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A Herculean Challenge

The acute shortage of water and the crisis thereof is a complex web of issues and challenges that has attracted a clutch of start-ups. Water management solutions firms are fighting a mammoth battle to save and re-use this precious commodity called water.

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There are interesting yet shocking statistics regarding water in India. Sample this: The per capita availability of water has decreased drastically, almost by one-third since 1950 informs, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, the Central Minister for the newly created Ministry of Jal Shakti. In number terms, today the per capita availability of water is 1,400 litres compared to 5,000 litres virtually 70 years ago.

Annual losses on account of operating and maintaining urban water supply systems are conservatively estimated at Rs. 5000-6000 crore. According to a World Bank report, India's water and wastewater market alone is worth $420 million and is annually growing by 18 per cent. The same report states that the urban water systems in India deliver on an average of 50 to 60 per cent of their capacity to end-users, compared with 80 to 85 per cent in other countries.

These are just a few examples of the vast magnitude of problems related to water management. Thankfully, there is a clutch of start-ups that are actively doing their bit to save and conserve from whatever water is available to us. And through their efforts, the municipalities, district administrations, cities and governments can learn a lot.

Take, for example, the Chennai-based start-up WEGot Utility Solutions, an integrated water management solutions company that is batting for efficient usage of water. Its co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer, Abhilash Haridass, an entrepreneur, believes that because water is priced cheaply compared to say electricity or fuel, nobody takes cognizance of future problems. And hence the current crisis of water shortage. This start-up has recently raised around $2 million from a Venture Capital firm.

SmartTerra, a Hyderabad's T-Hub based startup is working in the last mile efficient delivery of water. This is how Gokul Krishna Govindu, founder of SmartTerra describes his work: "We are essentially a water intelligence system which provides solutions assuring reliable supply and quality with its end-users as the municipalities." This start-up won $85,000 from Urban Drinking Water Challenge.

Openwater, a Bangalore based academic startup has developed tools to treat large volumes of waste-water through developing plug and play, fully automated wastewater treatment systems. Its founder, Prof. Sanjiv Sambandan who is also a professor at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) informs, "The innovation is towards increasing throughput while minimising power consumption and yet building an easy to use the system.  All this is achieved by spatially and temporally patterning the electric field by the use of a control system that determines the field profile".

Another startup from Bombay, INDRA Water, has built a wastewater treatment system which treats water in 13 minutes occupying space of just 85 sq. ft., hardly a size of 13-ft. shipping container, reducing the size of the industrial plant system while reducing the finances involved. Its co-founder, Amrit Om Nayak, informs that India has a very expensive way to run a treatment plant.

Problem Areas

Most water supplying entities in India operates at a loss. They finance the shortfall between tariff revenue and costs through operating capital subsidies from the government and through depreciation of capital. The result is a low-level equilibrium characterised by low tariffs, poor service and limits on access, especially of poor households. 

S. Vishwanath, Trustee at Biome Environmental Trust and an expert in water policies says that the main problems of water have inculcated due to the ridiculously low price of water. Water should be charged at its ecological rate. A Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) report informs that Indian cities produce 15 billion litres of waste-water daily. Haridass, the Co-Founder of WEGot Utility Solutions says, "The cost to water is very cheap due to which people give less heed to its depletion. If fuel or electricity was this cheap then there would have been huge problems. But water is priced unnaturally low. It is easily available and nobody takes notice of the future problems due to which we are facing the current crisis." 

Another World Bank report says that almost 63 per cent of municipal wastewater and 40 per cent of industrial wastewater is left untreated and discharged. Hence, one of the primary reasons for water scarcity is the abuse and exploitation of available water, it adds.

Central Pollution Board’s 2017 report states that all Class I cities and Class II towns together generate an estimated 29,129 million litres per day (MLD) sewage. Currently, there are only 816 Municipal Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) listed across India, out of which 522 STPs work. So, of 62,000 MLD, the listed capacity is 23,277 MLD but no more than 18,883 MLD of sewage is actually treated. 

Solutions Offered

WEGot Utility Solutions from Chennai is working with more than 25,000 apartments currently managing 20 million sq. ft. of commercial real estate. It aims to reach two lakh apartments in the next year covering around 50 million sq. ft. So, what is it doing? While focusing on reducing the demand, WEGot's VenAqua, an Internet of Things (IoT) based platform provides real-time information on usage, patterns leakages, in short, the benchmark required in terms of water consumption. Selvakumar AB, Co-Founder of WEGot says, "We help you manage the water infrastructure in a building so as to make people use water more efficiently." The company wants developers to design more water-efficient buildings in coming future. "We have a monthly subscription charge of just Rs. 150 a month per house to utilize the tool and we almost give it for free." They are currently working in nine cities including Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Vijayawada, Mumbai etc. The tool has helped reduce the demand by 50 per cent and saved more than 300 million litres of water through management solutions.

A World Bank study states that 32 billion cubic meters of water are lost every year in the form of leaks and thefts. Thus, the water which is lost cannot be billed or account. This water is also called non-revenue water. To solve the problems of this non-revenue water, SmartTerra, a Hyderabad's T-Hub based startup is working in the last mile efficient delivery of water. The platform consists of a water stack which essentially uses industrial IoT and mobile apps for data acquisition, the modelling of the entire water infrastructure and finally AI-driven analytics. Gokul Krishna Govindu, founder of SmartTerra explains, “Most of the water and wastewater processes in our country are handled by operators who are semi-skilled. So, we are trying to build an affordable product which will help the private entities and domestic apartments with automated managerial and engineering expertise. So, through SmartTerra’s entire water process can be monitored and the data which is coming in from mobile apps or sensors can be understood in the context of how to run the water process in a proper way.” He adds that our cities, which mostly relies on municipal water, provide a reliable system of neither water quality nor its supply. The municipal water supply works on an ad-hoc basis. Moreover, the water distribution lines also have lots of leakages and which makes them get contaminated by sewage also wasting about 50 to 60 per cent of the water. This is where SmartTerra is solving a problem. It is essentially a water intelligence system which provides solutions assuring reliable supply and quality with its end-users as the municipalities.

In order to tackle the menace of lack of management of wastewater, Openwater of Bangalore has developed tools to treat large volumes of wastewater through developing plug and play, fully automated wastewater treatment systems. Sambandan says his company is converting the waste or grey water into potable water conforming to the standards of International Organization for Standardization. The startup has received funds from DBT and Karnataka government as well.

The Co-Founder of Mumbai-based INDRA Water, Amrit Om Nayak says that India has a very expensive way to run a treatment plant. His company has, therefore, built an efficient wastewater treatment system. It has developed a portable electrocoagulation-based system to treat industrial effluent and wastewater from textiles, chemicals, and pharma industries, and sewage from residential, commercial, and municipal establishments through a process called 'Electrocoagulation'. This process involves passing of electricity through pollutants and contaminants which then breaks down the chemical bonds of the pollutants. INDRA Water is self-funded, though it got Rs. 10 lakh initially from IIT-Bombay. It is working with Telangana government, private developers and many more and is aiming to treat 3.5 million litres of water every day before the year ends.

Challenges And Future Trends

Water and wastewater are the most promising sub-sector in India’s environmental segment. This accounts for 26 per cent of India’s environmental technologies industry. However, water being a social impact area, investors mostly ask for a substantial return on investment. Poyni Bhatt, CEO, Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SINE), an incubation centre at IIT Bombay says, “Investors in India want to invest in high impact and social enterprises solving problems like clean portable water, water ATMs and other water access solutions for human, plants and animals. However, they have reservations dealing with start-ups in these sectors where their business is mainly B2G”. But why? Because it is very difficult to engage and scale startup growth in these crucial areas while engaging with the government, Bhatt says. “Government has many stringent rules like the experience of the company, quantum of business etc., to enable these companies to work with government agencies. These rules are not enabling the growth of start-ups. So, investors are reluctant to invest in this sector,” she adds.

Vishwanath adds, "Innovations can only nurture when they get a good environment. A well-structured economic policy can help sustain startups while providing a proper solution to the prevailing water crisis."

In short, the government, academia, industry and startups need to work in a public-private-people model to make solutions available to general public speedily at affordable costs. Because time is running out and so is water.