AMIDST a heap of rubbish at Sangham Vihar, sniffed eagerly by stray dogs, a plastic pipe sticks out. It transports groundwater to the large blue containers that provide water to the houses nearby. Residents of this unauthorised South Delhi colony complain that as the government has never installed a municipal water supply line, they rely entirely on groundwater sourced by private tubewells.
The metropolis with a population of 13.8 million is supplied 830 million gallons of water a day by the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), the municipal body in charge of water supply. This is 180 million gallons short of the demand. As the demand-supply gap widens people in colonies such as Sangham Vihar are forced to install tubewells and extract groundwater. The number of tubewells rises with the increase in population.
Offering a conservative estimate, Dr. Sudhirender Sharma, an environmental scientist who was formerly with the World Bank Water and Sanitation Programme, said that Delhi would need five times more water in the next decade.
"The DJB is not equipped to handle urban growth," says Sumita Dasgupta of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). "The situation has reached a crisis." The water table is dropping at an alarming rate and water extraction from the Yamuna River has approached its limit. Already there are areas of Delhi that receive far less than the required 150 litres a person a day.
The real injustice, however, is that 70 per cent of Delhi's municipal water supply reaches just 5 per cent of the city's population, mainly those in the affluent areas, according to Sumita Dasgupta. This small percentage uses grossly high quantities of water, up to 375 litres per capita a day, unrestrained by negligible water tariffs.
While mismanagement continues behind the scenes, the public face of the water authorities has been one of water conservation. Over the past two years the most touted technology in Indian cities has been rainwater harvesting (RWH). This is a simple and effective process that has been used in rural areas for centuries - rainwater is collected where it falls and naturally filtered through soil and rocks in the ground before use. An area of 100 sq mt can give up to 48, 000 litres a year, explains CSE hydrologist Salahuddin Saiphy.
While the flat roofs of large homes in affluent Delhi may well be able to collect enough rainwater for each household, in the poorer parts of the city there is no potential for RWH technology. The higher the density of dwellings lesser the availability of space for water collection. There are very few (if any) storm water drains for rain to collect and the conditions of the poorest areas are too unsanitary to collect rainwater. It was expected that the RWH experience would make residents of Panchsheel Park realise that water is a limited resource to be rationed carefully. But the effect has been the opposite. Consumption from tubewells fed by the newly replenished groundwater has risen from approximately 50 per cent of total water usage to over 60 per cent.
SINCE public reform of water supply appears unlikely, the government has turned its attention to privatisation. In April 2002, the government announced a new water policy, based on privatisation, and by June that year a privatised water treatment plant was inaugurated at Sonia Vihar.
Sharma believes that the government is in favour of privatisation because it will pass the buck of tariff collection, which is at present low, to the private sector. It is also hoped that privatisation will bring the much-needed efficiency to the water distribution network.
David Boyes of Public Service International is sceptical. Speaking at the People's World Water Forum in New Delhi on January 13, he said: "In Delhi big corporations are looking at the water treatment and filtration enterprises, not distribution." Sanjay Sharma, general secretary of the DJB Worker's Union, said that the union had "launched a strategic battle against water privatisation in Delhi", in response to the threat by foreign multinationals.
While millions of people in Delhi are forced to buy water from private tankers and get tubewells sunk by private firms, the argument against privatisation is meaningless unless there is a public water system worthy of defence.