5. Implications of urbanization processes for water use and access

Learning objectives

  • understand the different ways in which urbanization processes and emerging rural-urban links impact the flows of water between rural and urban areas
  • understand the diversity of ways in which rural-urban water flows are impacted by urbanization.

Key Concepts

land use practices, common property, urban wastewater, periurban agriculture

1. Water security and the peri-urban

Water security is an evolving paradigm (Cook and Bakker 2012). Framings of water security are divergent and vary across disciplines. They emphasize different aspects of access to water and its relationship with quality of life, human needs, eco-systems and sustainability. Different approaches to conceptualizing water security differ in the relative emphases they place on these components of water security. The agricultural perspective, for instance, emphasises the role of water as an input into food security. Protection from flood and drought risk are also considered a key determinant of water security. Likewise, the Environmental science perspective focuses on access to water functions and services for humans and the environment and water availability in terms of quantity and quality.

Broadly, however,  four inter-related themes appear in the water security literature (Cook and Bakker 2012): water availability, human vulnerability to hazards; human needs and sustainability. The definitions used in the 1990s were linked to specific human security issues such as military security, food security and environmental security.  At the II World Water Forum (2000), the GWP (Global Water Partnership) introduced an integrative definition of water security to encompasss aspects of access and affordability, human needs and ecological health. The UNESCO-IHE institute advocates an infrastructure and systems approach to water security that involves “protection of vulnerable water systems, protection against water related hazards such as floods and droughts, sustainable development of water resources and safeguarding access to water functions and services (UNESCO-IHE, 2009).” Somewhat surprisingly (given the attention paid to water wars in popular media), there is relatively little emphasis in the water security literature on military security or on the concept of environmental security (green wars), which emerged in the 1990s to refer to the links between violent conflict and environmental degradation (Kaplan 1994, Homer-Dixon 1999, Stren 1999).

There is understood to be a diversity of ways in which urbanization processes erode the water security of periurban communities; these include, for instance, the physical flows of water from rural to urban areas through water tankers, the appropriation of periurban groundwater sources by the urban elite for their farm-houses, the acquisition of village level common property resources to build urban infrastructure, the auction of village levels CPRs to urban residents and the encroachment of urban water bodies to urban expansion (Vij 2014, Narain and Khan et al. 2013, Narain 2014, Prakash and Singh et al., 2011). Inherent in these processes are strong equity implications; for instance, often these have implications for landless households and small and marginal farmers that depend on common property resources for their survival (Vij, 2014; Narain 2014). Studies show that such processes weaken the livelihood base of washer men who depended on these sources (lakes and water tanks) for their livelihood (Prakash and Singh et al. 2011), as seen in Hyderabad, or of potters in Gurgaon who depend on village ponds as a source of silt for their occupations (Narain and Nischal 2007).

Urbanisation affects the access of periurban residents to water in several ways (Narain  2009a). Periurban residents are often left chasing the water table as pressures on groundwater increase from water-guzzling factories and farm-houses. It is not simply that they lose access to water as it is physically transported to the cities, but also that the water resources at their own locations may be pre-empted  by the resource rich who are able to afford extraction deep into the aquifers. Urbanisation processes often bring the urban elite into the peripheries, looking for cheap land or other avenues for investing their wealth. They can afford costly water extraction technologies, depriving the locals of access to this resource. For instance, in village Sadhraana in Gurgaon, Narain (2014)  reports how the local residents have been left chasing the water table as farm-houses –  a major ‘rural’ land use of the ‘urban’ elite have pre-empted the groundwater using submersible pump-sets, digging much deeper than what the local residents can. When the groundwater underlying their farm-houses is saline, they have bought small parcels of land overlying the fresh groundwater and transport groundwater through underground pipes to their farm-houses over distances of 2-3 kms. Urbanisation processes thus pose new questions both for sustainability and equity in water use.

2. Nexus thinking

The usual articulation of the rural-urban water nexus is in terms of the physical movement of water from rural to urban areas, as demonstrated, for instance, in the transportation of water from villages to  urban centre through water tankers. However, to understand the implications of urbanisation for rural water use, one needs to look at the wider variety of ways in which urbanisation affects rural water use, rather than the sheer transfer of water from rural to urban areas alone. As cities grow and urban populations multiply, urban authorities typically  respond through   supply augmentation by creating additional water supply infrastructure. The supply of water to cities involves the development and building of water treatment plants that are usually built on land acquired from the peripheral areas. When periurban residents lose this land, they also lose access to water sources located on those lands.  Similarly, when water needs to be transported from distant sources to meet the requirements of the city, it is through canals and channels that pass through the peripheral villages and for which lands are acquired from the peripheral areas. Once the lands go, the periurban residents also lose access to sources of water – such as tubewells – that may be located on those lands. In other words, periurban residents lose both land and water in order to provide water to the growing city.

Access further diminishes as common lands on which local water sources such as village ponds are located are acquired for industrial and urban residential purposes (Narain 2009b). Their routes to water sources get disturbed as they are dissected by lands acquired for construction of highways. As they diversify occupationally and migrate to the cities, the level of interest in maintaining local water sources and other CPRs (common property resources) tends to diminish. The location of sewage treatment plants to supply water to the city disturbs the local quality of life, often raising the local water table level culminating in water logging and a gradual loss of  agricultural productivity (Narain 2009 b). At the same time, the relocation of factories from the city core to the peripheries also contaminates groundwater aquifers (Narain and Nischal 2007). Sewage based agriculture has emerged  as an important form of urban-rural resource flows in South Asia- notably in India and Pakistan but only a few farmers are able to benefit from it, depending on the location of their fields (Narain 2009b). Further, sewage-irrigated crops adversely affect the health of irrigators as well as the consumers of the crops thus irrigated.

The pre-emption of scarce groundwater supplies for industrial use, such as for manufacturing beverages brought popular attention to the subject of use and ownership rights over water (Drew 2008). This has taken the form of the debate on public vs private ownership of groundwater, as in the case of Plachimada, in Kerala in South India, wherein the Perumatty Panchayat chose to support the tribal women who were conducting an infinite sit-in to stop the loss of an estimated 1.5 million litres of water a day. After filing a Public Interest Litigation in the Kerala High Court, the Kerala Chief Minister ordered the closure of the beverage plant on 17 February 2004. The Perumatty Panchayat continued to withhold permission to the company to resume operations (Ranjith  2004).

Key Readings

Key Readings

  • Winrock International India/ International Water Management Institute, 2006. ‘National Workshop on urban wastewater: livelihood, health and environmental impacts in India’, Proceedings. New Delhi: United Services Institution. January 31, 2006. 7 pp.

Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions

  • How does urbanization and emerging rural-urban use impact the flows of water between rural and urban areas?
  • Describe some ways that water moves through and between urban and rural spaces.

Further Readings

Further Readings

  • Douglas, I. 2006. “Peri-urban ecosystems and societies:  transitional zones and contrasting values”, in D.McGregor, D.Simon and D.Thompson, e(ds). The periurban interface: approaches to sustainable natural and human resource use.Earthscan VA, USA.

Other related International Waters Lessons and Submodules


Next submodule: Equity and justice dimensions in rural-urban water flows

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