About 70% of Delhi's residents receive only 3 hours of running water per day
Half of water supplied by municipality leaks away before it reaches households
Life has been 'hell' for people whose supplies were cut off during caste protests
New Delhi’s current water crisis won’t be its last.
India’s capital was thrown into disarray as 10 million of its citizens had their access to running water cut.
Taps and pipes ran completely dry for more than 24 hours as those who could afford it rushed to purchase bottled water. Others waited to fill their buckets from the trucks that rushed water to the impacted neighborhoods.
The crisis began when protesters in neighboring state of Haryana took control of, and damaged, the Munak canal. The waterway typically supplies most of Delhi’s water.
But even when normalcy returns – in the coming weeks – Delhi’s problems won’t be over.
Normalcy doesn’t mean 24 hours of clean running water for residents in India’s capital. Instead, it means waiting around for water and working around the system.
According to India’s Ministry of Urban Development, about 70% of Delhi’s residents receive only three hours of running water per day.
And even that supply is not guaranteed. More than half of the city’s running water leaks out of long-neglected pipes before it reaches households, according to Manpreet Juneja, a research assistant at the Indian Council for Research of International Economic Relations.
Delhiites have long been used to scrounging for water – from tankers, from bore wells, from community taps.
Aarti, a north Delhi resident, did not have running water for two days during the crisis, said that her family used water they had already stored. Many Indian families have water storage tanks that they fill up during the few hours a day they have access to running water flows.
Safe to drink?
Another problem with Delhi’s water supply lies in its cleanliness. Those who can afford it buy bottled water or reverse osmosis filters for their drinking water.
The tap water is dirty and has a smell, said Sudhir Goswami, a resident in west Delhi. For cooking and cleaning, he uses a water filter. He only uses the unfiltered tap water for household chores.
It’s the same for Urmil Arora, who lived in a neighborhood of north Delhi for more than 20 years. She used the municipal water for her cleaning and washing, but bought a filter to use for drinking and cooking water.
A large part of the cleanliness problem comes from a gap in waste water treatment, Juneja says.
A little over half of Delhi is covered by connected sewer lines and its wastewater is treated, but in the rest of the city, the part that isn’t connected to public sewerage, the wastewater flows freely.
The untreated waste ends up in bodies of water like the Yamuna river, which supplies the city with 330 million gallons of water per day, according to the Delhi water board, contaminating the water supply.
Shock to the system
The system also struggles to deal with any unforeseen events, like the recent caste protests.
“Whenever a problem arises, the system falls apart,” says Juneja.
This is because the existing infrastructure is not maintained properly, she says. The city’s water administrative body only makes enough revenue to cover about 60% of its operating and maintenance costs.
These long-term problems are at play as the city struggles to resume water service following the protest-led disruption. As of Tuesday evening, the government had restored 80 million of the 580 million gallons that flow from the damaged canal daily. It is not clear when Delhi’s water supply will return to normal.
“It’s difficult to give a time frame,” said Sanjam Chima, a spokeswoman for the Delhi water authority, as Delhi’s engineers are working with the authorities in another state to repair the canal.
The water board warned that parts of west Delhi and Dwarka, a suburb of Delhi “will remain affected to a large extent.”
Goswami, the west Delhi resident, had his water supply cut off on Monday and most of Tuesday. To cope, he bought about 100 liters of bottled water.
He is resigned to the reality of his situation, but also upset.
“Life without water is hell,” he says. “There’s a saying in Hindi – ‘Jal hi jeevan hai.’
“‘When there’s no water, there’s no life.’”