Innovations in water management

Thursday, 23 March 2006
Jenny Ifft and Parth J Shah

Adequate and regular supply of water is a serious problem, whether you live in cities, towns, or villages of India. Just think of the rural woman who has to walk several kilometres each day to fetch water and the housewife in a Delhi colony who has to wake up at 3:30 am to turn on the municipal tap. Water reforms are now on the top of the governance agenda. The search is apace for innovative and sustainable solutions.

Fortunately one does not need to look far to find such solutions. Many communities and entrepreneurs have implemented innovative, local-level solutions to the water supply problem over the past couple of decades. Two cases studies reveal how citizens have taken water delivery into their own hands when the public system failed them or did not exist for them. In Olavanna Gram Panchayat in Kerala, communities construct and manage delivery systems for household water. And they have been doing it for more than twenty years! It all began with one enterprising resident in 1984. P Muhammad who had a well with good drinking quality water built an overhead tank and began supplying water to his neighbours. Soon a schoolmaster was persuaded by his neighbours to do the same. The model slowly caught on, and today in Olavanna there are more than 60 water users groups. The typical procedure is for neighbours to form a user group, pitch in the initial investment necessary for overhead tank, pump, and the pipelines, and launch the system. The maintenance and the management is done by one of the volunteer-members, often a retired person. Poorer members are generally allowed to pay their contributions in instalments or in exchange for labour. The initial investment amount varies widely, but a monthly water charge of Rs 30 per household is typical. Once set up, the user group then registers as a cooperative with its own bylaws. The legal status and formal rules of governance ensure their long term survival. The gram panchayat, originally a provider, now has largely a facilitative role and provides guidance and support as necessary. Some of the Olavanna water schemes are funded fully by the members of the cooperative, but many have received grants from the panchayat to help them take off. In some cases, it has given land with good quality water wells. The residents of Olavanna have found a way to make the public-private partnership work. The cost of construction is far lower and maintenance far superior with the partnership than they used be earlier. The gram panchayat has moved up the value chain: it now supports schemes to check the quality of water in these wells by subsidizing water testing at government laboratories. An unanticipated result of their success has been an increase in property values in Olavanna. Residents of the nearby towns and the main city Kozhikode have began to move to Olavanna.. The second case study is of Sangam Vihar, an “unauthorized” and low-income colony in south Delhi. Being an unauthorized colony, the municipal authorities do not supply household water. The residents were left to fend for themselves. Enterprising individuals, many also politically active, dug bore wells, build tanks, and ran pipes to houses. Every by-lane of this crowded community of more than 200,000 people has a water supplier, actually some of them have multiple suppliers. So it is possible to leave an existing supplier and connect the pipe to a new one without any hitch. The households on average pay Rs 200-300 per month for the assured water supply. When the pump of a supplier broke down, we were told, he arranged for a tanker to supply all is customer-households. There is choice and competition—hallmarks of a functioning market. However, most of the bore wells are illegal, a few have managed to convince the authorities to grant them a legal permit. But it doesn’t really matter whether the bore well is legal or illegal; authorities simply don’t have the courage to enforce the law. Once when they tried, the Sangam Vihar residents gheraoed the local police station and threatened to beat them up if they ever touched any of the water suppliers. As the water table continues to dip, the system is going to be more and more difficult to sustain. The water is used not just by the residents of Sangam Vihar, a large number of private tankers are filled there and sold to other thirty residents of Delhi. As it stands today, the Sangam Vihar water delivery system is simply unsustainable. One can draw several lessons from the experiences of Olavanna and Sangam Vihar. The most critical lessons include reliance on micro water delivery systems instead of one mega system and active involvement of communities and local residents in design, implementation, and maintenance of the systems.