Water Conciousness in a Community

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Workers placing a concrete ring in a 30ft deep Recharge well under construction

How a small group of people can deal with the economic, ecological and social realities connected with building water consciousness in a community.

Water supply to citizens is supposedly the duty of Governments and municipal corporations. Yet there are enough indications today that very soon many communities and neighbourhoods would have to manage it themselves – protecting their sources of water, regulating its usage and treating it properly for reuse or safe disposal.

Rural communities whose livelihoods are more entwined with their environment usually are better at water management - if they are allowed to. The educated urban dwellers however, are pampered with low-cost water from distant sources - appropriated from other communities or eco-systems. For example, Bangalore’s water travels 100 kms, with about 30% leakage and is sold to domestic consumers at subsidised rates. Treatment is neither adequate nor properly paid for (starts at Rs 15 per household). How long can we be dependent on such an unsustainable model of use and waste?

Individual Complaint vs. Community response

When people face water scarcity there are lots of individual complaints but very little organized community responses. Gated communities or apartments (these will be referred to as ‘communities’ hereafter) offer a unique opportunity since very often many of the resources and services have to be self-managed. Typically though, they end up with an appearance of good management with lawns and some uniformed security men, but leave out the fundamentals like management of water, garbage etc. Many communities end up depending on tankers for water, or dump garbage, illegally at night.

What I would like to share below are the struggles and results of working to bring about water and ecology consciousness in a gated community (Rainbow Drive Layout, Bangalore) with about 220 homes spread across 34 acres. It was and still is completely dependent on groundwater.

As the number of residents began to rise, the first constructive step the residents took earlier was to ban the drilling of private borewells in individual plots. To formalize this, an expert was called in to state the obvious: private bore wells and community bore wells tap into the same source and the former encourages wastage while the latter forces prudent usage.

Whenever a borewell dried up, the residents hoped that the Cauvery water supplied to the city would soon reach them too. But for now, people believed in technology – we could always drill more borewells. But technology can deliver water only if we ensure its existence. Whenever the water supply was disrupted, residents would desperately try to get water tankers at the last minute, while the water suppliers were not interested in supplying to such occasional buyers. Soon, we were down to the last borewell - one step away from Water Tankers as the only source of water. It was clear that we, as a community had to learn to manage our water.

While change was needed, the task of getting 220 households to work together for it is tough at the best of times. As may be anticipated, some people sensitive to the environment felt something has to be done, but the majority had their own pre-occupations. A quote from Rev. Jesse Jackson can be inspirational to anyone wanting to bring about change in a community: “An organized minority is a political majority”

Most ideas start off at an individual level. If it creates the right spark there will be several others willing to support. A few of us informally got together to deal with various issues of our layout. An initial attempt was made at creating consciousness of water wastage and reducing water consumption through circulars and discussions.

Functional Residents’ Association

By 2007, all circulars urging residents to conserve water had failed. A small group of us needed formal authority to make some headway in translating a philosophy of respect for water into implementation of a system of water conservation.

A typical Residents Welfare Association (RWA) consists of mostly retired folk elected individually. In order to have a functional RWA committee, our informal group decided to get elected as a team into the management committee. We could then hope to work on core issues which needed to be addressed urgently. Often, with the best of intentions, committees do less then their best because of non-professionalism built into the structure of the management committee – for example committees often go in for a lower cost option rather than the right option to avoid the ire of members.

I took ownership of water management. My aim was developing an integrated approach encompassing water conservation, creating a sensible revenue model for water along with rainwater harvesting for water security.

Analysis of water consumption

I began with an analysis of water consumption. A simple averaging and sorting of data exposed our utter disregard for water. The Consumption Analysis showed that:

  • About 15% of the readings were missing (resident absent, unreliable meter reading). Several readings were unrealistically low – indicating that some meters were faulty.
  • Constructions consumed large quantities of water.
  • Some families consumed only 10 KLtrs to 20 KLtrs per month while others consumed 50-100KLtrs per month.
  • Average per family was 30 KLtrs/month, about 1000 lts per day.

Costing Exercise

Initially, water was charged at Rs 3/KLtr; it was increased after a few years to Rs 6/KLtr. However constructions, residents and layout staff continued to waste large amounts of water. Charging a nominal amount enables phenomenal wastage. Hence a planning and costing exercise was needed to charge for
water sensibly.

The heavy subsidies by the Government for water, electricity, etc, has created a mind-set where these facilities are taken for granted and are expected to be low cost. Hence the earlier logic, of pricing water based on the cost of electricity for pumping it, was popular and thought to be right. Knowing that this logic was incorrect, I tracked down several hidden expenses related to water – plumbing, mechanical & electrical expenses as well as several others.

Additional infrastructure was needed (see box) which would increase our investment and maintenance cost but would help us manage the scarce resource better.

We decided to appoint a dedicated water manager who would monitor daily pumping (rotating borewell usage), timely release of water, billing and collections, promptly attending to replacement of defective meters and all aspects of water treatment. Also, most layout staff are underpaid, starting from labourers to the manager of the layout. Unless this is corrected, any proposal stands to fail for sure.

The New Water Revenue Model

 

From the water consumption and cost history and its analysis we had to come up with a Pricing Model which took into account all aspects of water. The new pricing would, hopefully, influence consumption pattern for the better. The model had to ensure that, in the new scenario (with potentially reduced consumption), the water revenues would pay for all water supply and treatment expenses.

The average consumption for the residents was arrived at on the basis of 4 members per household and 250 litres per person (the WHO standard being 135 lppd) to 1000litres per day and extrapolated across all residents in the layout to arrive at a future monthly consumption.

The pricing for this amount of water had to pay for all the expenses. Different pricing models were setup to arrive at the right model which would pay for the true cost of water. The pricing model presented to the residents rewarded lower levels of consumption and penalised higher than average levels of consumption.

  1. First 10,000 lts (0-10 KL): Rs 10
  2. Next 10,000 lts (10-20 KL): Rs 15
  3. Next 10,000 lts (20-30 KL):Rs 25
  4. Next 10,000 lts (30-40 KL): Rs 40
  5. Above 40KL: Rs 60

The average consumer would pay the actual cost of water e.g. for 30 KLtrs, the cost would be Rs 500 pm or around Rs 17/KLtr. At higher consumption it gets closer to tanker price and eventually is priced higher than tankers.

Residents were offered discounts of Rs 100 pm on their water bills for investing in Recharge Wells at homes, which would contribute to the community water source. Residents reusing water by storing rain water would automatically benefit since the right pricing of water saved a significant amount of money.

Rain Water Harvesting (RWH)

RWH is deceptively simple! It is important to understand all aspects of it, customize it to your requirements and get it done by a professional. We allocated funds for building recharge wells every year. Biome Environmental Solutions evaluated RWH potential and implemented RWH in common areas and houses. We have about 20 Recharge wells (3 ft diameter x 20 ft deep) in storm water drains and 40 similar wells in houses. It did take hours of house to house campaigning rather than paper circulars or emails to ferret out the accommodating citizens in the community. Rain water replenishes ground water and improves its quality too, by softening it. It alleviates flooding significantly.

Water Treatment

All along we had ignored the cost of treatment which was very high. Plastics and other waste caused blockages in sewage pipes and manholes, as well as disruption and breakdown of the Sewage Treatment Plant (STP) frequently. Regular maintenance of the STP was essential and had to be paid for by water consumers.

Response to Reform Proposal

The first response to any change is very predictable - resistance from all quarters. Since the data was neatly laid out for anyone to peruse and the logic was sound it was difficult to counter it, other than with emotional arguments. The cost proposed was almost a 200% increase and hence resistance was expected. After considerable deliberation, the committee sent out a circular to residents inviting their written feedback. The circular highlighted a few relevant points which could be easily appreciated by residents, but not all the detailed analysis.

Technology is not always an enabler! The e-group which I had created to bring the residents together seemed to be only a medium to vent out anger and negatives. Lots of knee jerk reactions against the proposal flooded through emails. Naïve responses such as “water is a necessity, it should be priced low” also come in – relevant only if water still exists in abundance.

Feedback written on a piece of paper (and signed) forces people to think through their response, unlike feedback via e-mail. Factoring in these realities helps the committee to persist with meaningful change without getting de-railed.

The First Month

In spite of highlighting the new water rates on the notice boards and through circulars to each house, most people became aware of the new reality only after receiving their first monthly bill. A large number of people with high water bills were visibly angry but we asked them to focus on their per person consumption which was much above colony average. Many opted to replace the water meters in their homes. People with low readings obviously did not complain.

It is worthwhile to walk the extra mile to convince residents. For example, to clear doubts about metered water in many homes, we went about with a five litre container to check accuracy of meters and insisted that inaccurate meters be changed immediately. Meter installation at every point of use, like club house, commercial complex and houses is a must. If this is not possible for each apartment, meters are required for a group of apartments or a block at least.

Soon houses reported leaking sumps, tree roots breaking into sumps, and leaking flush tanks. Hosing of cars were reduced to a handful and gardeners were asked to moderate their use of water. People who filtered and stored rain water in sumps reported large reduction in their water bills during the rainy season. The recharge well discount of Rs 100 per month was also appreciated.

The reforms are about 2 years old now. Attempts to locate new water sources have not been successful – 3 borewell failures happened. Though the reforms are just a beginning, it is an excellent starting point. The model stands validated since the per-person per-day consumption has come down from 261 litres or more, to 245 litres. Deeper recharge wells have higher levels of water now. Even if our recharging benefits neighbouring layouts, it is worthwhile to note that other communities have emulated us and hence collectively we are doing the right thing – replenishing ground water.

The residents, though resistant to water reforms (pricing, rules, penalties etc.) eventually accepted the changes brought about by the Residents’ Welfare Association (RWA). Managing resources and services in a decentralised way brings about greater ecological sensitivity and hence sustainability without waiting for government agencies to deliver. Though many of the points highlighted in this article may seem obvious and simple, these are critical to ensure success for urban community-led initiatives.

Jayawant Bharadwaj is an engineer who was earlier with Microsoft. He has now dedicated his life to community based activities
and yoga.

According to a report by the World Bank, 60% of India’s ground water sources will be in critical condition by 2025 if current level of over-exploitation of water is not checked.
It suggests Community management of water, among other things for sustainable water use.

Arghyam Foundation found it worthwhile to initiate a study of water management practices at the layout by Biome. Biome’s continuing dialogue with the community has exposed us to the use of Hydro-fracturing of bore wells to improve their yield a more accurate assessment of our STP and introduction to an extremely promising STP technology - Soil BioTechnology from IIT-Mumbai .. Treated water from SBT process can be reused or recharged. It literally acts as virtual rain!