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Why mega city, Delhi, is running out of water?

Talk to anyone in India’s national capital, Delhi, about about water and the person is likely to start complaining about lack of it within five seconds. The capital city of the second most populous country in the world faces one of the harshest summers with temperature going up to 48 degree Celsius. Scarcity of water further makes summer unbearable.

Located on the banks of River Yamuna and with around 629 water bodies in the city, Delhi was rich in water. The city also used its resources with ingenuity. Delhi has many step wells (or Baolis), which were built in 15th century to store water during lean period. Most of these are in shambles today. Now the administration is working towards reviving some of these. There were also check dams, nearly 17 of them to capture rainwater, which could be used during lean season.

“An old canal was built by Ferozeshah Tughlaq to bring water to Delhi in 13th century. Ali Mardaan Khan, Persian scholar used that to revive it in 17th century. That was used to bring water to the walled city [today’s old Delhi]. That channel used to flow through the city and then back into the river. It is the same canal which is still being serving Delhi,” says Manu Bhatnagar, Senior Consultant, INTACH.

However, population growth in the last few decades mean that the traditional methods are no longer going to be enough to serve the water needs of the city.

Is Delhi short of water?

As of now the city is dependent on two main sources of water: river Yamuna and groundwater. River Yamuna meets 89 percent of the city’s water needs and the rest 11 percent is by groundwater, according to Delhi Jal Board, the nodal organisation responsible for supplying water in the entire city.

Though it was always a capital city, Delhi recorded a huge growth after Independence in 1947. A huge influx of “refugees” post Partition really saw the city growing from a population of just 917,939 in 1941 to 16,787,941 in 2011.

“Delhi had one of the best infrastructure in the country so it is not surprising that the population suddenly shot up. Post Independence, being the capital city it also received a lot of capital infusion because of which migration from villages also happened. Both these factors were responsible for an increasing population growth of the city, which totally stretched the water resources,” says Manu.

The troubling part is that the population of this metropolis is ever growing. “Delhi is one of the fastest growing metropolitan of the country, so we add about 5 lakh people every year, which is almost the size of a small European country,” says Jyoti Sharma, President, Forum For Organized Resources Conservation and Enhancement (FORCE).

In spite of the ever-growing population of the city, experts allege that it is still one of the privileged state in the country though there is no denying the water shortage in the city.

“If you look at our [Delhi’s] water sources, you will realise that we get around 900-950 million gallons per day which after being treated is around 835 million gallons per day. This includes 100-150 million gallons per day, which comes from ground water. What Delhi actually needs is more than 1000 million gallons a day. So we have a real shortage of water,” explains Jyoti Sharma.

“The per capita water availability [in India] which was 5000 cu.m. per capita per annum in 1947 has declined to 1500 cu.m. per capita per annum [whereas 1700 cu.m. per capita annually is considered the threshold below which a society is considered to be water stressed],” says draft water policy of Delhi Jal Board (DJB). (DJB is nodal Government agency responsible for supplying water in the city)

So it is not surprising that the city’s infrastructure and more importantly water infrastructure is simply unable to keep up with the growing demand.

Mis-management of resources

But that is just one part of the story. Shortage of water is just one side of the coin. Rampant mismanagement of the available resources as well as misuse by the citizens cannot be ignored.

It can be said that Delhi is one of the privileged state. “Delhi is not using its resources properly. It gets more water than some of the other mega cities but it is not using its resources in a judicious manner. More importantly, the city is not doing anything to replenish these sources,” says Himanshu Thakkar, Co-ordinator of South Asia Network On Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP).

The shortage of water in some areas is almost crippling. New suburbs like Dwarka and Rohini claim to get regular water supply for just half an hour every day. The citizens are supposed to store this water in overhead water tanks for consumption throughout the day.

There is a huge variance in the per capita water supplied by Delhi Government in different parts of the city. While some parts like Central and South Delhi receive good quantity of water, this is not true of other parts.

Today, only 45 percent of the city has a proper drainage system. The rest of the city, which functions without any sewerage system, comprises unauthorised colonies and slums. Many of these areas illegally source water from Delhi Jal Board’s network and some of them use groundwater.

“Governance is in poor shape. A lot of water is wasted because of poor transmission. Most of the sewage goes directly into River Yamuna, which is the lifeline of the city. If we utilize available resources like river, groundwater properly and take measures like rainwater, sewage treatment there shouldn’t be any shortage,” explains Thakkar.

“We lose around 20-25 percent of water because of mismanagement. If you go by World Bank figures, we lose around 51 percent of water in Delhi, out of which 25-30 percent is non-revenue water,” says Sharma.

Experts believe that the growth is not just in the number of people but also in consumption per capita.

“The requirement has become so large that each person is consuming about 200 litres per day on an average. There are some who are getting much more than that and there are others who are getting very small quantities. There are people who are making do with just 50 litres of water per day. On the higher end there are people who are getting up to 400 litres of water per day,” says Manu of INTACH. The organisation has been working with DJB for revival of some water bodies in the city. INTACH is also credited with reviving Hauz Khas lake which is a major tourist destination now.

Further explaining the problem of supplying water in illegal colonies, Sharma says, “Because they [illegal colonies] have come up in unplanned fashion DJB has not planned technically for providing for them. So these colonies are unable to get properly laid out DJB connections. So they will make a puncture in the main pipeline and lay there own network to get water to their home. That puncture becomes a source of leakage and contamination because it is not done properly. A lot of water gets wasted and it is basically a non-revenue water.”

A problem here is that in areas where the residents are unable to procure water through DJB network, usually decide to dig for groundwater. Most of the groundwater pumps are unauthorised in the city. Experts allege that while the groundwater was available by just digging 3 km some time back, this is no longer the case. There has been a drastic fall in the watertable level across the city.

DJB supplies groundwater through 2488 tubewells and 21 Ranney Wells in the floodplains amounting to 90 MGD, according to DJB website. However, there are a number of unauthorised tubewells in the city.

Groundwater resources constitute a major resource for Delhi, which is depleting with every passing day. This was initially viewed as a buffer source, which would help the city during the deficit rainfall years.

“The total annual groundwater draft in Delhi is 479 MCM and the net natural recharge is 281 MCM. In view of this, at present rates of extraction 198 MCM of recharge is required annually merely to keep the water table stabilised. Except for a small area in Central and North Districts the water table is exploited.

“The average level of exploitation in Delhi is 170 percent,” says CGWB Report on `Hydrogeological Framework & Groundwater Management Plan For NCT Delhi’. This high level of exploitation is because of illegal colonies and slums in the city. Increased paving of the city also means that the water is not able to seep through.

“Water table has gone down because we are tapping it incessantly…it is unsustainable. There is more extraction and less of recharge. It does not get recharged because everywhere there is paving, so water does not sink in. All our wells are dry,” says Manu Bhatnagar of INTACH.

“There are places in South and South West Delhi, where the water level has been coming down by as much as one meter per year for the past decade,” says Sharma of FORCE. Her organisation was part of the committee responsible for drafting Delhi’s water policy, which has been recently put up on the website for comments.

Besides the shortage of water, there is also the question of quality of water. “Apart from some part of the city, a majority of the city gets saline water. You might be able to use it for b-grade domestic purposes and that too with risk but it is just undrinkable,” says Sharma of FORCE.

Water Mafia

Citizens also allege that some of this water shortage is man-made and is the result of improper water management.

“What happens is that DJB employees do not supply the entire water and sell a part of it to water mafia. When citizens do not receive enough water they call up DJB water tankers. These tankers in turn sell their water at higher price to water mafia. When a citizen does not get any response from DJB tankers he/she is forced to call other water mafia who sells water to a desperate citizen at a much higher price,” explains an employee of DJB in South Delhi on condition of anonymity. He alleges a number of senior officials are involved in this otherwise it is impossible to carry this out.

Various media reports say that there are about 2000 illegal water tankers in the city. Most of them draw water from two sources (both of them illegal): from DJB employees or from groundwater.

“What will you do when you need water? We know it is illegal but we hardly have any choice. Supply from DJB comes for exactly half an hour and it is not enough in summer months,” says Mandeep, 35-year old resident of a posh South Delhi colony.

There is another reason why residents are forced to source water from illegal sources: sheer unpredictability of DJB water tankers.

“We usually call water tanker in the morning but we know that they can come any time during the day. We can’t leave our work just to wait for water tanker. So we are left with no option but to call illegal water tanker [water mafia] since they would deliver water within half an hour,” says 65-year old Tripta Butalia, teacher in a school.

The city also has to accept that there is no additional source of water in sight. There have been a few dams which are in the process of construction but they are also embroiled in controversy with other states like Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. This litigation is unlikely to be resolved in the near future. So experts believe that Delhi should brace for a situation where no more water would be forthcoming. However at the same time the city can still take a number of measures to resolve the crisis.

What is Delhi doing?

The city is taking a number of steps to find a solution to its water woes. To begin with there is a drastic change in the thinking of the policy makers.

“The Government has always been working on the supply side [how to increase the supply to match the demand] but they have never thought of controlling the demand,” says Manu Bhatnagar. His views are echoed by other experts also.

Now, when it is clear that there is not going to be another source of water in the city, the Government is clearly making efforts to meet the challenge. DJB recently came up with Draft Water Policy which brings forth the number of steps that they are taking to not just reduce the water consumption but also traditional water bodies and replenish river Yamuna and groundwater.

A key problem for the city is the drainage system. Problem here is two-pronged: lack of sewerage system and inefficient system where it exists. DJB is currently engaged with the country’s premier institute, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi to come up with a Master Sewerage Plan by the end of this year.

“There are two main problems: one is that Delhi has been paved more and more so the extent of volume of water for the same rainfall is more. What was earlier going to soil was much more…now all the rainwater gets converted into run-off water and very little goes in the soil. This implies that all the drains which were earlier capable of handling rainwater because the volume of water was less are no longer able to do so which leads to flooding. Secondly, we also found that even those drains, which were earlier in place their cross sections have been reducing because of poor solid waste management. Most of the construction waste has been dumped into these…their areas are restricted and the land is being encroached upon. That is another reason why [urban] flooding is taking place,” says Professor AK Gosain, Head of Civil Engineering Department, IIT-Delhi.

He claims that if the plan recommended by them is implemented then the city would be free of major sewerage problems in another three years. If the sewerage problems are taken care of then consequently river Yamuna would also be cleaner. Right now the river resembles a large drain.

“We have started the assimilation work based on mathematical models to translate the rainwater which is coming and how it will affect the drains; whether the drains would be sufficient in their capacities or whether additional deepening is required…if that is not feasible then we will also look at whether we can retain some of the volume [retain some part of water to prevent from it turning to flood]. You have spaces where you can store some of the water and release them slowly later on,” explains Prof Gosain.

Prof Gosain’s team has also come up an innovative solution to involve the general public in resolving the problem.

“We are also trying to at least create a procedure by which general public can also participate. We have already made mobile application where localities can send us the places where they feel there are problems. That information would be given to the departments. It is called, `I care 4 Delhi’. It is still at experimental stage. We are basically trying to come up with a procedure under which technically the Department [DJB] will not be able to evade the problem which happens a lot currently,” elaborates Gosain.

Experts believe that besides this, the Government should make effort to increase the water tariff in the city to reduce the demand. Water is not very expensive in the city, which is why people are not careful while using it. (Click here for more on water bills in Delhi.)

“Government can make use of the pricing tool…you raise the price to a level where people are sensitive to their billing. For instance everybody is sensitive to the electricity billing but few are sensitive to the water billing,” says Bhatnagar.

Experts believe that rainwater harvesting will go a long way in curtailing the water problem. “It should be mandatory and it should be done in a decentralised manner. DJB is making rainwater harvesting plan across Delhi. Besides that recycled water can be used for B-grade purposes. DJB wants the citizens to use recycled water. Lastly, I strongly feel that we all should reduce our consumption by just 10 percent.

Government should also work towards equalising water supply,” says Sharma.

Delhi is trying to emulate Singapore model since the city is seen as a world leader in the field of water management. DJB is in talks with Singapore’s PUB to deploy a similar waste water management system in Delhi. PUB is a Singapore Government body which manages its water supply, water catchment and used water. Indian citizens have a mental block in using treated water. Experts believe that this is something the organisation needs to help the citizens to overcome.

Wastewater management is an integral part of DJB’s plan in resolving water issue of the city. As of now only 1349 million litre per day of wastewater is being treated by sewage treatment plan and the rest is discharged without any treatment, according to Draft Water Policy. Experts believe that treated waste water should be used for domestic purposes. “Singapore uses treated water even for drinking purposes. They call it `New Water’…we are very far from this scenario but certainly we have made a beginning,” says Sharma of FORCE.

If the city utilises all its available resources, Delhi will not only be able to resolve the water crisis but might emerge as a case study for other Indian cities as well.

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