INDIA'S BIGGEST MYSTERY
38% of our supplies of clean, potable water disappear every year, which costs utilities over $4 billion every year. Every day 4700 million litres of water disappear from Mumbai. To put that into context, that's roughly equivalent to the weight of 1 million cars. In a country where 17% of the world's population only has access to 4% of the world's fresh water, we can scarcely afford to be losing so much.
Where does all the water go? How can so much water disappear off the face of the earth?
The answer is actually fairly straightforward. The water losses can be attributed to solely one phenomenon - Non-Revenue Water.
But what is non-revenue water?
Non-Revenue water refers to treated water sent out for distribution that is lost before reaching consumers.
Process of Non-Revenue Water generation in India
Apparent Water Losses
Unbilled Authorized Consumption
Billed Authorized Consumption
Real Water Losses
Real water losses are caused by leakages in sewage system and the overflowing of tanks
Apparent losses are caused by unauthorised consumption, personnel errors as well as management and operation errors.
Have you ever noticed tankers accelerating down the road leaving behind a flowing stream of fresh water in their wake? Have you ever noticed miniature lakes created on roads due to water spilled by tankers? Read this article to understand how the ever-present tankers we see on the streets are one of the largest sources of non-revenue water.
Unbilled authorized consumption refers to the water sent to firefighters and distributed to vulnerable groups.
THE THREE CATEGORIES OF NRW
TOP 3 IDEAS TO COMBAT NON-REVENUE WATER
Implementation of smart water meters - In places like Pune, the implementation of smart water meters has resulted in Pune's unauthorized water consumption falling from 80 to 22%. This vast improvement in water supply has allowed Pune to conserve 22% of its water. Smart meters are also able to track pressure which help maintain the long-term structural integrity of the pipes.
Use of robots/IoT devices to enter sewage systems in order to find sources of leakages.
Usage of listening rods - Listening rods allow users to sense leakages due to the change in vibrations. Listening rods were first introduced in Japan, and they have been extremely effective in Goa - with 20% of NRW falling after the implementation of the listening rods.(JICA) The Water Research foundation found that acoustic based solutions can detect when pipes are going to burst 65% of the time. Hence by using acoustic monitoring systems, districts are more equipped to predict sources of water losses.
NON-REVENUE WATER: CAUSES
Declining quality of pipes is the primary cause of real losses of non-revenue water. The Water Research Foundation found that pressure fluctuations are the primary cause behind the weakening of pipes used to distribute water.
Various water utilities tend to use oversized water meters to check water distribution, and consumption. However, the significant limitation in using oversized water meters is that they are poor at estimating low flows of water. Consequently, the malfunctioning meters make it exponentially harder for water utility companies to track illicit water consumption.
Poor auditing practices by water utilities. A validation study found that 21% of audits failed to pass the basic validity checks in America. With sub-par auditing, it is clear why most countries in the world are unable to stem the non-revenue water crisis.
I've broken down the base idea of non-revenue water, causes of non-revenue water and solutions to the problems associated with non-revenue water. I'm sure every reader, who's managed to last this long, has the same thought.
Let me tell you a story to explain why. It's about China's distorted production centres. The north of China is the centre of industry and agriculture. However, it is constantly facing immense water shortages. In contrast, the South of China has abundant rivers and perennial water supplies. However, the South has a fraction of industrial output in comparison to the North. This resource asymmetry incentivised the Chinese government to create the 'South-North Water Transfer Project'. The creation of the project seems like the most logical solution to solve this problem. However, the project faced extensive delays and ended up costing $82 Billion. Those weren't the only costs; however, the construction of the project led to displacement and environmental damage in multiple Chinese cities. After the construction of the project, experts were of the opinion that targeting non-revenue water(Sounds familiar?) would have been a far more effective solution than building this project.
I think this story perfectly encapsulates why I believe that non-revenue water is so important. Whenever we see problems that have huge implications, we're wired to think of the most innovative and fancy-sounding solution. However, focusing on the low-hanging fruit can also yield exponential returns. I believe that if we learn from the Chinese model, and focus on optimising non-revenue water, we can significantly mitigate the water crisis while maintaining natural ecosystems.
Why is non-revenue water important?
WHERE DO I SEE THE SECTOR MOVING?
Due to the inevitable breakdown of pipes, non-revenue water has the potential to plague our water resources for years to come. In the short run, I think sensors will be used to track and monitor potential leakage sources. Multiple startups are creating robots that can identify leakages, corrosion and damages in pipes, and I think that could be an effective solution for apparent loss of water in the long run once these startups scale. I also hope that we can apply Phillipenes' solution to resolving non-revenue water in India. In Manila, they have broken down parts of the city into district metered areas in order to decentralise the problem. They appointed street leaders in each district, who were in charge of identifying leaks and illicit water theft. The street leaders also faced fiscal penalties if someone else found water leaks in their area. This system was extremely effective, and I really hope we can replicate it to some extent in India. I think breaking areas into defined districts may be a challenge for leaders due to their vast size. I think this system could be extremely effective if it is replicated by building societies. I think a building society is small enough for people to actively search and find leaks quickly, and I think if the Indian government implements a similar incentive structure, it could be extremely effective to stem non-revenue water.
Ultimately, a large chunk of my perspective is rooted in a combination of optimism and conjecture. It would take a significant change in policy in order for my solution to see the light of day. However, I do think there could be certain startups which have the potential to provide similar solutions, provided they scale. One of these startups is SmartTerra. SmartTerra have created an AI based technology to detect real and apparent losses of water. The meters are able to detect abnormal consumption of water to prevent apparent losses, and they have a leak detection system in order to detect real losses. They've built their startup using the Phillipenes model- where they break cities into district metered areas. If they are able to scale their model across India, then it can be an ideal solution to reduce non-revenue water in the long-run.