In the news for heavy rains every year, why is Mumbai still water-deficient?

Mumbai currently sources 3.8 billion litres of water per day from seven dams built over lakes in neighbouring districts. It is also familiar with seasonal water cuts. But why does a city with abundant monsoons and flooding every year have such unstable water supply?

A misguided water policy, rapid unfettered urbanisation, lack of vision and a growth model characterized by indiscriminate greed is killing Mumbai and depriving the city of its basic right to quench its thirst. The 1.2 crore residents of the megapolis currently face a 10 percent water cut, effective since November 15, 2018.

Mumbai is no stranger to water cuts but the rationing started much earlier this year than in previous years, months before the scorching summers were due to set in. This was to make up for the less rainfall this year. The city received 13.13 million litres of surface water from rains last year, which translates to roughly  90.78 percent of the city’s water stocks, just enough to meet the needs for 304 days as opposed to the required stock of 335 days needed to avoid a water cut till the next rains.

This level stood at 9.9 lakh million litres of water (69.05%) on December 3, 2018, that was sufficient for about 213 days, which is approximately till June-end. The BMC calculates the water requirements for 335 days from October 1 till June-end, when the monsoon is expected to set in.

“Our pragmatic water management in introducing a water cut way ahead of summers, shall see us through the shortfall this year,” says Shrikant Aragade, Deputy Hydraulic Engineer (Planning and Control) of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.

Dealing with shortage

The financial capital, which boasts of having one of the world’s largest water supply networks, faced similar water cuts in the past, as in 2015 (25 percent), 2014 (20 percent) and 2009 (30 percent). These cuts have come to be a norm rather than exceptions, and so have water tankers ordered by the residents to make up for the shortfall. Politicians have earlier been accused of being hand in glove with the strong tanker lobby.

The other norm seems to be the excessive use of groundwater by residents. Many buildings, mostly the skyscrapers, have started digging borewells to source water for themselves. Mumbai’s current Congress chief Sanjay Nirupam himself sponsored a series of  borewells for many high risers in Mumbai’s northern suburbs during his term  as a Parliamentarian from his MP’s local area development fund.

“Were it not for groundwater that meets about 60 percent of our daily water needs, regular sustenance would have been difficult,” confesses Amber Sukhi, a committee member of a 188-flat society.

It is not uncommon to come across notices on the boards of many skyscrapers asking them to reduce washing machine usage or even use buckets instead of showers for bathing. Residents are threatened with fines by housing societies for carelessness in keeping taps running open or ignoring leakages.

“I have literally charged my society members with fines to the tune of Rs 10,000 if I find them wasting water. It’s because they don’t realise the high costs incurred in water bills or even in getting tanker water to replenish our shortfall. Tankers come with their own problems. Their water quality is suspect and they charge you higher depending on the locality you stay in. At times, the water tanker is half empty, and I have to get my watchman to climb up and get it checked,” says S Joshi, a committee member in a 56-flat building.   

The BMC though prefers to get its waters from as far as 200 km away, from distant Nashik, but will not touch its own groundwater to meet the drinking water shortfall. “This is because our groundwater is contaminated by seepage of untreated sewage water. Leave alone using that water for potable use, I would say, it is not even fit for touching,” remarked a water department official, on condition of anonymity.

The BMC had also toyed with the idea of desalinating the bounty of sea water available from its vast shoreline, on the lines of Dubai. However, the project was given a quiet burial as it was found to be unfeasible and prohibitively costly. “The BMC would have turned from a cash-rich body to a cash-strapped corporation, had that project been implemented,” the official revealed.

Are monsoons to be blamed?

Officially, however, the BMC says that it has enough water to meet its needs. “We have enough water to meet our water needs and the shortfall is only owing to the lack of rains this year,” says Aragade.

But the real story lies in what is usually left unsaid. Incidentally, water paucity in Mumbai is not just an issue caused by less rainfall. Nor is it one that should be addressed by cuts alone. Mumbai currently has 47 skyscrapers coming up between 48-117 floors. This is in addition to the 43 buildings approved that will have between 56-126 floors. Mumbai is believed to be the city with the second largest number of upcoming skyscrapers in the world.

Despite such a large number of new high rise properties coming up, thanks to new policies like enhanced Floor Space Index, slum redevelopment or development in no-development zones, there is no clear policy on water sourcing. While sanctioning tall skyscrapers, there is no consideration given to how their growing water needs will be met.

Pic: Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 3.0

“We are asked to asked to simply provide water to already sanctioned upcoming building projects. No one asks us if we have the water resources or where we might source it from. We are simply expected to provide water for them,” a water department official revealed.

The construction boom in the megapolis has also added to a water-intensive lifestyle and that in turn has aggravated the scarcity of water. Unfortunately, the cost of it is often borne by the parched neighbouring districts.

Neighbours going thirsty for Mumbai?

Mumbai currently sources 3.8 billion litres of drinking water per day from seven dams built over seven lakes in its neighbouring districts (it needs 4.5 billion litres per day),  that are distributed via its 27 service reservoirs in city.

“Mumbai’s development model is completely flawed and distorted. How can a city steal water, meant for citizens of other districts, to meet its own need or rather greed? This is nothing but grabbing of others’ resources to suit the powerful land mafia, politicians, industries and elite. This is inequitable water distribution leading to water-induced migration from neighbouring districts. Can this urbanization at the cost of others be a sustainable growth model?” asks Professor H M Desarda, vice president of the Maharashtra State Drought Mitigation and Famine Eradication Board, a water resources economist.

Desarda says that this model will have disastrous consequences and adversely impact our environmental ecosystem. “Excessive and indiscriminate urbanisation coupled with water wasting lifestyle, especially by Mumbai’s elite, has led to this water crisis,” he says.

Solutions ignored

“Mumbai needs learned leaders with vision. Our population to infrastructure ratio is quite high compared to world standards. Our living standards too are quite dismal. No one wants to resolve the issue; instead politicians view this as an issue of opportunity, to make profits through the tanker lobby. Our basic policies are not in place, whether in terms of water management or rainwater harvesting. Why can’t we learn from working models followed in other cities across the world?” laments Sukhi.  

A report titled “The Unstable Supply of Urban and Rural Water for Mumbai, India” by Andrew Scott, Zarreen Ali and Sunny Bhardwaj, calls out the lack of rain water harvesting in Mumbai, a city that witnesses heavy rains and flooding during the monsoon every year. Their report recommends compulsory rainwater harvesting on government buildings.

According to a report in DNA, reported that a draft Maharashtra Groundwater (Development and Management) Rules, 2018, is being considered for urban local bodies and Panchayati Raj Institutions that will approve building plans of 100 square meters or more only if appropriate rain water harvesting structures are provided in it.

Though BMC became the first corporation in Maharashtra to make rainwater harvesting mandatory for big residential complexes, its implementation and insistence that these complexes develop their own sustainable water resources, are lacking. The plan remains largely on paper and societies continue to depend solely on the BMC for the major share of water. Even a slight water cut calls for major lifestyle changes and creates uneasiness among citizens as there is almost negligible dependance on rainwater.  

So, how does the city plan to quench its thirst in future? Simple, by tapping water from yet another dam built over a lake in another district, depriving yet another set of poor villagers of their fair share.

“We are building three more dams, namely Gargai (with capacity of 440 million litres per day), Pinjal (capacity of 865 MLD) and Daman Ganga (capacity of 1586 MLD). These projects are likely to provide an additional 2891 MLD of water to the city when they get commissioned beyond 2025,” Aragade informed us.

What else can the city do, after all, when it callously disregards its own resources and refuses to look at more sustainable alternatives?

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