The Underbelly Of Delhi’s Water System

The Underbelly Of Delhi’s Water System

Understanding water distribution losses in New Delhi and exploring transformative solutions

New Delhi: The city pipeline network of New Delhi, India’s national capital, stretches over 15000 kilometers. For the water to reach the millions of residents of the city, it has to pass through around 8 treatment plants and 117 underground reservoirs. However, a large part of that water is simply wasted. The losses incurred from it are called distribution losses, and the “lost” water is termed non-revenue water (NRW).

Delhi's Yamuna Khadar is primarily home to migrant workers from Bihar who have sustained themselves for years through garbage collection. Their daily routine commences with the anticipation of the Delhi Jal Board's (DJB) water tanker, which serves as a lifeline in an area where a single hand pump yields discolored "yellow" water for more than 80 families. However, residents lament the irregularity of the tanker's schedule, citing instances of its availability for consecutive stretches of 2-3 days. During such times, the community is left with little choice but to turn to private tankers or resort to utilizing the contaminated waters of the Yamuna for essential tasks such as cleaning and bathing, a practice that has been continuing for several years now.

The residents said there are days when the DJB’s tanker does not come for 2-3 days. It is when they have to rely on private tankers, or they are compelled to use a visibly contaminated pond of Yamuna’s water for day-to-day activities, like cleaning and bathing. There is a single-hand pump for more than 500 people in the area. However, the community members claimed that the water coming from the handpump is “yellow” and unfit for daily consumption.

According to the ClimateSmart Cities Assessment Framework (CCAF), NRW is the difference between the volume of water introduced into the Water Distribution System and the volume of water billed to end-users. In the year 2022-23, New Delhi wasted a staggering 58% of the total water it produced, linked to distribution losses. In 2021, New Delhi recorded a distribution loss of 45%. There has been a 13% increase ever since.

New Delhi's Water Crisis Amidst Unprecedented Urban Growth

Over the past 150 years, New Delhi’s water infrastructure and resources have been consistently reeling under a huge strain owing to its exponential growth into a bustling urban agglomeration. The second most populous city in the world, India’s national capital is projected to surpass Tokyo to be the world’s most populous, with a population of over 37.2 million by the year 2028.This rapid increase in population and urbanisation demands a large amount of water to satiate its day-to-day needs across domestic, agricultural, and industrial needs. Consequently, the city's primary water sources - groundwater and the Yamuna River - are alarmingly depleting, pushing the fragile water infrastructure of the city towards the brink of collapse.

As per Delhi Economic Survey 2022-23, the total daily drinking water requirement of NCT-Delhi is nearly 1260 million gallons per day (MGD). The Delhi Jal Board (DJB) manages to supply around 943 MGD, resulting in a massive deficit of drinking water. During summers, increased water demand leads to intermittent supply and reduced pipeline pressure, particularly affecting areas without piped water supply like unauthorised colonies, non-notified slums, and JJ clusters. This is compounded by issues like illegal tappings, and exploitation by “water mafias.”

“Certain parts of Delhi, such as planned and posh colonies will rarely experience water cuts. They can afford booster pumps, personal borewells etc. Thus, a large part of the impact of distribution losses on the general people depends on the operating procedure of the DJB. Typically, the residents in the poorest localities are likely to be affected more. Some of them are not even on the supply line because they are unauthorized colonies; the distribution system has not been set up there,” said HimanshuThakkar, Coordinator, South Asia Network on Dams, River, and People (SANDRP). He further added that in order to reduce illegal tappings, theft, or pilferage, Delhi needs to expand its water supply to areas where it is not reaching, and ensure equitable distribution of water.

As per a 2023 study, water availability in Delhi households is variable and location dependent. Piped water is not available to 18 to 26 percent of the city’s population, particularly to the residents of unplanned colonies, most of whom do not have in-home pipes. Residents living in such households largely rely on water supplied by community tap, or tanker truck - all of which is costly, insufficient and unreliable.

Delhi’s Water Distribution Infrastructure: What are the Problems?

Water in the capital is filtered through treatment plants and supplied via a pipeline network to residential and industrial areas across a population of 32 million people. On its course, wastage occurs in a variety of ways. The distribution losses in the city result from a range of factors, including leaks, theft, unauthorised water connections, unmetered connections, and the ageing and deterioration of water supply mains.

Water losses in a distribution system can be categorized into real and apparent losses. Real losses arise primarily from leakage in pipes, service connections, and overflows at storage tanks. On the other hand, apparent losses are linked to unauthorised consumption, metering inaccuracies, and data handling errors.

“Long distance of distribution pipe length from water treatment plants to consumers and the poor organisation and management of the network due to limited finances are one of the key reasons for distribution losses in Delhi,” said Suresh Rohilla , Programme Lead at the International Water Association, United Kingdom and urban water management expert.

He added that it increases cost-to-utilities for the Delhi Jal Board, and accounts for the wastage of an already scarce resource that is mainly sourced from long distance transfer, around 150-200 kms, from environmentally retrograde projects in the Himalayas.

The Future Prospects

The management of non-revenue water can increase water supply, lower operational and maintenance costs, and prevent revenue loss. In some cases, strong NRW management can also delay the development of new water distribution networks, due to the improved productivity of existing infrastructures. Reducing global NRW rates by one-third can amount to savings that equate to serving 800 million people.

According to Suresh Rohilla, enhancing water data transparency and accountability of utility are key. He adds that decentralised water management, including in situ augmentation and the conjunctive use of ground and surface water, is crucial for improvement.

He added that the users should be involved in water management from the project's early stages, making water everybody’s business. AdditionallyHe also he emphasises the importance of integrated urban water management, which includes local reuse and recycling, with external sourcing only for the remaining unmet demand.

Efficient leak detection technologies, such as non-invasive ultrasonic flow meters can preemptively identify pipe defects before leaks occur. There are effective technology-based solutions, such as Kerala Water Authority’s SmartBall and Sahara are advanced sensor-based leakage detection technologies. Vadodara Municipal Corporation in Gujarat is also experimenting with sound-based leak detection technology.

“To effectively identify and address water losses, it is critical to implement a comprehensive metering system at key points in the water distribution network. Specifically, bulk water meters should be installed at critical junctures, including the entry point in Delhi, the water treatment plant's entry and outlet, as well as the entry points of various zones and colonies,” Himasnhu Thakkar explains.

“This strategic placement of bulk water meters will enable accurate measurement of water quantities at each location, providing valuable insights into the stages where water losses occur. Currently, there is a lack of such a system, making it challenging to pinpoint the sources of the reported 58% water loss. By incorporating bulk water meters, we can bridge the gap between water supply and consumption levels, allowing for a more informed analysis of water distribution inefficiencies and facilitating targeted interventions to mitigate losses.” he further added.

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