India’s Water Nightmare
Image Credit: Uniphoto Press

India’s Water Nightmare


Pinky Devi begins her long day in the chaotic urban sprawl that is Garhi, New Delhi, at the crack of dawn. She has to, otherwise she risks missing out on the seven minutes of municipal water supply that will splutter through the two taps in her tiny one room home.

‘My day is a collection drive,’ laughs the 32-year-old mother of three as she explains the different water sources she has to resort to each day. At 8 o’clock every morning, she queues up to fill colourful plastic buckets from the water tanker that chugs through her neighbourhood each day. The area’s residents have to pool money to buy tanker water to supplement their meagre supply.

‘About 15 percent of our household budget goes to water. How did water become a luxury?’ Pinky asks.

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That she has to ask the question this year is something of an irony considering that Delhi received an unusually large rainfall last month of about 450 mm. The Yamuna River, normally a shallow trickle, exceeded danger levels on several days in August, while torrential downpours played havoc with traffic in the city. Many roads were water-logged, leaving commuters stuck for hours in jams.

Yet Pinky’s district in Delhi is far from alone. Analysts say India’s per capita water availability is set to slip below the critical 1,000 cubic metres mark by 2025, and the country is expected to join China in facing significant water stress.

The turnaround in India’s water situation has been dramatic. In 2005, the Global Water Initiative said India had ‘abundant’ water in 1975 but that by 2000, this happy state of affairs had turned into ‘stress’ even as demand has continued to grow.

‘Water–The India Story’, a widely quoted study by market research firm Grail Research, points out that India’s per capita domestic consumption of water is expected to grow to 167 litres a day by 2050, up from 88.9 in 2000. Factor in the growing population (expected to increase from 1.13 billion in 2005 to 1.66 billion by 2050) and the picture starts to look bleak.

One recent report, by Ravi Narayanan, vice chair of the Asia Pacific Water Forum, stated that even conservative estimates suggest that over 40 million people still need to be provided with safe water and about 100 million people with adequate sanitation just to reach Millennium Development Goals for urban India, much less reach universal coverage.

Such forecasts should be sounding alarm bells among policymakers.

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