By Jay Mazoomdaar
INDIA’S BIGGEST lies hide behind its per capita figures. Our average income is $1,219 (approximately 68,300) and we are ranked 142nd in the world. But with 55 billionaires, we also stand fourth in the list of the countries boasting the world’s richest individuals. Between these two true figures, two-thirds of us live on less than half a dollar a day and nearly half our children are malnourished.
The per capita ‘lies’ help fight our cases at various development or earth summits where we press ‘our’ growth prerogative and bandy ‘our’ low carbon footprint. But the deception is fast catching up with us at home. While governments may soon have to grapple with the political cost of institutionalising inequality, the environmental, and thereby human, cost of it is already being borne by us.
The same pattern is unfolding with this summer’s water crisis in the capital city, the war of words and the intervention of the Prime Minister’s Office. A crowded mega city requires plenty of water. The World Health Organisation (WHO) quantifies per capita availability of 100-200 litres as optimal. The National Commission on Urbanisation recommended per capita supply of 90-100 litres. The Tenth Plan revised the Ninth Plan’s per capita benchmark of 125 litres to 150 litres for big cities.
Delhi supplies around 3,200 million litres of water per day. Almost 40 percent of this is lost along a 9,000 km network of leaky pipes. Thus, for the city’s 16 million people, daily per capita availability of water works out to be 120 litres. But Delhi also needs water for non-domestic use. A recent ASSOCHAM study estimated that one-third of the city’s per capita consumption went to the commercial sector and hotels. So the actual per capita availability of water for domestic use is barely 80 litres, well below the WHO’s optimal benchmark.
So how come residents in the upmarket pockets use drinking water to wash their cars? How come farmhouse owners in Mehrauli fill up their swimming pools and flood their lawns? Because the per capita supply to the New Delhi, Karol Bagh and Cantonment areas crosses the 400-litre mark. Because farmhouses are allowed to illegally draw rapidly sinking groundwater.
As a result, per capita availability of water is as low as 15 litres a day in Delhi’s many slum clusters. Even otherwise, the poor’s entitlement is nowhere close to adequate. The Delhi government does not charge for 6,000 litres per family per month. For a family of six, this breaks down to less than 35 litres per person per day if the taps do not run dry.
On paper, the government aspires to provide 265 litres of water to every urban citizen daily. For Delhi, that amounts to 4,200 million litres a day. Factoring in the distribution loss, the present deficit is of 2,300 million litres. Even if Delhi acquires an additional 300 million litres from Haryana and another 1,050 million litres from the Renuka dam, if and when it is cleared at great environmental and human cost in Himachal Pradesh, the city will still stare at a daily deficit of nearly 1,000 million litres.
But does Delhi really need to aspire for a daily per capita supply of 265 litres when an average Londoner gets to use only 170 litres? Going by the upper limit of WHO’s optimal benchmark of 200 litres, Delhi’s 16 million people do not require more than the 3,200 million litres that Delhi already claims to be supplying. Fixing leaky pipelines is a far more honourable option than begging or bullying one’s neighbours.
But even a zero-water deficit Delhi does not mean the less privileged will enjoy the basic minimum supply. To make at least 100 litres of free water available to each citizen, the authorities will have to curb wastage and misuse.
If consumption over 100 litres per person is charged incrementally, and wastage of drinking water in gardening or construction activities is discouraged, there should be adequate water available for everybody; at least, for now.
DELHI’S PRESENT population of 16 million is likely to go up to 24 million in the next 10 years. The capital already depends on Uttarakhand and Haryana for water and the states will not be in a position to increase, even sustain, the supply. For a water-secure future, the mega city must look for solutions within its boundaries and control.
Comparatively less vertical than other mega cities, Delhi has a better opportunity to harvest rainwater. It gets adequate rainfall and, if harvested in an area of 200 sq m, can yield 7,200 litres, equivalent to an individual’s optimal annual requirement. But though the city has four agencies for promoting rainwater harvesting, it is not yet compulsory.
Delhi’s daily sewage load is exactly the amount of water supplied every day: 3,200 million litres. It is a mega hazard that can be turned into an opportunity. However revolting the idea may be, 5 percent of the world’s drinking water already comes from purified sewage.
Once dependent on Malaysia for water, Singapore now reclaims 3,800 million litres of drinking-quality water from sewage daily. The US, China, Vietnam and Egypt are the other forerunners in the field. The cost, however, is steep.
While Delhi does not really need to drink purified sewage in the foreseeable future, many of its residents anyway end up drinking water laced with excreta because only 1,500 million litres of the capital’s sewage undergoes treatment and the rest enters the water systems directly. The government has pumped in Rs 1,300 crore after two years’ delay but even this added capacity will cover treatment of only 60 percent of the city’s total sewage. The reclaimed water, however, may not be of even bathing quality.
Today, a majority of Delhi’s 792 water bodies have either fallen victim to land sharks, been choked with garbage, or turned into stinky drains. If restored, these traditional water systems can recharge the city’s depleted aquifers. The two most critical stretches for Delhi’s groundwater security, the Yamuna floodplains and the Ridge, have been encroached and severely abused. This is tragic in a city with such a rich history of sustainable use of water. The Tomar Rajputs began the long tradition of water harvesting in Lal Kot near Mehrauli on the Aravali hills. Today, their legacy of Suraj Kund and the Badhkal lake has been laid waste.
Almost 40 percent of Dehli’s daily water supply of 3,200 million litres is lost along a 9,000 km network of leaky pipes
Shamsuddin Iltutmish built the Hauz-e-Shamsi by diverting water from natural streams to a depression and the lake somehow survives amidst piles of garbage in Mehrauli. But the vast and shallow lake around which the Tughlaqabad and the Adilabad forts were built finally disappeared when the Indian Army reclaimed the land. Alauddin Khilji diverted streams to fill the Hauz Khas and launched an afforestation drive on the Ridge. Shahjahan built an intricate network of canals for the walled city. His daughter Jahanara’s Chandni Chowk had a sparkling canal, Faiz Nahar, running till the Fatehpuri mosque. Today, it is the congested main road to the market.
Without looking within, without reviving the Yamuna, recharging ground water through traditional water systems, harvesting rainwater, reinforcing its faulty and ageing pipelines and treating the sewage before it spoils the river and the aquifer, the capital can never be water-sufficient. And this tall order requires the involvement of every citizen whose biggest incentive will be to create and own the resource most critical for life, instead of turning the tap and complaining.
Kolkata and Mumbai may face different water challenges — of arsenic contamination and salinity, respectively — but every mega city has a lesson to learn from New Delhi’s crisis. Equitability is the first step towards water security.
Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist.