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The Hindu

Ahead of ‘Day Zero’, Delhi’s water crisis is about to turn into a water war


From ABC News: Delhi is one of 21 Indian cities that could run out of groundwater, according to a 2018 government thinktank report. Disputes over water often lead to violence, especially in the city’s unauthorised settlements. The state government and the local “water mafia” are drilling bores, further depleting groundwater and exacerbating the larger problem.

James Oaten and Som Patidar, ABC News

On a crisp Delhi morning, dozens of women, men and children in one of the city’s poorest areas gather on the side of the road holding plastic bottles and buckets.

They’re waiting for a water truck to arrive, clearly identifiable with its large tank on the back and hoses sprouting from the top like tentacles.

When it does, the residents will have just a few minutes to fill their containers as much as possible to hopefully secure enough water for the day.

In winter, when Delhi is cool, the situation is relatively calm.

But in summer, when temperatures surge past 40 degrees Celsius, the situation becomes much more desperate.

Fights have broken out. People have been killed.

What it’s like to live with limited access to water

“We are getting water now as it is winter, but the crisis deepens in summer,” mother-of-three Babli Singh explained.

“We have to run behind water tankers. Sometimes I do not get water.”

Ms Singh and her family of nine live in what’s considered Asia’s largest “unauthorised colony,” Sangam Vihar — which is home to well over 1 million residents and is located in Delhi’s southern outskirts.

The buildings and infrastructure here were never designed or approved by a government agency.

Rather, residents simply built their homes on a small plot of land with whatever resources they could muster, mostly concrete and brick.

It’s a claustrophobic environment, with dusty roads so congested and narrow that cars often cannot enter.

Essential services are also lacking, with the vast majority of residents relying on tanker water for drinking and groundwater for cleaning and washing.

But with reserves so low, there’s real concern underground supplies will run dry in just a few months.

“Our children go to school without a bath for four or five days,” Ms Singh said.

“We are suffering. Life is very hard.”

The rise of the ‘water mafia’

Delhi is one of 21 Indian cities that could run out of groundwater this summer, according to a 2018 government thinktank report.

If and when this happens, it will be known as “day zero”.

The water woes are a product of years of booming population growth, drought and mismanagement.

 

The Delhi government has in recent years tried to supply water to unauthorised colonies by drilling water bores, but this is a short-term solution that exacerbates a bigger problem.

Elsewhere, private enterprises — known locally as the “water mafia” — have been able to profit from the despair by building their own bores.

The activity is illegal, but there has been little to nothing done to crack down on the practice.

The ABC saw one such private enterprise drilling in a street, and the workers explained they were digging deeper than ever in an effort to find new water.

Locals have been forced to borrow money to pay for water

Ms Singh is one of the many families that had to pay the so-called water mafia to get their home connected to an illegal bore water supply.

Her father-in-law, Inder Dev Singh, said he feels forgotten.

“We are not getting any help from the government,” he explained.

“The government has been promising us a water pipeline for a long time. We paid for our own private pipeline.”

 

During the summer, that pipe is only turned on for two hours, giving the family a small but crucial window to fill up a large underground tank they installed themselves.

The water is drinkable if it is boiled first, he explained.

Buying extra water is an option, but in an area where work is infrequent and wages are low, people often need to borrow money to buy extra allocations.

“Water is supposed to be free,” Mr Singh explained.

“[The private providers] do not want us to get a [government] water by pipeline as they are earning lot of money by providing water by tankers.

“There will be a time when there will be no water.

A man was shot in a dispute over water

 

The issue of water often only gets attention during the summer, when the situation becomes amplified.

In the summer of 2018, a man was shot in Sangam Vihar during a dispute over water.

In the same year, in another part of Delhi, a group of men and a juvenile were arrested for beating to death a father and son in another water dispute.

Videos of skirmishes and violence also regularly emerge in summer on social-media application WhatsApp.

This year, the issue is getting unseasonal attention as Delhiites head to the polls for local government elections.

Political candidates, keen on securing votes from the city’s poorest, have made sweeping promises to build pipes to deliver water to every house in Delhi.

“It does not get the respect it deserves,” explained Jyoti Sharma, who heads up the water security not-for-profit organisation, FORCE.

“Water is central to everything we do. But everybody takes it for granted. So, it does not get the attention it deserves. It’s just these few election days that it’s being talked about.”

 

Ms Sharma says there have been some positive steps in recent years, including forcing large homes to capture rainwater, and directing recycled water into rivers and ponds to recharge underground reserves.

But it’s not enough to reverse the depleting trend.

She worries about “day zero” but thinks it won’t occur this summer.

“I am an Indian,” she explains.

“I’m hoping day zero will not happen. I am hoping it will not happen.”


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