Delhi starts to feel the big dry

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2012, 12:00am


The official behind the desk at the Water Board office in Shalimar Bagh, North West Delhi, found himself manhandled by enraged women brandishing plastic buckets.

They wanted water. For the past few days, the taps in their middle-class homes had been dry, leaving them no choice but to spend money on private water suppliers.

Every year, social unrest over water in the Indian capital rises to new levels. No one in the government seems to know what the precise problem is, never mind the solution.

For almost a month amid soaring temperatures, serious water shortages have gripped parts of Delhi after neighbouring Haryana state drastically cut water supplies. The Delhi government ritually blames Haryana for not releasing enough water from its dams. Haryana says that it has given Delhi its due share and cannot be blamed for capital's wasteful habits.

In slums, where there is no tap water, a mad scramble breaks out when the government water tanker appears as people fall upon it with buckets, desperate for every drop they can get which they later store and use parsimoniously for the next couple of days.

Experts estimate the per capita consumption in slums to be low, around just 15 litres a day in some slums even though the temperature lately has reached 43 degrees Celsius.

Meanwhile, upmarket neighbourhoods are awash in water. Gigantic black water storage tanks sit smugly on the rooftops, full of water. Every morning, servants deploy large hosepipes to water lawns and wash cars. In farmhouses, swimming pools are full.

Some families even hose the footpaths and roads around their homes in the evenings, to cool the tarmac, baked by the heat of the day.

'People should be banned from washing their cars every day and using hoses - and fined if they don't listen. When the shortage is so bad, it's crazy for the government to allow this sort of selfish waste,' said retired school teacher Aradhana Nair whose neighbourhood is among the lucky ones to have a good supply of water.

The pattern every summer is the same: squabbling between Delhi and Haryana. Desperation among the city's 16 million residents as the taps go dry. Even middle-class families start to feel the pinch when they must buy mineral water for drinking. And the same old figures are trotted out by the media - almost 40 per cent of the capital's water is wasted because it leaks from pipes before it reaches consumers.

'I've been hearing about leaking pipes since I was a kid. I can't believe that something so simple can't be fixed. The population of Delhi keeps rising every year so what are we going to do if the pipes have still not been fixed?' asked Khan Market shopkeeper Rajiv Malhotra.

The issue is not inadequate rainfall. India gets plenty of rain (including Delhi with an annual rainfall of 611 mm, most of it July and August) but the rainwater just trickles away because hardly anyone saves it.

Across the country, the water table is falling at an alarming rate. According to the Central Ground Water Board, the water table in some parts of the country is falling approximately six metres a year.

Farmers in the states surrounding New Delhi such as Rajasthan have to keep digging wells deeper and deeper - as low as 45 to 60 metres - and still fail to hit water.

The World Bank predicts future wars will be fought over water.

In New Delhi, the battles have already begun and are likely to get worse.

'We are facing an unprecedented crisis. Unless we tackle it, there will be fighting in the streets, house to house,' said Jyoti Sharma, president of the Forum for Organised Resource Conservation and Enhancement.