Maintaining Maharashtra: The High-Tech Response to Water Crisis

A vulnerable water network and a devastating 2009 legal decision left millions without fresh water in Maharashtra, India. Chris Lo talks to hydraulic modelling specialist Jack Cook of infrastructure software company Bentley about the software that got the state's water supply system back on its feet.


In densely populated regions of developing countries, providing access to clean, portable water can be a serious problem for local authorities, and few regions are as densely populated as the Indian state of Maharashtra. Home to more than 100 million people as well as the sprawling metropolis of Mumbai, Maharashtra and its residents depend on a steady flow of water to survive.

This flow was disrupted in 2009, when the Indian Supreme Court ruled to restrict water taken from the Krishna River, prompting authorities to cut supplies every Friday, affecting the lives of 17 million people and leaving parts of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region on the verge of civil violence.

The problem lay not only with the weekly water cuts, but also with the inefficiency of the distribution network, which could take up to 30 hours after the system was reactivated to get water flowing out of taps again.

The Maharashtra Water Supply and Sanitation Department and Maharashtra Jeevan Pradhikaran (MJP - formerly known as the Maharashtra Water Supply and Sewerage Board) faced the daunting task of identifying and improving inefficient areas of the network to bring peace back to the region. The department's engineers used modelling programs from infrastructure software company Bentley to re-balance the system and bring back reliable water supplies to millions. Jack Cook, Bentley's vice-president in charge of software development, oversaw the project and the technology that made it a success.

"The Indian Supreme Court ruled to restrict water taken from the Krishna River, prompting authorities to cut supplies every Friday, affecting the lives of 17 million people."

Chris Lo: What was the water supply situation in Maharashtra before the project took place?

Jack Cook: The Mumbai area is situated to the west of a coastal mountain range, with a number of west-flowing rivers that go into several different states. There was a bit of inter-basin transfer, because some reservoirs and plants are located along the Krishna River Basin system. Some water was captured, managed and then sent west across the divide. The receiving states made their case that they were not getting their fair share of that water.

When it went to the Supreme Court, it was decided that millions of cubic metres of water had to be diverted from its normal use. That translated into a day's cycle being denied supply water. I think it was Friday morning to Saturday morning - the plan was to shut off water to specific areas in order to live up to the court mandate.

CL: What was the MJP's approach to solving the water supply problems caused by the distribution restrictions from the Krishna River?

JC: The main thing about having a model is that you don't have to leave the office to look at the effects and get a handle on the hydraulic simulation. The initial response was to turn off the valves, and they realised that was having a paralysing effect. Beyond the ability to deny the service, there were drain-down times in pipes so large that the trunk mains couldn't be refilled and restored. They realised right away with the physical mobilisation that a disaster was happening.

They had to turn to the models to look at the hydraulics of the simulation. So, you're bringing in elements of storage, elevations and hydraulic grades.

At some level, when you get into large-scale intermittent supply problems, and this is where MJP is leading the way, you tend to get artificial demands asserted against your system as users essentially hoard.

They have rooftop storage, they boost water into it. When the supply is there, the idea is to capture the water and look after your household.

With models, MJP was able to see some of the intervening low-lying areas pulling water out of the main trunk line, and was able to set up logical control simulations and scenarios. By controlling the availability of water to prevent hoarding and enforcing an equitable, reliable allocation of flows, it is effectively changing behaviours.

By making it so the intervening supplies could not pull water out of the Krishna diversion into the main Mumbai area, MJP could service the storage into those areas and maintain supply on an equitable basis.

"With models, MJP was able to see some of the intervening low-lying areas pulling water out of the main trunk line."

In this case, the hydraulics were denying the service because of the intervening low population zones extracting water. The intervention was to control the availability of water to those areas, manage it and allocate based on societal needs to achieve balance. When you talk to Sanjay Dahasahasra [MJP's member secretary], who is the evangelist of water modelling in India, he found that if you build that trust bond of reliability in supplies, people will pay their bills and the complaints and diseases go down. I think he deserves a lot of credit because he is an amazing individual, he's really a privilege to know and he's saved a lot of lives.

CL: What software was used to address the water network's problems?

JC: The core application was WaterGems, which is a geographic information system [GIS], a feature-based mapping model with a hydraulic engine and various analytical tools built to simulate the distribution of pressures and flows. So you can assert a changing, diurnal domestic demand or industrial special-user demands against your supplies. The pumps can operate as they're scheduled to based on elevations and so on.

I think the most important thing with models is that you can put data in motion. We invented scenarios that let a modeller introduce changes in certain aspects of the system. They can simulate all these alternatives and look at the various responses and justify their actions by scenarios. Scenarios can be used for planning capital improvements. They can also be used for verifying the performance of operational strategies such as valve-based diversions like we had in the Krishna River.

CL: Speed was important on this urgent project. How can modelling software help when a project needs to progress rapidly?

JC: A pressure-based hydraulic network is, by its nature, robust. You have to model a great number of facilities and devices. It's almost like tinker toys when you build these networks together. MJP has something like 1,700 staff reporting to Sanjay, and the majority of them are actually engaged in modelling. It has a lot of engineers and supervisors who are always out in the field. They've learned how to take infrared-based GIS as base mapping; they go out into the field, they interview consumers for demand.

There are lots of feet on the ground and the majority of these guys can actually come back to the office and lay down the pipes. We don't need precise, coordinated control; it's enough to know that a 12in main is running alongside the street, so to craft these models quickly is key. The technology has to be accessible and easy to use. These models build up in a structured, managed way, but once they're built, they're living. So a lot of people are invested in the model, a lot of people can access and use the models. If you look at all the urban local boards, there are hundreds of models.

CL: What improvements to the system do you envisage now that the immediate crisis has been resolved?

"You see MJP leading the way in installing bulk meters, setting up leak management, nonrevenue water loss management and leakage audits."

JC: Right now, like the rest of the world, one of the key things is to chase the non-revenue water. It's important, particularly in the developing world and the United Nations advances this notion.

Water is the new oil; it's a finite resource, and the scarcity has to be realised, managed and paid for. You can't have these systems leaking and you can't pump a gallon pump into leakages, because you've lost the cost of the energy that goes into pumping, you've lost the cost of the extraction and the treatment. The carbon losses are tremendous. Managing infrastructure so that water isn't lost and wasted is a key thing.

You see MJP leading the way in installing bulk meters, setting up leak management, nonrevenue water loss management and leakage audits - that's the next thing. MJP has an ongoing intermittent supply problem, so it has to develop more sources.

Culturally, it's expanding and distributing independent control of the distribution system to the local urban boards, so it needs to empower the local urban boards so that once water is delivered into the local storage, the urban local boards are able to run their own models and make their own allocation and distribution decisions. It's a growing institutionalised modelling renaissance in India. Mumbai has the led the way, and all the cities are moving forward with modelling.