Water Provisioning & Purification Options in India

Vachan Singh, COO, Mahagun GroupAn alumnus of Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani, Vachan has over 23 years of experience in the field of project management, construction management of commercial & residential buildings, design management, and many others.

Water, specifically potable water is undoubtfully the most precious commodity for human sustenance. In many parts of the world, over one third of the time is lost in provisioning for potable water (fundamentally driven by the woman of the house). With rapid population growth, water withdrawals from aquifers have tripled over the last 50 years. Simultaneously, the water industry has witnessed significant growth, i.e. the size of the industry is estimated at $450 billion. Predominantly this topic can be divided into three areas:

1.Water Resources: Majority of the population is still dependent on groundwater or surface water for meeting their daily requirements as most of the centralized systems are restricted to major town and cities with negligible presence in the rural catchments. This restricted presence has led to the setting up of numerous borewells, which are extracting water at alarming rates and depleting the water table. In the absence of any monitoring authority for extraction and consumption of water, the gap between the supply & demand has increased exponentially over the years and as per the current trend, India can face a huge water crisis in the near future.

2. Water Provisioning: This relates to the process of providing water to communities through various conventional methods, i.e. digging of borewells, building of canals, dams, harnessing surface water sources like lakes, rivers, and so on. These are typical large and capital intensive projects that are run by public utilities or large infrastructure companies.

3. Water Purification: This service is rendered either through the Point of Use (PoU) contraptions which purify source water for low flow rates or safe water supplied through community/ packaged drinking water players (generally through cans/containers) or treated
water(through chlorine or other purification processes) provided by the public utility.

Boiling and chlorination can take care of the microbiological contamination only and proves to be a failure in the regions where chemical contamination is high

Present Scenario
At present there are three different options of water provisioning with various purification process available to the population:

Option 1: Borewells/ Lakes/Ponds/Rivers/ Wells: A part of the population is directly dependent on these water sources for water. They source water directly from these resources and use any of the purification process at home to clean the water for consumption. Most used techniques being boiling, chlorination, and point of use equipments. Boiling and chlorination can take care of the microbiological contamination only and proves to be a failurein the regions where chemical contamination is high. Point of use systems can take care of both microbiological and chemical contamination, but have a very high reject percentage.

Option 2: Decentralized Community Water Systems(CWS): This is a viable solution for provisioning in the communities where the centralized systems are absent. These are decentralized water purification plants which private companies construct and run(generally for a period of 10-15 years) the plant before handing it over the community at the end of the concession term. This model is popular in countries where investment in rural water infrastructure is limited. Over the next 50 years most developing countries are likely to use this model to evaluate safe water concerns of the under served communities. In India, the key players in this domain (in the organized sector) are WaterHealth India, Naandi and Sarvajal. Of these while WaterHealth is a profit company, the other two are non-profit companies. Between these three players they account for over 1000 plants on a PAN India basis. The unorganized sector on the other hand comprises of over 2000 plants, fundamentally run by local entrepreneurs. According to industry estimates, this sector is growing at the rate of 50 percent CAGR and is likely to triple in the next few years.

The benefits of CWS are as follows:
1.Scalability of this model is very high.
2.Quality of water is assured.
3.Cost per liter is low & affordable.
4.Provides a permanent asset to the community after the demand risk has been addressed by the private player.
5.Cost per unit i.e.,CWS plants are far more economical compared to constructing a utility.
6.Decentralization allows insulation (protection) against complete breakdown of water supply, i.e., only plants which have broken down could be isolated from the rest of the operations

The limitations of CWS are as follows:
1.The unorganized players are unable to conform to strict quality standards required to run CWS plants.
2.The plant depends on the local availability of water, which in some cases could be an impediment.
3.While purified water can be delivered to consumers (in cans)through vans & small trucks it still does not measure up to the convenience of piped water to homes.