2020 is around the corner, can we stop Delhi from running dry?

If a 2018 Niti Aayog report is to be believed, the capital is among 21 Indian cities that look poised to run out of groundwater by next year. Here’s what has brought Delhi to this ominous brink, and what needs to be done to avert Doomsday.

The newly elected Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre has announced the launch of ‘Nal Se Jal’, a poll-promise from its 2019 manifesto, to ensure piped water to every household by 2024.

How big is the task?

In India, only 32% households have tap water supply from treated sources, as per Census 2011. 18 percent or 6,25,000 households in the capital city, home to the nation’s rich and influential, do not have piped water supply. Yet, this city has one of the highest percentages of households with piped water among India’s 35 states and union territories. Only seven of these 35 have tap-water supply in over 80% percent households.

Jab source mein paani nahin hain, toh nal mein jal apna aap thode banega?,” asks Rajendra Singh, award-winning water-conservationist whose 35-year work-stint with four colleagues in arid Rajasthan has made 1,000 villages water sufficient. “When the source has no water, will the tap produce water by itself?”

In six months from now, by the year 2020, 21 Indian cities, including Delhi, are feared to run out of groundwater. They’ve built Akshardham temple and Commonwealth Games Village on Delhi’s water bank, so there’s no recharge of groundwater” says the conservationist, referring to the Yamuna floodplain. A river’s floodplain is the area surrounding it that absorbs the most water to recharge groundwater.

At least 200 water bodies in Delhi have been encroached and lost due to inaction and possible connivance of multiple agencies. The Akshardham temple too is built on the Yamuna floodplains, an area most critical for recharging ground water, points out water conservationist Rajendra Singh. Pic: Rajaraman Sundaram/Wikimedia Commons

Extent of Loss

That’s not the only loss of opportunity in recharging groundwater.

A 2014-report by Delhi Parks and Gardens Society states that at least 200 among more than a thousand water bodies in Delhi — lakes, ponds, moats that existed far back in the 20th century — have been encroached and lost due to inaction and possible connivance of multiple agencies that owned the land that these water bodies existed on. These include Delhi Development Authority, Block District Officers or BDOs (in Delhi’s urban villages), Archaeological Survey of India, Forest department, and municipal corporations (five in Delhi: East, South, North, and New Delhi Municipal Corporations and Delhi Cantonment Board).

The lost water bodies have illegally been turned into cremation grounds, temples, a government school, stadium, and even a bus terminal of the Delhi Transport Corporation. “We had these water bodies giving recharge to ground water, but they have become extinct now,” says Dr Veena Khanduri, executive secretary of the non-profit India Water Partnership. “Restoration of these bodies is needed.”

Even though the Delhi government recently announced starting work on rejuvenation of 200 lakes, with Delhi Jal Board (DJB) and Flood and Irrigation Department, the path to recovery is a long one. The remaining water bodies exist in poor condition, filled with sewage and garbage dumped by residents and also deliberately by land sharks, or developers who want to encroach the land.

This is also to the failing of DJB, that owns the land on which these waters exist, and the five municipal bodies (North, South, East, and New DMCs and Delhi Cantonment Board) who are responsible for sewage and garbage management, but did not do their job properly.

Unchecked groundwater use

This is not the only part of Delhi’s water bankruptcy. There are more than 5,000 bore-wells and tube-wells drawing groundwater in Delhi, as per DJB records from 2014. India’s laws are ambiguous in regulating groundwater, largely giving the owner of the land the right to the water beneath it, according to The Indian Easements Act, 1882. It is no surprise that India is the world’s largest user of groundwater, drawing one-fourth of the global reserves every year. “We have withdrawn 25% more groundwater than the natural recharge rate in Delhi, meaning there’s been overdrafting,” says Veena.

However, the State also has a duty to protect groundwater against excessive exploitation, as per the Supreme Court’s interpretations of Article 21 (right to life) and Article 48A (directing the state to “endeavour to protect and improve the environment”). “It was the job of the Central Ground Water Board to stop extraction and exploitation of groundwater,” says Rajendra Singh. But clearly, action from all agencies – of the Centre as well as the state – has been deficient, which is why Delhi is facing this unprecedented water crisis.  

Campaigning for the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections passed by with hardly any mention of this water emergency by Delhi’s MP candidates, the debate only limited to personal attacks. It remains to be seen whether the seven winning MPs from the BJP will catalyse any transformative, corrective action for Delhi’s situation, or do more than myopic acts like protesting before the DJB, without acknowledging the enormity of the problem.

“When Delhi was battling severe air pollution, the government stepped in to sensitize city residents; that’s what the approach also has to be for tackling ground-water depletion” says Dr Arvind Nema, Professor of water and waste-water management at Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.

Damage, in need of control

Like every summer, this time too Delhi’s faces severe water shortage. “60% of the water supplied by Delhi Jal Board comes from the Yamuna, around 34% from Ganga, and the rest is from groundwater,” says Dinesh Mohaniya, Delhi Jal Board vice chairperson and Sangam Vihar MLA.

Yamuna, the major provider of the city’s drinking water runs heavy with pollutants and is thick with toxic waste after a nearly clear-water Yamuna enters Delhi. Moreover, 40% of DJB’s water supply is non-revenue water (NRW), meaning it’s a black hole with no revenue in return, Dinesh Mohaniya tells us. This NRW goes to illegal connections, a kinder term for water theft, and to the community taps that DJB installs in Delhi’s unauthorised colonies.

Solid waste falling into the Yamuna. Pic: B S Rawat/SANDRP (Courtesy: Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan)

It is also the unauthorised colonies and slum settlements that bear the brunt worst, left at the mercy of a ‘water mafia’ that’s an accepted illegality. Poorly connected to sewage networks, they also discharge waste water and sewage into nearby river bodies and the Yamuna, thus being one of the major causes of pollution.

Despite this, efforts to tackle NRWs and to improve sewage networks have been limited. “We can’t be too stiff and stop illegal water connections, because water is an essential,” Mohaniya says. “We’re on to narrow down to identify areas of NRW by installing a meter after every 500-600 houses,” Dinesh says. This strategy is called creation of District Metering Areas (DMA). Presently, he says, DJB has started this work in “nearly 100 DMAs while about 400 DMAs are needed to cover all of Delhi.”

To the DJB’s management of Delhi’s water needs, Rajendra Singh says, “Delhi Jal Board is only functioning as a contractor, not focused on maintaining the sustainability of the sources of water.”.

“Rainwater harvesting is compulsory but there are no compliance checks,” says Arvind. Indeed, Rainwater Harvesting (RWH) was made compulsory 19 years ago, in 2001, but has little presence in Delhi with no solid data about effective implementation. Authorities have gone on passing the buck, and municipal corporations allege a loophole in law that lets new buildings be constructed without the mandatory rainwater harvesting systems.

This loophole relates to the practice of builders, who get their building plans (that include RWH systems) approved from the municipal corporations, but don’t actually get the RWH systems installed; nor do they apply for a ‘completion certificate’ for the building after construction has been done.While getting a completion certificate is mandatory on paper, there is no penalty in case the builder does not obtain one. In effect, therefore, Corporations would never know if the RWH was actually built or not!

Procedural complexity adds to the problem. Even with DJB’s financial incentives for those adopting RWH, a resident has to approach multiple agencies for approvals – municipal corporation, DJB, and district commissioner of the ground water authority, CGWB. Cutting red tape and ensuring easy implementation, along with sensitisation can be the push that the policy needs.

It’s everybody’s problem

Arvind insists that consumers also have to do more to check their water-usage practices. “Households are using RO filters that remove minerals and cause 40% of the water to be wasted,” he says, “Just a UV-based water-filter is needed, to only remove microbes.”

Veena, too, insists on minimising wastage. “Individuals and residential clusters need to be incentivised for water-recharge and preventing waste, big institutions have to be encouraged towards ‘zero liquid discharge’ policy, meaning treating and re-using water.”

Stressing on political will, efforts and decision making, Rajendra Singh offers hope, citing promising outcomes of his work in Rajasthan: “We have one-third of the rainfall that Delhi gets.” If aggressive pace of recovery is done, Delhi can be saved from being “bepaani,” waterless, he states.

This article is part of a series produced under the Citizen Matters – Sustainable Cities Reporting Fellowship , supported by Climate Trends.

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