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Clean Water, Improved Sanitation Key to Kolkata’s Future

Project Result / Case Study | 5 December 2017

India’s third-largest economic center has health, investment, and jobs in its sights as it works toward 24/7 access to water for all.

Kolkata, India – Water has nourished Kolkata throughout its long history. Fed by the Hoogley River to the west and vast underground reserves and wetlands to the east, this iconic city, for centuries, had more water than it needed.

But in recent years the ageing water and sanitation system has been overwhelmed by the daily demands of nearly 5 million permanent residents and a floating population of 3 million more.

These stresses have caused significant pressures on the natural environment and public health, undermined residents’ quality of life, and hurt the city’s ability to attract investment and create jobs. Without remedial action, Kolkata’s fast-growing economy could stumble, threatening the city’s status as India’s third-largest economic center after Delhi and Mumbai.

Aiming for full 24/7 water supply

The plan, drawn up by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation in 2011, incorporates the key elements needed to deliver efficient, cost-effective water and sanitation services—physical infrastructure, supply and distribution networks, financial sustainability, and long-term planning.  A water loss reduction roadmap was adopted in 2016 to help reduce losses from water supply pipes and achieve 24-hour supply.

The city has calculated it has enough water for homes and industry beyond 2040 but distributing it in sufficient quantities to the fastest growing, mostly outlying areas, remains a challenge.

In 2011, 92% of permanent residents in the city—4.1 million people—had access to a water supply, but only for 8 hours a day. In addition, well under half of all residents had direct public sewerage connections, with outer areas of the city, particularly those close to the Hoogley River, worst off.

The plan’s goals are now being put into effect through the ongoing Kolkata Environmental Improvement Investment Program, which the Asian Development Bank (ADB) is supporting with loan assistance of $400 million.

Building a sustainable system

This ambitious program, which builds on sweeping sanitation improvements made under the previous ADB-assisted Kolkata Environmental Improvement Project, is making a series of sequenced investments over 10 years in more sewage treatment plants, pipes, and sewer connections, as well as rehabilitating 700 kilometers of dilapidated water supply pipes and treatment plants in peripheral areas of the city where the need is greatest.

“Building the infrastructure is one thing but ensuring the system is fully sustainable, both financially and in other areas, is crucial for the longer term.” 

Neeta Pokhrel

It is helping Kolkata Municipal Corporation set up separate water loss management and finance improvement units to ensure the city’s water-sanitation infrastructure and services are able to fully recover costs in the long-term—a critical element for success.

“Building the infrastructure is one thing but ensuring the system is fully sustainable, both financially and in other areas, is crucial for the longer term,” said Neeta Pokhrel, a senior urban development specialist at ADB, who has been working on water and sanitation improvement issues in the city many years.

The program tackles issues like high system water losses, with one ADB study finding that 65% of the water supplied to a pilot zone never reached end-users. The installation of up to 70,000 modern water meters by 2022 will improve monitoring of water use and help reduce losses.

State-of-the-art technology

The city is now applying a range of new approaches to system management to ease the financial burden on the state government of West Bengal, which currently funds the bulk of operating costs.

These include mapping and digitizing Kolkata’s centuries old water and sanitation network, system, and properties; logging them in a geographical information system and web-based interactive platform; providing individual electronic IDs for each customer; and applying a more effective tax and user-pays system for services.

This will include metering and charging domestic water users who pay nothing now, and higher prices for industrial, commercial, and institutional users. The issue is sensitive for many communities but Kolkata Municipal Corporation says feedback indicates households are willing to pay while those living in slum areas will continue to get free or heavily subsidized services.

State-of-the art technologies, such as micro-tunneling for the installation of water and sewer pipes, are also being adopted to reduce disruption to daily life from major public works. This computer-based tunneling technique minimizes major road closures and doesn’t disturb electricity and other underground cables. It has been used to lay both water and sewer lines along Diamond Harbour Road, a main thoroughfare in the city, which runs under an elevated metro line.

One of the early program beneficiaries was Devika Das of Kalimata in southern Kolkata, whose home was plagued by frequent floods for up to 6 months a year in the past.

“We always had health problems, with mosquitos and constant flooding, and of course, a very bad odor,” she said.  

Those problems were sharply reduced after an open canal near her home was covered over.

There are still major hurdles to overcome as the program moves forward, but Kolkata Mayor Sovan Chatterjee, remains confident.

“We have been working on water supply and sanitation for a long time,” he said. “We are working to supply 24-by-7 treated water to households, with a metering system. We are trying to make our city cleaner and greener.”

Karen Lane is a Senior External Relations Specialist in ADB’s Department of External Relations. Learn more about ADB’s operations in India.