Gurgaon is growing, but for how long?

CSE report on water-sewage management of Gurgaon says the city may soon be hit by the twin trauma of no water and overflowing sewage

Conflicting and misleading data on water demand-supply and sewage generation leaves planning hamstrung

Gurgaon, April 12, 2012: In 2006, the water level in Gurgaon had fallen to 51 metre (m) below ground level. The Central Groundwater Board had projected that if the water table hit the 200 m mark, Gurgaon would be left with nothing but dry rocks.

An analysis done by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) suggests that something like that might happen sooner than later. By 2011, the millennium city of the National Capital Region had over 30,000 tubewells sucking out a phenomenal amount of groundwater (an estimated 70-230 million litre a day), leading to a decline in the water table by 1.2 metre (m) every year.

CSE presented its analysis here today, at a media briefing and workshop to release, discuss and debate the findings of Excreta Matters, its extensive study on water and wastewater management in 71 Indian cities, of which Gurgaon is one.

Fashioned as CSE’s seventh State of India’s Environment report, Excreta Matters is a two-volume publication that provides a detailed examination of the problems urban India faces on water and sewage management. Says Nitya Jacob, programme director of CSE’s water team: “The report maps where Indian cities get their water from and where their waste goes, and seeks to find a sustainable and affordable paradigm of urban growth with regard to water and sewage.”

What’s wrong with India’s urban water-sewage planning?
Everything, says the CSE report. To begin with, our sources of water are depleting -- what little remains, is increasingly getting more polluted and unclean. Unclean water means death and illness – in India, diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases are some of the most common causes of death among children under age five. This also means we spend more on treating and cleaning the water.

India is urbanising, as is the rest of the world. Bigger cities mean more people, more demand for water, and concurrent hike in water use which adds to the pressure on the scarce resource.

Says Jacob: “What it also does is lead to more generation of wastewater. About 80 per cent of the water we consume ends up discharged as wastewater. A fairly large proportion of it enters our water sources, polluting them.”

With lesser water to share but growing demand, conflict and tensions between urban-industrial and rural sectors have been rising. The CSE report points out that agitations by farmers against the ‘re-allocation’ of water (to industry or cities) -- water which they desperately need for irrigation – has led to tragic deaths in police firing in some cases.

The scenario gets murkier with the way India plans for its water and sewage. Policy planning is happening today without any real data on the use of water. The last estimation of water use had happened in 1999: it predicted that by 2025, cities and industries would account for 15 per cent of the total water used in the country. Writes CSE director general Sunita Narain in the ‘Preface’ to the second volume of Excreta Matters: “There is no information… (on water-wastewater management systems in India’s cities). Nothing is known. Worse, nobody is asking.”

The system of estimating demand and supply is rudimentary, and leads to poor assessment and poorer planning, points out Jacob. In all this, finds the CSE report, sewage gets the raw deal – most cities do not care, and hence forget to plan effectively, for the sewage that they generate.

Gurgaon: thinking malls and high-rises, but not water or sewage
Gurgaon is no exception. As per official estimates, in 2021 the NCR township, with a population of 3.7 million, will have a water demand of 666 million litre per day (MLD). From where will it get this water? Even with the upcoming Chandu Budhera plant, Gurgaon will only be able to treat and supply 573 MLD.

Additionally, by 2021, the township will be generating 533 MLD of sewage. But it will have a capacity to treat a mere 255 MLD, presenting the frightening prospect of sewage overflows – literally, a city drowning in its excreta.

What’s more worrying is that all these figures might be way off the mark, as civil society groups point out. An estimation done by the Joint Association of Federation of Residents Welfare Associations (JAFRA) puts the 2021 demand at a humungous 1,080 MLD!

The shortfall in water supply will be met by groundwater, dependence on which will grow manifold. Already, over 250 construction projects across the city have been extracting groundwater with abandon. The estimates vary: while officially, in 2005-06, groundwater constituted just 6 per cent of Guragon’s supply, according to the Central Groundwater Board, almost 70 per cent of the city’s supply came from ground sources

In May 2011, Gurgaon’s plight had drawn the Punjab and Haryana High Court’s attention, which had asked the Central Groundwater Authority to provide clear details of the groundwater situation in the city. More recently, the court asked the Authority to file an affidavit on the action taken.

Sewage data is as skewed. While a 2006 Central Pollution Control Board report puts the generation of sewage at 80 MLD, water supply and groundwater withdrawal figures point to a generation of 130 MLD of sewage. The municipality claims that all the sewage that it collects – about 50-60 per cent of the total generated – flows into the Najafgarh drain and through it, into the Yamuna. Nobody knows what happens to the remaining 50-40 per cent.

The challenge and the way ahead
This, writes Narain in the report, is a deadly spiral. The challenge, therefore, is how can India’s cities grow in a manner in which they use minimal water and generate minimal waste.

The solutions will rest on using the correct technology; making precise cost assessments; planning for cost recovery and resource sustainability (by using meters, for instance); building and renewing local water resources; designing sewage systems differently – and finally, providing that necessary legislative push for our right to clean water.

•    For more on this, speak to Souparno Banerjee at 9910864339,