Water Tariff: The true cost of water and the price we pay for it

The Water Tariff is the singular economic tool that can change our behaviour towards this precious resource – we just have to make it count.

The Water Tariff is the singular economic tool that can change our behaviour towards this precious resource – we just have to make it count.

The Water Tariff is the singular economic tool that can change our behaviour towards this precious resource

The Water Tariff is the singular economic tool that can change our behaviour towards this precious resource

The hydrological cycle makes fresh water available to all life on Earth. The endless ebb and flow of seasons, and with seasons the rain, is our final source of all water. And when we use this water, we return it to nature too – but with one big difference – after making it dirty. We also change its location – we pick it up from one part of a river and leave it at another. Or we pick it up from the ground and send it back as waste into lakes. The cost of water for human use then, is the cost of getting it to where we want it, and then releasing it back to nature. And we have not paid the true cost of water unless we release it to nature in the same way we picked it up from there – and in a way that it does not affect the availability of water to other life forms or our future generations.

When any of us use water, therefore, we have to bear our share of this cost. For those of us living in cities today, some institution or the other does the work of making water available to us where we want it, and some other takes away our waste. Our engagement with water starts and stops with turning on our taps and flushing our toilets. In such a set up, the only way we can pay our due share of the cost of water is through a “water tariff”. Therefore, this “water tariff” is of immense importance – and both the processes of tariff determination, and our willingness to pay, has to be adequately informed by the true ecological cost of water for any given place.

In Bengaluru, the institution that delivers our water and takes away our waste is BWSSB. The BWSSB pumps water from the River Cauvery to our city – the river is around a 100km away and the water has to pumped against a head of nearly 300m. Therefore, in addition to all the investments in the pumps, pipes to get water to the city and the reservoirs & pipes to distribute the water within the city and the sewage treatment plants to treat waste, the BWSSB pays a very hefty energy bill.

Spend time reading your bill, there are many things it tells you: Firstly, it says that the more water you use, the more you have to pay – at higher rates for different slabs – this is called volumetric increasing block tariffs. It is based on the principle that upto certain levels, water use is recognized as a basic necessity for life and as you use more and more, you are demanding more than your share. This is a good principle. Ideally, a certain level of water use, it can be argued, must be free as a matter of right to life – this allows for the poor in the city to access water. However, anything beyond this limit has to be charged adequately to cover all the costs of delivering water. BWSSB is among the few cities in India which has a volumetric block tariff. The big implication is that water consumption of consumers is measured.

Secondly the bill has “Sanitary Charges” which is supposed to represent the cost of treating your waste-water before releasing it back to nature. Though the bill shows a small amount for this, in reality this tends to be a very costly component. Thirdly, there is a “Sanitary charge for borewell” – the reasoning being that the water used from the borewell will find its way to the Sewage treatment plants of BWSSB and therefore a cost of waste water treatment needs to be paid.

In India, water utilities rarely charge people the real incurred costs of water supply and sewage management. Capital investment costs are rarely recovered through tariffs. Many a time even operating costs are not recovered. For example even before Cauvery Stage IV, BWSSB incurred approx Rs 26/- for every kilolitre they pumped to Bengaluru. Yet the water tariffs charged by BWSSB starts at only Rs 6/- for every thousand liters – so all our water from BWSSB is subsidised. The tariff determination in our country is influenced by many things, particularly politics. And the debate of ensuring that the poor have access to water is an equally important consideration in this tariff determination, and rightly so.

It is not only the city utilities that need to be concerned about Tariff determination though. Increasingly, in Bengaluru and other cities, many communities – for example apartments and layouts – are in a situation where institutional supply is missing. Here communities identify their own source of water – usually ground water pumped through borewells. The community is now in charge of the entire management of water & waste – and therefore tariffs are a critical tool for good management. Communities should not take this lightly and not lump water charges into a “general maintenance fund”.

Tariff is the singular economic tool to influence user behaviour – we just have to make it count.

• The water bill should tell the consumer the story of water and not just be a bunch of numbers – it is an effective communication tool.

• Ensure metering of water to whatever extent possible (even retrofits) and base your tariffs on data. Start cost accounting for water separately – and understand its “production cost”.

• Make sure the tariff covers not only the capital and operating costs for water and waste water treatment, but build in a component to start investing in sustainability – for water harvesting and waste water reuse.

• Ensure an increasing block tariff that tells people that sparing users are rewarded and wasteful users are severely penalized.

The process of setting a tariff and communicating the “whys of it” to all in the community, can be the best teacher to understand and manage our water.

Pic courtesy Renjith KS, via a CC attribution license.

Catch Every Drop is a campaign on sustainable water conservation by The Alternative, sponsored by Arghyam, with partners India Water Portal and Biome Environmental Solutions.

Whether it is the Cauvery river dispute, the unregulated proliferation of bore wells or the death of Bangalore’s beautiful lakes, everyone has a story, an opinion or a question on water. While most people understand and recognize the importance of saving water, not everyone knows how to do it, or even what exactly they can do.

‘Catch Every Drop’ is a showcase of stories of pioneering water conservation work done by corporates, lake restoration groups, Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) and individuals in Bangalore. These stories, we hope, will inspire you to join this growing community of people who truly care about water, our planet’s most precious resource.

Also read:

Where water life is not so beautiful

Water ranger: How I cut down on water and energy

Green wisdom everyday at Prakriya School

Facing Bangalore’s water crisis

World Water Day: The story of Bengaluru’s water

Avinash Krishnamurthy is a Director and Project Leader at Biome Environmental Solutions. more


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Avinash Krishnamurthy is a Director and Project Leader at Biome Environmental Solutions. more

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