Our water-sensitive, climate-resilient dream for Kolkata

Published on Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Published by Neeta Pokhrel on Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Project beneficiary in Kolkata.
Project beneficiary in Kolkata.

By December 2026, we hope Kolkata will be transformed into a smart, resilient, green, water-sensitive, and (more) competitive urban center and a model for other Indian megacities.

Kolkata will have a 24/7 water supply, fully metered and monitored using smart technologies, and less than 20% non-revenue water. It will collect and treat all its sewage and have state-of-the-art stormwater drains. Kolkata will have exemplary solid waste management facilities and services, including recycling and resource recovery. It will be a climate-resilient city, equipped with early warning systems and capable staff to look after its nearly 5 million residents when climate change-related disasters strike.

We believe our dream will come true since we are helping our partner, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC), prepare and implement plans to achieve exactly these goals. We have worked together on them since 1998, when ADB approved our technical assistance project to prepare ADB’s first loan to KMC in 2000 under the Kolkata Environment Improvement Project (KEIP) to lay the first foundations to drastically improve the urban environment and services.

Almost 18 years and three more loans later, neither KMC nor ADB has stopped dreaming and planning to get there with mutual push, trust, and support. KMC is currently implementing the $400 million Kolkata Environmental Improvement Investment Program (KEIIP) financed by ADB. With KEIP and KEIIP, Kolkata has already almost doubled its sewerage and drainage network and systems, laying large diameter pipes through new technologies such as micro-tunneling, and will be able to collect and treat all of its sewage by 2021.

Non-dreamers might think this is an insurmountable task. If you want immediate gratification from your projects so you can tick your boxes and move on or an eager project evaluator insisting on transformative development impacts in one project span, then this is not your cup of tea. Transforming a city the size of Kolkata—with a permanent population of almost 5 million and over 3 million floating residents—is not only extremely challenging, it takes a long-term engagement spanning decades and multiple projects. We must phase our support and prepare for it accordingly. We pick one segment, prepare the vehicle and workforce to implement it, persevere as the vehicle slowly picks up momentum before running, and then move on to the next segment.

However geared up and strong our vehicle is, the combined absorptive capacity in the project delivery ecosystem (consultants, contractors, decision makers, residents) still sets the pace. Let’s not forget other issues like population density, Kolkata has the world’s 13th highest, and flood risk – Kolkata is in the top 10 most vulnerable coastal cities. Despite these challenges, KEIP was implemented soundly, and KEIIP has been ‘on-track’ in our monitoring systems, exceeding its annual progress targets.

Skeptics were baffled by the notion that water services can be sustainable without the city charging households for water directly. We responded by highlighting a 2009 OECD report that shows how—tariffs, transfers and taxes (the 3 T’s)—can be used to finance urban services depending on the local sociopolitical setting as well as consumer awareness and buy-in. A 2015, ADB Independent Evaluation stated that “low-tariff rates and revenues do not always result in unsustainability of the project if local governments can fill funding gaps with transfers from other sources or the central government.”

KMC allocates 30% of its tax revenues to fund water services, and already exceeds its operational and maintenance costs; it is implementing reforms on tax as well as water charges to increase its revenues so it can fund expansions of the project. Recognizing the need to minimize large water losses, KMC approved in February 2016 a policy roadmap for metering, demand management and conservation. Under KEIIP, a French water utility was engaged in November 2016 to provide 24/7 water services in a large pilot zone through an innovative performance-based design, build and operate contract. KMC is also implementing 24/7 supply in two other areas, reducing its operational inefficiencies, and it plans to progressively achieve 24/7 citywide.

We are proud of our work in Kolkata. What has been achieved over 18 years there is a successful example of phased, integrated urban planning – the core and true essence of making a city resilient. We will continue to work with our partner KMC until all our dreams become reality. We know it is a long and challenging journey, but we will get there.