Monday, March 22, 2010

World Water Day Special: Delhi's Nallahs

Today is World Water Day, so we're bringing you a photo essay on the nallahs, or drains, that carry a mix of natural run-off, sewage, and industrial waste through the center of Delhi, and out into the Yamuna.
Something like 45 percent of Delhi's population is not connected to the municipal sewer system.  Many of Delh's slums, as well as urban villages such as Chirag Dilli, Shahpur Jat, and Kotla, dump at least some of their waste water and sewage straight into these nallahs.  On average, more than half of the sewage that pours into the Yamuna is untreated.
Though they have grown in size with Delhi's population, many nallahs were originally small, natural streams.  In spite of their smell, nallahs still look beautiful in many places. And the small temples you will find on the banks of many nallahs suggests a time when these areas were something other than what they are now.


In other places, nallahs are choked with trash.

Many colonies feel the answer to the problem is to simply cover the nallah.  Defense Colony is covering it's nallah right now.  There is a lot of money in this kind of project.  This nallah....

...used to looked like this:

Covered nallahs make room for roads, even parks.  This was once the site of a nallah:
Some worry that covered nallahs will be prone to blockages and water logging. Who cleans  plugged nallahs?  How do they do it? Others ask what will happen to all the people who live on the banks of the nallahs, if we cover them all. For some it would likely mean losing their homes.

  Others might find it an improvement.
Of course, simply covering the nallahs will not clean them!  I once found myself at a late-night party, drinking whiskey with a well known architect and urban planner.  I told him that a large park near my flat has built a small, low-tech facility that cleans water from the local nallah enough to use it for irrigation.  He said that was nice, but much more would be required. He went on to tell me emphatically that any effort to clean the nallahs with one or two high-tech, mega treatment plants would also fail, though efforts like this would no doubt put many happy contractors in a generous mood.  He suggested that the best solution would involve a long canal along the side of the Yamuna, with small treatment plants every few kilometers.  It would not look as impressive as a mega treatment plant, but it would be better suited to get the job done.  

Of course, we could have scrapped the Commonwealth Games and put all that money into a vastly expanded sewer system that might help us to reclaim our nallahs as urban green spaces.  Cycle paths could run along side cleaned-up nallahs.  But given the fact that Delhi is wasting something like half of our clean water, in spite of all those huge Delhi Jal Board pipes we've been seeing all over the place, this hardly seems likely. 

Most likely it will take a combination of small and large approaches to solve this problem. It is hard to imagine a solution to our water problems that does not involve the nallahs.    And without a solution to our water problems, far too many people will continue to die of diarrhea.

I live a hundred meters from a nallah, and sometimes in the summer, when the wind blows the wrong way, I fall asleep dreaming of sewer.  But I can't help it, I like nallahs.  Maybe it's because they are such a striking collision of nature and modernity.  Maybe it's because, when the wind is blowing the right way, there is nothing more beautiful in Delhi than a nallah, at the hour when the campfires come out.


  1. So very interesting and well done! Thank you!

  2. @Thanks anon. Hope you come back soon!

  3. Thanks for the photo tour! I too love nallahs, because I have an active imagination and sometimes ignore the dirt and garbage and imagine sailing on crystal clear water down a gentle stream with lush greenery on either side :D

    I never really thought much about the commonwealth games but when you said that the money going into it could be used to clean up Delhi's water situation, I see the tremendous waste.

    I've often wondered how bad ancient cities like Rome were in this regard. Must have been pretty bad - or worse. But certainly not as large as modern cities. And they had ghastly stuff like the plague wiping out large sections of their population. But I'm relieved to see that no lasting environmental damage was caused, and so I have hope for places like Delhi as well.

    We just need a hundred years more...

  4. @Bhagwad--The great thing about bodies of water is that they do seem to clean themselves if given a chance.

    As for planets, I suspect they clean themselves, too, in the long run. (Some say that we will be the agents of that cleaning; some argue we may well be one of the things that will need to be cleaned; given the choice, I'd choose the former!) But it may all take longer than a hundred years--and the costs may be higher than we think.
    Great to see you.

  5. Really enjoyed this, Hari. I too love nullahs; there's something so mournful and almost poetically woebegone about them! And yes, the Games - what a colossal waste, like its predecessor, the Asiad Games. Water treatment, sewage facilities, adequate number of toilets (that probably means tens of thousands), cycle tracks, wide and safe pedestrian pathways - these ought to be where our money is going!

  6. nice piece! and explained in such simple language. i wish there was more being doing. and i wonder if there are any stats on this. india figures? delhi figures?

  7. @Sabitha,
    thanks for stopping by. I agree about the mournful quality of the nallahs. I wonder how people will feel about the Commonwealth Games once they realize that the CM's new budget asks them to start footing the bill?

    @annie, As for the problem, I think we have enough documentation to say we have one, but there are huge holes! I spent a lot of time looking for stats on toilets, for example, and most of the data was really old. On the other hand, in this post I linked to a series of articles in the NYT, on the water crisis--it's got a lot of good material. And there are interesting (and current) stats here on water wastage:
    (we have data comparing the mega cities, but not much on the rest of India...but the statistics on how many people are dying of mostly preventable diarrhea is suggestive of the state of water overall.)

    In many ways, I think water and climate change are the two biggest issues we face; in part because both affect food security. Thanks for visiting!

  8. Amazing photo essay Hari. Really drives home the fact that India's water/sanitation mess amidst unstoppable urbanization is way past crisis mode. Have posted on our blog to hopefully wake a few more people out of inaction.

  9. @Genevieve--Glad you liked and thanks for sharing it on Yeh Hai Life, a blog that I like quite a lot!


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