Thursday, May 6, 2010

Why Worry? Failing Infrastructure + Falling Water Tables=Dry Days Ahead!

On Tuesday, we looked at some of the many things that have been justified in the name of the Commonwealth Games: new flyovers, the metro, sports arenas, airport terminals, fancy liquor stores, get-tough-on public drinking laws, get-tough-on beggar laws, calls for reduction in public urination and's a very long list.  

But aside from the design of the Commonwealth Games village, have you ever heard anyone use the Commonwealth Games to justify improved water infrastructure? Probably not.  That's because nobody expects Commonwealth Games athletes or tourists to drink Delhi's water; neither will they have to wake up early to fill buckets of water or carry jugs of water home from a public tap.  And they aren't likely to go for a swim in the Yamuna or in a local nallah.  So our lack of water won't embarrass us like bad traffic, beggars and public urination will.  

But it is common knowledge that our water infrastructure is a mess.  Every day, on my way to work, I cross one or two small streams in the road--the result of leaking water mains.  In the photo to the right, you can see one that is just off Khel Gaon Marg, near the Hauz Khas police station.  The water has been flowing there for at least a month, possibly as a result of the street light upgradation announced by the MCD sign.  

If you need statistics to convince you of the problems we have with our water infrastructure, you either don't live in Delhi or you should get your eyes checked--but here are two just for good measure: Delhi wastes about half the clean water we get, and about 45 percent of Delhi's population is not connected to the sewage system.  

Yes, in Delhi, lack of clean water is already a disaster for millions of people already. But the Hindustan Times reported that, according to a recent study by McKinsey and Company, things could get much worse by 2030:
"The report states that if existing services are not improved drastically, the per capita water supply to a average citizen could drop from an average of 105 litres to only 65 litre a day in the next 20 years... Also, 70-80 per cent of the sewage generated in the country would go untreated, while of the 377 million tonne per annum solid waste that would be generated by 2030, only about 295 million tonne will be collected because of inadequate facilities."
What's the problem?  Apparently, India is not spending anything like what it needs to spend on infrastructure in order to keep up with growing urban population.  According to the story in HT, India's per capita annual spending on urban infrastructure is just $17.  China, by contrast, spends $116.  We need to spend more on our cities.  

Of course, one way to reduce urban population growth is to improve the quality of life in rural areas. However,according to a recent parliamentary committee report, the water situation in rural areas is even worse than it is in the cities. Here's what Mint said about it:
....just 12% of rural families have individual household tap connections and only 16% of the population gets drinking water from public taps, according to the legislative panel’s report. Further, the sanitation coverage in villages is less than 65%.
You will sometimes hear higher numbers--like 84% of villages are covered by rural water supply--but these are misleading because many pumps that are included in those numbers are not in working order.  And of course the water table is falling throughout north India, which means more pumps dry up all the time.  

If you have any doubt about the falling water table, try dropping a pebble in an old well and see how long it takes to reach the bottom--in Delhi, at least, in most cases the pebble will take a long time to reach a dry bottom; you really need a tube well to reach water around here. (For some history of the Delhi water table, go here. )  

You don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand what deep, dry wells suggest about our water consumption, but you might be pleased to know that the rocket scientists do have something interesting to to say about this trend!  A team of researchers analyzed satellite data from NASA and learned some interesting things about groundwater.  Here's what NASA's website had to say:
"Beneath northern India’s irrigated fields of wheat, rice, and barley ... beneath its densely populated cities of Jaiphur and New Delhi, the groundwater has been disappearing.... [Researchers] found that groundwater levels have been declining by an average of one meter every three years (one foot per year). More than 109 cubic km (26 cubic miles) of groundwater disappeared between 2002 and 2008 -- double the capacity of India's largest surface water reservoir, the Upper Wainganga, and triple that of Lake Mead, the largest man-made reservoir in the United States."
In other words, our use of water--for farms and for cities-- is unsustainable. If we don't do something about it soon, we're going to be in deep trouble--and you don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure that one out! 


  1. The water post was extremely interesting thanks. I guess 2-3 key issues are how much water one gets, is it distributed equitably and what the quality, i.e. is it drinkable or not.
    A relatively less important but not insignificant issue is the time at which water is made available. I've recently moved house and the place I live now gets water at about 11.30 pm and it lasts until about 1-2 pm. Even for those with a regular Jal Board connection, getting water to anything above the ground floor needs a motor. Many working people, women and some men too basically then stay up until very late trying to store water. As it's getting warmer the supply timings are getting more irregular. It used to come in the late afternoons now that has pretty much stopped and midnight is getting to be the only time when water is available. Talk about burning the midnight water!
    I hoping to figure more of the scene there, moved in recently.

  2. It is hard when water comes for just a few hours in the middle of the night. These are all ways in which this crisis is expressed. It is hard to imagine how this problem has been allowed to go on so long--maybe it has something to do with a collective lack of imagination! However, you can rest assured knowing someone is surely dreaming up a new flyover to build, even as you lie awake waiting for the DJB to send you more water!


What do you think?