Thursday, September 30, 2004

Meeting Bangalore's future water needs

Navigating Complex Water Currents
Financial Express

Greater Bangalore is approximately 500 sq km, jurisdictionally composed of the central city, surrounded by a constellation of eight smaller municipalities where much of Bangalore’s residential and IT-led business growth is coming from. A quick drive through these outer neighbourhoods is all it takes to see that all is not well with IT city: the roads are barely discernable and garbage dumps pepper the landscape. But the critical gaps are invisible: most of these municipalities do not have piped water and sanitation facilities.

The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) has an ambitious Rs 700-crore infrastructure plan, of which it expects Rs 120 crore from the users themselves. Unfortu-nately, citizens are turning their thumbs down, despite the crying need for water.

The government is now attempting to give citizens a formal role in the design, implementation and subsequent service delivery. At grassroot meetings to discuss these ideas, the questions fly thick and fast: will the project be done on-time, why do citizens have to pay, where will the water come from, where will the sewage treatment plants be located, when will the roads be resurfaced, what role does the local municipality have in all this, and so on. The authorities cannot have all the answers, because the delivery of water and sanitation is caught in the complex web of inter-institutional jurisdictions, federalist democracy, and sustainable development debates.

It is too early to predict how the Bangalore project will turn out, but this same script is playing across the length and breadth of the country. Urban India alone needs more than Rs 60,000 crore of water and sanitation infrastructure, and barely 15% of this can come from government sources. India’s sanitation coverage is currently only 30%, placing it close to the bottom of the global pile, along with Angola and Yemen in the list of countries with the least sanitation coverage. Over the past 20 years, the evidence of the centrality of water in human development and poverty alleviation has grown more compelling, resulting in the 2000 UN resolution to halve the population without access to drinking water and adequate sanitation by 2015, among the eight goals in the UN Millenium Declaration.

However, delivering on these goals has meant that a hitherto antagonistic group of stakeholders make peace with each other because water represents among the most complex issues facing the global community today. For one, despite its abundance, only 2.5% of the world’s water is freshwater and 70% of this is in the polar icecaps and glaciers. Second, the emergence of new political arrangements has resulted in new ownership claims over water resources within and across countries. Third, there is a symbiotic interdependence between water and power - power generation needs water, and water supply needs power - that connects water to many of the challenges related to power. Fourth, urbanisation and globalisation are increasing the pace of demand on water supply and sanitation, as well as the distortions in availability to the poor. Finally, delivering on the Millenium goals will require a level of investment that is estimated to be anywhere between $110 billion and $180 billion a year over the next 15 years.

And this last factor is the one that is making strange bedfellows under the big water tent. Given that much of the investment requirements are in developing countries, these governments simply cannot finance, produce and manage water and sanitation services.

New models of Private Sector Participation (PSP) are therefore being tried. The record on PSPs, however, is less than stellar. In April 2004, a Working Group to assess PSPs wrote, “In the past two decades of expansion of PSP in water, there have been many public scandals and claims of corruption, rapid increases in tariff, lack of promised private capital investments, decline in quality of services, and a continued failure to increase adequately services to poor communities.” However, it went to add, “ At the same time, there are criticisms that the public water sector has failed to reform, improve efficiency and financial sustainability, curtail political patronage, or expand access to or quality of services.” Both kettle and pot are black.

Hence, the only realistic options available are to modify the existing PSP arrangements to make them more transparent, participatory and responsive to the poor. Accepting this reality has meant re-examining some basic aspects about water being a common good and a basic right; about when it is appropriate to ask people to pay for water; about allowing for cost-recovery in pricing, but not for excessive profits.

And profits there are. Already, the water business is dominated by three European giants that have combined sales of over $40 bn, employ over 250,000 people and serve 250 mn customers globally.

This is tricky new territory, and the playing field is not level. Especially for the local community - widely acknowledged to play a central role - which often functions with little visibility into the project details, and less skills to manoever the tricky terrain.

The bad news for India is that this pressure to improve our water and sanitation coverage is happening when our institutional structures are still not untangled; our people not fully equipped with the capacity to engage; water politics is ripe with power, patronage and pilferage; and our public finance coffers are being pressed for other important expenditures in education and healthcare. Given the capital-intensive nature of the requirements, we cannot simply ‘adjust’ our way here.

There are no silver linings in these clouds, only ominous sounds of rumbling thunder. And - despite the metaphorical appropriateness - these are storms we would rather not be hit by.

The writer is campaign coordinator of Janaagraha, a citizens’ platform for participatory democracy. He can be reached at


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