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Smart cities' stressed water needs as urban green spaces decline from 12.79% to 9.41%

By Monami Bhattacharya*, Mansee Bal Bhargava** 

The world is overstressed with the increasing population and decreasing resources. With the urban landscape reeling under the pressure of limited resources and unlimited demands, the need/movement for smart and sustainable solutions are on the rise. The idea for sustainable and smart cities gained momentum as part of that movement.
Smart cities are considered as a place where traditional services are made more efficient using modern technology and evolving ideas benefitting the inhabitants of the region (European Commission, Smart Cities).
The Smart Cities Mission in India has the objective to promote cities that provide core infrastructure and give a decent quality of life to its citizens, a clean and sustainable environment and application of ‘smart’ solutions. The focus is on sustainable and inclusive development and the idea is to look at compact areas, create a replicable model which will act like a light house to other aspiring cities.
Bringing the focus on water, Smart Water Management systems aim to provide more resilient and efficient water supply systems, reducing costs and improving sustainability. High-technology solutions for the water sector is integral part of Smart Water Management. Smart technology can change conventional water and wastewater systems into instrumented, interconnected, and intelligent systems (Development Asia, Asian Development Bank).
At Wednesdays.for.Water, an initiative of the WforW Foundation, a session was organized some time back on, ‘Water Management in Smart Cities’, to dig deeper into what is India really doing to get into Smart Water Management as part of the smart cities. 
The session speakers were Tushar Bose, associate professor at the Faculty of Technology, CEPT University Ahmedabad, and Hari Dilip Kumar, a sustainable problem solver for Solve Sustain. Elamuhil S from DHAN Foundation was the discussant. Vasantha Subbiah, from Fluxgen and part of the core team of WforW Foundation, moderated the session.
According to Tushar Bose, the idea of smart cities is necessarily expected to include effluent management system, waste management system, water management system among its pivotal functionaries. Nature based solutions are the primary focus of smart cities with respect to water management.
The problems in urban areas arise with the increasing urbanization and land use changes. It is projected that the urban population in India will double to become 877 million from 2020 to 2050. According to a report on, Assessing the Mitigation Potential of Urban India: Learnings from the Data-driven Approaches, the land use changes in cities, the built-up area has increased from 19.06% in 1991 to 37.92% in 2017.
The urban green spaces have declined from 12.79% to 9.41% and the urban open space has declined from 10.51% to 7.74% (WRI, 2022). The problem of urbanization goes down to the increase in built-up area and decrease in urban green/blue/open area.
Floods and extreme rain events have been increasing over time with a threshold increase of extreme rains and increase in area covered by it are noted at several regions in the last five decades (Roxy, 2017). For example, coastal city like Chennai experiences both heavy flooding and almost drought like condition. Studies also project an almost seven-fold increase in flash droughts by the end of the 21st century like the one of 1979 (Anand, n.d.). All such data projects multiple challenges with increasing flooding including lack of access to water and water conflicts.
Besides, India being the largest user of groundwater in the world, it is projected that in the coming 20 years about 60% of all the aquifers will be in a critical condition. More than 60% of irrigated agricultural need and 85% of the drinking water supply are dependent on groundwater (NITI Ayog).
The question of addressing the lack of water supply in some seasons and excess in other seasons are crucial and need to be addressed while designing and planning for smart cities. There are examples of increasing green cover that are tried out in the country and around the world.
For example, the interlinking of lakes in Ahmedabad, one of the smart cities, was started in 2005 after the major floods in 2002-03. In 2005 the municipality decided to get the water supply through pipes from the Sabarmati River. Over time the development of the storm water management system led to interconnecting the lakes and thus excess water flows from one lake to the other which started the interlinking lakes project.
Activities like extension of roads, building percolation wells on lakebed for groundwater recharge, desilting of lakes, increasing green spaces around the lake were undertaken. The environmental impact of this project was development of flood resilience, reduced flooding, increased storage capacity, significant increase in green spaces, development of lake gardens among others The case study of Ahmedabad highlights an appropriate approach towards water management (Bose and Patel, n.d.).
In Singapore plans were developed where the green cover increased from 36% in 1986 to 47% in 2007 with programs like ABC Waters, Ecosystem based Adaptation, etc. were adopted to keep green blue as the centre of planning.
The Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters (ABC Waters) Programme was launched in 2006 by the Public Utilities Board (PUB), the National Water Agency of Singapore, through the Centre for Liveable Cities with objective to improve water quality, and enhance liveability. The nature-based solutions did reap societal benefits which learnt that the catchment area is important in city planning (Convention on Biological Diversity).
Hari Dilip Kumar focussed on the drivers in creating the water data, even as assessing whether it is being done for getting societal approval or mandatory requirements. Ironically, even the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs which initiated the smart cities program in the country does not provide a one liner definition of smart cities.
The idea is subjective and in crux can be referred to as something which creates sustainable development outcome. There is a lot of data but what does it narrate and what informed interventions can be adopted are some pointers that need to be addressed while assessing water concerns in urban areas.
To appreciate the water stress issues and adequately adopt water management measures, the gender issues related to water stress also need to be understood. The women travel for long distances to fetch water for the families even in the peri-urban areas, this has to be included while addressing water management mitigation.
The limits to growth study help in understanding the data and thus appropriate application of informed policy interventions can be adopted. Technology should be creating inclusions and not exclusions in the long run. So, making sense and creating action from the data available is important now.
A change in how institutes interact is much needed to have different outcomes for urban exchange as part of the smart city program in order to share data.Multistakeholder data sharing is the key for a leverage to the smart cities. The intention is to ‘close the loop’ and ‘break the silos’ for safe data sharing resulting in better water outcomes.
Elamuhil S, while sharing his thoughts and experiences, highlighted on investing in rehabilitation of water commons. The tale of the ancient city of Madurai clearly hints of steps towards urban Jal Swaraj with the presence of interconnected ancient irrigation tanks. The city was built centering the rivers Vaigai and Gridhamal.
Over the decades, urbanization and its interconnection with water commons and community have influenced the cityscape. The built-up area of Madurai city has increased 5 times (13.5 sq. kms to 67.5 sq. kms) in just four decades. In the current city, 55 irrigation tanks, 34 ponds, 12 temple ponds are present. This is not all that the city had. Data tells that 23% of the water bodies have been engulfed in the urban sprawl.
DHAN Foundation in its efforts with local people and urban local bodies have restored 17 urban water commons in the past 3 years. During the restoration processes, some common and crucial problems to the water commons were observed. The land parcels belonging to waterbodies were put to other land use, problems of free riding, collective encroachment etc.
On the one hand, the government, charitable organizations, and corporates get direct access in investment for the water commons and the community is hence devoid of the sense of trusteeship.
On the other, with the investments through communities they develop the sense of trusteeship. Madurai case study shows that intervention through stakeholder investment does result in better water management in the smart cities.


Revival of the existing water bodies is extremely crucial to address the water stresses. Developing the data on water management is also crucial. Exchange of information between individuals and institutions and between institutions will play important role to transition to smart water management.
There is definitely a need for investing in the idea of Water Commons which can enhance public governance of water. Since, the cities booming with urbanization find it difficult to associate with water commons, it may be a good idea to learn from the rural water management approach. The sense of ownership post restoration must be the incentive to proceed further. Finally, indeed there are challenges existing in several sectors of proper management of urban areas, there is a need for adequate and appropriate water management policy interventions in smart cities on the basis of nature-based solutions as the core framework.
Besides, while building data is of utmost importance in the smart water management process, finding balance between no data to emerging big data has to be take with great caution, especially how that data can be made interactive to put to sustainable use and sustainable development.
Wednesdays.for.Water is an initiative of the WforW Foundation, a think tank, built as a Citizens Collective. The idea of Wednesdays.for.Water is to connect the water worries and wisdom with the water warriors through dialogues/discussions/debates. The objective is to get in conversations with policy makers, practitioners, researchers, academicians besides the youth towards water conservation and management. The other team members of Wednesdays.for.Water are, Megha Gupta, Monica Tewari, Garbhit Naik, and Proshakha Maitra (ED(R)C-Ahmd), Dr. Fawzia Tarannum (Climate Reality India), Ganesh Shankar and Vasantha Subbiah (FluxGen-Bnglr), Prof. Bibhu P Nayak (TISS-Hyd), and counting. The Wednesdays.for.Water is reachable at and WforW Foundation is reachable at and The WforW Foundation social media are reachable at Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn.
*Independent Scholar and Fellow at ED(R)C Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation; **Entrepreneur, Researcher, Educator, Speaker and Mentor. Environmental Design Consultants Ahmedabad, WforW Foundation.



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