WAR for water

Published : Feb 26, 2010 00:00 IST

Tribal women in Visakhapatnam district, Andhra Pradesh, on their way to a water source when the region faced a severe water shortage owing to delayed monsoon in June 2009.-K.R. DEEPAK

Tribal women in Visakhapatnam district, Andhra Pradesh, on their way to a water source when the region faced a severe water shortage owing to delayed monsoon in June 2009.-K.R. DEEPAK

IT is somewhat unusual that a Supreme Court order should result in the launch of a major technology mission in the country. But the mission WAR for Water, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh highlighted in his inaugural address at the 97th session of the Indian Science Congress in Thiruvananthapuram, is actually the consequence of a Supreme Court directive. The apex courts Bench comprising Justices Markandey Katju and H.L. Dattu issued the directive on April 28, 2009, in a matter of public interest litigation (Writ Petition (C) No. 230 of 2001) by M.K. Balakrishnan and Others against the Union of India and Others.

The petition related to the conservation of wetlands for protecting the environment and maintaining the ecology. However, the court, observing that one of the chief causes for acute water scarcity in the country was the failure to conserve waterbodies, expanded the scope of the petition suo motu to address the problem of water shortage. Accordingly, it directed the government to constitute a committee of scientists specialising in the field within two months and find out technical solutions to water-related problems on a war footing.

In particular, the order directed the committee to (i) find out inexpensive methods of converting saline water into fresh water; (ii) find out methods of harnessing and managing monsoon rainwater; (iii) manage flood waters; (iv) do research in rainwater harvesting and waste water treatment so that water may be recycled; and (v) recommend any other methods, including those for the protection and preservation of wetlands and related issues.

The court also said that the committee should be given all financial, technical and administrative help by the Central and State governments. The mission Winning, Augmentation and Renovation (WAR) of water resources is essentially the Ministry of Science & Technologys plan of action on the above fronts.

While awarding the judgment, the Bench recalled a judgment given on March 26, 2009, by Justices Katju and B. Sudershan Reddy in an inter-State water dispute between Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. In that case, Justice Katju observed that while tribunals played a role in resolving such inter-State disputes to a certain extent, they had not resolved, and cannot resolve, the water shortage problem permanently, which only the application of science could do.

The order accordingly recommended that the Central government immediately constitute a body of eminent scientists in the field who should be requested to find out ways and means of solving the water shortage problem. The order of April 28, 2009, though essentially the same, had the additional directive that the said committee of eminent scientists be chaired by the Secretary of the Ministry of Science & Technology.

WAR is thus one more mission to address issues related to water besides the Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission (RGNDWM), which was launched in 1987 as one of the five technology missions spearheaded by Sam Pitroda. It was given this name in 1991. The water mission was proposed as one of the eight missions to be launched as part of the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC), announced by the Prime Ministers Council on Climate Change in July 2007. The former is under the Ministry of Rural Development and the latter is under the Ministry of Water Resources and both of them have R&D and technology components.

While there would certainly be overlapping areas in the ambit of these three missions, their perspectives and thrusts are intended to be different. Besides, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) has a programme called Water Technology Initiative that was launched in 2007 to fund R&D projects in the field. Various national R&D laboratories and other institutions, including non-governmental organisations (NGOs), have been engaged in developing technology solutions for water-related problems.

The plan document of mission WAR notes that the apex courts initiative arose from its observation that the research on water currently being done in several institutions and agencies of the country was largely uncoordinated. This is also evident from the fact that despite years of R&D effort in the field, solutions that have emerged are, by and large, technology demonstrations on a pilot or small scale with no visible impact on a large scale. There has been inadequate attention to scaling up the developments to commercially viable processes and products.

From this perspective, it is indeed curious that the court sought to issue the directive to the Ministry of Science & Technology rather than the Ministry of Water Resources or some other agency, which was associated with the earlier missions. The apex courts objective in issuing such a directive would, therefore, seem to be to establish a systemic process by which viable technical solutions that can be deployed on a large scale are identified and implemented.

As per the drawn-up plans, the mission is expected to be completed by July-August 2011 with a set of planned deliverables. According to the document, the project activity will conclude with a report indicating the nature of water problems in different parts of India and the matching technologies and associated management prescriptions for solving them. The court order also stated that the case would be monitored, for which purpose the matter would be listed to be heard every alternate month when the chairman of the committee would be required to personally submit to the court a progress report on the actions taken on the directive. In accordance with the court order that emphasised the urgency of the issue, the mission has progressed swiftly and purposefully.

A 23-member Technical Expert Committee (TEC) was constituted and notified on June 29, 2009. As required by the court, a Committee of Eminent Scientists (CoES), drawn both from India and from abroad, including non-resident Indians (NRIs), has also been constituted to serve as an advisory council to the WAR mission. The committee will also review the overall performance of the mission and recommend proactive measures, including mid-course corrections based on R&D inputs and technological developments elsewhere, during the mission period. A panel of 20 experts has also been set up for wider consultation on specific technical issues from time to time.

The concept plan for the mission was evolved between April and July 2009 and the plan document was readied by July 2009 and submitted to the court at the next hearing on August 11, 2009, by T. Ramasami, the DST Secretary, in person. The second update to the court was submitted on October 20, 2009, as per the court order. The third one is due on January 27. The Centre has responded to the courts directive to extend the necessary financial and administrative support with an extra-budgetary allocation of Rs.145 crore for the two years that the mission is projected to last.

The document says, There have been several innovations under real field conditions in India already. Some of these innovations will be evaluated for replication under similar social conditions. Global best practices will be captured and adapted to the Indian conditions.

To take advantage of the experiences of these other schemes on water and to learn from the efforts of other organisations, the DST Secretary has set up the National Consultative Group (NCG) under his chairmanship. The group, consisting of leading organisations and agencies, will help avoid duplication of work and act as a feeder channel to the TEC on the availability of technologies with these organisations as also outside the system. This should ensure that, for instance, data and technologies available with the other two missions become available for use in the activities under WAR.

Conversely, points out Ramasami, the solutions identified and proven by the mission can become inputs to the other missions addressing the problem. The group had its first meeting in May 2009. This speedy implementation of the order was greatly appreciated by the Bench. Indeed, the TEC has met thrice and constituted seven sub-committees to look into various aspects of the mission; in particular, site selection across the country for implementing the various solutions that the mission will come up with; demand side scoping, which will essentially be based on information provided on water challenges faced at various locations in different States; and supply side scoping of the mission, which will be driven by technologies and solutions identified by another sub-committee.

Interactions with stakeholders in different States took place in October 2009 following requests from the mission secretariat for suggestions on water-challenged sites with a population of around 10,000 (about 2,000 families). The idea being that solutions will first be implemented at this scale at two contiguous villages with similar water problems to prove their technical viability, and upscaling it to cover a population of 100,000 at two locations in different geographical regions of the country.

The mission is aimed at demonstrating solutions that can solve the diverse water problems in different parts of the country covering a total population of over 50 lakhs. So far, 20 States have responded with a suggestion of 110 sites. The Union Territories and eight States are yet to respond to the request. The court, too, has urged them to respond quickly.

While problems are related to both quality and quantity, quality-related problems are more severe, pointed out Laxman Prasad of the DST, the missions convener. Water-related challenges, the mission document notes, may arise out of multiple causes, and scientific solutions may demand several and innovative approaches. It is likely that multiple technology solutions may be found. It is, therefore, preferable to scout for possible solutions for the diverse water-related problems in the country through globally available opportunities. Sustainability and viability of recommended solutions will form a crucial part. Therefore, solutions emanating from research should be practically proved for their viability and sustainability in a convincing manner in credible scales before the claims of feasibility of solutions are made.

The last sentence is clearly a comment on the limitations of many of the technologies developed in the Indian context in that they have not found widespread applicability for one reason or the other; in particular, the lack of a revenue model that would render them viable for widespread deployment and acceptable to the industry for scaling up.

Since urgent solutions are required, notes the document, application research on convergent water technology solutions has been prioritised over developmental research on water technologies in the laboratories. The mission will, therefore, primarily focus on adaptation and absorption of technologies in different social contexts and developing, in parallel, home-grown solutions through laboratory research. At the same time, the document emphasises the importance of non-technical issues in the water challenge: While majority of the problems associated with water may be on account of insufficient availability of research-led solutions to waterbody managers and the community, there are also other serious social and community issues that contribute to the aggravation of the problem.

The underlying concept for the WAR mission is that problems associated with water arise broadly from the following issues: (a) insufficient availability; (b) poor quality for the intended use; and (c) indiscriminate use of available natural resource. Correspondingly, the focus of the technological approaches would be on (a) winning water from sustainable sources; (b) augmentation of quality of water from available and accessible sources; and (c) renovation or recycling. The missions objective is, therefore, to find timely, urgent, cost-effective, socially viable and sustainable techno-management solutions for solving the problems of water scarcity.

The average annual rainfall in India is estimated to be 4,000 billion cubic metres. Only one-fourth of this is available as usable surface water and groundwater. At present the annual consumption is about 750 billion m{+3} for all applications, including agricultural, industrial, commercial and domestic. Even with a conservative estimate of per capita consumption of 1,000 m{+3} a year, water availability is likely to be fully stretched in the years to come.

Already the gradual decline in the per capita availability of water is very much evident (see graph). In fact, according to the Worldwatch Institute, the per capita availability is likely to be less than 1,000 m{+3} a year by 2020. This clearly calls for augmentation of water resources on an urgent basis and the impending climate change will only aggravate the problem of water stress leading to a water crisis.

Water scarcity, according to the mission document, can be traced to several causes that include (1) decreasing per capita availability; (2) loss of quality of fresh water on account of contamination or poor management practices; (3) inadequate harvesting of rainwater resources; (4) excessive and inefficient use of water in some human activities; (5) water unavailable for use on account of natural contamination with, for example, arsenic, fluoride, iron, etc.; (6) non-potability due to salinity; (7) non-availability of technical solutions like reverse osmosis (RO) and distillation in several socio-economic environments; (8) inadequate waterbody and wetland management practices; (9) inadequate flood management practices; (10) injudicious use of water without recycling; and (11) urbanisation with insufficient infrastructure for sourcing, delivering and recovery for multiple use.

Correspondingly, a set of 25 key water-related challenges in the Indian context have been identified (see table). These include site-specific problems and those of a generic nature. As a result of all these, the per capita availability has already fallen below 1,000 m{+3} a year in various locations in the country where several hard and long-term options may be needed, notes the mission document. Following a detailed survey of the identified problems and data evaluation, about 61 locations covering 17 water-related challenges have been identified as priority sites for field study from among the 110 suggested by the various States (see pie chart).

The actual ground survey in terms of gathering of data pertaining to village clusters with the stated problems was carried out by Market Insights Consultants, a Noida-based firm with countrywide presence, while the selection of priority locations was done by the appropriate sub-committee of the TEC.

The identification of suitable technologies themselves was done through an invitation for Expression of Interest (EoI) made through an open advertisement on November 15, 2009, and parties were required to make their submissions by November 30. With the thrust being to identify proven solutions, the eligibility criteria were that the party should have had an annual turnover of Rs.50 million or more in the last three consecutive years as well as a minimum of five years experience in providing and managing solutions to any of the identified 25 water challenges. This naturally excluded most of the R&D laboratories even though they may have developed suitable technologies or solutions.

The emphasis being on proven solutions, only those technologies that the R&D institutions should have successfully transferred to industries with appropriate business models could submit their EoI. According to Prasad, only a couple of such technologies from two laboratories of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) have been identified even though, in principle, national R&D laboratories are supposed to have developed many more.

The interested parties will have to offer solutions that would provide 40 litres a day per capita for municipal supply and three litres a day per capita for drinking water purposes. These minimum per capita norms are applicable to domestic consumption in rural environments and are derived from the RGNDWM of the Ministry of Rural Development. The attendant indicative cost per person should not be more than Rs.125 a month per family, corresponding to a revenue of Rs.3 million a year for catering to a 10,000-population cluster complete with reject management and operational maintenance of the solution over the mission period of two years.

In all, 67 companies, including two from overseas (Spain and Belarus), responded to the EoI call, of which 43 technologies (42 Indian and one from Spain) have been shortlisted. A pre-bid conference has already taken place with the interested parties. These shortlisted parties will make their bids by January 28. Following detailed presentations of the complete solutions that the bidders propose to provide, the bid proposals will be evaluated and the finalisation of the award is expected to be completed by mid-March. A selection of a first set of solutions for 10 sites with populations of about 10,000 will be made subsequently, which will kick off the implementation of the mission WAR on the ground.

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