Today, millions around the world are celebrating World Water Day. This year’s World Water Day theme—Valuing Water—serves as an invitation to reflect on what water means to each of us. We can look to water’s role in strengthening human security or in maintaining the health of the planet’s ecosystems. In each instance, we are attaching a value to this precious and finite resource, and we become keenly aware of the need to cooperate in ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water for all (in accordance with Sustainable Development Goal 6).
As an organisation, Athena Infonomics has spent much of its ten years considering the various ways in which water makes modern life possible, and have pursued projects that yield the most meaningful impact. This can be seen in our work related to sanitation management, water-sensitive urban planning and design, education, the empowerment of women, and countless other areas that are increasingly reliant on a consistent and predictable supply of water.
This universal need for stable water supply has led us to reflect upon the importance of water balance, an accounting of the various inputs and outputs that ensure the sustainability of a given water source. The data scientists, social scientists, and software engineers that make Athena Infonomics’ work possible approach water balance modelling through a data lens, employing agile use of programming and data science tools to guide policy decisions concerning the use and reuse of water.
Below, we detail our work in the city of Vijayawada, located in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, and explain how this work advances guiding principles behind our Integrated Rural and Urban Water Management for Climate-based Adaptations (iAdapt) initiative. Athena Infonomics’ approach to water balance models, a primary work stream of the iAdapt initiative, can help to inform India’s extensive and ongoing Jal Jeevan Mission, a national program that seeks to promote water conservation and greater reuse of treated sewage through the creation of City Water Balance Plans (CWBPs). In furthering initiatives such as iAdapt, Athena Infonomics is advocating for the sector to reimagine how we generate and use data to enable a truly collaborative planning process—a key input into resilience and sustainability.
Balance Plans: It’s All About the Process
To ensure accountability, the Jal Jeevan Mission’s financing is designed such that central funds for a given city are released upon submission of a CWBP. This process of resourcing cities to develop plans and linking them to financial transfers is not new in India, and it can be traced to the development of various city sanitation plans, development plans, comprehensive mobility plans, and others. These plans are often prepared by an external team of consultants, where data is collected and analysed, and recommendations are developed and presented to decision makers and policy makers for feedback. This process, in which the potential implementers of the plan are passive recipients of technical information and guidance, can lead to the suboptimal plans—often “boilerplate” reports.
While the emergence of CWBPs is certainly a move in the right direction, in terms of identifying the kinds of data and information that cities should consider while planning for and managing their water, the development of effective CWBPs requires us to pay close attention to the process in which these plans are generated.
An Interactive Approach for Vijayawada
Through trial and error, and through our own experience in the field in Vijayawada, we learned that allowing for more real-time interaction with the data being collected can help deepen engagement and draw from the wisdom, deep contextual knowledge, and technical experience of city leadership and key civil society organizations.
Working with Vijayawada, we collected the data points necessary to create a simple, interactive visualization dashboard—utilizing Water and Evaluation Planning (WEAP) software—which allowed for key decision makers and citizen groups to explore how the changing of inputs impacts outcomes. In Figure 1, one can see the shift in total unmet water demand in a business-as-usual scenario.
Figure 1: Total Unmet Water Demand in Vijayawada (Business-as-Usual)
But if, for example, a user of this dashboard were to incorporate a hypothetical investment scenario where treated wastewater is reused for agricultural and industrial demand among specific identified demand nodes in and around a wastewater treatment plant, the dashboard quickly presents a revised water balance (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: Business-as-Usual Compared with a Wastewater Reuse Scenario
In this exercise, the dashboard concludes that, if the necessary infrastructure construction and policy required to mandate wastewater reuse in industries and agriculture is put in place in a particular year (2019 in this case), it would take two years (2021) for a stable trend of wastewater reuse to occur in Vijayawada. The graph exhibits a sharp decline in unmet water demand, as the reusable water supply is distributed among agricultural and industrial stakeholders and freshwater demand is reduced. This exercise affirms that the reuse of treated wastewater is an intervention with desirable outcomes, and should therefore be initiated. This model supports the analysis of a range of interventions prior to implementation and facilitates comparison between different scenarios. Such comparison casts light on the interventions that benefit users and the environment the most, and offers Vijayawada the opportunity to make evidence-based water management decisions.
Implications for Water Balance Models
This collaborative work with Vijayawada helped us to identify a number of interventions, driven largely by the wisdom and deep contextual knowledge of government leaders, that ensure the effective use of available water resources and promote conservation. The interventions identified ranged from small-scale initiatives (such as the deployment of water-sensitive fixtures onto city taps, mandatory water metering in all buildings, and the provision of household water wheels) to larger policy- and regulation-driven mandates (such as the recycling of wastewater for non-domestic usage, the integration of flood-zone maps with existing development plans, and the mandatory use of rainwater harvesting systems in all buildings).
Our work with Vijayawada underscored our belief that the value technology and technical experts bring to effective planning can only be realised if there is an open and iterative communication between relevant government bodies and stakeholders that allows for the co-production of new ideas and potential intervention pathways that would appear less feasible in traditional linear-planning processes that are consultant-led.
This elevated level of engagement among a larger set of decision makers and users, facilitated through interactive data dashboarding, not only allows for more voices to be heard, but also promotes consensus among stakeholders with seemingly “competing” interests. Representatives from two or more local governments, for example, could sidestep notions of competition (urban versus peri-urban, etc.), test scenarios, and identify win-win interventions. In creating such win-win interactions, dashboards like this one help to create the integrated approach to water management envisioned in Athena Infonomics’ iAdapt initiative.
As demonstrated in Vijayawada, the integration of interactive data visualization in developing CWBPs can help to bring stakeholders together to co-create actions that ensure more sustainable water supply—and, in turn, realize the ambitious but necessary goals envisaged by the Jal Jeevan Mission. It is through this collaborative, data-driven process that the true value of water can be appreciated by all.
Anupama VS, Consultant
Deepa Karthykeyan, Co-founder & Director