Challenges in Urban Water Governance: Informal Water Tanker Supply in Chennai and Mumbai, India

By Karthik M.R., Susanne Schmeier, Gabriela Cuadrado Quesada

A majority of India’s urban population experiences intermittent water supply. The rapidly rising demand for clean water has fostered the rise of various informal water supply modes in many Indian cities. The informal water supply comes with an increased risk of water insecurity and possible conflict between different water users as well as between users and tanker operators, but can also possibly lead to a delegitimisation of local (or even state and national) governments, that is seemingly unable to perform basic public services. This policy brief outlines the mode of operations of the Informal Water Tankers (IWTs) in the complex waterscapes of Chennai and Mumbai and how they potentially contribute to local water insecurity and water conflict.

Across the cities, supply gaps exist due to numerous lapses in water governance and management whereas in some cases, these supply gaps are created to facilitate consumption of such informal water supply modes. These informal water tankers form an important part of the urban water supply chain. They often obtain water of questionable quality by nefarious means and sell them at exorbitant tariffs, potentially contributing to local-level conflict. In order to reduce related conflict and instability risks, regulatory frameworks need to be strengthened and the informality of the system needs to be addressed, ensuring that safe water is provided reliably to those in need, without compromising people’s health or the legitimacy of public institutions.

Water truck in India
An IWT spilling water while supplying it to the water users at night in Mumbai. The lettering on the IWT states that the water is reverse osmosis (R.O.) filtered. (Photo credits: Karthik M.R., 2021)


Background and description of the problem

Water resources are tied in with most markers of development like food security, health, and poverty reduction and play a key role in people’s water security. This is especially true for a developing country like India. India is a federal state and water and some associated infrastructure are managed by the respective state governments (Cullet, 2007). Over time, the governments have accommodated the demands of the elites in the various spheres of the socio-political system, resulting in short-term benefits for these elites whilst the rational technical and development criteria affecting the bulk of the masses have been ignored (Chaplin, 2011). The outlook toward the formulation of public health and environmental policy in urban India has been to mitigate disasters (Prakash, 2014) rather than build sound policies that consider the general well-being of the people (Chaplin, 2011). This implies a risk of grievances, social instability, and government delegitimisation.

Water situation: The population in the urban pockets of India has grown at double the rate compared to the country at large and no city in India has an uninterrupted supply of water (Srinivasan et al., 2010). Groundwater in India depleted at a rate of 10 to 25 mm per year between 2002 and 2016 and 21 Indian cities – including Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad now face a risk of running out of groundwater which could affect 100 million people (NITI Aayog, 2018). Further, nearly half of India’s population will have no access to drinking water by 2030 (NITI Aayog, 2018). The quality of water in large cities in India often falls short of the mandated benchmarks (NITI Aayog, 2018). Many water-supply networks are old and are equipped with water treatment plants but these treatment plants either lay defunct or are under-maintained, and the water for domestic purposes is often contaminated (Angueletou-Marteau, 2009). In Chennai and Mumbai, water resources are rapidly dwindling, water supply is disparate, and the water stress is compounded by exploding population. Chennai experienced its own ‘day zero’ when it ran out of water in the formal supply systems in 2019 (Karthik, 2020). The water shortage has led to numerous instances of violence and protests in the two cities (Aguilera, 2019; Muralidharan, 2019; The Guardian, 2016; The Indian Express, 2019). These water issues not only severely affect people’s lives and livelihoods and their economic development opportunities, but also the social dynamics between different people, communities, and social groups.

The emergence of IWTs: The exclusion of millions of water users from accessing safe water due to water shortages, supply disparities, ineffective regulatory monitoring, rapid urbanisation, and innovative means of exploitation of groundwater across the country has created more opportunities for numerous non-state actors to enter the water supply domain (Chauhan & Sewak, 2016; Garrick et al., 2019; Prakash, 2014). Some of these informal water suppliers have established supply strongholds within cities by indulging in illegal and exploitative practices. Their operations are often conducted in secrecy, and it is postulated that these informal water operators have business ties with the politicians, water utility providers, and societal elite in India (Ranganathan, 2014; Viqueira, 2019). While they emerged in response to the dire water situation in the country, they can lead to new societal challenges themselves.

Corruption: The formal water supply and irrigation domain in India is mired in corruption and pilferage (Viqueira, 2019; Wade, 1982). India also ranks high on the list of most corrupt countries in the world, i.e. 86th on the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) with a score of 40 out of 100, and 89% of Indians think that corruption within the government is a big problem (Transparency International, 2020). 39% of public utilities and services users admit to having paid a bribe in the twelve months leading up to the 2020 study by Transparency International (Transparency International, 2020). Such inherent corruption, coupled with unscrupulous competition for water, unpredictable climate conditions, failure of the state to provide adequate water infrastructure (Chaplin, 2011), and a rapidly growing population impedes the development of the economy, rendering it nearly impossible to formulate strategies and policies to ensure water security (Aarnoudse, 2011). The corruption has potentially negative implications for social peace and stability extending beyond the water sector.


Description of the study areas

Chennai is a port city located in the south of India, on its eastern coast along the Bay of Bengal. The massive suburban sprawl of Chennai and its satellite towns are collectively called the Chennai Metropolitan Area (CMA) (Imam & Banerjee, 2016). It is the fourth-largest metropolis in India, and the 22nd most populous city in Asia (Imam & Banerjee, 2016). The estimated population of the city in 2022 is 11 million (Nambi et al., 2014). Chennai receives most of its seasonal rainfall of about 1400mm from the northeast monsoon winds, from mid-September to mid-December (Indian Meteorological Department, 2022a). This study focuses on the north, central, and southern regions of the Chennai Metropolitan Area (Figure 1 - left).

Mumbai, the capital of the state of Maharashtra, is located on the western shores of India. It is a major economic hub and is one of the most densely populated cities in the world (Shafizadeh Moghadam & Helbich, 2013). As of 2011 (last census), about 12.5 million people lived within the 438 km2 of the city in the island peninsula (the city) and its mainland (suburbs) (Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner India, 2011). Mumbai receives about 2600mm of rainfall annually from June to September (Sansare & Mhaske, 2020). This study, however, focuses on the Mumbai city and suburban region only (Figure 1- centre and right). 


Maps of Mumbai

Figure 1: The Chennai Metropolitan Region (L), Mumbai City (C), and Mumbai Suburban region (R).


The Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB), also called Metro Water, is an autonomous water services entity responsible for water supply in Chennai City. The volume of water provided by Metro Water shows a great variance year-on-year between summer and the other months. The alternative water modes often cost more and pose increased health risks (Srinivasan, 2008). About 65% of domestic water demand is met by state-run sources and the rest comes from ‘self-supply’ sources like exploitation of groundwater, official Metro Water tankers, and informal water tankers. It is estimated that there are about 5000 unregulated informal water tanker firms/operators in Chennai with about 6000-10,000 tankers (Metro Water Engineer, 2021).

In Mumbai, the formal water network, water planning, building, and management are all handled by the Hydraulic Engineers Department of the Municipality (Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM). Mumbai receives about 3900 MLD (million litres per day) of water from the 7 reservoirs and lakes beyond its northern reaches but this still falls short of its requirement of 4200 MLD. Mumbai has no accessible official record of the leakages in its piped water supply system, but it is estimated that the leakage/loss is between 20 to 40%  across the city (Hydraulic Engineer Department Staff #1, 2021).

Overview of research conducted

The data presented in this policy brief was derived from a master’s thesis written by the first author at IHE Delft Institute for Water, the Netherlands. The exploratory study utilised a mixed-methods approach to explore the causes of the existence and proliferation of informal tanker water suppliers in Chennai and Mumbai. The study utilised in-depth desktop research which was instrumental in establishing the past and prevailing conditions of water supply, the relevant legal and regulatory norms, the modus operandi of the water tanker operators, the state of the water infrastructure, and water supply disparities. The socio-political processes of water supply in the cities were unravelled through various interviews with the water tanker operators, select water experts, water utility employees, and water users. Seventy-two respondents were surveyed in total across both cities to gather information about their water supply and water use dynamics. Water samples were collected and analysed across the two cities to ascertain the quality of water in the IWT supply chain.

Policy and regulatory frameworks – informal water supply modes

The relevant legal frameworks which regulate the water resources in each state, i.e., Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu were reviewed. While India lacks a national-level law to regulate freshwater, several different regulatory principles, rules, and acts have been adopted through the years (Cullet, 2007). These range from the colonial-era irrigation laws to the federal judiciary’s recognition of the human right to water. India does have a non-legally binding National Policy on water which serves as guidance for states to formulate their water policies and laws as well as the Model Groundwater (Sustainable Management) Bill, 2017 which states can use as a template to draft their groundwater laws (Cullet, 2018).

The two states considered for this study have legalisation protecting their groundwater bodies against over-abstraction and exploitation. Tanker operators plying under the mandate of the formal water authority in Mumbai are subject to the policies outlined in the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM)’s ‘Comprehensive policy for municipal water supply through water tanker’. The 2003 Tamil Nadu Groundwater (Development and Management) Act was repealed in 2013 due to inadequately defined terms for water users and the poorly implemented requirement that all groundwater abstractors must be registered with the state’s water authorities (Government of Tamil Nadu, 2013; Ramakrishnan, 2013). Chennai’s water resources are also regulated under the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Act, 1978 and the Chennai Metropolitan Area Groundwater (Regulation) Act 1987.     

While the laws and regulations provide a good foundation and starting point for effective water governance, the propagation of knowledge about these regulatory frameworks is lacking along with its grassroots-level enforcement. The groundwater laws, rules, and associated policies in both cities recognise that the water resources are under threat, yet they falter in the implementation and monitoring of these laws. The lack of overarching national water legislation for freshwater has led to disparities in the different state-level and federal-level legal frameworks which impedes effective implementation and monitoring of water resources but also leads to inequalities between different water uses, favouring the more well-off and leaving poorer groups to the mercy of tanker operators. This does bear the risk of grievances.     

Sign of water works being carried out
Water works being carried out on the streets of Mumbai. (Photo credits: Karthik M.R., 2022)


Insights into IWTs’ operations in Chennai and Mumbai

As numerous water users across the two cities do not have access to the state’s piped water supply system, the informal water tankers and packaged water suppliers have swiftly capitalised on the water demand. The modus operandi of the Informal Water Tankers (IWTs) in Mumbai is shrouded in utmost secrecy whereas the IWTs in Chennai discuss their activities quite freely. Some IWT operators see themselves as extensions of the formal water supply system and deem their work to be a social service for the “good of the community”, while at the same time undermining local governance mechanisms.

Prevalence of use of IWTs: In Mumbai, 52% of water users surveyed resort to IWT supply, and 55% of water users surveyed use cans of water and/or bottled water regularly. 55% of the respondents report that they are dissatisfied with the formal piped water supply in the city due to cost, quality, and the erratic nature of supply.  69% of water users believe that the government has failed in providing a clean and secure water supply.

In Chennai, 58% of water users surveyed resort to IWT supply, 19% use Metro Water’s tanker supply, and 91% of water users surveyed use cans of water and/or bottled water regularly. 69% of the respondents report that they are dissatisfied with the formal piped water supply. 61% believe that the government has failed in providing a reliable and safe water supply. It is estimated that in 2019, about INR 20 billion (~EUR 0.24 billion) of water was purchased in Chennai, and the informal water market accounted for about half of that (Water Expert Chennai #1, 2021). There are about 300-400 commercial and industrial water bottling units in the city and most of these operate by tapping water without the requisite permissions and clearance certificates from the relevant authorities.

Sources of water for IWTs: The IWT operators source their water from unapproved siphons/outlets in the main water supply pipelines, peri-urban sites such as farms, and surface water bodies like small lakes and reservoirs, abandoned housing plots with borewells, or even the state utility’s tanker filling points (especially in Mumbai). A more common operational tactic is to maintain a source at a farm by paying the farmer or the “squatters” on the land a monthly fee to extract as much water as the tankers need. In Chennai, the Metro Water tanker operators sometimes also collaborate with the IWT operators and have their own cans/bottled water delivery service, or they drive the informal tankers in their spare time. These Metro Water tanker drivers and their assistants share the location and information about their own (Metro Water) sources with the informal operators for a price, and these sources are “taken over” by the IWT operators by paying more for using the water than what Metro Water can and is willing to pay. The IWT operators in Chennai utilise a scouting technique wherein, a ‘scout’ travels during daylight on a moped or a motorbike in the areas which are thought to have water resources (quality notwithstanding). The IWT operators in Mumbai extract water rather openly and often travel as far as 20-30 km to the edges of the city during summer to pick up water. The IWT operators in Chennai routinely transport water over distances of 40-50 km one way.   

Maps of Chennai

Figure 2: A map tracing out the different informal water tanker routes in Chennai (L) and Mumbai (R) (map courtesy OSM 2022, N is up)


Quality of IWT water in Chennai: The E. coli assemblage in 75% of the water samples exceeds the acceptable 0 Colony Forming Units (CFU) norm laid out for drinking water. 25% of water samples also contained more than 0.01 mg/L of Arsenic, exceeding the acceptable BIS standard for Arsenic. 91% of IWT water users describe the water quality as bad, i.e., implying that it had impurities and could not be safely used for consumption without treating it. All water users who use other sources of water (except cans/bottled water) report that the water quality is bad and 83% of water users utilise some form of water filtration technique. The water in the city has a relatively higher total dissolved salt (TDS) content, lending it a salty and sometimes bitter taste.      

Quality of IWT water in Mumbai: The E. coli assemblage in 75% of the water samples exceeds the acceptable 0 Colony Forming Units (CFU) norm laid out for drinking water; none of the water samples contained more than 0.01 mg/L of Arsenic, the acceptable BIS standard for Arsenic. 73% of IWT users describe the water quality as bad, i.e., implying that it had impurities and could not be safely used for consumption without treating it. 58% of water users who use other sources of water (except cans/bottled water) report that the water quality is good. 94% of water users utilise some form of water filtration technique.
There have been numerous reports of sewage mixing with water supply pipelines in both cities and the problem emerges more often when the city floods due to heavy rainfall events. All the tankers encountered in Mumbai had large lettering emblazoned on the sides of tankers stating that they were carrying ‘potable water’ and in some cases, the lettering stated that the water was purified through the reverse osmosis technology but none of them filtered or treated their water, and no checks are performed to ensure a certain threshold of water quality is maintained. The tanker operators even charge a premium rate for cleaner water but supply the same, untreated water at a higher cost. This again illustrates the implications on people, their lives and their health.  

The cost of water:
IWT operators in both cities utilise dynamic pricing based on numerous factors such as distance travelled to pick up the water, time of the day for delivery, traffic conditions, advertised quality of water, type of customer (domestic, commercial, hospital, or hotel), weather, and demand. IWT operators in both cities have grave concerns about increasing fuel prices. Water users in Chennai spend between INR 2000 to 6500/month whereas their counterparts in Mumbai spend between INR 1500 to 8000/month on IWT supply.                                                                                                                                                                  

Nexus between real estate developers, water managers and/or decision-making authorities, and IWT operators: As Mumbai grew in an unplanned manner over the last three decades, the formal piped water network did not extend itself to service all the newly built areas (Water Expert Mumbai #2, 2022). The formal water infrastructure could not cope with the rapid urbanisation in many parts of the city, and in many others, the water infrastructure was deliberately made to lag by decision-making authorities (Real Estate Developer and Builder in Mumbai, 2021). A nexus between real estate developers, water managers and/or decision-making authorities, and IWT operators started developing in areas where the land was reclassified and allocated for residential or commercial use, especially in the northern suburbs. While the land was being built upon, the tanker operators supplied water to the real estate developers for construction at a concessional rate with the promise that the tanker operator would have exclusive water supply rights for the property once construction was complete (Real Estate Developer and Builder in Mumbai, 2021). The builder would market the apartment or commercial precinct as one that receives an uninterrupted 24/7 water supply. In a few other cases, the authorities struck down requests for an extension of the formal piped network at the request of the tanker operator to create a supply gap (Water Expert Mumbai #2, 2022). In cases where such a nexus existed, once the building had been constructed, the builder would hand over the property rights and occupancy certificate (a legal contract) indicating that the land has now been transferred to the new building housing society (Real Estate Developer and Builder in Mumbai, 2021; Water User Mumbai #1, 2021). It then became a problem for the housing society to procure water supply since the building had been built without the basic water supply infrastructure. The tanker operators would then swoop into these localities to supply water at a premium rate while the local water actors and officials tussle over securing water rights only to delay it until the next election cycle but never fulfil the promise to secure water supply. This contributes to a delegitimisation of local government institutions as they clearly fail to provide basic public services.

Implications on water users’ water security: Elite water users can leverage their wealth, and societal, and political connections to secure their water access while the marginalised water users struggle to ascertain a reliable water supply. The formal water infrastructure in these cities is inefficient and unreliable, and the informal water tankers are efficient, but water users cannot rely upon these modes throughout the year since their tariff is dynamic and their dependence on ever-changing water sources makes them unreliable. The temporally flimsy nature of the informal water tanker supply system makes it merely a stop-gap solution for the water supply issues.

Competition and emerging conflicts:  The socio-economic nature of competition and conflicts for water in urban India is quite complex due to unplanned infrastructural growth, caste politics, a wide disparity between economic strata of citizens (Chaplin, 2011), and growing water demand compounded by climate change (Press Trust of India, 2018). The IWT operators are engaged in a fierce battle with the state water supply authorities to source water and supply it across the cities. The IWT operators attempt to bring more water users within their supply chain to maximise profits and to accomplish this, they often pilfer water from the formal supply chain or even deliberately tamper with the water supply lines. Water users in the peri-urban and rural pockets around these cities often compete to satisfy their basic needs for water since the cities are growing at a tremendous rate and water from these regions is often diverted to the city. As the formal water providers and IWT operators appropriate more water resources from these peri-urban regions, resentment and discontent are slowly fomenting conflict. The utilisation of cut-throat tactics by these IWTs to accomplish their business goals while refusing to adhere to societal and environmental norms and legal regulations poses a serious water risk to these Indian water users. The presence of such conflicts is not to say that there exists no collusive behaviour among the IWT operators, the water managers, and the formal water infrastructure stewards. The nexus between the real estate developers and elements of the water infrastructure is one such instance of such ‘tie-ups’. The existing competition and emerging conflicts are a cause for concern as new stressors like climate change and the burgeoning demand is introduced in an already stressed waterscape in each city.

The incongruity of Informal Water Tankers’ operations:  The paradox presented by IWTs is ripe – they exist because the state has failed to provide adequate water which is indicative of institutional weakness but at the same time, monitoring and regulating the IWTs would need strong institutional capacity. The IWTs operate with tremendous flexibility and adaptability since they need not conform to any boundary conditions imposed by the authorities. If these were to be brought under the umbrella of formal supply systems, they would lose flexibility and cease to be informal.         

Supply-augmentation biased policy approach: The two cities exhibit a modified integrated water resources management approach which is heavily skewed in the favour of its belief in the markets and technology but little in the due processes of participation and deliberation with equity in matters of water policy. Even the implementation of its technological tools is biased towards somehow increasing the water availability and there is little inclination towards ascertaining efficient supply and use of the water that is already available. This increased focus and inclination in both cities to explore new sources of water and ‘develop’ more water resources have manifested itself in the setting-up of desalination plants, appropriation of peri-urban surface and groundwater resources, the building of dams or linking rivers, and the proliferation of the bottled and packaged water industry. The cost of developing new water sources is also increasing in both cities as the state authorities extend the search for newer water sources farther from the cities to meet the burgeoning demand.

There is little focus on other policy approaches like demand management through tariff structures, improving the efficiency of the piped network and mapping out the location of the supply mains, and more efficient billing. In this scenario, increasing the number of water sources and quantity of water supply without addressing losses within such an inefficient supply system will not help bridge a supply gap. The MCGM is the richest civic body in India and its spending on water supply and operations between the 2014-15 fiscal year and 2019-20 fiscal year has reduced from INR 37.4 billion or ~EUR 0.45 billion (11% of the total budget) to INR 27.6 or ~EUR 0.33 billion (10% of the total budget) (Hydraulic Engineer Department Staff #1, 2021), yet the civic body invests heavily in myopic large-scale projects like desalination plants and cites a limited budget when water supply works lag. This affects the poorest people most, contributing to social inequalities.

Leaky pipeline India
A leaky pipeline in a water-parched suburb of Mumbai. (Photo credits: Karthik M.R., 2021)


Bolster regulatory frameworks and build institutional capacity: In the urban Indian context, the risk of drafting poorly designed regulations is that it can further worsen the problems by perpetuating corruption. Some IWT operators have admitted to pilfering water from the formal supply systems as well as cutting off the formal water supply to certain water users so they can profit by selling more water. A long-term goal of building institutional capacity, legal frameworks, and effective monitoring over time while deploying other solutions as mentioned below would ensure that immediate water supply goals are achieved.      

A transparent permit system for the IWTs: Such a system could help in lending some degree of legitimacy to the IWT operations. This could open up avenues for such emerging businesses to avail appropriate opportunities to grow and gradually build credibility in terms of the quality of service rendered and a more affordable tariff. The permit framework should also include appropriate water pricing guidelines which are fair and sustainable.

Improving water infrastructure and services: The emergence of informal water systems came in the vacuum left behind by the formal water infrastructure, thereby fulfilling the needs of the water users who were left out in the formal supply chain previously. There are numerous issues to be addressed while improving the water infrastructure such as improving the reliability and coverage of water supply across the social-economic spectrum, plugging leaks, efficient and fair cost recovery, and better performance of public supply systems.

Demand management: The rapidly declining groundwater levels compounded by climate change-induced extreme weather events call for better groundwater management. A more demand management-centric approach would ensure that water is used judiciously, especially in industrial and commercial settings. Appropriate water reuse protocols for large water users are also in order.     

A strong framework of participatory planning: Consumer awareness campaigns that promote information dissemination and transparency regarding modes of water supply and its sources, tariff, and quality will help in promoting better use of water. In situations where corruption and weak institutions disallow such campaigns, the provision of affordable means of water treatment will ensure water users consume safe water. Informational interventions can be leveraged to populate a robust database of informal operators, water quality, tariffs, and zone of operations including water source and supply endpoints. Sufficient political will and thrust can be instigated by citizen groups to ensure that the citizen’s interests are adequately represented in water planning and governance initiatives.

Utilise the knowledge and expertise of NGOs and civil society organisations: Better water governance outcomes can be achieved when states work in collaboration with community systems and NGOs at the grassroots level. NGOs and civil society organisations have a wealth of local knowledge and expertise, and they can strengthen partnerships with the state and facilitate the on-ground implementation of projects. In a large state like India with a deep-rooted mistrust in the state’s ability to deliver on welfare projects, such collaborations will help in inculcating a sense of ownership of water in the community and garner momentum towards the goal of good water governance.

A full list of references is available on request. The WPS blogs provide insights into recent developments relating to water, conflict, security and peace. These blogs reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily of the WPS partnership or its donors.