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Water management in rural South India and Sri Lanka

Patrice Cohen
S. Janakarajan

Part II. Different issues of irrigation and social water management

6. Urban Water Supply and Urban Environment

Paul Appasamy

Texte intégral

Intersectoral aspects

1The urbanization processes which accompany economic development have important implications for the allocation of water resources. Traditionally, water was used largely for agriculture and related uses. Drinking requirements were generally small. But the growth of cities, particularly metropolitan cities (population of 1 million or more) require large allocations for water supply. For example, at a norm of 100 litres per capita per day, a city of a million would require treated drinking water of 100 million litres per day delivered to the user, net of losses in distribution, evaporation, etc. Although these quantities may be small in relation to agriculture, the major problem that cities face is that local sources may be insufficient, and transport from long distances may be required. Also, drinking water is required throughout the year and not just for a season.

2Both the national and state water policies place drinking water as the highest priority. However, it is not clear how this allocation will be made in a given basin, where agricultural uses may already be committed. In such a “closed” basin, the criteria for reallocation are not spelt out. Should existing users be compensated for giving up their entitlements? More important, the priorities during years of monsoon failure may require institutional arrangements such as “water tanking” in the future. Intersectoral allocation is still a new concept in India, since the phenomenon of competing demands on the same water resource did not take place earlier. Allocation within the agricultural sector was done through a set of rules, but these did not include allocations to other users often in distant locations, either inside or outside the basin.

3The other challenge posed by urbanization is pollution. Both domestic and industrial uses of water result in large quantities of waste water which have to be disposed of. When there is inadequate collection and treatment, the receiving water bodies get polluted. Pollution in turn could be detrimental to health, to ecosystems and in a variety of other ways. Water quality management thus becomes a key component of managing water resources. Institutions have been created to address these issues. Unfortunately, there is little coordination between the agencies responsible for water allocation and for water quality resulting in problems throughout out the State of Tamil Nadu.

4In other words, intersectoral allocation requires new and different approaches to water management as compared to the historical experiences and knowledge which were largely confined to a single sector, namely, agriculture.

Urban water infrastructure


5Since every urban resident requires drinking water, equitable distribution of water, at least a lifeline quantity of 40-50 litres/capita/day has to be supplied by the local water agency. In rural areas, the focus has been on providing protected water through community systems such as stand posts. However, the rural population normally has access to other sources such as wells, springs, ponds, rivers, etc., to supplement their drinking requirement. This option is often not available to the urban residents, particularly the poor. Hence the water agency has to provide water to meet the total requirements including bathing, washing, etc., apart from drinking and cooking. Those who can afford to do so may have supplemental sources such as wells / bore wells or they may buy water. Access to water has become a critical factor in the urban quality of life / urban environment in most parts of Tamil Nadu.

Pricing and asset valuation

6Urban water supply systems of collection, treatment and distribution involve large engineering costs, both in terms of capital costs and for operation and maintenance. The pricing of urban water becomes essential for the financial viability of the agency, and to ensure that it has the resources for replacement/extension/improvement of the system. Most cities try to cross-subsidize the domestic users with higher tariffs for commercial and industrial users. However, these become meaningful only if the proportion of commercial / industrial use is fairly high.

7It is now recognized that the “asset valuation” of the system is essential if these systems are to be managed properly either by public or private agencies. Many cities/towns with old system do not even know what assets they possess, since the lines are underground. Replacement / rehabilitation / leak detection, etc., require more precise data about the system. Wastewater systems in most cities/towns are at a very primitive level. Substantial investments are needed, which require financing, on the one hand, and user charges / cost recovery on the other. There is a gradual realization that the neglect of the wastewater side of the equation has very grim consequences in terms of public health, river water quality, etc. The National River Action Plan has designated funding for wastewater systems for cities/towns along major rivers in the State.

Urban water institutions

8Urban water agencies have largely been in the public sector:

  • Department of sate government/U T Government,
    e.g. Pondicherry;
  • Specialized agency, e.g. Metrowater in Chennai;
  • Local government, e.g. Madurai Corporation.

9Many cities/town are privatizing particular functions-construction and the operation of treatment plants; pumping stations, etc. The Tamil Nadu Urban Infrastructure Corporation has been helping municipalities to finance infrastructure. The most complex package involving the private sector and various national and international agencies is currently under consideration for the town of Tiruppur.

10Other urban institutions include private water markets through the sale of water by tankers. In Chennai, these tankers are regulated by Metro water in terms of the quantity extracted, but not in terms of the price, which varies with scarcity. Increasingly, communities such as flat owners’ associations, housing board residents, etc., allocate water among their members. Sometimes they incur expenditures for bore wells, rainwater harvesting structures, treatment, systems, etc., which are shared by the owners. Even in slums, a local organization is found to equitably distribute the water provided by the public agency. In some cases, NGOs have also assisted slum dwellers with these water-distribution schemes.

Urban environment

11Water quality concerns remain outside the ambit of most of these institutions. Only the municipal authorities who operate sewerage systems have the technical and managerial capacity. In many areas, septic tanks and open drainage systems for sullage are commonly used, resulting in pollution of waterways and water bodies. As mentioned earlier, substantial investments are required in this sector.

12The neglect of wastewater disposal and solid waste often results in the contamination of water. Waterborne diseases such as cholera, gastroenteritis, hepatitis, etc., as well as vector-borne diseases such as malaria, filaria, and dengue fever, are endemic in many cities / towns. The social costs in terms of treatment, absenteeism, reduced productivity, etc., can be very large. A study by the World Bank indicated that water contamination accounted for more than 60 % of the damages caused by pollution and environmental degradation. The investments in waste management are probably well worth the benefits of reduced damages.

13In coastal cities, the excessive extraction of ground water could lead to intrusion of seawater. Chennai and Pondicherry are already experiencing such problems. The discharge of pollutants in coastal waters can result in the contamination of fish, reduced fish catch, and destruction of coastal ecosystems. The discharge of sewage into lakes, tanks, etc., has also caused serious ecological problems, for example Ooty and Kodaikanal lakes, as well as many tanks and water bodies. Thus, the quality of the urban environment can be affected by the discharge of wastewater or by over extraction of ground water.

14Planning for the water requirements of urban areas requires a comprehensive framework that includes regional intersectoral considerations, infrastructure in the urban area, institutions for management, and mitigating the adverse impact on the environment. Many of the problems that we currently face arise from inadequate consideration of one or more of these factors.


Paul Appasamy is an urban planner who has been specializing in water resources and environmental management over the last three decades in India and the United States. Currently Director of Madras School of Economics, Chennai, he guides research on the economics of environmental damage resulting from industrial water pollution. He has published about thirty articles and has managed twenthy research projects in the areas of water, environment, and urban developments".
Co-authored with Ruth Meinzen-Dick (2001) “Urbanization and Intersectoral Competition for Water” in Finding the Source: The Linkages between Population and Water, ECSP Publication (2002) Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholar s, Washington D. C.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2003

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