Reports warn it could run out of groundwater by 2020. Has Delhi run out of time to reverse years of mismanagement and unchecked urbanisation?
For many in this megacity of 29 million, this desperate jostle for water has become a part of daily life, with people sometimes missing out on work to wait for water that may not come. “It’s wrong. People who have water in their house can just fill it up in the morning and get on with their day,” says Vishnu, 60, another Wazirpur resident. “Here we wait for water and manage our routine based on that.”
With as much as 40% of Delhi’s water supply lost due to leakages and theft, the basic provision of water is haphazard – and this amid temperatures that can reach 45C. During heatwaves such mismanagement can be especially dangerous, though action plans in several cities in recent years have brought fatalities down drastically. A similar plan is in the works for Delhi, but it is lagging behind other cities, in part due to its complex setup of multiple governing agencies.
“The urgency of implementing a heat action plan is critical – especially as it gets hotter in a city with such a large population and many slum communities,” says Anjali Jaiswal, of the US-based National Resources Defense Council, which has been advising on heat-mitigation plans in India. “Delhi is missing a major opportunity to protect human health by not putting a plan into place sooner, contrary to many other cities that have plans dating back to 2013.”
In the meantime, public awareness of the threat heat poses is low. The central Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital reportedly receivedthree to four patients suffering from heat stress every day last summer, but with Delhi’s sizeable slum population, far more people suffer than the small number who seek treatment.
It is no wonder that people feel they have no alternative other than to dig illegal borewells – narrow, deep wells drilled into the ground; Rooprai says his own family dug them until recently. Illegal extraction has become so commonplace that groundwater in 15 of Delhi’s 27 administrative divisions is categorised as “overexploited”, contributing to the city’s shrinking water table. The government is trying to crack down on borewells in overexploited areas, but Rooprai says they are easy to hide or keep by bribing local officials. “People have no other option,” he says. “You can talk to them [about why it’s bad]. But are you giving them any alternative?”