By Sharad Bhushan, Head of Linear Infrastructure Design Management, SMEC India
Like many similar events, this year's World Water Week (Aug 24–28) conference is taking place virtually. Convened by the Stockholm International Water Institute, the annual conference gathers scientists, business leaders and policymakers, as well as civil society, to engage on some of the world's most pressing challenges relating to sustainable and equitable access to water.
World Water Week 2020, dubbed ‘World Water Week at Home’, is an important opportunity for engineers and designers across the globe to share knowledge and innovative practices that increase access for in-need communities to safe and clean water – a fundamental human right.
To this end, I have chosen to provide some insights from our recent experience working on the much-needed piped drinking water supply schemes in India's Bundelkhand and Vindhya regions.
Setting the project scene
It's no secret that water is a cross-cutting issue that is of critical importance in India. The country is eager to make progress on significant development challenges, including food security, rapid urbanisation, sustainable rural development, disaster risk management, adaptation to climate change, equitable allocation of natural resources, and economic cooperation with its neighbours in the region.
Also, many freshwater ecosystems are being degraded. The freshwater crisis is already evident, varying in scale and intensity at different times of the year.
In response to the challenges of achieving universal access to safe, affordable drinking water and sustaining those services, the rural water supply sector in India is undergoing a period of significant change, with increasing innovation in different types of rural water service models.
The Bundelkhand and Vindhya regions of Uttar Pradesh, India, are some of the most water-scarce areas in the country. Only around 10% of the rural population in Uttar Pradesh have access to piped water supply schemes. Many residents are forced to walk long distances to obtain water that may not be potable, leading to water-borne disease.
As part of the Indian Government's strategic plan to ensure that 90% of the country's rural population would be provided with piped drinking water by 2022, SMEC, and our parent company Surbana Jurong, were engaged to prepare Detailed Project Reports on sustainable water supply schemes in Sonbhadra.
Site visit for the project
HAR GHAR JAL – "Water for every household".
The main objective of the project was to provide safe, clean water to rural communities in the Bundelkhand and Vindhya regions via piped drinking water supply. As already outlined, the Bundelkhand and Vindhya regions of Uttar Pradesh are suffering from severe shortage of clean
water, and only approximately 15-20% of the rural population has access to the piped water supply. To fill this enormous gap and address the significant health, social and economic issues arising from a lack of access to clean water, the Government of Uttar Pradesh planned multi village and regional water supply schemes to improve water supply coverage and supply every family in the region with 70 liters of piped drinking water per day. Certain project areas in the Sonbhadra district were identified as a priority due to being impacted by disease caused by drinking arsenic and fluoride-contaminated groundwater.
Project approach and strategies
Our scope of work was to prepare Detailed Project Reports (DPRs) for proposed water schemes in 1429 villages with a combined population of around 1.2 million in Sonbhadra district. Sonbhadra is a densely populated area and has an extremely challenging geographical terrain which makes it very difficult to access groundwater. The entire district has been severely affected by successive drought over several decades, leading to significant hardship for the residents and migration to other regions.
Involving multidisciplinary teams, the reports comprised proposals for complex water schemes that include surveying, engineering design, analysing the sustainability of the ground or surface water source, water allocation and environmental constraints. The key challenge was to develop recommendations to a high standard of technical excellence while optimising the per capita cost of implementation and delivering within an extremely tight timeframe. While we did have a large team of local specialists and a long history of project experience to draw on, meeting these goals required a multi-pronged approach.
From the beginning, our approach was based on:
- Sustainability of the system at design, operation and management stages
- Technical and management innovations to deliver the best outputs
- Strict adherence to the prescribed specifications, timeline and budget
This led to specific strategies and techniques, including:
- Regrouping the villages in the project area to re-establish the initially proposed 63 clusters into 16 groups based on multiple factors including source availability, local geography, capacity planning for the scheme components and power availability etc.
- Converting localised schemes to zonal schemes, thereby enhancing operational sustainability.
- Carrying out a Source Sustainability study to identify the surface water source locations and obtaining prior approval from stakeholders based on this report. This assured the availability of water for project beneficiaries in the future.
- Optimising our use of technology: We conducted extensive desktop studies to obtain data and generate a GIS DEM (Digital Elevation Model), which in turn aided in optimizing field surveys. We also designed 10,000 km of water distribution pipelines using GIS design applications and Bentley WaterGems.
- Engagement and interactions with all stakeholders were followed by collecting field and site data to validate our detailed project proposals.
The outcome was that all 16 robust and highly detailed project reports were delivered on time and approved by various committees of the Government. of Uttar Pradesh and the State Water and Sanitation Mission.
Real results for communities
In addition to providing implementable engineering design solutions that will supply safe drinking water to all rural households in the area, the project also contributes to wider social, economic and community benefits:
- Promoting a sense of equality by imprving conditions for women and socially excluded castes and groups.
- Increasing environmental sustainability by promoting reduced/non-extraction of groundwater.
- Easy and economical solution for rural households to obtain drinking water on their doorstep.
- Improved health and nutrition for ~1.2 million populatio in 1429 villages of rural UP.
- Reducing infant mortality and malnutrition caused due to water borne diseases.
- Creating employment opportunities during the various stages of construction, operation and maintenance of assets.
Learnings and opportunities for reform
Reforms in water supply systems in India include gradual movement from groundwater to surface water, using service level benchmarks for performance improvement, universal metering, 24x7 water supply projects and new ways for financing, including public-private partnerships. Enhancing water storage facilities and tap connection within each household, along with affordable water tariffs, are crucial elements for sector reforms in the water supply sector. It is my view that more comprehensive reform is needed in the following areas:
- Inter-sectoral approaches at the basin level that integrate surface water with groundwater, urban with rural, quantity with quality, and minimum flows and ecosystem services with river regulation for hydropower, flood management and abstraction for water supply and irrigation.
- Decentralised and participatory service delivery mechanisms, with a focus on improving customer/user service, enhancing accountability and transparency, and extending assistance to the poor.
- Modern management practices and technology applications, including improved operations and maintenance through asset management planning, and the development of a comprehensive knowledge base and decision support tools.
- Financial sustainability of resource management and service delivery through reasonable charges and tariffs and improved financial management, including removing distorting subsidies and moving towards user charges that reflect, at a minimum, operation and management costs.
Integrated water management is vital for poverty reduction, environmental protection and sustainable economic development. The outcomes are especially significant for those whose access to reliable water supply is limited due to gender, caste, ethnicity and geographical remoteness.
As one of the largest surface water schemes in Uttar Pradesh, this project offered a unique opportunity to gain learnings at scale that can be applied to a broad range of future projects. At a broader sectoral level, there are reforms to be considered that could improve water system performance, reduce water-related shocks, and increase resilience and adaptation to growth and change.