The first time she heard about it, Ruby Makhija was incredulous. In a city like Delhi, where water can be a constant source of woe — especially in summer months — the promise of 24-hour water supply initially elicited disbelief.
Two years down the line, South Delhi’s Navjeevan Vihar, where Makhija lives, is one of the two colonies where people can open their taps at any time of the day and get fresh water.
Delhi Jal Board (DJB), the agency responsible for supplying water to most of Delhi, announced earlier this month that it was looking to extend the 24×7 water supply project to the entire city. To this end, the agency is in the process of hiring a consultant to conduct a feasibility study. The report is expected to be submitted by the year-end.
According to experts, basic requirements for a continuous water supply system are a robust pipeline that has no leakages, and the capability to maintain constant water pressure.
The idea of continuous water supply in India was discussed by the central government in 2003 at a workshop by the Ministry of Urban Development: ‘24-Hour Water Supply for Urban India’. At the time, none of the 5,161 municipal bodies maintained a continuous water supply.
A project was started in three cities in Karnataka — Hubli-Dharwad, Belgaum, and Gulbarga. Since then, several other cities and towns have experimented with the project, with varying degrees of success.
In Delhi, the project was first discussed in 2011, with the DJB looking to start a pilot project in a handful of places. The contract was given to Suez India Private Limited in 2013. The project in the area, Malviya Nagar Water Services (MNWS), is a public-private partnership between DJB and Suez.
After false starts, issues around water supply and leakages, and administrative delays, the project kicked off in two south Delhi colonies — Navjeevan Vihar and Geetanjali Enclave — in March 2017.
Water supply in the whole of Malviya Nagar, sub-divided into eight areas, is managed by MNWS. The idea was that after the two colonies, the project will be extended to all eight sub-divisions. But two years on, there hasn’t been any extension.
Recently, the New Delhi Municipal Council, the richest municipal body which governs only 3% of the city, also announced that it will supply water 24×7 to residents under its jurisdiction.
In any 24×7 supply project, the first step has to be isolation of the network. There can be only one inlet from where water enters the reservoir, and a meter to calculate the amount of water entering is required.
From the reservoir, water is pumped at a constant pressure to each sub-division. At the entry of a sub-division, another meter is installed to see if there are leakages. Once water is pushed into the system at a constant pressure, chances of leakage and contamination are minimised.
An entirely new pipeline is crucial to the project. In Delhi, some pipelines are as old as 50-60 years. According to Delhi’s budget in 2018, 46% of the water pumped through the pipeline is lost either to leakage or theft. This means that if a new and more robust pipe network is laid, providing enough water for a continuous supply can become a reality.
In the project by MNWS, leakages are detected using Helium gas. “Helium, being an inert gas, does not react with water, so we mix it into the pipeline. When we want to check for leakage, we bore small holes near the pipeline. If there is a leak, a sensor will detect the escaping Helium gas,” said Ajay Saxena, assistant vice-president, projects, Suez.
Once the pipe infrastructure is in place, the next step is to put in place a remote-controlled supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system. “Sensors to monitor pressure and water quality are installed in pipelines. The water quality sensor tests for turbidity and chlorine levels. If pressure drops, the SCADA system alerts us. We can also turn pumps off and on using the system,” Saxena said.
A leak-proof pipeline and constant water supply are imperative to the success of the project.
“A new network has been laid across all eight areas that come under us. This includes new pipes, sensors for leakages and new valves wherever necessary,” Saxena said.
Extending the project to the other six areas, however, has hit a roadblock due to water availability.
According to Saxena, they were promised 80 million gallons of water daily (MGD) by the DJB when the agreement was signed. The agency, however, is only providing 40 MGD to the firm directly. Some more water is pumped into the area using a few inlets and tubewells.
“This, however, does not help us as we need water to reach our facility directly to start a 24×7 supply system,” Saxena said.
This is also the point where the project for the whole city could face turbulence. DJB supplies 900 MGD of water to all its citizens. The demand, according to official estimates, is 1,200 MGD. The remainder of the water supply is met by illegal borewells and private water tankers.
In such a situation, 24-hour water supply looks like a distant dream. “Going at the pace that we are, it is almost impossible to imagine that future. At a time when people in the city are getting water once in two days, to think about colonies that have shifted into the 24×7 supply mode is unsettling,” said a senior DJB official who did not wish to be named.
“We agree that the project has been impacted because we have not been able to give them as much water as we had earlier agreed on. DJB is constantly working to augment our own water resources. The feasibility study will help us understand how much capital is required to replace old pipelines, how much water will be needed to maintain constant pressure in the pipes at all time, and how long it will take to implement the project,” said DJB vice-chairperson Dinesh Mohaniya.
So far, two colonies that the project has been implemented in — Navjeevan Vihar and Geetanjali Enclave, with a little over 600 houses — are upscale ones.
The question remains whether this can be a reality in areas such as Sangam Vihar, Tughlakabad or water scarce regions of outer Delhi. In areas abutted by unauthorised colonies and JJ clusters, where water theft is common, the project will face new challenges.
“A lot of people in unauthorised colonies have illegal borewells and they don’t pay for water. Getting them to shift to metered connections is going to be a problem. But over the past three years, we have realised people are willing to pay a fair price for a service. We have managed to increase the number of water connections since we started a push to provide water to every colony in 2015,” said a senior DJB official. “There is no denying that this is a massive challenge though.”
“The only way it can be successful is if DJB makes sure all connections are metered and theft is curtailed,” said Diwan Singh, an environment activist.
Mohaniya is convinced 24×7 supply “is the future”. “Developed countries have moved to a system where water is supplied throughout the day. It has more benefits than intermittent supply,” he said.
When it started continuous supply in two colonies, MNWS had its task cut out. “In 2013, when we took over the eight areas, water lost to leakages and theft (non-revenue water or NRW) was 68%. After laying new pipes, it has come down to 36%. People are still getting into new pipes to steal water and we are working on that, but the biggest change was seen in the two colonies. Water lost to leakage and theft came down to 8%. The global standard for NRW is 15%,” Saxena said.
The biggest change, however, was in water usage. “Where the two colonies were earlier using 1.4 million litres of water daily (MLD) before 2017, it dropped to 0.6 MLD within a few months,” he added. This was because water loss through seepage had drastically come down.
This, however, is limited to small, well-planned areas, where there are limited intersections with JJ colonies that don’t get regular water supply.
Even in Navjeevan Vihar and Geetanjali Enclave, it was not particularly smooth sailing in the beginning.
“One of the biggest problems was to make people believe this was actually happening. Everyone thought water will be pumped throughout the day for two days, and then things will go back to normal. But we persisted,” Saxena said.
Residents also faced initial hiccups. “In the first two-three months, everyone’s bills were inflated. Where people were paying Rs 2,500 per billing cycle, it increased to Rs 10,000. What was happening was that there were extensive losses through underground water tanks in homes. Most of these were unlined, which meant water was seeping into the soil. The rate of seepage increased when water was supplied throughout the day,” said Makhija, the Navjeevan Vihar RWA secretary.
At Geetanjali Enclave, while water is mostly available continuously, residents say some issues remain.
“Our biggest problem has been water pressure. At the pressure that it is pumped, water cannot reach second floors or above in many homes. There have also been times when we didn’t get water for two days. To convince people to bypass their underground tanks, trust needs to be built. The system is not at 100% here,” said Giriraj Khanna, secretary of the Lok Sevak Cooperative Building Society, the residents’ association for the area.
According to sources, the water loss is because of theft from the pipeline, and since residents are still using unlined underground storage tanks in around 40% of the area, which has 360-odd connections.
While implementation in both areas has seen a mixed response, the pilot project has shown the ambitious project is not unachievable. The feasibility study will now tell the government as well as residents how long the rest of the capital will have to wait to get water in their taps whenever they turn them on.