On November 16, the Central government released a report on the quality of piped water across cities in India including the National Capital. The report has since triggered a controversy after it claimed to have found that Delhi had the most unsafe piped water.

The Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government alleged that the report was “false and politically motivated”. And soon after on November 20, the Delhi Jal Board, which is chaired by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, announced that 32 teams would collect 1,400 water samples from around the city, including those locations that were tested by the Centre.

On November 22, the Delhi Jal Board’s results painted a different picture. The board claimed that water samples from eight out of the 11 locations, that were also tested by the Centre, complied with the Bureau of Indian Standards’ parametres.

The central government’s report on water quality comes soon after the Ministry of Jal Shakti launched the Jal Jeevan Mission that aims to spread the piped water network to all households in India by 2024.

Nearly 70% of Indian households receive tap water, according to the Census 2011. From this, only 62% of urban households receive treated tap water.

And around 18.4% of rural households receive piped water supply in India, according to an answer provided by Minister of State of Jal Shakti Rattan Lal Kataria in Lok Sabha on November 28.

The quality of the water being supplied in urban India also remains in question as samples of piped water from a number of other Indian cities also failed to meet the bureau’s standards, according to the Centre’s report.

So what does water quality look like across India’s urban areas? And is it getting any better?

What the report shows

The Bureau of Indian Standards under the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, released the report on piped water supply quality on November 16. The samples for the test were collected from 11 locations within Delhi, and from 20 other cities across the country.

The results from the study showed that all samples collected from Delhi failed to meet 19 out of 28 parameters.

These parameters included checking excess levels of metals and other chemicals in water such as aluminium, manganese, nitrate, and presence of chlorine. Moreover, samples collected from Delhi were found to contain odour and harmful bacteria such as E Coli, a form of bacteria.

In the report, water samples from cities like Kolkata, Chennai and Jaipur also did not meet the parameters for safe piped drinking water. Surprisingly, the Centre’s report found that Mumbai was the only city to have met all the parameters set by the Bureau of Indian Standards for the study.

In May, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation announced that Mumbai’s residents could consume water directly from the tap, Mumbai Mirror reported. The report stated that the civic body achieved this feat by improving water distribution, creating underground water tunnels and replacing old pipelines to prevent contamination.

Water quality in urban India

Cities in India rely on not just groundwater but also on rivers for the water supply. Delhi, for instance, gets its water supply from Yamuna, the Ganga Canal, the Bhakra canal and tubewells.

But the Central Pollution Control Board in 2018 released an assessment that found 351 river stretches were polluted across India.

In the assessment, Maharashtra tops the list with 53 polluted river stretches, followed by Assam, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. The board also found that the number of critically polluted stretches had increased from 34 in 2015 to 45 in 2018.

There are several factors leading to contamination of these water bodies. “Most of the chemicals we see in the water are effluents from untreated sewage,” said Veena Srinivasan, a senior fellow at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment.

Untreated sewage and effluent matter from factories and other manufacturing units are one of the biggest water body polluters. In February, the National Green Tribunal stated that over 60% of urban India’s sewage enters river bodies untreated.

Current challenges

Experts warn that the quality of water in India may not get any better. And Srinivasan added that improving the quality of water supplied to urban areas faced several challenges.

“It is not just about engineering it is also about understanding the demand of water,” she said. Additionally, she said that more investment in sewage systems was also needed.

The absence of credible information on water quality in the country was another challenge, experts said. “Quality of surface-level and ground water has been going down but there is no comprehensive data or monitoring of pesticides in water,” said Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

Thakkar said that compiling data was the first step toward better governance of water resources. The second challenge, he said, was about accountability. “How often do we hold those industries accountable for polluting water resources?” he said.

Moreover, water quality was not easy to measure, said Victoria Beard, a senior fellow and World Resources Institute and professor at Cornell University, who also co-authored the study Unaffordable and Undrinkable: Rethinking Urban Water Access in the Global South.

Beard explained that it was difficult to ascertain water quality, especially in India where most cities have an intermittent supply.

“If the pressure drops in the piped water infrastructure then contamination enters the system,” she said. “Also, if water supplies are intermittent then households must store water, and depending on the water storage system being used also increases the potential for contamination.”

Srinivasan agreed and said that the piped water system in India that was designed to treat raw water did not have continuous pressurised systems, and that this affected the quality. “In the West, there is no intermittency in the way water is supplied because it is treated in a centralised manner,” she said.

One way to address water quality issues would be to fix the supply systems that function intermittently, states the study co-authored by Beard. “One strategy for doing so is to have water utilities use water meters, which improve billing systems,” the study states. Another measure could also be the use of sensors added to detect leaks in the pipes.