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.