Clean tap water mission in Puri hopes to replenish groundwater

  • Puri has become the first city in India to provide 24×7 piped potable water supply in every household.
  • With groundwater depletion a major concern in the tourist city, the new mission that offers drinking water straight from the tap is utilising surface water to cater to the needs of the city.
  • River Bhargavi has become the primary source of water supply, while steps are being taken to replenish the city’s two overused sweet water zones.

Harasa Bhoi, in her early 40s, is a vegetable seller in Odisha’s religious town of Puri. She owns a small shack on the Grand Road, locally called the ‘Bada Danda,’ that leads to the iconic Jagannath temple. Her shack is among dozens of others lined up along the roadside, waiting to catch the attention of potential buyers, some of whom have come to offer prayers. Like other sellers, she too sprinkles water on the vegetables every now and then, to keep them fresh. “This is the new tap. You can directly drink water from this,” she says while filling water in a round vessel from the newly established drinking water fountain near her shack. She points towards another corner, slightly further, to show her previous source of water. “Do you see that tube well? I used to take water from there earlier. Now, I use this water because I have heard the quality is good.”

Another roadside vendor, selling fried items, joins the conversation and gives his approval with a thumbs-up to the water fountain. “I can’t fill up this large water drum from the water fountain, so I am still using a roadside tap. But my customers drink water from the fountain itself. This is good quality water,” he says before rushing to attend to his forenoon customers.

People using drinking water fountains along the Grand Road in Puri. Photo by Tazeen Qureshy.
People using drinking water fountains along the Grand Road in Puri. Photo by Tazeen Qureshy.

The 120 drinking water fountains, on either side of the Grand Road on which, every year, the chariots of three deities roll in the annual, world-famous, Rath Yatra festival, has become the talk of the town. Once on the brink of a water crisis because of severe groundwater depletion, Puri has now become the first city in the country to supply 24×7 quality drinking water directly from tap. This is available to 32,000 households in Puri since July 2021. The initiative is part of the Odisha Government’s ‘Sujal’ mission, which aims to provide piped drinking water facility to every household.

In August 2020, the pilot project of safe drinking water was started in 12 zones in both Bhubaneswar and Puri, including Salia Sahi, the largest slum in the state. But it was mostly kept away from the media and general public eye until its official launch in October as the ‘Sujal Mission.’

“We were sceptical of the success. It was the first time in India that a city was attempting to provide 24×7 piped drinking water facility to the households. There was no blueprint to look at and follow within India. We wanted to go for one-time learning and then fine-tune our strategies. The biggest challenge was to ensure the quality is maintained throughout. So, we silently executed our plan until it was a success,” says G. Mathivathanan, Principal Secretary, Housing and Urban Development, Government of Odisha.

After running for approximately three months, the project was officially commissioned in October and started to get implemented in several parts of the state.

A piped drinking water connection in front of a house in Puri. Photo by Tazeen Qureshy.

Quality drinking water for the heritage city

Puri is among the 13 Indian cities to be chosen under the Centre’s ‘National Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana’ (HRIDAY) which emphasises on infrastructure development and reviving the age-old heritage assets. The drinking water facility was launched in the city as a part of this project.

The population of the Puri Municipality area is around 250,000 (2.5 lakh), which is fairly small compared to other cities in Odisha and many cities in India. This made it easier and quicker for implementation.

“It took us less than a year to provide piped water connection to all the 32,000 households in the Municipality area. In fact, we have already started scaling up and are reaching to other areas now,” says Samarth Verma, Collector, Puri.

Each household that has the piped connection, also has a meter attached to it. The metering has been covered in 80 to 85 per cent households and officials say it will help in minimising the water wastage.

“The metering is being done so that people avoid overusing of water and draw only enough as per their requirement,” says Verma. There is a token amount the residents have to pay for availing quality drinking water, which, says Verma is a small amount which the citizens do not mind paying.

Since a lot of the infrastructure was existing, it is difficult to estimate the exact cost of the project. However, the additional cost incurred while implementing the project is expected to be around Rs. 220 million (Rs. 22 crores) say officials.

Water meters have been set up in every household in Puri Municipality. Photo by Tazeen Qureshy.

Sweet water zones

Puri has two sweet water zones (recognised protected zones) of over 600 acres at Talabania and Baliapanda areas, which are located close to the sea. A tourist town, Puri gets scores of tourists every year prompting the construction of ever-growing hotels and establishments, adding to the further exhaustion of groundwater.

In 2017, the National Green Tribunal had issued strict guidelines to the state Chief Secretary to ensure that the entire sweet water zones should be free of any kind of encroachment. The bench had also mandated the state government to adopt artificial recharge measures like rooftop rainwater harvesting to replenish the groundwater.

“There was indeed a concern with the depleting groundwater. So, we are now using surface water (from Bhargavi river) and treating it before sending it to the households. The sweet water zones are longer under threat,” says Verma.

The source augment replacement (from sweet water zones to surface water) which started in 2016, was coupled with recharging measures, which is expected to replenish the exhausted sweet water zones. A reservoir has been constructed on the river channel along with a 40 MLT wastewater treatment plant, which is solely catering to the water needs of the people in Puri.

“Earlier we were drawing water from the sweet water zones. Now, we have dug ‘groundwater recharging borewells,’ through which we pump treated river water into the sweet water zones to recharge it. If at all Puri ever faces water scarcity in the future (due to drying river), our sweet water zones will be ready to take over,” says Mathivathanan of the government’s housing and urban development department.

Not just groundwater depletion, the 24×7 tap drinking water is also expected to reduce the use of plastic water bottles, especially by tourists visiting the city. Internationally acclaimed sand artist Sudarsan Pattnaik, who has repeatedly raised his voice on banning plastics through his art, has also been roped in by the government for awareness generation.

The 24x7 water supply in Puri is expected to minimise water wastage in the city. Photo by Tazeen Qureshy.
The 24×7 water supply in Puri is expected to minimise water wastage in the city. Photo by Tazeen Qureshy.

Manual and digital montitoring

The treatment process of the river water is almost the same as everywhere, except the infrastructure can now be handled digitally, besides manually. The official in-charge of different zones can operate the switches via a mobile phone and keep a check on the pressure level or the chlorine content. The quality of the tap water is expected to remain IS 10500, as per the World Health Organisation standards.

“Contamination takes place between the production point and the supply point. Sewer lines or possible leakages can become potential contamination points. To maintain quality, the water pressure has to be continuous, which means it needs to be supplied 24×7. When the supply stops, there is a chance of suction, which can result in external contamination. So, the first thing we did was to provide water continuously and eliminate the chances of contamination through suction,” says Mathivathanan.

The treatment technology also includes real-time quality monitoring and has a ‘chlorine automatic analyser.’ If the chlorine level in the water dips due to impurities, the automatic chlorine ‘doser’ will induce more chlorine into the water and maintain the quality.

Besides digital monitoring, a third party has also been engaged to conduct random sampling to test quality water in different households. Every day, the concerned officials are testing at least 25 points randomly to check the accredited water.

Puri, being a coastal city, is prone to disasters. The Extremely Severe Cyclonic Storm Fani in 2019 had caused massive destruction in and around the city. Officials, however, claim the technology is disaster-resilient. “The potential damage will depend on the intensity of disasters. But mostly, it is likely to be related to power outages or affected pipelines. There might be a chance that supply can be affected for a short duration. But Odisha is known for its prompt disaster management, so we are not expecting any major hurdle,” says Collector Verma.

The Puri administration has installed 120 drinking water fountains along the Grand Road. Photo by Tazeen Qureshy.

Success depends on people’s behavioural change

With drinking water taps now reaching homes directly, it boils down to the awareness among people to ensure usage. Experts say, it will not be easy to convince people to utilise the water directly from taps.

“It won’t be easy to develop trust among people. We have a habit of storing water in our households. Though direct drinking water from tap can minimise the storage need and thereby wastage, it will take time for people to get acquainted to directly drink water from the tap. Also, there is a tendency to filter or boil water, so it will take some time for people to adapt to this new initiative,” says Ranjan Panda, noted water expert in the state.

After Puri city, the ‘Drink from tap’ project is already scaling up in at least 16 other cities including capital Bhubaneswar and is expected to be functional by October 2023. Odisha is aiming to become the first state in India to have 24×7 piped drinking water supply in every household.

Read more: Can Odisha, Chhattisgarh move beyond conventional approaches to save Mahanadi?

Banner image: Grand Road in Puri. Photo by eT-pek/Flickr.

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