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New Delhi's Insatiable Thirst a Drain on India

For the poor, it means long lines for rations. Water board has had to rely on private wells to meet demand in city.

June 29, 2003|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

NEW DELHI — Rising high above the shanties of Rahul Gandhi Camp, a water tower painted white with red stripes stands as a concrete monument to comforts that the slum dwellers can't have.

Water in the tower is reserved for Indian Airlines staff and their families, who overlook the shanties from an apartment complex on the other side of a tall wall topped with tangled coils of barbed wire.

Squatters in Rahul Gandhi Camp siphon their water daily from a tanker truck in a frantic roadside ritual of survival.

About 2,000 people live in the slum, which was built illegally on government land 20 years ago. They earn their wages in surrounding wealthy neighborhoods by cleaning floors, guarding gates, tending gardens, laying bricks and baby-sitting children.

Those who work close enough and get a break at the right time go home to wait for the water truck in the afternoon heat that regularly climbs above 110 degrees. But water duty usually falls to elderly women, wives and children.

The shout goes up each day when the tanker's dust trail is spotted in the distance.

The slum residents come running, juggling long siphon hoses, old plastic jerrycans, paint tins, plastic bags and buckets. The water often runs out before everybody has their share, and then the fists are up and the real fight for clean water is on.

Around the world, in rich countries and poor, the search for clean water is becoming increasingly desperate.

With about 14 million residents, New Delhi has suffered a water shortage for several years. Its struggle to cope is a warning of what can happen when the well runs dry.

After a brawl over water left four people injured in late April, New Delhi police began keeping careful watch over about 25 neighborhoods where they think trouble could erupt over water and power shortages.

The government is feeling the pressure to solve the water crisis, but some of the solutions are fraught with more danger.

India is a developing country of more than 1 billion people. New Delhi, as the capital, is a "pampered place" because it has the power to shift resources from neighboring regions, water expert Manu Bhatnagar said. That's risky, he added.

Treated water from the Yamuna River, which is so polluted with sewage and industrial waste that it's known as New Delhi's sewer, provides most of the supply pumped to millions of homes or delivered to the poor in tankers. The rest comes from private wells, many of which are running dry, or from neighboring Indian states.

Cheap, clean water is considered a basic right by many Indians, and New Delhi's water authority charges homeowners just over 15 cents for about 260 gallons. The poor get it free. With the cost of wasting water so low, the city must keep reaching farther to quench an insatiable thirst.

"New Delhi is sucking up natural resources from a very vast area," Bhatnagar said. "Obviously, we are depriving other areas of their natural resources.

"It is possible that in the future, if we have a prolonged drought, we could have political problems with the other provinces from where these resources are being drawn," he added. "They could disrupt pipelines. They could take to the streets."

Bhatnagar's eyes light up when he remembers the bounty of 1964, when New Delhi was a smaller, poorer place -- yet so rich in groundwater that it was bubbling up into basements.

Decades of development have turned that surplus into deficit. More flush toilets and showers, more cars to wash and concrete to stop rainwater from regenerating depleted wells, more irrigation to keep cash crops alive, more expansive suburban lawns and gardens to water -- all drive up the demand for water.

By some estimates, there are about 400,000 wells of different sorts in New Delhi. When the water shortage is most acute, during the weeks just before the summer monsoon rains, usually in late June, the pressure on water supplies is overwhelming.

"We are extracting the water in an unsustainable manner," said Bhatnagar, an advisor on water issues to the nongovernmental Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. "Almost every year, a number of wells are having to be abandoned because of dwindling yields or deteriorating water quality."

New Delhi's water table has dropped more than 75 feet since the 1960s, he added, and some wells that ran dry at 150 feet have been dropped to twice that depth in the last few years.

Since 1998, the city's water authority, the Delhi Jal Board, has been responsible for getting fresh water to the capital's people and treating the wastewater they produce.

The water board is able to supply only about 80% of the city's daily need.

The gap is filled, in large part, by groundwater pumped from private wells, many of which are illegal. Excessive use of groundwater, by the rich and the poor, is drying up aquifers, dropping the water table and, in many cases, forcing people to tap brackish, or salty, water that sits just below the fresh water.

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