Borrowed, wasted, free: Why Delhi water is on a drip

  • Shivani Singh, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Mar 02, 2015 13:19 IST

Just a day after the AAP government announced that 20,000 litres of water per household will be supplied free every month, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal was staring reality in the face.

The plummeting levels of water in Delhi’s reservoirs made Kejriwal request Haryana chief minister ML Khattar last Thursday for water through the Munak canal. Haryana has previously told Delhi that the latter already gets more than its share and should look elsewhere to quench its growing thirst.

It did not take AAP much to deliver on its poll promise in just 12 days. A Rs 250-crore water subsidy in a city that collects Rs 27,000 crore in taxes is not going to hurt a government. In fact, it is the power subsidy that is likely to bleed the exchequer. But meeting every Delhiite’s bare minimum water requirement will remain a challenge.

It is not that Delhi residents pay too much for water. Free water was delivered even under the Congress regime as the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) did not charge for up to 6,000 litres per family per month. But many just didn’t get any or enough supply.

In 2013, the Comptroller and Auditor General found that 24.8% of Delhi’s population was being supplied 3.82 litres per capita daily. But in a number of areas of the city, it said, consumption was over 220 litres per person per day. So while a large segment of Delhi has a negative water footprint, average daily per capita consumption in its many tony areas far surpasses that of London (170 litre) or Paris (150 litre).

Delhi demands about 1050 million gallons water per day (MGD). The DJB supplies about 850 MGD, up to 25% of which is lost in distribution. So we seek an additional 80 MGD from Haryana. We push for the Renuka dam in Himachal Pradesh, which may fetch us another 275 MGD in the next decade. But we will still be water deficient.

DJB claims it routinely changes corroded water pipes. But drinking water frequently floods roads. The loss also includes ‘theft’ by the poor who ‘steal’ water mostly because they are denied the basic minimum supply. About 20% of Delhi is not even linked to the city’s water grid.

But the rest of Delhi use drinking water to flush toilets, wash cars and clean homes. In the cantonment and New Delhi areas, per capita daily consumption touches 500 litres. The aquifer has sunk disastrously in the farmhouse belt of Jasola-Mehrauli-Najafgarh to keep the swimming pools filled and lawns watered.

Something quite similar has occurred in Brazil, home to 12% of world’s fresh water. It is also referred to as the Saudi Arabia of water. Much like Delhi, Brazil’s biggest city Sao Paulo loses almost 30% of its drinking water to leaks and pilferage. Its rivers, the Tietê and the Pinheiros, have become nearly as much polluted as the Yamuna. Its surrounding forests and wetlands that once soaked up rain and released it into reservoirs are long gone.

Today, Sao Paulo is struggling to maintain just a few hours of supply. Many of its 20 million residents get no water at all for days together. Public schools are prohibiting students from using water to brush teeth, and changing their lunch menus to serve sandwiches instead of meals on plates that need to be washed, the New York Times reported last week.

Sao Paulo’s water utility is now offering discounts to reduce consumption, while imposing steep fines on high use. In Delhi, AAP argues that by setting a limit for free supply, it is incentivising people to consume less. But the 20,000-litre cap is perhaps too generous. Even Sao Paulo plunged into this crisis by supplying only about 10,000-litre per household.

Besides, in Delhi, the fines for wastage range from a meagre `100-2,000 and are rarely enforced.

While ensuring water equity and curbing wastage, the capital has to acknowledge that living on borrowed water is not an option. While reclaiming its water systems, Delhi must also tap the bounty of 610 mm rainfall it receives every year. Harvested in 100 sq metres, 36,000 litre of rainwater meets the annual need of a person.

Enforcing such steps will take long-term commitment and may not be popular. The alternative, of course, is to offer easy sops with the nonchalance of, as writer Ignácio de Loyola Brandão said of Sao Paulo, “comfortably strolling toward our own demise”.

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