Water watch

A technology-savvy measuring and monitoring system is poised to power India's ambitious goal of delivering tapped water at the doorstep for every rural household

The supply of safe and sufficient water for each and every household in each and every village of India before the end of 2024 — that may have seemed like a pipe dream even as near as five years back, but not so now. The reason is the Indian government's Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM), an ambitious, elaborate and cost-effective effort to deliver the elixir to rural homes across the country through tapped connections.

JJM is banking on an ecosystem of partnerships — between the central and state governments, between public institutions, private organisations and civil society entities — to reach its daunting goal. The collaborative nature of the endeavour is evident in the making of an essential component that will determine the success of the Mission: a water supply measuring and monitoring system based on the much-touted 'Internet of things' (IoT) network.

Developed and deployed by the Tata Trusts and the Tata Community Initiatives Trust (TCIT), this 'smart water management' system has been piloted in geographically and geologically diverse villages in the states of Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Himachal Pradesh. There are 11 pilot projects in the programme and their purpose is to show how the monitoring mechanism can contribute to JJM's wider rollout.

The monitoring system employs sensors, software, electronics and the net — the technology elements of the IoT matrix — to capture, collate and transmit data on the quality and quantity of water available to households in the chosen villages. Human intervention is minimal in a low-cost setup where a host of water-related parameters are tracked in real time: distribution, leakages, groundwater levels and purity, and community usage statistics.

The logic driving the IoT-based system is solid. The case for robust and reliable management and monitoring of India's increasingly scarce water resources has never been stronger. An estimated 30% of rural water supply schemes flounder due to poor maintenance and the inability to take speedy corrective action. Besides the waste of public funds, such lapses worsen the socioeconomic woes of rural families, particularly women.

Pilot to prototype

It is expected that the pilot projects will provide a water-monitoring prototype that can be made operational through JJM in all of India's 660,000-plus villages. That would make this path-breaking solution — which kicked off in September 2020 — the largest of its kind in the world in terms of implementation scale and spread.

Flexibility is built into the IoT-based solution, which has been fine-tuned to function in areas with poor internet connectivity and a shortage of skilled personnel to run it. The villages in the programme are solitary units — save for Gujarat, where there is a cluster of villages — and they have been picked to account for assorted climatic conditions, water sources and availability levels. That explains hilly Uttarakhand and arid Rajasthan being put into the mix.

A training session for water user group members in Bhoola village in Sirohi district
A training session for water user group members in Bhoola village in Sirohi district

Provincial singularities aside, the initiative depends on widely prevalent methods of water management. "When the idea came up, the thinking was that this is already being executed in many urban areas and that we could transfer it to a rural setting," explains Divyang Waghela, who heads the water, sanitation and hygiene portfolio at the Tata Trusts. "That's where we started and then we examined the ground realities and the challenges at the community level."

The community is central in the initiative and understanding the water needs of village consumers was critical in the design and implementation framework arrived at by the project team. "In rural India the responsibility of managing water resources rests largely with panchayats [village councils] and they have limited resources and technical knowledge," adds Mr Waghela. "Secondly, equitable distribution of water is just not happening in rural regions. We wanted to enhance the efficiency of water usage and make village communities the managers of the process."

As with JJM as a whole, partnerships underpin the IoT-based system. It could not have been any other way. "Water in our country, particularly rural water supply, involves multiple stakeholders and is a complex subject," says Siddhant Masson, who leads the project from the TCIT side. "We have joined hands with village communities, water user groups and local NGOs for on-ground implementation. We have also collaborated with state government authorities, including their public health and rural water supply departments. We now have a common governance structure to ensure the system's sustenance."

Of all the things…

T echnology — affordable, durable and feasible for rural locales — is a cornerstone of the IoT-based solution. There are sensors to track and measure water flow, groundwater levels, water pressure and water purity. The IoT platform is integrated with a GIS (geographical information system) to enable a decision-support system for engineers and utility operators through automated alerts and analytics. To cite one big advantage here: predictive maintenance and grievance redressal happen fast and simple.

Given how rare a reliable internet connection is in the country's rural reaches, the project is engineered to function on LoRa, a networking protocol that offers long-range local wireless networks in constrained environments and meets IoT requirements. Erratic power supply is another persistent obstacle in India's villages and it has been dealt with by turning to solar energy (this is likely the first time in the world that a solar-powered IoT system capable of supporting hundreds of sensors has been developed).

There are two units in the IoT-based system, one for monitoring and the other for communications. These are sensors attached to the pipeline through which the water flows from its supply source. The gathered data is relayed every hour (or whatever the period set) to a central cloud server for analysis and action before being transmitted by SMS to multiple points.

Technology vendors, many of them from the startup space, are another vital part of the IoT solution. Finding the right fit was not always easy. "This system had to be developed at a fraction of its market price to keep it affordable, and we had to facilitate adoption and scalability," says Mr Masson. "We had to work with our technology suppliers to maintain a balance between cost and feature richness. Several vendors backed out but we were finally able to secure our end-state solution."

There were other roadblocks as well. "One of the challenges we faced was to complete the pilots in the middle of the pandemic," adds Mr Masson. "We had to use small windows of time to do our installations and test our system. We took it for granted that we would get easy access to grid electricity to power our IoT devices. That wasn't to be and we ran into several bottlenecks. The decision to plump for solar power eliminated the dependency on grid supply."

Taking care of hiccups

Tampering, mainly by curious village children, and theft of the IoT devices were additional issues that needed sorting out. Protective gear and tamper-detection gadgets took care of these hiccups but ultimately it was the community that counted. "We believed that community mobilisation and education were crucial for the success of such a system," says Mr Masson. "And the community took ownership of these assets."

The proof of the pilot projects pudding is in its positive outcomes. Distribution problems — outages, leakages, low pressure, etc — have been rapidly resolved across the sites, officials and the community now know about fast-depleting groundwater levels, villagers have begun using water more efficiently and responsibly, and administration officials and others are able to monitor and manage water quality and quantity remotely. "Our system has demonstrated high accuracy and uptime despite patchy network connectivity," says Mr Masson.

Several states have been interested enough by the smart water management system to take it on board. Bihar is deploying it in more than 50,000 rural locations. Gujarat, Arunachal Pradesh and Haryana have started the process of embedding it in their rural water supply schemes, and Goa, Punjab and Sikkim are planning similar initiatives in the coming months.

Mr Masson's pride in what has been accomplished thus far is palpable. "We are extremely glad we could deliver a high-fidelity IoT system within a highly constrained environment and at such a low cost." The satisfaction level could climb to new highs as the rest of rural India cottons on to a water solution out of the ordinary.