In 2021, already 35% of India was living in urban areas (United Nations Population Division). It is estimated that 40 percent of India’s total population of the country will be living in urban centers making it the largest urban population in the world! Being the largest urban population with huge concentrations of urban centres gives India the need and the scale to innovate on water.
The emergence of large urban centers in India will necessitate increased access to water and sanitation services, which must be provided at reasonable costs. The pressing need for such services will spur innovative solutions. Historically, the limitations of budgetary constraints, technological limitations, and infrastructural challenges have resulted in uneven access to water in urban areas. For instance, Mumbai, which boasts one of the world’s largest urban slums – Dharavi – faces significant challenges as the city continues to expand. Providing timely and affordable access to water for all residents presents a formidable task for the government.
According to reports, dwellers of Dharavi and other similar locations, often depend on private water tank trucks to access water even for basic use such as drinking or washing. In doing so, they end up paying twice or sometimes even thrice the amount of money they would if they had a regular water connection. According to reports from Siddharth Nagar slum in Versova, residents get water tankers once in two or three days and have to shell out Rs. 40 (approx. $0.50) for a bucket of water! Several times, water access programs such as the BMC’s ‘Water for All’ program come with the condition of having an existing drainage system to get full-time water supply.
Smart Cities and Smart Water
Smart cities are the future of urban development, and India has been at the forefront of this trend. The Indian government launched the Smart Cities Mission in 2015, with the aim of developing 100 smart cities across the country. The mission was launched with a vision to create sustainable, livable, and efficient cities that leverage technology to improve the quality of life for their residents.
The Smart Cities Mission has led to significant investments in technology and infrastructure in Indian cities. Under the mission, each selected city has to formulate its own smart city plan, with a focus on areas such as urban mobility, solid waste management, water supply, and sanitation. The cities are required to use technology to improve these areas, with a focus on creating a sustainable and livable urban environment.
The need for smart water solutions in India’s urban areas goes beyond just providing access to basic services. The role of water management in smart cities is multi-faceted and includes the provision of efficient water supply, waste water management, water conservation, and even flood management. With population growth and climate change creating unprecedented challenges for water management, there is a need to develop innovative solutions that can efficiently manage water resources, minimize wastage, and ensure sustainability. This is where technologies like AI, IoT, and other smart solutions can play a critical role.
Smart water management in cities involves the use of technology and data to manage water resources efficiently. For instance, sensors and data analytics can be used to monitor water quality, detect leaks, and optimize water usage in real-time. This data can then be used to make informed decisions about water management, such as identifying areas that need to be prioritized for repair or replacement. Therefore, one of the key benefits of smart water solutions is that they can become more affordable and bring greater welfare by leveraging technology to optimize water usage, reduce waste, and improve efficiency.
India’s Unique Opportunity
One of the main reasons why India is well positioned to lead the way in smart water solutions is its large and concentrated urban population. Interestingly, research from the McKinsey Global Institute indicates that the cost of delivering basic services (such as access to water) is 30% to 50% cheaper in concentrated population centers than in sparsely populated areas. Herein lies the opportunity for smart cities.
India is also home to a vibrant and dynamic startup ecosystem, which is driving innovation and entrepreneurship in the country. The government has launched several initiatives, such as Startup India and Digital India, to support and encourage startups in the country. Moreover, at the cultural level, India has is its experience in frugal innovation whether in the rural sector or in space – from Mitticool to Mangalyal – India has proven its mettle in offering solutions at extremely low costs. Following in that trajectory, as India becomes the world capital of “affordable IoT,” it will also become a world leader in smart water.
With its “trishool advantage” of (a) large concentrated urban population centres bringing in the scale needed for innovation, (b) a solid technology sector with a government focused on promoting startups; and (c) a rich culture of frugal innovation, India can lead the way in smart water management in the world. If India can successfully implement smart water management systems across its cities, it can provide a model for other countries in the global south, which are also facing water scarcity and urbanization challenges. The learnings from India’s smart water solutions can be exported to countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, which are projected to experience rapid urbanization in the coming decades. By sharing its knowledge and expertise, India can help to address the global water crisis and provide affordable solutions to millions of people around the world.