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Water in Ration: Is This the Future of Our Cities?

The worsening water crisis facing the country is result of the failure of the framework and effective implementation of the policies throughout the country.
Water in Ration

It has been estimated by the NITI Aayog that it is only a matter of time till 21 cities in India will be completely dry. As it happened in Cape Town in South Africa, there is all probability that water may have to be supplied in ration in these cities. Already, Chennai is facing its worst ever water crisis. Potable water is being supplied through trains from Kerala and other states.

The NITI Aayog document states that cities like Hyderabad, Chennai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Gurgaon, Faridabad etc., will run out of ground water by 2020.

The water crisis this year has even forced the prime minister to speak about water conservation in his infamous ‘man ki baat’ (words from the heart). The prime minister has asked individuals as well as communities to come forward to conserve water. However, the role that he himself, i.e., the government must play to ensure adequate quantity and potable water to every citizen is completely missing from the outbursts of the heart. How can the failure to provide adequate water and conserve water be passed on to the common people? It is a failure of the framework and also effective implementation of the policies throughout the country.

Also read: What We Ought to Learn from Tamil Nadu Water Crisis

Initially there was drought of surface water, i.e., the rivers streams were drying up, then came drought of wells and finally, borewell drought. Now, this has landed us in a situation where even 400 feet below the ground there is no water left. There are a few places in states like Rajasthan in Sikar district where there is no underground water left altogether. This can be called as the 3rd generation drought.

Southwest Monsoon and Annual Rainfall Along with Departure    
Year Rainfall (mm) % Departure
2000 798.1 -10%
2001 818.8 -8%
2002 700.5 -21%
2003 902.9 2%
2004 807.1 -9%
2005 874.3 -1%
2006 889.3 0%
2007 943 6%
2008 877.8 -1%
2009 698.3 -21%
2010 911.1 3%
2011 901.3 2%
2012 823.9 -7%
2013 937.4 6%
2014 781.7 -12%
2015 765.8 -14%
2016 864.4 -3%
2017 887.5 -5.00%
2018 804 -9.40%
Source: Environmental Stats India-2018    

The interesting part is that the total precipitation has not decreased substantially. The table above shows that there has not been a drastic reduction in rainfall pattern in the country. What has changed is that the time period of precipitation has reduced. So, more water falls in lesser time. Since the water retention capacity in our cities has reduced substantially, the water floods out of the cities into rivers and sea. Himanshu Thakkar, one of the water experts in the country points out that in a city like Delhi, if even 30% of the rainwater could be retained, the city will not require any water from outside.

The Delhi government is executing a plan to get water from Renuka Dam in Himachal Pradesh which is hundreds of kilometres away. The capital cost to execute such a plan is more than Rs 4,500 crore. And when this will also not suffice after a period of time, then the pipes will have to be laid further north. This is not a sustainable model at all.

The developmental authorities have completely messed up with the development plans, especially in the large cities. Be it Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kochi or Gurgaon etc. the master plans have systematically and intermittently been changed to suit the interests of the real-estate builders. For example, earlier in Delhi only 10% of the area marked in a development plan could be used for real estate building, however, with the changes brought out recently, now a minimum of 10% is kept for real estate purposes.

The All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi, the premier medical institute of the country was recently on a strike led by the resident doctors’ association to protect their land from real estate speculators. The open land was being handed over to private builders to construct housing projects.

The so called ‘urban commons’, like parks, lakes and open spaces have steadfastly been converted into large housing projects and shopping malls. These urban commons, apart from serving utility purposes to the common people, were also responsible for retention of water and to check flooding. There were more than 611 water bodies in Delhi city, out of which 274 have dried up and 190 have disappeared. Similarly, an artificial lake in Sector 22, Gurgaon, has been filled with muck and now a housing project has been planned at the site. The Gurgaon Water Forum, which is spearheading the campaign for rain water harvesting has stated that the water bodies and lakes have either been denuded or converted into housing projects in the city. Similarly, the old mill sites in Mumbai are being converted into housing projects. All these, without realising that the infrastructure laid underneath for sewage, water distribution, storm water drains, etc., has a limit to bear. These were planned and constructed for a particular population to use it effectively. Now, whenever it rains, instead of recharging the old water bodies in the cities, the water gushes out on the roads and is lost.

The mountain cities, too, are facing water shortage, despite the fact that there is ample rain. The construction pattern of drains in the mountain cities are based on those in the plains. For example, in Shimla, the erstwhile summer capital of British India, the city’s roads are often flooded and the frequency of landslides has also increased over a period of time. One of the main causes for floods are the faulty design of the drains constructed all across the roads and the new engineering works which actually have undone the old British model of constructing the drains. The water drains in the past were constructed with embankments so that the water trickles downs the mountains and recharged many springs all across. Shimla had over 50 such water bodies around the city. But the new model of construction involves completely concretising the drains which flushes the water and does not allow its retention.

The urban local bodies, development authorities and governments, instead of working on local solutions by creating water bodies, make proposals for long distance water projects. Invariably all the cities in the county have made such proposals. The Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Tranformation (AMRUT) funds are being used to construct such projects which in the long run are highly unsustainable.

In such a backdrop, the model of constructing one million wells in Bangalore city by a few engineers by engaging with the local community that used to construct wells is a glaring departure from the status quo in planning. Already 10% of the wells have been constructed. The idea is to use rain water to fill these wells and then utilise it for the domestic consumers. The whole notion that water from a long distance is better than water stored in the background has to be countered.

Also read: Amid Declining Groundwater and Mismanagement, Who’s Really Responsible for Water Scarcity?

Another important intervention which is required at the city level is regards the inequitable water distribution that exists in almost all the cities. There is hardly any rule book. Take for example, in a city like Delhi, the Cantonment area gets almost 600 LPCD (litres per capita per day), the Lutyens are around 450 LPCD, middle class colonies around 250 LPCD and the slum clusters and JJ colonies about 50 LPCD. In some of the slums, water is provided once in 15 days. This inequity in water distribution must be challenged and a handbook must be given in the hands of the people to know how much water is supplied in these colonies. Bulk metres in these colonies is one of the ways to measure this inequity.

There is still a hope of finding solutions which lie in the basics of planning and reaffirming that the model of planning must be implemented strictly. Otherwise the day is not far when water will be provided in ration!

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