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The underrated way of curbing India's water crisis.

38% of India's supply of clean, potable water disappears every year. Think about that for a second. We're in the middle of a water crisis, 21 cities in India will run out of water over the next decade, and we are losing 38% of our water. How is that possible?

Every day, 4,700 million litres of water disappear from Mumbai alone. That's equivalent to the weight of approximately 1 million cars! In a country with 17% of the world's population and only 4% of the world's fresh water reserves, it's clear that India cannot afford to lose so much water. But the question remains, where does all the water go and how can so much water disappear into thin air?

The answer is more straightforward than you might think. These water losses can be attributed solely to one phenomenon - Non-Revenue Water. Non-revenue water refers to treated water that has been sent out for distribution but is lost before the end-consumer receives it.

Process of Non-Revenue Water Generation in India

Water Supply

Water Losses

Authorised Consumption

Apparent Water Losses

Real Water Losses

Non-Revenue Water

Revenue Water

Unbilled Authorised Consumption

Billed Authorised Consumption

There are three categories of non-revenue water:​

  • Apparent Water Losses: Caused by unauthorised consumption, personnel errors as well as management and operation errors.

  • Real Water Losses: Caused by leakages in the sewage system and the overflowing of tanks.

  • Unbilled Authorised Consumption: Refers to the water sent to firefighters and distributed to vulnerable groups.

Primary Causes of Non-Revenue Water in India

Deterioration of Pipes

Deterioration of pipes is the primary cause of real losses of non-revenue water. The Water Research Foundation found that pressure fluctuations significantly weaken pipes that are then used to distribute water.

Water utilities tend to use oversized water meters to assess water distribution and consumption. These meters 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 the U.S. With sub-par auditing, it is clear why most countries in the world are unable to stem the non-revenue water crisis.

Poor Measurement Tools

Lack of Oversight

What makes non-revenue water so important? Let's use an example about China's distorted production centres to illustrate our point. The North of China is the centre of industry and agriculture, however, the region is constantly facing immense water shortages. In contrast, the South of China has abundant rivers and perennial water supplies but they have 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; 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 would have been a far more effective solution than building this project. This story perfectly encapsulates why non-revenue water is such an important topic when thinking about water. It shows that when we see large problems, we tend to search for the most innovative solution, which may not always be the best solution. Instead of searching for elaborate solutions, if we learn from the Chinese example and take an outcome-driven approach that enables swift action, we can take action to mitigate the water crisis while maintaining natural ecosystems.

As the concept of non-revenue water gains prominence, new solutions to combat non-revenue water are constantly surfacing. Implementation of smart water meters in Pune have resulted in the city's unauthorised water consumption falling from 80% to 22%. This vast improvement in water supply has enabled Pune to conserve 22% of its water. Smart meters are also able to track pressure which helps maintain the long-term structural integrity of pipes. Use of robots and IoT devices to enter sewage systems in order to find sources of leakages is another way to combat the issue of non-revenue water. Finally, listening rods enable 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 non-revenue water falling after the implementation of the listening rods. 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. 

So where is the sector going? 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, we expect more effective 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, which could be an effective solution for apparent loss of water in the long run, once these startups scale. Countries can also learn from each other: for example, in Manila, the city has been broken down 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. The system was extremely effective, and could be replicated in a large country like India. The system could also be adapted to work for building societies as opposed to districts in cities. If the Indian government implemented a similar incentive structure for building societies, leaks could be identified rapidly, reducing non-revenue water.

While it would take a significant change in policy and mindset for the solutions above to be effective on a large scale, a combination of innovative technologies and simple, actionable solutions can significantly reduce the non-revenue water issue that exists today.

Partner's Note: At Peak, we like breaking down complex issues into their core components. Each building block of the problem may require a different solution, and together this myriad of solutions can appropriately address a complex problem. Like GHG emissions and plastic waste, water scarcity is not an easy problem to solve. It needs to be properly understood in order to be tackled. Non-revenue water may not be as exciting as air-to-water solutions, but it is a very important contributor to India's water wastage. If we can support entrepreneurship and government policy in this area, we can help India stem its impending water crisis.

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