Delhi in drought, fighting for every drop

Photo: Reuters

A worsening drought is exhausting the teeming capital city of New Delhi, which has more than 20 million people.

The politicians, civil servants and corporate lobbyists who live in substantial houses and apartments in central Delhi pay very little to get limitless supplies of piped water – whether for their bathrooms, kitchens or to wash the car, dog, or spray a manicured lawn.

They can do all that for as little as $10-$15 a month.

But step into one of the slum areas in the inner city, or a giant disorganized housing estate on the outskirts and there is a daily struggle to get and pay for very limited supplies of water, which is delivered by tanker rather than pipe.

And the price is soaring as supplies are fast depleting.

The water scarcity is even more acute in the Bhalswa Dairy locality of northwestern Delhi, more than 30 km (20 miles) from Sangam Vihar. The water from a couple of community taps and hand pumps are too toxic to use, forcing people to queue up for a government tanker that comes just once a day.

As a result, fights frequently break out when people, mostly can-carrying women and children, sprint towards the arriving tanker.

“Fights over water supplies have gone up since May and these fights now constitute almost 50% of our daily complaints,” said a police official at the Bhalswa Dairy Police station, who declined to be named.

Some tanker operators have also started selling bottled water, underlining concerns over the quality of water in their tanks and how costs for ordinary people can mount, said the police official.

Nearly 200,000 people living in the Bhalswa area are vulnerable to liver-related disease such as jaundice and hepatitis, said Kamlesh Bharti, president of non-governmental organization Kamakhya Lok Sewa Samiti, which works in the areas of health and education.

The Bhalswa area is next to a big waste landfill, which has contaminated both surface and groundwater in the area.

According to UK-based charity WaterAid, about 163 million people in India, roughly 12 percent of the population, do not have access to clean water close to their homes, the most of any country.

Still, Delhi authorities said the plan to build three dams in the upper reaches of the Yamuna river, which passes through the city, would help Delhi overcome the shortage.

It will take 3-4 years to construct them, said S. K. Haldar, a top official of the Central Water Commission.

But issues such as land acquisition, resettlement and environmental clearances could make such an aggressive timetable untenable, Madhavan said.

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