The basics of Sustainable “Hard” infrastructure

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Creative Commons License photo credit: mcmees24

Today, majority of the urban activities rely on infrastructure such as power, telecom, roads, water supply, mass transportation, solid waste management and sanitation for their efficiency. It is evident that good infrastructure has become an important contributor in development and smooth running of any city.

In modern cities infrastructure can be classified into Hard and Soft infrastructure. “Hard” infrastructure refers to the large physical networks necessary for the functioning of a modern industrial nation, whereas “soft” infrastructure refers to all the institutions which are required to maintain the economic, cultural, health and social standards of a country, such as the financial system, the education system, the health care system, the system of government and law enforcement, as well as emergency services.

In emerging Indian cities providing basic services such as water supply, sanitation, waste management, public transportation particularly to the urban poor are central to promoting environmentally sustainable development and an improved quality of life in expanding cities. Currently, in India, the urban population has outgrown the capacity of urban local bodies to provide and maintain basic civic services including urban poor. This has thus resulted in poor quality of life, sanitation and increased environmental pollution. The infrastructure is the backbone of any city and the negative environmental and social impacts of poorly conceived infrastructure investment will place additional burden on the current and future generations. There by it is necessary to incorporate sustainable design to make improvements that do not deplete natural resources. This also broadly entails solid waste and sewerage recycling, sustainable water management strategies as well as alternative energy.

Water Management

Water has emerged as one of the primary environmental concerns for the 21st century. Many parts of the world are currently facing water shortages, while others must contend with severe water pollution.

Demand for water is growing in most of the Indian cities as every urban citizen requires almost double the amount of water that a rural citizen requires.  Not long ago, most of our cities were self sufficient in meeting their water needs from the existing water bodies to supply water to urban areas. Today these water bodies have completely disappeared due to encroachment and other hazards. The local governing bodies have been stretched to their limits to find water for the growing urban populations. Groundwater in all cities alike has been exploited to the maximum possible extent by the government as well as the private parties. With cities expanding further away from the water source it is predicted that water is going to be a very expensive commodity in the near future.

The International Hydrological Programme, a UNESCO initiative, noted:  ”It is recognized that water problems cannot be solved by quick technical solutions, solutions to water problems require the consideration of cultural, educational, communication and scientific aspects. Given the increasing political recognition of the importance of water, it is in the area of sustainable freshwater management that a major contribution to avoid/solve water-related problems, including future conflicts, can be found.”Emerging Cities are questioning the ecological and financial sustainability of big-pipe water, storm water, and sewer systems and are searching for “lighter footprint” more sustainable solutions. Pilot projects are being built that use, treat, store, and reuse water locally and that build distributed designs into restorative hydrology. Rainwater harvesting is being made mandatory in most of the cities but a more workable model with a wider acceptance needs to be developed to get the maximum advantage.

Solid waste recycling

Waste management over the ages has been treated as a very linear process which involves collection and disposal creating health and environmental hazard. With the ever increasing population India over the next decade is bound to face sever waste disposal problems. The Indian policies do not examine waste as part of a cycle of production-consumption-recovery. The new Municipal Solid Waste Management Rules 2000, which came into effect from January 2004, failed even to manage waste in a cyclical process. With a major chunk of rural population migrating into the cities the current and future scenario reveals that waste needs to be treated holistically.

However the entire concept of waste management in India is misconceived there is an inadequate understanding of both the infrastructure requirements and the social dimensions. Waste can be wealth, which has tremendous potential not only for generating livelihoods for the urban poor but can also enrich the earth through composting and recycling rather than spreading pollution as has been the case. The waste from various sectors like domestic waste, industrial waste, agricultural waste, and others must be separated at source and must be sensibly sent to the right place for recycling. One of the major challenges that India will face in the coming decade will be to educate and ensure that Industries and the domestic households to dispose waste sensibly. The future calls in for integrated solid waste management. Any new ideas that emerge should include a cradle-to-grave approach with responsibility being shared by many stakeholders, including product manufacturers, consumers and communities, the recycling industry, trade, municipalities and the urban poor.

Sanitation Management

It is observed in the tenth five year plan, that three fourths of India’s surface water is polluted and out of that 80% is due to sewage alone. India today has more than 20 cities which have recorded a population of more than 1 million which include the metropolitan cities in which the antiquated sewerage system just cannot handle the rapid expansion. The sewerage systems were built to support a population of about 3 million in these mega cities and cannot manage the present population close to 14 million.

The Asia Water Watch 2015 has noted that India is most likely to achieve its MDG sanitation target in the rural and urban areas. In 1990 a mere 43% of the urban population had improved sanitation and this is expected to increase to 80% by 2015. And in the rural areas it was noted that only 1% received improved sanitation in 1990 and is expected to reach a target of 48% by 2015.

Evidence indicates that only about 45% of the urban population in India has access to sanitation facilities and there is much to accomplish to reach the goal of 100% sanitation coverage for all. It has also been realized that there is a need to look beyond coverage, to the quality of services in terms of making use of new advances in technology, use of low cost technology, use of recycled and more economical forms of user friendly technologies that can be expanded beyond cities to reach small and medium towns in the country.

In the coming years an integrated approach to sewerage disposal can lower the costs by connecting sewerage to waste water treatment. Where in user fees for capital plus operations and maintenance would be included in the project cost and approval process where the rich actually pay for these services. The options of on-site and off-site waste water treatment plans must be considered with respect to the population density and requirements. Reusing grey water for flushing, gardening or irrigation purposes must also be considered.

Alternative energy

India is facing a large demand-supply gap in Energy with average energy shortfall of 9% and peak demand shortfall of 14%. This could be a huge deterrence to economic growth. The per capita energy consumption in India is in the region of 400 KWH per annum which is way lower than developed world cities. This is going to change dramatically in the coming years and our consumption will increase with economic growth. It is crucial to ensure the judicious use of our copious renewable energy resources such as hydro energy, biomass energy, solar energy and wind energy.

The Indian government’s stated target is for renewable energy to contribute 10% of total capacity and 4-5% of the electricity mix by 2012. However, India still doesn’t have national renewable energy policy which is an important agenda to set forward.

Some states have incentives for renewable energy through the Renewable Portfolio which requires electricity suppliers to provide a percentage of their supply from renewable resources. This tool is similar to the Feed-in tariffs that accelerating the deployment of renewable energy in certain countries like Germany & China and needs to be used more widely.

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