India is at a real turning point in its water resource management moving from a reactive to a proactive engagement

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Sustainability Outlook spoke to Chris O’Neill, Director of Hydronumerics, an Australian water resource management company foraying into the Indian market, about the growing water problems in India and possible solutions to counter the situation.

As a water resources management company, what in your opinion is the biggest water related problem that India faces?

Water scarcity is the biggest problem in India. To this end, I think there are a lot of similarities between India and Australia, and to move forward both our countries will require proactive water cycle management. How we manage all our water sources is where the challenge lies. I was in Gujarat recently, and I noticed that a lot of their agricultural lands are in the northwest but most of their dams and rainfall occurs in the south east. The problem is that there is a disparity in water supply and demand. The policy following India’s 12th water plan is all about increasing water use efficiency, an area that I believe is a huge problem for governments throughout the world. Governments in India and the rest of the world must respond to increases in population, climate change and increasing demand for potable water supply. India currently ends up using almost 85% of its fresh water supply in the agriculture sector. The biggest challenge is in allocating water across agriculture, industry and domestic sectors. Those 3 areas of proportionate distribution are the paramount issues. Issues of waste water management and quality are somewhat secondary in India because the disparity between demand and current supply level needs to be addressed first. The question then arises as to how it can this be done sustainably? It’s through access to information, catchment plans and all levels of government working together. In some states in Australia, we have now enshrined the environment as a user through a revision of water rights. During allocations, the environment is an office bearer and can negotiate for quantity. At Hydronumerics we believe that the best decisions are made through the best access to information.

Could you tell me something more about the work and achievements of Hydronumerics?

Hydronumerics is working within a growing paradigm for water resource management: from being reactive to pro-active. We are a full service environmental and water resource management engineering company. We currently operate in Australia, Asia and South America. One of our key services is the Decision Support Systems that assists resource managers with data management, quality control, forecasting and scenario assessment and condense complex scientific information for managers and operators. This reduces the expense, time and uncertainty during the decision-making processes. Our clients come to us for seeking answers to a number of critical questions in resource management, especially in understanding the  operational and public health risks associated with the impacts of environmental, system and climate change on aquatic resources. 

For example, if there is going to be an impact from reforestation, changes within urban catchments or increasing population, we can use data, hydrodynamic and water quality models and decision support systems to help sustainably manage the water resource. 

Hydronumerics is privileged to have the Melbourne Water (Victoria), Sydney Catchment Authority (Sydney) and SA Water (South Australia) amongst its Australian clients. Internationally, we provide ongoing services to the Public Utilities Board of Singapore, SABESP Brazil and Tottori University, Japan. We also consult extensively to private industries. We work with private industries to shape a combined response where they have an impact on a water resource, especially where there are forecast environmental or human health impacts. From our roots at the Centre for Water Research, University of Western Australia, we have developed strong scientific and analytical skills, and we apply this knowledge when working with our current client base.

Do you think that the advanced technologies that you speak of will be economically feasible for a developing country like India to capitalize on? What are your plans for the Indian market? What kind of services are you offering? 

The answer is yes, they are economically feasible. It’s about how much you are ready to invest in things such as these. I heard that there are plans for a considerable number of new dams in the Himalayas. When you look at the cost of new dams compared to implementing a Decision Support System and to undertake modelling during the investment phase, it represents only a minor component. 

We are here to sell our professional services. We are staffed with water service engineers and scientists, in decision support systems and modeling. The real issue in any market is getting a buy in from the government and the first step is understanding where they may need help. We facilitate the sale of measurement hardware for water resources through third parties and we are committed to getting the price point right for entry into the Indian market. 

In selling into the Indian market, for Hydronumerics there is a 100% focus on modelling and decision support systems. Our business model is such that it is 100% transferable to any market. We have used our models and have put up ARMS Decision Support System in Singapore, Japan, Korea which are very proactive high-tech but also in Brazil, where we have experienced many of the water resource and quality issues that India faces But a lot of our work is in helping clients to understand where they need to invest in terms of monitoring and management because we are often driven at a policy level to over monitor. We try to optimise investment in monitoring by understanding the system and considering what the monitoring programme is going to achieve. During this process, we invest in skill and technology transfer to embed the skills into business processes of the resource manager. 

Do you feel that there is a growing demand for water management companies such as yourself in the Indian market?

When we consider the release of the 12th water plan and the various state policies and I think India is at a real turning point in its water resource management, moving from a reactive to a proactive engagement. I think the computing infrastructure is good enough in India to move into a real-time management system and into the decision support system framework. We want to partner in that going forward with the Central Government as well the states in India. 

How do Decision Support Systems help in reducing actual wastage?

We have an ethos that the best decisions are made with the best access to information. And the better we are about communicating that information to managers at e.g. CPCB and/or the Jal Boards, it would enable them to maintain and manage these resources more sustainably. We also engage with our clients and provide advice on ways to shape efficiencies through reduction of operational waste, energy waste as also efficient management of resources while not over capitalizing the infrastructure. The modeling helps to understand the entire system in an integrated way and enables us to advise the clients on how to optimize their water resource, Capex and Opex, and reduce their environmental impact.

When there is so much fragmentation (and misalignment) between policies and actual implementation and actions, bundling information together into easily accessible, robust and transparent modules is really the step forward that India can take. I think auditable transparent data sources will really resonate with Indians and I think if the government really promotes these sort of mechanisms, it’ll definitely have an uptake.

In your time here, what alliances or partnerships have you shaped in India?

We have recently submitted a joint project with TERI and ourselves for a whole of catchment management proposal in Andhra Pradesh. I view this as a very positive linkage for us.  There is tremendous opportunity in the Indian market. India is a priority investment for Hydronumerics in the next 5-10 years.

This interview was conducted by Anindita Chakraborty, a member of the Sustainability Outlook team.