The Parched Tiger: New Delhi’s Water Crisis

Via the Financial Times, a report on New Delhi’s water crisis:

Hunting for one of the necessities of life was not how Lakhvinder Singh, a former civil servant from India’s Telecommunications Department, imagined he would spend his otherwise comfortable retirement.

But as the summer temperature tops 45 degrees, Mr Singh and many of the other 500,000 residents of Dwarka – a fast-growing, middle-class satellite city on the western fringes of New Delhi – spend their days haggling with local authorities and gangsters from the neighbouring state of Haryana to buy tanker-loads of water.

 “We are getting one tanker per day from the DDA [the Delhi Development Authority], which is 10,000 litres, but I want 60,000 litres per day,” says Mr Singh, who is secretary of one of the 349 housing co-operatives that have built apartment blocks here since the DDA launched the project on village farmland 26 years ago.

“When they planned this township they never bothered about the water problem. There was no management of the water system,” he says. The housing co-operative of 120 apartments drilled its own borehole, but that stopped producing any drinkable water 10 years ago.

As India’s population rises inexorably towards the 1.7bn mark it is expected to reach in the second half of this century – the country will soon overtake China as the world’s most populous – decades of abuse of rivers and groundwater are presenting successive governments with a severe water challenge. Among the priorities set by Narendra Modi, the new prime minister, is to clean the polluted Ganges River and improve India’s inadequate water and sewerage systems.

“Groundwater is the problem everywhere, especially in northern India,” says Balvinder Kumar, DDA vice-chairman. “Day by day, things will deteriorate, especially in terms of water availability?.?.?.?The water table is going down. That’s a matter of great concern for the government of India as well as for planners.”

He says Dwarka is not the worst affected part of the sprawling greater Delhi area of some 22m inhabitants but admits that the DDA is able to supply only half of Dwarka’s current official demand of 40m litres per day, some of it from 70 of its own tube-wells. Dwarka’s population, furthermore, is eventually expected to more than double to 1.3m as vacant lots are filled.

“It’s a constraint,” says Mr Kumar. “People certainly are very apprehensive about future development. We will have to ensure some additional source of water.”

Monsoon rainfall is normally plentiful in India, and Dwarka’s residents say the water problems of their suburb and of other communities are more the result of years of mismanagement than of any absolute shortage.

Standing next to a drying pond in a park in Dwarka’s Sector 23, resident and environmental activist Diwan Singh says it should be desilted and deepened and become a “model water body” that would help recharge the area’s depleted groundwater. Instead, excessive drilling has consumed or contaminated the layer of fresh water, leaving only hard, mineralised water that can barely be used.

“From about 15-20 feet it [the water table] is now about 100-200ft, so it’s bad,” says Mr Singh of Natural Heritage First. “This Dwarka sub-city is expanding continuously. We don’t have water, so why this expansion? Without infrastructure, if you go ahead, then it will be a collapse one day.”

The DDA says the problem is partly political – the final stretch of a canal that was supposed to supply water from a river in Haryana cannot be completed because Haryana says it has none to spare and because squatters have built homes on the land anyway. But Dwarka’s prosperous residents complain bitterly of official corruption and water theft by nearby communities and say they are fed up with having to pay what they call the “water mafia” for their tanker supplies.

Sudha Sinha, general secretary of Dwarka’s Federation of Cooperative Group Housing Societies, and her husband Mukesh, a property developer, say that in some places shortages have been so severe that residents have taken to using water reserves set aside for emergency firefighting.

The couple live in a modern apartment in Sector 22. “It’s beautiful actually, it’s a well-planned city,” she says. “But surprisingly, when they built it, they never thought of the water supply.” The airport and the commercial zones of south Delhi are close and there are about 100 schools. “Basically we have all the facilities. But we don’t have water.”

Official efforts to remedy the situation have so far come to nothing and some residents were particularly angered by anti-corruption campaign of the shortlived Delhi government of Arvind Kejriwal, who tried to ban the mafia from ferrying tankers of water from Haryana. “I had to pay more,” grumbles Mr Singh, the retired bureaucrat. “It doubled the cost.”

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