Why India faces a major water crisis

Nearly 63 million people in India do not have access to safe drinking water.

 |  6-minute read |   12-03-2018
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A young Sharda, apart from her studies and household chores, has an additional responsibility to shoulder every Wednesday and Saturday. She wakes up early in the morning to make it to a long queue for water. The Delhi Jal Board tanker comes every three days, at 7am. If she misses to make it to the queue, her family would have to buy water from the water mafias at much higher rates to manage for two days, before she gets a chance to try her luck again with the jal board tanker.

Every Wednesday and Saturday is like a "survival of the fittest" contest to get drinking water for every family in Delhi's Mehrauli area. But these residents still feel they are lucky. "I have heard about water riots too," says one of them.

Every summer is a new battle for these residents. Political parties who vowed to provide better water supply, managed to win a few battles, but are losing the water war.

Is Delhi really going thirsty? The statistics suggest otherwise.

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The per capita availability of water in Delhi is more than that in Amsterdam and Hamburg. Now that’s a cruel game, Delhi has water but the supplies are shattering. The problem is more than what appears on the surface. Now let’s move to the other megacity on the western front of the country - Mumbai. Ironically Mumbai, which is infamous for heavy rains and flash floods, stares at a huge water crisis. And so are Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Pune and the likes. Twenty two of 32 metros in India are facing severe water crisis.

This made up drinking water crisis portrays the short sightedness of urban management in the country. In the early 1950s, the quality of urban water services in Delhi was similar to the best of other major urban centres of Asia. Even in 1970s, Delhi water supplies were on a par with major Asian cities and commercial centres. Something went horribly wrong after that. Today more than 50 per cent of the precious water in Delhi is lost due to pipe leakages and dilapidated water infrastructure in the city. This story is very much the same in other metros of the country.

While the Delhi administration is crossing swords with the neighbouring states over the issue of water-sharing, Chennai is looking at creating an exorbitant desalination plant and the Bangalore civic administration is envisaging a dream to construct a mini dam to manage the water crisis in the city.

But the sad part is that despite the arrangements that the big cities are planning to have, on an average, a household gets less than four hours of water supply a day. The situation is so bad that every household in every city in the country has turned into a mini jal board - households build an overhead tank, keep flocks of buckets to store water, get additional pipe fitted to connect the supplies with the tank and install membranes and water purifying systems to make the water drinkable.

But the Indian government, let alone take a firm stand to address this challenge, doesn’t even demonstrate concern of the cost to the country because of this erratic supply and questionable quality of water. The irony is that when the country debates over models of growth and development, it shows reluctance on part of declaring an urgency to give the country a palatable solution to solve the water crisis.

Worse, the solutions are not complex, they are operable. A friend from Bangalore says, "On our part, we have reduced our water usage, and have started reusing the water which used to run off, to do other chores like washing car or mopping house." For a country, where monsoons are already constricted and a huge part falls in the arid belt, minding water business becomes critical. It literally determines the social, environmental and economic health of the country.

Nearly 63 million people in India do not have access to safe drinking water, and increased pollution of water-bodies and poor storage infrastructure over the years, has created a water deficit which may become unmanageable in the future. A WaterAid report in 2016 ranked India among the worst countries in the world for the number of people without safe water.

The Asian Development Bank has forecasted that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50 per cent. The Union Ministry of Water Resources has estimated the country’s current water requirements to be around 1100 billion cubic metres per year, which is estimated to grow to around 1200 billion cubic metres for the year 2025. The numbers are scary, and the bottom line is that, we are looking at a looming water crisis.

Another crisis, in another continent, has brought the focus back on this impending urban disaster. South Africa's Cape Town, a bustling mega-city, is awaiting day zero when almost all of its water supplies will run dry. The UN estimates that global demand for water will exceed supply by 2030, which means many more megacities will be in the same boat as Cape Town.

Cape Town’s day zero has sounded alarm bell across the globe. It is an ultimate environmental catastrophe advanced by decades. It is that we have come to take things for granted, and we departed with the uncomfortable knowledge that things could get a whole lot worse.

Back in India, Bangalore could be our first victim. Alarm bells rang loud when a BBC report, reportedly based on UN-endorsed projections, listed Bangalore in the second position after Brazil's Sao Paulo, among cities which could run out of drinking water. And while in Sao Paulo it is because of consistent droughts, Bangalore’s crisis is more man-made and administrative inability to harvest rain water. Although the state government claims, it will be spending Rs 5,500 crore by 2023 to increase water availability for Bangalore to 2,175 million litres per day (MLD) from the current 1,391 MLD, the claim seems too far-fetched.

The looming water crisis brings us to the same old fundamental issues of judicious use of resources, safeguarding of common property resources like the watershed areas, and above all water equity.

It’s time that we need to awake to the bleak reality of waterless cities, and take more steps to make people aware, fix infrastructural issues, harvest rainwater, reclaim water bodies, and promote ideas for making the best use of existing water supplies.

Also read: Why river linking will prove disastrous for India's water resources

 

Writer

Aakash Mehrotra Aakash Mehrotra @aakashmehrotra

Writer is a social researcher and travel blogger. He is also the author of The Other Guy.

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