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Delhi's water conservation drive must reach VIP homes, farmhouses

Delhi residents have never paid too much for water. For a city that lives on borrowed water, Delhi hardly values water as a precious resource.

columns Updated: Apr 27, 2015 13:35 IST
Shivani Singh
A-man-applies-water-to-his-face-to-cool-himself-on-a-hot-summer-afternoon-AP-Photo
A-man-applies-water-to-his-face-to-cool-himself-on-a-hot-summer-afternoon-AP-Photo

Last week, Delhi took the first step in water conservation, announcing a ban on use of groundwater for horticulture in city's 8,000 municipal parks.

A good conservation move, this also makes commercial sense. The civic agencies that maintain parks will have to buy treated waste water. This will help the cash-strapped Delhi Jal Board (DJB) raise additional revenue of Rs 100 crore that will partially offset the current water subsidy. The water saved will be enough to meet the demand of one-tenth of Delhi consumers.

The AAP government now supplies 20,000 litres of water per household free every month. But Delhi residents never paid too much for water anyway. For a city that lives on borrowed water, Delhi hardly values water as a precious resource.

The DJB claims it routinely changes corroded water pipes. But transmission and distribution losses--quantity of drinking water flooding the roads and what is stolen or supplied outside the piped network--amount to 25% daily.

However, the 'theft' by the poor who 'steal' water mostly because they are denied the basic minimum supply can be explained. At least 20% of Delhi households are not linked to the water grid and one-fourth of the city gets as little as four litres per capita daily.

What cannot be justified is the rich squandering their ample share simply because they can. In cantonment and NDMC areas, per capita daily consumption is as high as 500 litres, and residents use much of this water for non-drinking purposes.

I have grown up watching neighbours letting their tanks overflow. Many use drinking water for construction purposes. The aquifer has sunk in the Mehrauli-Najafgarh farmhouse belt to keep swimming pools filled and lawns watered. This is illegal. But fines for wastage range from a meagre Rs 100 to Rs 2,000 and are rarely enforced.

Then there is the 'legal' wastage. A bulk of the drinking water supplied to Delhi homes is consumed in kitchens, toilets, showers, home cleaning and laundry. Due to poor water quality, most middle-class households depend on RO systems for drinking and cooking. Purified water obtained from a RO unit is just 15 to 20% of the quantity that enters the system. The rest simply goes down the drain.

Living on borrowed water is not an option. Delhi may continue to fight out unending water wars with the neighbouring states, push for ecologically disastrous options like Renuka dam, or look within for long-term solutions to our water woes.

While leakage control is the government's job, every citizen can conserve a lot of water. According to estimates by Sustainable Sanitation and Water Management - a research group - a running tap wastes about 16 litres of water per minute. Each time you flush a toilet, you use 13 to 26 litres of water. With a six-litre flush, a family of four can save up to 80,000 litres of water a year.

A host of measures - demand-side management, strict fines and punishments such as snapping connections if found wasting water, conservation efforts involving citizens and use of efficient bathroom fittings and washing machines - have helped Singapore bring down per capita domestic water consumption from 165 to 151 litre per day since 2003. Today, the country consumes only 400 MGD--just a bit more than what Delhi loses in leakages, pilferage and wastage.

To beat the waste-and-want dynamics, we need to splurge less, and think of recycle and reuse. The draft of Delhi's water policy says the capital must increase its recycled wastewater use to 25% by 2017, 50% by 2022 and at least 80% by 2027 to meet its non-drinking requirements.

While installing the hardware to process the waste water, the government must ensure it reaches households. We need compulsory dual pipe recycling system that keeps grey water from kitchen and bathroom separate from black water from the toilet, for use in gardening and washing common areas. Delhi Development Authority could show the way.

But these initiatives demand citizen partnership. One way to ensure that is to remind ourselves that water is life. Better still would be to make the wasteful families value every drop. A week under penal rationing should be enough.

(The views expressed are personal. The writer tweets as @ShivaniSS62.)