Bhavdeep has worked for publications like The Times of India, The Telegraph, The Indian Express, India Today & Outlook. She has authored a book ‘Gurus: Stories of India’s Leading Babas’. She is presently freelancing for several publications -both print and digital
Z ero Day – when taps run dry and citizens can no longer look to the municipality for water supply - arrived in the small town of Tendukheda, Madhya Pradesh, more than a decade ago. Local boys could not find brides, as no girl wanted to live in the parched town. Water was sold by the bucket, at rates comparable with Bisleri. The municipality resorted to importing water from far-flung tubewells, but to this day, even an hour’s water supply is like manna from heaven.
Chennai was the first of the metropolitan cities to declare Zero Day on June 19, 2019, when all four of its reservoirs dried up and water supply to citizens was cut off. According to Niti Ayog, 20 more cities will follow suit in the coming years. Bengaluru, despite its access to the Cauvery, faces continual water shortages. On July 12 this year, Hyderabad declared it had just 48 days’ supply left. The same story is being repeated in the North. In the summer of 2018, Shimla went dry. It wasn’t the only hill station struggling for water. Across Uttarakhand, popular tourist destinations like Mussoorie and Almora were water stressed. Even the ‘lake district’ of Nainital suffered acute water scarcity and continued to do so well into the summer of 2019.
The Cape Town Zero Day story attracted global attention, but through stringent water discipline, it managed to stave off the crisis. A similar ‘Jal Anushasan’ (water discipline) is urgently required in Indian cities.
Take Delhi, for example. Its share of the Yamuna waters is not enough to sustain the city. The bulk of its water supply is imported, notably from the Tehri and the Bhakra dams. Groundwater accounts for the remaining 14 per cent. Water tables are overexploited as a result and have fallen by as much as 350 feet in some areas. Even as Delhi struggles to meet water demand, nearly 46 per cent of its piped water is lost through leakages.
Picture Delhi as it once was, fed by numerous streams flowing eastwards from the hills. Travellers had to stop overnight at ‘serais’ before crossing over. Many areas of Delhi still carry the appellation ‘serai’, but the streams themselves have either dried up and been built over or are now foul-smelling ‘nullahs’ (drains).
Insatiable Delhi gulps clean Yamuna water and spews out raw sewage, a phenomenon clearly visible on Google maps: the greenish band of the river enters Delhi but abruptly turns black, downstream of the waterworks. Yet the city remains thirsty, with supply following short of demand. Earlier this year, Delhi t inked an agreement with Himachal Pradesh for water from the Renuka Dam, which will straddle the Giri River in Sirmour district. Nearly Rs 700 crore has already been committed to the project. The denizens of Sirmour, who will have to pay the ecological, social and economic costs of the project, have protested but have not been heard.
Now, picture Delhi as a bloated tick, sucking the lifeblood of the Himalaya to quench its thirst. Scores of villages submerged, hundreds of thousands of people displaced, forests destroyed and local economies wrecked, all to ensure that Delhi can continue to waste the water it has looted from hapless villages of other states.
Water is already rationed, in the sense that few areas in Delhi get a 24 x 7 supply. Tanks must be hastily filled up, usually by installing two pumps – one to ‘pull’ water from the pipeline and the other to ‘push’ it up to overhead tanks. Here, we encounter another hazard. Surface water sources have either dried up or are too polluted to drink from, so thirsty monkeys attack the tanks, removing the lids or breaking pipes, to gain access to the water! Lip service is routinely paid to water conservation, committees are set up and project reports commissioned, but so far, nothing concrete has emerged. The tough measures needed to recharge ground water, limit leakages and inculcate water discipline among consumers are not forthcoming.
The National Green Tribunal has urged the government to examine whether buildings on plots of 500 sq metres and above are practising rainwater harvesting, in accordance with the rules. In fact, buildings of 100-500 sq metres constructed after 2012 are also required to harvest rainwater. The rule makes sense, because of Delhi’s immense capacity for rainwater harvesting. With an average rainfall of 800 mm per year (as compared to 210 mm for Jaisalmer), Delhi has adequate scope to meet its own requirements.
But it was only earlier this year that the Delhi government decided to make rainwater harvesting mandatory for all city government buildings in the state. A handful of citizens’ associations have banded together to undertake water harvesting projects at the colony level, with barely any encouragement from government agencies. They are the exceptions rather than the rule. For the most part, voluntary and collective efforts among the very loosely-knit, heterogeneous communities of Delhi is next to impossible. As a result, most of the rainwater is lost as runoff and no municipal body – and Delhi has four – has as yet coaxed or coerced its denizens to practice water-harvesting. At last count, there were a grand total of 1,200 rainwater harvesting facilities for the entire city.
Similarly, although waste water recycling is mandatory if discharge from a structure exceeds 10,000 litres, the rule is not enforced. It is only recently that Delhi decided to make water recycling mandatory in its schools and the project is yet to take off. As for the city’s sewage treatment capacity, the state of the Yamuna testifies to its inadequacy.
The city’s existing water harvesting structures are in a state of disrepair. Delhi has literally hundreds of water bodies, 201 of which it is only now seeking to revive. Lakes have vanished, as catchment areas have been built-up and trees felled. The Badkhal Lake in Faridabad, a large natural water body where denizens of Delhi may remember boating, fell prey to unchecked mining and is now completely dry.
States across India have passed legislation on rainwater harvesting. Uttar Pradesh, a late comer, did so in the month of July. Tamil Nadu was among the first to make rooftop rainwater harvesting by all buildings statutory in 2003. That Chennai has the distinction of being India’s first zero day city indicates just how lackadaisically the law has been applied. In 2015, Chennai was submerged because of heavy rains. Today, it is parched.
The Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Board (CMWSSB), finding humour in the midst of crisis, tweeted to ISRO: “We are in the process of augmenting new water resources for our city. If you find any water on the Moon, you know whom to call first”.
Denizens of all major cities have faced the tanker-to-kitchen-and-bathroom nightmare, until water supply has been restored to their area. Obviously, systematic solutions are necessary to maintain a sustainable water supply. Water is used as if it does not have a cost, other than that of transportation. Only if tariffs go up will water use be voluntarily rationed. The groundwater cess must be strictly applied, provided the proceeds are used to augment water harvesting and storage. Natural lakes that have dried up can be revived by vigorously clearing encroachments and desilting.
The trouble is that such measures carry a political cost. Higher tariffs, groundwater cess and removing encroachments and unauthorised structures are all unpopular measures. In addition, conflicts over water between cities and their hinterland are bound to erupt, as farmers protest the diversion of the precious resource for domestic use.
As the Cape Town crisis indicates, the problem is not exclusive to India. Sao Paolo in Brazil, Mexico City, Cairo, Jakarta and Istanbul also face water stress. The story is same everywhere: overpopulation and overexploitation of water sources, with citizens and government agencies in denial, as if water is someone else’s problem.
The solutions, likewise, are universal although the methods may vary according to climatic and geological conditions. Conserve water and cut down consumption. Or resign yourself to Zero Day, because it is coming.