Delhi’s borrow-and-splurge theory doesn’t hold water

  • Shivani Singh, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Feb 29, 2016 11:12 IST
The residents panicked. They stored water in any vessel they could lay their hands on. (Saumya Khandelwal/ Hindustan Times)

For the past few years, director Shekhar Kapur has been trying to make a film set in Mumbai of 2040, with a Romeo and a Juliet caught in bitter water wars. Not land, money or musclemen but water is the weapon of social-economic control in this land.

The script for ‘Paani’ is ready and the cast, decided.

But Kapur, who directed top films such as Mr India, Bandit Queen and Elizabeth, can’t find a financier for his latest venture. “Big producers in India do not know about water shortage. I met one guy who said ‘what do you mean by water shortage’ because in his house he has never experienced it,” Shekhar told PTI in November last year.

It is not unusual for the wealthy to live insulated lives, but some of these financiers could have made a trip to Delhi last week to see how fast a water crisis pans out.

Demanding reservation in government jobs, agitating Jats damaged the Munak Canal upstream of Yamuna in Haryana. Munak is Delhi’s Achilles’ heel. One blow to it could leave at least 45% of Capital’s homes high and dry. And it did.

The residents panicked. They stored water in any vessel they could lay their hands on. Bottled water soon went out of stock and prices of RO-filtered water doubled. Some residents stored even brackish water for rough use. Others rushed to protect their water tanks with metal-strapped padlocks.

This is how Delhi defines water security.

Fixing the broken aqueduct will take a few days. But it won’t be long before Delhi sees another dry spell. The city’s water stress is more than a hardware problem.

Delhi lives off borrowed water. Out of 900 million gallons it consumes daily, the capital gets 780 from neighbouring states. Only 120 gallons is tapped internally — from ponds, groundwater, wells and recycling. For a city that has little water of its own, Delhi loves to splurge. The per capita water consumption in its affluent districts is perhaps the highest in the world. Bore wells have sucked south and west Delhi bone dry.

According to a Mckinsey Global Institute report, Mumbai and Delhi will require the maximum supply of the municipal tap water in the world by 2025. There is no scope for procuring additional water in the near future. But like Kapur’s financers, Delhi is in denial.

There are lessons from history. The Mayan and the Assyrian civilisations are said to have collapsed due to over-population, prolonged droughts, and mindless deforestation. In 1585, Akbar abandoned Fatehpur Sikri due to lack of water.

Home to 12% of world’s fresh water — often called the Saudi Arabia of water — Brazil’s San Paulo never thought it could see a drought. Much like Delhi, it would lose almost 30% of its drinking water to leaks and pilferage. Its rivers, Tietê and Pinheiros, became nearly as much polluted as our Yamuna. Like Delhi’s ridge and the Yamuna floodplain, its surrounding forests and wetlands that once soaked up rain and released it into reservoirs were long gone.

Suffering a two-year drought that subsided late last year, San Paulo is now looking up to Melbourne for inspiration. From 1997 to 2009, Australia faced the worst drought in the country’s recorded history. In Melbourne, water levels dropped by 75%. After investing more than $6 billion in a desalination plant that was never used, Melbourne realised it needed conservation measures to tide over the crisis.

Rebates were offered for residential waste water systems. Investments were made in recycling water. Citizens also invested in rainwater holding tanks and, by the end of the drought, every third citizen in Melbourne had one. By 2010, Scientific American reported, businesses and residents had cut their water use to 41 gallons per person, half of what it was in 1997 before the drought.

On the precipice, Delhi must also make every drop count. While ensuring water equity, curbing wastage, and cleaning up the river, the capital has to tap the bounty of 610 mm yearly rainfall it receives. Or we could have Kapur’s Shakespearean water tragedy play out here much before 2040. And we won’t need financiers for that.

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