An odd-even solution for water

Using the odd-even formula in Indian towns and cities for water conservation is not the magic bullet. Thinking out of the box is


The government’s quick response in getting ‘water trains’ to deliver drinking water to the drought-hit Marathwada region of Maharashtra has been rightly praised. Yet, this water comes from 350km away, from the Krishna river basin. Would it perhaps be more a cost-effective and sustainable solution to lay a 350-km-long water pipeline? Photo: Bloomberg
The government’s quick response in getting ‘water trains’ to deliver drinking water to the drought-hit Marathwada region of Maharashtra has been rightly praised. Yet, this water comes from 350km away, from the Krishna river basin. Would it perhaps be more a cost-effective and sustainable solution to lay a 350-km-long water pipeline? Photo: Bloomberg

One of the more unusual—albeit pleasing—sights Delhi presents in the middle of a scorching summer are the verdant lawns of government offices, many public parks and private homes. The reason is that these lawns are watered.

Or more precisely, that they are allowed to be watered.

Should they be? As weather patterns around the world change unpredictably, many city authorities have been addressing water conservation issues. In the UK, where I lived for 30 years, a hot summer with drought-like conditions almost always means a hosepipe ban.

“I’ll tell police,” a cantankerous neighbour once told my then adolescent daughter as she merrily watered the English garden. He was making a point, we assumed, not to be pursued. The point was: turn off that hosepipe.

In the UK, such restrictions are imposed selectively, in consultation with local water authorities, so that only the drought-hit areas are brought under a ban, and individual violations are met with hefty fines of up to £1,000.

Hosepipe bans may be imposed over a period—of say, a month—or selectively, during the hottest hours of the day. Every gardener knows that the most efficient hours to water the lawns are in the early morning or after sundown.

Yet, driving around Delhi over the past month, I have come across numerous instances of gardeners watering parks in the middle of the day, under a blazing sun with not even a hat by way of protection. It makes no sense whatsoever—not for the garden, not for the gardener, not for the public who are meant to enjoy the garden.

Such solutions are of critical importance to India even though, after back-to-back droughts, it at last faces the happy prospect of normal, even above-normal, monsoon rains this year.

The matter of watering lawns was raised by the bosses of the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament, which was ordered by the Bombay high court to move out some of its matches from Mumbai, Nagpur and Pune because of the drought in Maharashtra.

Millions of litres of water are used to maintain the cricket pitches of IPL venues in these three cities, which the court clearly thought unconscionable. The judgement was bold, given that the expansion of the tournament with two new franchises—Pune and Gujarat—has electrified spectators after a serious scandal over spot-fixing bets.

“We are not using drinking water, we have said that we’ll use treated sewage water only. How many swimming pools of 5-star hotels have been shut? Have people stopped watering their lawns?” asked Anurag Thakur, secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, which runs the IPL.

There is a case for wider water-use restrictions in order to perhaps create a system of nationwide water sharing, but that is ambitious for the moment.

The fact remains that moving matches out of a water-deficit city to a place that isn’t facing such a problem—or less of it—is in itself a form of water sharing, and probably one deserving of replication.

Fines are needed to discipline wasters. But it is also true that the people themselves will respect the law once they are convinced of the social principle and objective in forming that law—that it is a restriction that will benefit them individually and the wider society.

India isn’t quite the callous stranger to discipline that it is sometimes made out to be. It is a matter of driving home to the citizenry what constitutes a public good. The way migrants and other ordinary commuters treat the Metro rail and stations—with respect, not litter—is a good example.

The odd-even road use restriction enforced by the government in Delhi is another. It has been a success in its second spell, although since everything somehow becomes political in India, opposition politicians have deliberately tried and break the rule, forgetting that they are lawmakers themselves.

Plans are afoot to make it a monthly affair as authorities work on the public transport system, whose upgradation eventually will allow a permanent rollout of the scheme. That is expected to take 12-18 months.

The biggest lesson from the experiment is that most citizens of Delhi willingly participated in it. At the end of the day, once the vote is up in a democracy, it is up and you are expected to fall in line.

Can the odd-even formula be replicated for outdoor water use restriction and equitable water sharing? I believe it can because, as it happens, it has been tried out in other cities and communities. The way it works is that if you have an odd-numbered house or government building, you can use water for outdoor purposes on an odd-numbered date. Similarly for even numbers. It has been used in many towns and suburbs of north America, even cities such as Atlanta. The obvious difference is, of course, that homes in north America and Europe usually come with a patch of green and maintaining these lawns need water. Private lawns in India, part of the torrid zone, are rare.

Using the odd-even formula in Indian towns and cities for water conservation is not the magic bullet. Thinking out of the box is.

The government’s quick response in getting ‘water trains’ to deliver drinking water to the drought-hit Marathwada region of Maharashtra has been rightly praised. Yet, this water comes from 350km away, from the Krishna river basin. Would it perhaps be more a cost-effective and sustainable solution to lay a 350-km-long water pipeline? Authorities laid down a 3.5-km pipeline from the river to the nearest station. And they took only nine days to finish the job.

The state government would have weighed the options and done its sums—it’s not a day too early to share this information with the rest of India, to help the country find a long-term and practical solution to the problem of drought.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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