As peak summer approaches, many parts of the city are struggling to get enough water to last the day. The Indian Express visit colonies at the tail end of the supply chain to understand why the capital is running dry
Four senior citizens sat on a Thursday afternoon at the office of their private housing society in Dwarka, talking about a Delhi Jal Board (DJB) engineer whose number they all have on speed dial. They’ve all had him over for tea, accompanied him on a stroll around the society or paid him a visit at the DJB office with a single complaint every time — not enough is reaching the society, one of many at the tail end of the water supply chain.
The water pressure in Dwarka is almost always low. Like the rest of Delhi, water crisis here boils down to three things. First, unauthorised colonies and sometimes even planned housing projects such as Dwarka don’t take into account the additional burden of supplying water that a burgeoning population creates. Second, policy decisions often get stuck in red tape and fail to take the ground reality into account. And third, groundwater is fast running out, with illegal booster pumps taking a further toll on water pressure.
Faced with such problems, residents say the Delhi Chief Minister’s recent announcement — that the water situation will normalise once Haryana releases water from Munak canal — provides cold comfort. “It doesn’t matter, our society will never actually receive the water,” says Kuldip Singh, president of the management committee of New Kanchenjung, a cooperative group housing society in Dwarka.
The complex has 120 flats. Two borewells, dug when the society came up, continue to siphon water from the water table, described by the government as “over-exploited”. Residents have a 24-hour supply of “hard water” which, Singh says, means “clothes are not washed properly, hair is damaged, and filters in RO machines have to be constantly replaced”.
But things are better in Dwarka than they used to be. While it was envisioned in the 1980s as a solution to the population spike in the city, it wasn’t until 2015 that Dwarka found some answer to its water woes. Before 2015, DJB did not provide potable water here; it only supplied water to the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), which had little experience in water distribution.
Pointing to a file with outstanding bills amounting to over Rs 15.5 lakh from the DDA, Darshan Kumar, a resident, says, “When the society came up, DDA was supposed to supply water. The bills came every month, but not the water.” It was only when the DJB took charge of water supply that the situation showed marginal improvement.
Of buckets and bottles
For Ratanaballi Mondal, who has lived in Delhi for a decade, every day revolves around bottles and buckets.
Her day starts when water tankers occasionally arrive at her slum near Tughlakabad Fort around 6.30 am. “About 1,000 of us live here, maybe more. But only two-three tankers come, so there’s never enough drinking water and we have to improvise.”
According to DJB calculations, an average household consumes about 900 litres of water, or 50 buckets, per day. “But we only get two buckets for a family of three every day. A little more would be ideal,” says Mondal.
After filling the buckets and taking a measured bath, Mondal, a domestic help, gets to work. “My husband and I drink water wherever we can. We carry a bottle and fill it every chance we get at the homes we work in.” They rush home by 7 pm, when the tankers come again. “The rush is more then,” she says.
Om Nagar, an unauthorised colony near Tughlakabad and Badarpur, has little in common with Dwarka. Here, even piped water supply is a distant dream. “We saw some work taking place before the MCD polls. But nothing has happened after the results,” says Harish Yadav, a resident. There are frequent arguments and fights over water when the tankers come, he adds.
Small tankers, with a capacity of 2,500 litres, cost around Rs 500 while a larger tanker — with a capacity of 5,000 litres — costs more than Rs 1,000. “DJB tankers aren’t enough, so we have to rely on private tankers, which are more expensive,” says Yadav.
As early as 2003, the erstwhile Congress government had realised how tough it would be for the DJB to provide water to unauthorised colonies. In a planning document, it said that in areas with “short supply”, DJB would supply water through tankers. They hoped this would also curb the nexus of private water tankers, which provided “impure water”, often illegally sourced, and preyed on the poor by charging them exorbitant rates, says a government official.
But a trip to the JJ cluster next to Tughlakabad Fort makes it obvious the plan didn’t succeed. Krishangshu Mondal, a migrant from Bengal who lives in the ever-expanding neighborhood, says, “We buy water from private companies. In summers, they charge Rs 2,000 for a tanker that lasts us 10 days.”
New plan, new fears
The DDA’s latest solution to the housing crisis in Delhi — the Land Pooling Policy described by Delhi Urban Development Minister Satyendar Jain as a way to provide “housing to all” — has led to fresh fears that the move could create “another Dwarka”.
Under the policy, villages will be accorded an ‘urban’ tag and “towers that can house 20-25 lakh families” will come up.
But a Delhi government official, who did not wish to be named, cautions, “The problem with such housing is that it’s done by private players who care little about water supply for residents a few years after they move in. The water table in these villages is depleted. One hopes the new plan will take water scarcity into account, but previous experiences haven’t left us with much optimism.”
DDA spokesperson Mahipal Singh counters: “Right now, it’s at the land pooling stage. The land hasn’t even been acquired. We will worry about issues pertaining to water when the time comes.”
According to a 2016 Delhi government document on ‘Water Policy for Delhi’, there is a “clear lack of coordination” between DDA and the Delhi government.
The AAP government has maintained that it will, unlike the previous Congress government, not privatise water supply. Currently, DJB employs 407 stainless steel water tankers, 300 MS tankers and 250 new departmental stainless water tankers, to ensure the water tanker mafia is curbed.
Water supply has been extended to 1,200 colonies — resulting in about 83 per cent of households in the capital getting piped water. But even with the AAP government providing 20,000 litres of waters free of cost to domestic consumers, many colonies in Delhi continue to struggle for water.
Tough times ahead
The DJB’s draft water policy document begins with a proverb that wells shouldn’t be dug when people are thirsty. Unfortunately, it might already be too late for Delhi, given that Rajasthan is the only state that has a harder time getting ground water.
A 2009 study, published in the international journal Nature, found that in about 16 per cent of Delhi’s wells, water levels were 20 metres below ground level, and in another 8 per cent, water levels were 40 metres below ground level.
In comparison, Rajasthan has about 18.5 per cent of wells registering water levels beyond 40 metres below ground level. In southern districts of Delhi, a study by INTACH found, ground water development was over 200 per cent, compared to the national average of 61 per cent.
Delhi experienced severe drought in 1952, 1987 and 2002, but “ground water availability tided over supply deficiency”, said an official, adding that with “uncertainties of climate change”, Delhi has to “recoup its aquifers and ensure more recharge than extraction to manage a possible two-year drought situation”.
Simply put, this means Delhi doesn’t have enough water for its ever-growing needs. It will need to depend on water from other states while attempting to recycle water. According to a DJB official, one of the plans was to partition water supply between potable water and non-potable water, using recyclable water for the latter. But an official explains, “In existing colonies, fitting dual piping systems — one for potable water and one for recycled water (retro fitting) — is very expensive and it is very hard to incentivise this. Instead, the immediate focus needs to be on use of recycled waste water for other purposes such as ensuring that green spaces in the city are kept intact. Take, for instance, the ITO green patches that had come up during CWG. Where did they disappear? The reason is there was no permanent watering solution. We need these spaces so that Delhi’s air pollution also decreases.”
But in many ways, people’s desperation for water leads to more water shortage and, in some cases, contamination. “When people use booster pumps, they switch it on before water arrives. This sucks in contaminants and also causes water pressure in the DJB pipelines to drop,” he says.