Why residents on outskirts of Hyderabad are forced to drink contaminated water

Groundwater, drawn at rapid rates from peri-urban areas of Hyderabad is now turning into a commodity, controlled and distributed at a premium by a few, to meet the needs of the city. Recent research reveals the alarming consequences of such trends.

Urban growth and expansion of cities is increasing the demand for land and water, increasing pressure on resources available not only in urban, but also in peri-urban areas. State policies often use peri-urban spaces and resources to meet the needs of urban populations; for instance, they use grazing lands for urban infrastructure, sewerage and water treatment plants or for special economic zones.

Water is another resource that continues to be scarce in urban areas because of the growing population and competing domestic and industrial water needs. Public infrastructure and utility services are unable to keep pace with the growing water needs of urban areas and this gap is often filled by extracting groundwater from peri-urban areas.

A price on water

This has led to the rapid growth of informal water markets that depend on groundwater from peri-urban areas to meet the drinking water, industrial and agricultural needs of cities. In turn, this has led to severe groundwater depletion in peri-urban areas of cities like Hyderabad. Most of this informal water supply is provided by tankers and controlled by water mafia who use their power to break formal and informal boundaries.

This water is often highly priced, continues to be of questionable quality and can be accessed only by a limited few giving rise to water conflicts. Water is thus now a priced commodity controlled by the rich and powerful such as local politicians, actors representing government organisations, the upper middle class and water sellers, while peri-urban residents themselves, who live in the areas where this water is coming from, lack access to water.

However, the connections between all the players in the water markets and the power interplay for procuring water in peri-urban areas remains insufficiently understood. This paper titled ‘Whose water? Whose profits? The role of informal water markets in groundwater depletion in peri-urban Hyderabad’ published in the journal Water Policy presents the findings of a study from peri-urban areas of Hyderabad that aims at exploring how informal water tankers operate and extract groundwater in peri-urban Hyderabad, and what kind of power structures exist between actors who are involved in selling water.

The paper draws on insights from a research project ‘Ensuring water security in metropolitan Hyderabad’ initiated in 2015 by SaciWATERs to understand informal water markets in three peri-urban villages of Hyderabad – Kokapet, Adibatla and Malkaram.

Hyderabad, a water starved city

Hyderabad is increasingly experiencing the impacts of climate change in recent years, with increasing temperatures, sporadic rainfall and decreasing soil moisture. Shorter rainfall of increasing intensity and low frequency has made people more dependant on groundwater.

Urbanisation has also led to the demise of urban and peri-urban lakes and tanks in the area, forcing people to depend on municipal water supply and groundwater. Urban and peri-urban Hyderabad thus face acute water insecurity with respect to drinking water, sanitation and agriculture. Groundwater in and around the city has fallen to dangerous levels.

The study reveals that:

Groundwater in peri-urban Hyderabad in high demand; locals have no control over their own resource

Groundwater in urban areas is mainly used for industries, household chores and drinking.

While groundwater has rapidly depleted in Hyderabad, the flow of groundwater from peri-urban villages to urban areas of Hyderabad has increased rapidly in the last two decades, increasing the pressure on groundwater resources.

Water theft in the peri-urban areas from where the groundwater is coming, is increasing. Water sellers are transporting water out of the villages for urban residents, without the knowledge of the local villagers. Farmers dependent on lakes and tanks for irrigation have also shifted to groundwater for irrigation, which is not only unaffordable, but also erratic. The local panchayats that have been responsible for providing water to the villages have been forced to ration water due to lack of adequate supplies, down to a few hours a day.

Outflows of water from the village through water tankers has further worsened the situation of the local residents. During summer, an average of 30 tankers carry about 5,500 litres/tankers of water that are sold to urban pockets outside the villages for domestic, commercial and industrial uses.

Peri-urban residents are now increasingly dependent on groundwater, which is distributed to the residents through water tankers, at a price.

There is a difference in the price of the water within and outside the village.  During summer, from March to June, water is sold at Rs. 400 to Rs. 500 inside the village, and for Rs. 750 to 800 outside the village. Most tanker operators thus prefer to sell water outside rather than inside the village for higher profits.

Peri urban residents forced to consume polluted water or pay for treated water

Groundwater in peri-urban has also declined in quality. For example, Malkaram village, located near Hyderabad’s largest dump yard, is showing pollution from toxic leachate in its groundwater. Yet, people are forced to use this water for household use and agriculture, because they have no other choice. This has led to an increase in water borne diseases and a decrease in soil fertility in Malkaram.

Residents have now started using treated water. A number of private actors use reverse osmosis to treat this water and sell it in the village as drinking water at the rate of Rs. 15-20 per 20 litres.

Farmers in peri-urban areas now turning into water sellers

All this has now changed the perception of water from a public good to a private good. it is being controlled by a select few who have swooped in as soon as they spotted a potential for profit – and the worst affected are small and marginal peri- urban farmers, who have had to suffer the fall out.

Losing their lands to urban infrastructure, poor rainfall, droughts and unsteady markets are forcing farmers to turn to alternative businesses, such as selling water. To sell water, they dig borewells in their farmlands. Some farmers have also started working as daily wage labourers in factories and industries in nearby cities. most people in peri-urban Hyderabad have given up farming, as more and more water gets diverted to urban areas.

The power play between different actors in these water markets makes it difficult for peri-urban farmers to negotiate their control and access to water.

Power play in water markets limits access to water for the poor

The study finds that the involvement of local government officials in water markets aids in its smooth operation. Panchayat and Mandal Parishad Territorial Constituency (MPTC) (an institutional body above the panchayat in the local governance hierarchy) members were found to have entered into informal arrangements to create artificial scarcity in some villages.

The informal water markets thus directly benefit all the water sellers and local politicians involved in this complex water supply chain. For example, informal water tanker operators and reverse osmosis plant owners make profits by selling water to peri-urban and urban populations.

Local governments have a share in this profit simply by allowing this market to operate. Water sellers and local politicians collaborate to bypass groundwater regulations without penalties. There is no regulation from the city administration or the peri-urban local government to control the source, pricing or water quality and peri-urban communities are unfortunately caught in this rural-urban struggle over water resources.

What could be the way out

The paper argues that it is important to expose these collaborations between different actors, especially private water sellers and local governments and understand how peri-urban populations are gradually losing control and access over water.

The state needs to recognise and acknowledge the power and politics that dominates and determines water access and control in these informal water markets. At the same time, water users, policy makers, activists and scientific communities need to work towards encouraging and aiding active political participation of the marginalised peri-urban communities in voicing their demands for equitable access to water.

At the same time, civil society actors and communities need to work together to make their voices heard and argue for institutional changes.

A copy of the paper can be accessed here

[The article was first published on India Water Portal and has been republished here with permission. The original article can be viewed here.]

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