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Enabling sustainable built environments using innovative water-sensitive design

India is urbanising at a rapid pace and there is extensive and increasing demand for services like housing, water, sanitation, energy, and mobility. Recent reports on the state of water and energy in India indicate inadequate resources to effectively meet increasing multi-sectoral demand.

New developments are increasingly located on the peripheries of cities, outside of municipal boundaries where public services such as water and sanitation or transit are unavailable. It is critical to engage with the private sector to ensure the development of sustainable habitats. Sustainable development, however, is still a niche space in this sector with only about 5 percent of new developments incorporating green technology. But industry forecasts indicate that the green building market will double by 2022 and new constructions will increasingly incorporate energy and water efficiency measures during design and construction.

The real estate sector remains a leading economic engine and employment generator in India. By 2020 it is expected to be worth US$ 180 billion with the residential sector alone contributing 11 percent to India’s GDP. Estimates indicate that by 2020 demand in the residential sector will be for approximately 4 million housing units.

The Water Value Chain

Assuming a household size of 4 members, water demand in new properties is estimated to be about 800 billion litres annually and having access to a secure water supply will be a vital concern for residents. Additionally, in large developments other issues ranging from environmental hazards to sewage outflows to localized flooding during storm events will also need to be addressed.

In large residential layouts water-sensitive design and technology to reduce, recycle, and reuse water is not always initiated during the construction stage. Retrofits to integrate water saving measures, reduce flooding, recycling technology, and rain water harvesting schemes are sometimes prohibitively expensive since these costs are to be borne by residents themselves. In addition, private investment in the sector remains limited.

The policy response from many municipal agencies has been to mandate the installation of dual piping systems, on-site wastewater treatment technology, rainwater harvesting systems and zero-liquid discharge for large scale developments at the construction stage itself. However, weak enforcement and the high capital and operational costs of such systems often leads to ineffective and irregular implementation or installation of only a few of these systems.

The rising costs of purchased water from private water suppliers is leading to some acceptance of new solutions such as the reuse of treated wastewater within developments, rainwater harvesting and reuse and installation of water saving fixtures. Enterprises in the sector are responding to the growing need by self-financing R&D into low cost solutions and adapting their business models to service models with lower upfront capital expenses.

India is also growing as an investment destination for waste and water management. To promote this, there is a growing supportive environment for entrepreneurs in the form of a number of accelerators and incubators.

Barriers to scaling for water innovations

In large developments, the water value chain is fragmented into separate silos of water supply, wastewater treatment, rainwater harvesting. While one-off innovative solutions may be implemented these are not always part of a holistic water-sensitive design and do not lead to the creation of sustainable habitats from a water perspective.

Innovation also continues to focus more on demand side management in terms of water monitoring, metering and billing systems, rainwater harvesting systems and wastewater treatment and recycling systems. While these measures do increase water use efficiency there is limited impetus for behavioural changes among residents such as reduction in water use.

Water quality is a neglected sector with focus typically on water softening measures but not on biological or chemical contaminants in private water supply. The water-energy nexus is another disregarded area and the high recurring costs of energy for water supply and wastewater treatment are not factored in during design and construction decisions.

Some challenges for innovators are: a risk averse construction industry wary of implementing new and untested solutions, and paucity of funders supporting new solutions and low awareness or interest among end users (residents) on the benefits of implementing holistic water management practices. The complex regulatory environment with a multiplicity of institutions and their overlapping mandates also remains a challenge to be navigated.

Creating water sensitive sustainable habitats

Meeting the water demand for new developments in India’s urbanization trend will continue to be a challenge in the increasingly water scarce future as risk from development pressures and climate change increases.

Successful examples of developments with good water management practices, such as Rainbow Drive Layout in Bangalore, indicate that holistic and community level water sensitive planning is required to achieve positive outcomes. A complete water balance assessment for new and existing developments can aid in the selection and implementation of appropriate solutions for the best site-specific water outcomes.

Robust policy measures can help mainstream water sensitive planning in the design and construction phase for all new developments.

Innovative design and technology in the water sector are also critical to improve water use efficiency, reduce energy consumption and costs for users and produce recycled water. But to scale the impact of new and innovative technologies a competitive marketplace and business ecosystem is required. The ecosystem can help innovators by facilitating connections to end users (clients), potential funders and sharing of peer group learnings amongst water sector entrepreneurs.

Through TheCityFix Labs India, WRI India, in partnership with Citi Foundation, has created a platform to facilitate multi-stakeholder collaboration to help scale innovation in sectors related to water, waste, and energy. The Lab will identify solutions and work with a cohort of enterprises on building efficiency, water management, and waste management that will contribute to building and scaling sustainable built environments.

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