other cities like Bhubaneshwar, Hyderabad and Ranchi were close with only one out ten water samples failing to meet the standards. Cities like Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Kolkata were among the worst.
Still, Puri's achievement stands out in a country where more than half the population doesn't have access to clean drinking water. According to the Unicef, that's leading to waterborne diseases which cost India approximately $600 million every year.
Providing clean safe-to-drink water wasn't the Odisha's main goal though. It was an evolution of the government's programme to ensure piped water coverage in all urban areas that started in 2017, according to Mathi Vathanan, secretary at Odisha's Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs.
Vathanan spoke to BloombergQuint about how the state government ensures 24x7 supply of quality water, the kind of policy and behavioural changes that were needed, the efforts to study Singapore's water supply model and what other bigger cities can learn from it.
Here are the edited excerpts of the interview...
What kind of water treatment methods did you use to get safe drinking water? How can you ensure that the risk of contamination is nullified?
The truth is the water treatment processes, everywhere, are fairly robust. It is a standardised process. The catch is not the treatment. It is the distribution. When you have hundreds of kilometres of piped network and thousands of connection joints—then each one of those points are potential contamination spots. That is where the contamination happens. The current technologies are good enough to treat the water to drinkable standards. But the treated water, while being distributed, it crosses several polluted drains and if there is a small joint there or if the pipeline is very old, then there could be small perforations and contamination could happen.
The challenge is not the treatment but rather to protect the water enroute and deliver it to the consumer without contamination.
How did you then address the issue of the piped network itself being contaminated?
We did complete mapping and analysis of the network—from the intake well to the treatment and distribution. We scanned the network and identified defective and old pipes, and replaced wherever necessary. Even pipes that may have not been leaking but were about to have been replaced.
Another thing we saw is that usually, it was the consumer’s prerogative to get a water connection. You had to pay for the connection, pay the road cutting charges, then hire a contractor to dig, reach the piped network, puncture it and draw a connection out from there. When you ask the consumer to do all this, they're likely to go for the cheapest way possible. The resulting quality of the job and the workmanship could be poor. And in that process, the quality of the piped network is also being compromised. And that connection could act as a contamination point all along. By leaving it up to the consumer, you can end up having thousands of potential danger points like this.
Realising that threat, we rewrote the policy to say that consumer connection is also the responsibility of the state government. Water connections are now tendered and executed under our supervision where we engage qualified contractors and workers, using standardised materials.
What kind of monitoring mechanisms are in place to track if there are any potential contamination spots in the water network?
How many pipes are leaking, how many pipes are perforated—these are particularly hard things to track because majority of the pipeline assets are underground. Leakages won't get noticed for several months till the water actually starts showing up on the surface. If we want to ensure 24x7 water supply, it also means the risk of 24x7 leakage. That's an apprehension that stops many public authorities from supplying 24x7 water.
We have deployed smart water management systems to tackle that. Every few hundred metres we have attached sensors on the pipe to sense the pressure and velocity of water flow. Those are collected remotely and monitored. If there is a difference in the flow between two sensors, we would know exactly which part of the network there has been a problem. We used technology extensively and have developed our own software. Each pipeline asset is electronically connected and monitored.
Puri has also achieved 100% water metering, another first in the country. Why was this important? Can you elaborate on its relevance?
We're taking so much care of the quality and quantity, then it's your responsibility to ensure water is not wasted. How will you bring that accountability from the part of the public, unless you pay for it? That can only be ensured if you make the people understand how much effort the government has taken to bring that high-quality water to their homes. You have to pay for it, only then you will value it.
That's why there should be a charge for it, but only a nominal one, nothing exorbitant. At the same time, charges will also depend on how much water you use. You pay according to usage. That’s why there has to be a meter.
But wouldn’t asking consumers to pay up discourage them from taking up legitimate water connections?
See, this kind of ambitious programme cannot be done without the community connect. Instead of a giver-receiver relationship, we wanted to treat the consumers as partners. And we needed to bill them.
We needed intermediaries for that behavioural change to happen. That intermediary had to be a non-exploitative one. We have very strong women self-help groups in rural and urban areas, thanks to the Mission Shakti programme. Under that programme, we have several self-help groups. We selected educated women members from these groups. We called them Jal Saathis (water companions). We trained them and they are working with us to help with the consumer level water supply management. They do the metering, generate the bill, serve the bill to the households and collect the water tax. They also transmit consumer complaints to the zonal officer.
They also facilitate new connections, and if there are illegal connections then they convert those to legal ones. Because these women are from the communities and localities they work with, they can bring about that behavioural change. For every activity they do, they are provided an incentive. They earn between Rs 5,000 to Rs 25,000 per month depending on the area.
Besides, we also don’t penalise illegal connections. We don't file police complaints; we just regularise them as a new connection. We are not looking to antagonise citizens. They cannot have taken an illegal connection on their own, unless they were helped by an official on the grassroot level. That's okay. Let us forget the past. Regularise the connection, and get the safe, good quality water officially from now on.
Real-time water quality is also be displayed at public places through screens to ensure public confidence.
Are there any other cities or urban water supply systems that you looked at before you implemented this in Puri?
We were not sure about whether it was doable or not. Because there was no prior experience, no Indian city to look up to and learn.
We didn’t have a precedent. We were very skeptical.
We had to send our engineers to Singapore, to their water authority and we organised a tailor-made programme for our people, only for Odisha. We learnt their basics and studied that technology. Our team came back and worked on customizing and contextualising that system for Odisha.
Then we implemented this in Bhubaneshwar and Puri. We included slums in our pilot and one of them was also Saliha Sahi, one of the largest slums in Odisha. We wanted to implement this throughout the state. The piloting was not to see whether the model will work or not. The piloting was to learn what are the do's and dont's, the best practices for when we scale up.
When they have done it in developed countries, that means it is doable. Maybe we are not at that level yet. So how do you elevate yourself to that level and provide that? We selected areas in such a way so that we get maximum learnings about the project in varied conditions. So that we could fine-tune a model that can be replicated in all urban local bodies across the state. We succeeded in eight zones in Bhubaneshwar and four zones in Puri. Drink-from-tap has been available in these twelve zones since October 2020. Now the entire city of Puri is covered. Only when the pilot succeeded, we had the guts to launch it. We didn't want to announce and then fail.
What is the timeline for extending this to other cities in Odisha?
Two years. By October 2023, we will cover 16 cities, including all of Bhubaneshwar. We have already signed the contract and five agencies are in place. That would be roughly 80% of the state's urban population. We are on solid footing.
Is it possible to replicate such a model and scale it up for larger metro cities?
It isn't like one solution fits all. Demands for cities are different, water sources are different, terrain is different. It has to be contextualised.
The one learning they can perhaps take is that urban problems are best solved by decentralising it. I am a big votary of decentralising the problem solving. By decentralising, you make the problem smaller and doable. This we've followed in liquid waste management, this we've successfully done in solid waste management and now we are doing in water supply also.
Requirement of water is decentralised. Every individual needs it, every house needs it. Every house is a decentralised unit. Then why do we see this as a centralised problem.
Maybe we can create multiple water storage bodies within the cities by harvesting rain water. Treat it and service only a limited area in a decentralised manner. Managing 30,000-40,000 connections would be easier than managing 4 lakh connections. Like building blocks. One block can be interconnected to another block. If one is under repairs, you can supply from another block. Like how you supply energy, through a grid system.
How much did the government spend on transforming Puri’s water supply systems?
Difficult to answer because we have not started from scratch. It was not like Puri did not have any water supply system and we started this. We incrementally improved upon the existing system and brought about last-mile connectivity. It will be very difficult and sort of misleading to give a figure.
Do you think other cities need to put more emphasis on supplying quality water and metering?
When you're aspiring to be a global superpower, the minimum a government should do is to provide quality drinking water. It is already late for us. If this can inspire other cities, I will be very happy. I hope other cities get the confidence from our team. If we can do, then you can also do it. And we are here to support them.