Simple answers to Mumbai’s complicated water scarcity issues

Mumbai can tap into its groundwater, and employ better water management techniques. The city need not spend millions on desalination.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is spending about Rs 1600 crores over a period of about three years to desalinate water from the Arabian Sea to make it drink-worthy or potable.

In November 2020, Chief minister Uddhav Thackeray announced that Mumbai’s first desalination plant should take care of the water shortage that the city invariably faces in the summer months of April- May, by accounting for about 10-15 % of its annual water needs.

Similar proposals were planned back in 2005 but were rejected as they were considered too costly. This time around, the proposal has officially been approved despite being twice as expensive.

While the cost of bringing water for Mumbai from dams built over hundreds of kilometers away and purifying it is about Rs 16-17 for every 1000 litres, desalination costs for the same quantity is almost double – Rs 30. This project is modelled on the desalination projects driven in affluent economies like Dubai. 

Question is, do we need to desalinate water from the sea to quench Mumbai’s thirst? Observers say no.

Sources of water for Mumbai

Mumbai needs about 4000 million litres of water daily most of which is procured from the seven dams – Tulsi, Vihar, Upper Vaitarna, Middle Vaitarna, Tansa, Bhatsa and Modak Sagar – built over lakes and rivers in neighbouring districts and brought in through pipelines.

Modak Sagar and Tansa dams are located about 100 kms away and the Vaitarna dam is located about 173 kms away. 

The existing water supply system consists mainly of a network of pipelines, tunnels, balancing reservoirs, pumping stations and lakes. The water brought to Mumbai comes at the cost of water meant for agriculture and even drinking for residents of these neighbouring districts, thus affecting livelihoods and prompting migration from these places.

Mumbai continues the process of scouting for new water resources farther and farther away. Currently, dams are being proposed over Gargai, Pinjal and Damanganga, all of which are scheduled to augment Mumbai’s water needs by another 2451 MLD by 2025, according to the Development Plan of Mumbai, 2034.

The per capita water supply in Mumbai is 268 litres per day, though the quantity varies across the city and even within the same wards depending on the nature of the households.   

(Photo: Deepak Malani)

Putting Mumbai over the rest

Mumbai’s commercial development as the financial capital of India comes at the cost of development and growth of many rural hinterlands.

Recently, when the residents of Palghar district, that supplies about 15% of Mumbai’s water needs, complained to the Maharashtra’s minister for water supply and sanitation, Gulabrao Patil about insufficient water supply, the minister remarked that “gifting of water to Mumbai was a “punyacha kaam” (holy work) and that the district must continue playing its role for Mumbai. “Mumbai is a city whose water needs is growing and since it has enough funds, it must be natural for it to build dams and source water from wherever it is available,” Patil explained. 

This policy of growth at the cost of others, is questioned by water policy analysts. Prof Nikhil Anand, assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania says as as soon as work on one dam is over, work on the next dam begins. “Producing a problem of water scarcity allows engineers to resolve distribution stresses by building more dams in more distant locations,” he says. “This despite the fact that the population of Mumbai is expected to barely increase as per the government’s own estimates,” he adds.

The BMC had proposed a capital expenditure of Rs 1728 crores for various water supply projects for the year 2020-21 including Rs 503.51 crores for the Gargai project that is scheduled to bring in 440 MLD of water for the city.

Mumbai’s water shortage – a myth?

Prof Anand, who has authored Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai, believes that Mumbai is deliberately ignoring its own resources like wells and groundwater instead preferring costly, distant projects.

Anand, feels that Mumbai’s water scarcity is a myth that is deliberately perpetuated in order to fund large projects. “Scarcity talk and the anxiety around scarcity enables capture of increasing amounts of water from farmers around the city. It makes agrarian livelihoods difficult and forces farm migration. In the city, however, ‘scarcity politics’ denies water to urban migrants,” he says.

He adds that scare mongering around water shortage makes people view migrants as a threat to the city.

Mumbai’s ‘invisible’ groundwater

According to Prof Anand, city engineers work relentlessly to ensure that groundwater does not enter the formal water system which is unsuitable for human use. Groundwater is hard to manage through a centralised engineered system that is Mumbai’s water network. So engineers try to ignore groundwater availability so that they can return to the more manageable task of making new dams in more distant locations, he says.

Convenor of Pani Haq Samiti or Right to Water campaign, Sitaram Shelar says that over 6000 of Mumbai’s wells, ponds and even estuaries are filled up to make way for concrete development. “The water department sits on a profit reserves of about Rs 12,000 crores and hence are on the look-out for only costly projects instead of rejuvenating and restoration of its existing underground water resources,” says Shelar.

He recalls how the BMC which cited the groundwater unfit for drinking in 2006, suddenly declared it ‘fit for drinking’ as soon as water scarcity hit the city. He also points out that water tankers which meet the needs of buildings during summer times, invariably fill up from the water wells in the city.

In 2010, the BMC had proposed to dig about 100 ring wells to augment the existing network of about 7000 borewells and 5000 dugwells in the city.

Water activist Dr Sanjay LakhePatil, who has filed many petitions in courts on irrigation issues, asks why overflowing water from dams is diverted to the sea every year and not diverted to water scarce areas of the state instead? “If states like Telangana can manage to achieve water sufficiency from a situation of scarcity in just about four years by spending about Rs 80,000 crores, then why is Maharashtra unable to manage to achieve that?”

Maharashtra spends about Rs 10,000 crores on water tankers almost every second year due to drought-like-situation during summers despite the Mumbai-Konkan belt receiving the highest rainfall. “When will we learn to tap into our rain water?” says LakhePatil.   

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