Can individual water metering help Indian cities avoid Doomsday?

Is there any scarce resource that we can enjoy for free or for a fixed sum, irrespective of the amounts we consume or use? If that's not true for anything, why should it be so for water? As Indian cities stand perilously close to running dry, a look at whether water metering can help the cause of conservation

For months now, various studies and reports have talked about the high level of water stress across Indian cities. The alarm bells reached a crescendo when Chennai ran out of water recently, and media ran multiple reports on India’s looming urban water crisis. Many solutions have been proposed but the most fundamental—the need to price water as an economic good—is rarely investigated. 

Water is invaluable; none of us can live without it. And so, historically, we’ve thought nothing about how we use it. Government after government, with a monopoly over the supply of water, has tried to control water supply. Not its demand. What if we flipped the model? 

Recently, a water committee of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) filed a report titled ‘Towards Equitable and 24×7 Water Supply for Greater Mumbai’. It carries a few valuable suggestions such as 24X7 water supply and a volumetric rate for each flat instead of a bulk water meter for an entire residential building. What does it mean?

‘Pay Per Use’ explained

Water metering is the process of measuring water use. While individual/per flat water meters are uncommon in India, some cities use bulk water meters that measure the full water consumption of a residential or a commercial building. A volumetric rate for each flat, on the other hand, brings the focus on individual water meters and therefore, individual consumption. It overturns the possibility of two different residents — a judicious user and another who leaves his taps leaking — paying the same amount for consuming different quantities of water. 

The question is when we don’t enjoy this luxury for any other resource that’s widely touted to be nearing depletion, why should water be any different? 

The new BMC report also insinuates a departure from the government’s time-based rationing policy that supplies water to households for a certain period of time—say, 6.30 to 7.30 am. It’s a welcome move as studies have found that time-based rationing doesn’t compel a judicious use of water but allows those who have the resources to hoard water and then use it carelessly.

Water metering, therefore, is the surest way to measure—and then pay for—your actual usage. Meters bring “fairness”, argues, Kasturi Rangan, the CTO of SmarterHomes that provides smart metering solutions. “You start paying for what you use and are thus incentivised to conserve water.” Rangan has not only seen consumption fall by 45% once people start to measure their usage and pay according to their consumption, but also an increased willingness and commitment towards conservation and reuse through rainwater harvesting.

Mere trickles

Water metering often brings concerns of high tariffs to the fore, but what is overlooked is the fact that we’re indirectly paying very high costs for water supply, anyway. At the moment, in Mumbai, as in other cities, the price of water consumption is heavily subsidized. Mumbai residents are currently paying ₹5.22 for 1000 litres of water. But this price doesn’t take into account the various unseen costs that accrue while pumping or supplying water, or the numerous schemes that governments plan to improve water supply. 

In the past 10 years, for instance, Mumbai’s civic body has launched projects worth Rs 4000+ crore to provide 24/7 water supply but most have not been executed. Citizens are not directly footing high water bills but it’s their collected tax money that eventually—and inefficiently—funds these projects. When citizens don’t directly pay for water, it’s easier for the government to get away with shoddy service than it would have been if a fat bill slid in every month. 

But isn’t water a human right? 

According to S. Vishwanath, Advisor, Biome Trust, a certain slab (say 50 litres a person a day as followed by Cape Town) is a human right. “Governments must provide this to each citizen whether it’s through piped water connections in apartments or public taps for those in informal settlements,” he says. But beyond this, people should pay for how much they use. As we’re treating water as an economic good, it’s also important that citizens are free and have the choice to decide where they get water for their additional use from. 

After the 50 litres, “people should be able to move to their own rainwater harvesting systems, use treated water or purchase water from private suppliers,” S. Vishwanath adds. Regardless of the supplier—metering can allow a fair breakup of costs and therefore judicious usage.

The Karnataka Government has attempted 24X7 water supply and metering in some parts—with special incentives for the economically weaker to become metered. A World Bank study of Karnataka’s Urban Water Sector Improvement Project finds that an efficient metered system with no leakage can actually help water reach people’s taps at lower costs. 

Metering, in fact, can go beyond piped supply to borewells, as well. When it comes to private sources of water, especially borewells, experts believe that water meters can measure how much water is drawn and impose caps. But it’s a task almost impossible to monitor or implement—not just in urban areas but across the country.

Going beyond urban

The question of water conservation often looms over cities, even when these urban areas, S Vishwanath believes, are the most productive users of water. “If you look at one hectare of sugarcane, it takes billions of litres of water. Urban areas use a fraction of it. And in what’s used, 80% returns as waste water which can actually be used for agriculture. Cities, then, only have a 20% net consumption,” he says. 

That the responsibility of conserving and paying for water rests only with urban residents might be shortsighted but as taps run dry in cities, those who live in cities might be compelled to lead the way in metering, pricing and therefore, water conservation.

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