Once upon a river: Amid water tussle between Delhi and Haryana, Yamuna trickles at entrance of the capital

Even as Delhi and Haryana tussle over water from the Yamuna, the river has practically turned into a trickle at the entrance of the capital. Mallica Joshi looks at the consequences for the city and its people.

Written by Mallica Joshi | New Delhi | Updated: April 9, 2018 3:19:57 pm
While Haryana claims that it is releasing all the water it owes to Delhi, the latter has alleged a shortfall of 120 cusecs.(Express Photo by Praveen Khanna)

At the border between Delhi and Haryana, where the Yamuna enters the capital, the river is hardly a river anymore. “For the past 36 years, I have seen the Yamuna die slowly in front of my eyes. Now, I fear it has breathed its last,” says Gurdev Singh, a 36-year-old vegetable farmer. A resident of Jhangola village on the Delhi-Haryana border in the northwest part of the capital, Singh first noticed the flow turning into a trickle in the beginning of March. The flow reduced each day, he says, until four weeks ago when it stopped.

“The water level reduces every year between January and March. By the end of March, there is about 2 feet of water at Palla, where the river enters Delhi from Haryana. This year, all that is left is a pond,” he says.

The two states, meanwhile, are fighting over the dwindling water supply in boardrooms and the Supreme Court. While Haryana claims that it is releasing all the water it owes to Delhi, the latter has alleged a shortfall of 120 cusecs. In the country’s top court, the Delhi government has said it is unable to provide enough drinking water to its residents as a result — a claim that has become more alarming as summer temperatures climb after the warmest winter in a decade.

Over the last two decades, both states had worked out a water-sharing agreement. According to a Memorandum of Understanding signed by Delhi and Haryana in 1996, the latter is supposed to make sure that the level of the Wazirabad pond is maintained at 674.5 feet through the year. This is to ensure that ammonia levels do not rise and water treatment plants work at full capacity.

If water flows from cemented canals that feed Delhi’s water treatment plants, the city will survive. (Express Photo by Praveen Khanna)

At the border between Delhi and Haryana, where the Yamuna enters the capital, the river is hardly a river anymore.

“For the past 36 years, I have seen the Yamuna die slowly in front of my eyes. Now, I fear it has breathed its last,” says Gurdev Singh, a 36-year-old vegetable farmer. A resident of Jhangola village on the Delhi-Haryana border in the northwest part of the capital, Singh first noticed the flow turning into a trickle in the beginning of March. The flow reduced each day, he says, until four weeks ago when it stopped.

“The water level reduces every year between January and March. By the end of March, there is about 2 feet of water at Palla, where the river enters Delhi from Haryana. This year, all that is left is a pond,” he says.

The two states, meanwhile, are fighting over the dwindling water supply in boardrooms and the Supreme Court. While Haryana claims that it is releasing all the water it owes to Delhi, the latter has alleged a shortfall of 120 cusecs. In the country’s top court, the Delhi government has said it is unable to provide enough drinking water to its residents as a result — a claim that has become more alarming as summer temperatures climb after the warmest winter in a decade.

Over the last two decades, both states had worked out a water sharing agreement.

According to a Memorandum of Understanding signed by Delhi and Haryana in 1996, the latter is supposed to make sure that the level of the Wazirabad pond is maintained at 674.5 feet through the year. This is to ensure that ammonia levels do not rise and water treatment plants work at full capacity.

At the moment, the capital is getting over 1,050 cusecs of water from Haryana. Except, this does not flow directly from the river, but rather from two cemented canals — the Carrier-Lined Channel or Munak Canal and the Delhi sub-branch — into which Haryana diverts water.

If water flows from cemented canals that feed Delhi’s water treatment plants, the city will survive. But as more and more water is diverted to other canals along the way, flow in the river channel will reduce and the river will die.

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Delhi relies on the Yamuna for 60% of its water needs.(Express Photo by Praveen Khanna)

“Delhi as a city has a reasonable future only if the Yamuna survives as a lifeline river,” says Manoj Misra, a former Indian Forest Service officer and environment activist on whose petition the landmark ‘Maili Se Nirmal Yamuna’ judgment of the National Green Tribunal was passed in 2013.

Over the centuries, Delhi has thrived on and around the banks of the Yamuna. Yet, until the 1930s, water for daily consumption was not drawn from the river channel but from wells, baolis, and ponds, all of which were fed by the river, Misra says.

“It was after the British settled in Delhi and the population started growing that water treatment plants started picking up water directly from the river channel,” he says. As the water started being diverted into canals, the river, slowly and steadily, started drying up.

For close to three decades now, the Yamuna has been a river only in name — sewage, garbage, chemical pollutants and refuse is what actually flows in. Studies have called it a “glorified drain” and a “dead river”, unable to sustain any life.

Yet, sustain it does. Lakhs who live on the floodplains — in villages, and authorised and unauthorised colonies — grow crops and draw water from the ground fed by the river. “Till the 1940s, the river was full of aquatic life such as turtles, rohu, swordfish, and gharials. Now, only predatory fish remain but these too will die if the river dries up. The Riparian Zone gives rise to flora and fauna different from that in the rest of the city. Most of it is already lost,” Misra says.

According to forest department officials and water experts, 22 tributaries from the Delhi Ridge used to feed the Yamuna. They died out in the 1920s as flow decreased and pollution increased, records show.

the Yamuna has been a river only in name — sewage, garbage, chemical pollutants and refuse is what actually flows in. (EXPRESS PHOTO BY PRAVEEN KHANNA)

Apart from feeding the riverine ecosystem, the Yamuna plays an important part in thermal regulation. “At places where the water table is high and water can be found only a few feet after digging, the sub-soil water cools the surface of the land. In places where the water table is low, this cooling effect is lower. It is the same principle that is used in water coolers today or the khas used as curtains in summers earlier,” said Dunu Roy, director of Hazards Centre, which works on issues such as water, housing, health and sanitation.

Since no freshwater is flowing in the river right now, and it is dry at the mouth of the capital, what flows instead in the 22 km before it enters Uttar Pradesh is untreated sewage through 22 drains, close to 558 cusecs of water released from sewage treatment plants, and some sub-soil water.

“Even when the walled city of Shahjahanabad was established in the 1600s, it was in a manner that the river was at a walking distance from people’s houses. As the city expanded, the river was no longer something you could see. The connection was lost. Water did not remain something that comes from nature but something that flows from taps. This changed the social and psychological connection with the river,” Roy says.

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Delhi relies on the Yamuna for 60% of its water needs. The city is only able to produce around 13% from its own resources such as borewells and Ranney wells, while the rest comes from the Upper Ganga Canal.

It is when temperatures climb every summer that the water pinch is most severely felt — just last month, a 60-year-old man was beaten to death when he tried to intervene in a fight over water in Wazirpur.

According to Delhi Jal Board (DJB) vice-chairperson Dinesh Mohaniya, 719 cusecs of water to the capital is supplied through the Munak Canal, and 330 cusecs through the Delhi sub-branch. The government is demanding that Haryana provide another 120 cusecs through the river channel to feed the Wazirabad pond — also for consumption.

None of this water is supplied, or demanded, to maintain a minimum flow in the river. “What Delhi is asking for and what is being supplied is all for consumption. They are thinking not about the river but about the supply chain. Why are canals built? To make sure water is not lost to evaporation and absorption. This is what happens when you treat water as a commercial resource instead of a natural resource that needs to be preserved. Why did Delhi not need to draw water from the river at the beginning of the 20th Century? Because they understood that a flowing river will recharge aquifers, which will become water sources. But that cannot feed the need of a water guzzler like Delhi satisfactorily. Another reason to build canals is to save water from pollution. As the river flows from Uttarakhand through Haryana to Delhi, it gets progressively polluted, with Delhi adding so many pollutants that it effectively ceases to be a river by the time it exits the megapolis,” said a former DJB CEO, who did not wish to be named.

As water is diverted to canals, the water level in villages on the floodplains has started to fall. “Ten years ago, you could dig six feet and you would hit water. Today, we have to dig 50-60 feet,” says Bhisham Singh, who lives in Kulakpur village near Palla. The dipping water table has, in fact, been a constant source of worry for Delhi scientists for several years now. In water scarce areas such as Tughlakabad, one has to dig 300 feet to find water.

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A polluted stream of Yamuna near Kalindi Kunj at Okhla Barage after Ramnavmi. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

The DJB supplies 900 million gallons per day, or 409.14 crore litres, of water (to households and commercial establishments). Delhi’s population, according to projections using the 2011 census report, is close to 2 crore.

This translates to about 204 liters per capita per day (LPCD). According to international estimates, supply of 135 LPCD is optimal. Yet, lakhs of people have to rely on groundwater and water tankers for their daily water needs.

According to urban environment planner Manu Bhatnagar, apart from the 900 MGD water that the DJB supplies, around 200 MGD is extracted privately by citizens and

“Of the 900 MGD water that Delhi supplies, only around 600 MGD is able to reach people because of leakages and theft. What Delhi needs is better metering to understand where water is going. Every water treatment plant should be fitted with a meter at the input and output. A similar mechanism is needed at sewage treatment plants. This will provide data for spatial and sectoral analysis of water use and leakages. Without that, we are playing blind man’s bluff. If Delhi starts to recycle and reuse water, and Haryana starts adopting more water-efficient irrigation methods, some water can be used to increase the river’s flow,” Bhatnagar says.

In its budget this time, the Delhi government has acknowledged these challenges. Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia said 46 bulk meters would be set up across the city, including at water treatment plants, to gather data on water use and leakages by the end of 2019.

According to a DJB study, Delhi can be divided into 1,010 cells and put under district metering centres.

A senior DJB official says, “There are areas in the city that get upwards of 500 LPCD per day while other areas get barely 50 LPCD. On top of that, close to 50% of the water is lost to theft and leakages because the pipelines have decayed and have holes. Delhi does not need any more water, what it needs is a better supply system. If that is achieved, we can stop putting so much pressure on the Yamuna and let it flow.”

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