For the first 4 years of my life we lived in Jaipur, the capital city of the desert state of Rajasthan. The Thar desert was never too far – big clouds of fine sand would blow into our home, my mother spent a great deal of her time dusting furniture, opening and shutting windows at specific times of the day to let in the cool breeze while shutting out the hot winds and the sand. But respect for water is the most defining legacy of living close to the desert in those early years. Our cooking and eating utensils could either be cleaned with sand or water. My mother grew up in the water-rich city of Lucknow with the beautiful Gomti river flowing through it, sometimes flooding and bringing us strange gifts with the floodwaters. So my mother could not imagine not using water to wash the dishes while cleaning with sand was quite normal for our neighbors. My father spent his Sundays maintaining and repairing the channels that took the kitchen and bath waters to filtration pits and then onto our garden which was always verdant with flowers and fruits. We had a small sunken pond to collect rainwater which kept the subsurface moist. The tank was surrounded with vegetation and even allowed us to have a small lawn. We received piped water from the municipality at specific times and we used it with great care. In the 1970s the population of Jaipur was 600,000, today it’s over 4 million. Living with nature, using water sparingly, saving every drop and reusing water was our way of life then. Today this much larger metropolis craves for 24 X 7 water supply and has over the last years almost exhausted all its groundwater reserves. With loans from the ADB and the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation, the construction of a dam and pipelines that bring water to the city from 120 km away, were fast tracked. As cities grow and aspirations change, water is extracted from deeper and further away, creating parched hinterlands around major cities.
The city of Hyderabad, in the deccan plateau region of India was our home for the next 10 years. Here too water was very scarce – we had a well and pumped up water from it for much of the year, monitoring and adapting our use very carefully. In summers the well would often go dry. Then we relied solely on the municipal piped water supply which we received a couple of times a week for a few hours. The pressure was so low that the water had to be hand-carried from the ground floor to our first-floor residence. As a 5-year old I had my own little flasks and buckets to carry water for our plants. We grew roses and jasmine and basil in large planters that lined our terrace, once again re-using much of our kitchen water. We could have installed a pump on the municipal water pipeline as indeed many of our neighbors were doing. It would have boosted the pressure and brought the water to the taps in our home but my father refused to consider it as that was not legal. So we spent several hours each week carrying water up – everyone chipped in and it was not so much a labor as a labor of love, at least for me as I did this for my mother’s beloved roses. Today, most families in Hyderabad, a city of 10 million, rely on groundwater pumped up from deep boreholes, mining water from aquifers that have held them for decades and centuries. These may never get replenished as many are confined aquifers in hard rock, not connected to a surface source that can recharge them. The city also receives water from a couple of lakes and several dams, the farthest from which much of the water comes, is 270 km away.
Later, I worked in Bangalore to develop the city’s 25-year master plan for water supply and sewerage with the Bangalore water supply and sewerage board, a collaboration supported by the AusAid. We could see the challenges of matching demand and supply, in a rapidly changing consumption culture, combined with rapid population growth and the challenging geographic location from within the entity responsible for water supply. . Bangalore is located on a plateau which makes for very pleasant weather but the water needs to be pumped from 100 km away to a height of over 500 m, quite a technical challenge. This is also very energy intensive - energy costs are 60 percent of the cost of operations of the water supply board. Much of the ground water has been exhausted and many of the wetlands lost over the years. Even with this resource situation there was a strong technical argument for 24 x 7 water supply as it would a) reduce the risk of leakages due to repeated pressurization and de-pressurization of the system b) reduce household wastage of water as people tended to store and then discard the stored water when supply was restored and c) provide an aspired level of service which could improve revenue.
However, the water woes of all three cities continue – water supply using tankers that transport water over long distances to specific users – is now a key part of the strategy to manage demand and supply mismatches. This is the most expensive and energy intensive way of water provision.
My takeaway from these experiences is that we need to learn to live with nature and adapt our resource use to resource availability. This is easier said than done, especially for cities with enormous economic potential that act as people magnets. However, internalizing the full cost of resources that a certain level of service entails and defining the boundaries of resource extraction are important. This incentivizes conservation, conjunctive use of water and enhances the feasibility of alternatives to urban sprawl. Global or national water supply standards, such as 24 x 7 water supply, need to be informed and adapted, taking into consideration the local resource conditions. An approach to ‘living with nature’ engenders a healthy respect for nature. It will become the mainstay of building resilience in a future where climate change will make water availability increasingly unpredictable.