Delhi waters: Unequal, unreliable, and running out


Although Delhi has more water per person, on average, than London or New York, many still endure a daily fight for access.  Short piece from me for GIZ’s Digital Development Debates on this deeply-rooted problem and possible solutions.

India’s capital city Delhi is a place of extremes. Summer temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius as desert winds and dust storms blow in from the west. In winter the wind from the mountains brings an icy chill and freezing fogs. Manicured gardens bloom a short distance from black, evil-smelling waterways. More than one international embassy has a makeshift settlement adjoining its grounds. This idea of India as a place of contrasts is a shorthand commonly used by foreign writers, an easy way of avoiding the harder work of describing unfamiliar situations and systems ranging from the brutally simple to the highly complex and chaotic.

Home to 26 million people, Delhi is larger than many European countries, and managing a rapidly urbanising area of this size is no small challenge. Compared to their rural counterparts, cities like Delhi can seem like “islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa,” as Indian economist and Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen has commented. Inside the city, spectacular levels of inequality are embodied by the swimming pools and air-conditioned super-luxury villas that exist side-by-side with high density, unplanned (illegal) areas where one-room households are common and civic services patchy or non-existent.

Delhi’s water systems appear paradoxical at first glance as well. Despite progress in recent years, India’s water and sanitation indicators are fairly low. Nationally, around 48% of urban households do not have access to treated tap water (2011 census data). In Delhi, the figure is much higher than the national average, and limited and erratic timings in many areas also mean that “access to treated tap water” is not at all the same as regular, reliable, adequate access.

…ample ways for creating a fairer system exist, though they have failed due to deeply rooted socio-political systems – thus far.

However, there is no shortage of power, money or expertise in the capital city, which on average supplies an unusually high amount of water per person, more even than London or New York. Delhi’s water system struggles with the pressures of fast urbanisation, fragmented governance, political interference and a limited budget. System performance indicators for network coverage, timings, quality and non-revenue water rank very low for large metropolitan areas in India. In a 2007 survey of major Indian cities, Shaban & Sharma rated Delhi’s water supply network performance next to last.

There are also vast inequalities in the amount, quality and availability of water among the city’s residents. Most of the water supply is provided to the elite government and super-wealthy, central areas; the densely populated rest of the city, including middle-income neighbourhoods, has to make do with the remainder. This disparity persists despite the fact that ample ways for creating a fairer system exist, though they have failed due do deeply rooted socio-political systems – thus far.

As in other regions of India, the introduction of a piped water system in Dehli under the British Raj was accompanied by increasing neglect of traditional water distribution and storage models. Water was differentially supplied to different classes of housing, a tradition that has continued to the present day. Around 70% of Delhi’s population lives in unplanned settlements of various kinds, including old villages exempt from planning and services, illegally constructed “unauthorised colonies” on village agricultural land, self-built bastis and jhuggis, and the relocation areas that some residents are sent to after bastis have been demolished. Areas are allocated water supply quantity, quality and mode according to their status in this hierarchy of settlement types.

…urban groundwater use is a little studied area of research.

A study by Marie-Hélène Zérah found around half the city needed to rely on alternative water sources in order to get by. Around a quarter of the population have no piped water. In 2009, India’s Comptroller Auditor General reported that 24.8% of the population were receiving water from the government only via tanker trucks. Consequently, much of the gap between supply and demand is filled by unregulated (and illegal) groundwater use, as is the case in many other parts of the country.

Delhi sits at the centre of North India’s unsustainable groundwater depletion. Research on Delhi by Augustin Maria suggests that up to half of the city’s water use is unofficial groundwater. The water table in the south and south-west has fallen around a metre a year over the last decade and has already reached the limit of viable use in some areas.

Groundwater in the city is also highly polluted, largely due to a lack of sewage disposal services, and contains nitrate levels thirty times higher than WHO standards, as well as excessive fluoride, arsenic and mercury in some areas. Less than a quarter of the capital’s residents use the (expensive) in-house water purifiers that could remove these impurities and improve water quality.

As previously noted, while inefficiency and inequality are commonly cited as key factors when the serious issues facing non-Western cities are discussed, the looming global groundwater crisis is considerably more complicated. From California to Syria, Mexico City to Jakarta, groundwater use is leading to severe droughts and rising urban and rural tensions. Yet despite the fact that many cities around the world are highly dependent on groundwater, urban groundwater use is a little studied area of research.

…more money means deeper wells, more powerful pumps, and less water for other proximate users.

India is the world’s largest user of groundwater, now the main source of water across all types of uses. This dependence on groundwater is endemic across Indian cities, where as a rule only urban centres of above five million inhabitants have made the transition to a surface-water based supply. Throughout Northern India, the level of groundwater overexploitation is high, and a majority of the region’s aquifers are predicted to become critically depleted in the next 20 years. Current use is acutely unsustainable, yet the use of groundwater as an alternative to limited public networks remains a critical “blind spot” in both research and policy. While governments and researchers are coming to see that the previous model of bringing increasing amounts of water from distant large dams and reservoirs is economically and socially unviable, alternative solutions based on increased efficiency and re-use have yet to be worked out for large-scale supply.

At a city level, the heavy use of groundwater provides an environmental externality that tacitly facilitates minimal state provision. For higher income households, this means that availability is partly a function of household income; more money means deeper wells, more powerful pumps, and less water for other proximate users. For poorer households, various forms of micro-politics and intermediation, as well as material factors, structure water supply and access.

Groundwater is more socially and environmentally embedded than the piped supply, making it much harder to reach with policy initiatives. Both water tankers and bore wells are said to be closely related to the economy of party politics. Local politicians and leaders have a sizeable amount of discretion over the provisioning of bore well and tanker water. Water may be “organised” by local leaders, usually aligned with political parties, in return for local support. Private tube wells are hard to detect and, as standalone units, public tube wells are easy to take control of. This can lead to government-installed tube wells being “captured” by powerful local residents from an area’s dominant caste, again often with connections to political parties. At one of my fieldwork sites, the dominant caste is well represented in local politics and real estate businesses. These groups charge expensive fees for a minimal amount of water. Profits gained from this practice are passed up the party network to fund election expenses. Real estate dealers are said to buy and sell tube wells from each other as a shifting investment. Tube well water is also used to fill private tankers, leaving very little for the residents already paying heavy fees.

Delhi may become less of “an island” and more of a “lighthouse”.

However, after historic city elections in Dehli in 2014, political changes are underway. The Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party won a surprise victory in the recent elections on the back of a campaign that promised to focus on corruption and basic services. Their manifesto described water as “the biggest concern of the aam aadmi [common man] in Delhi” and made it a key campaign issue backed by posters reading: “A warning to power: no water, so no vote.” Despite accusations of being a middle-class party, the AAP fielded politicians from a diverse mix of media, corporate and activist backgrounds, and in fact attracted a lot of votes from Delhi’s poorer neighbourhoods. By framing corruption around issues of access to basic services, the AAP managed to tap into popular discontent with “business-as-usual politics”. How far (or for how long) they will be able to run on this platform remains an open question.

Delhi’s government is now led by a former anti-water-privatisation campaigner and the city’s ruling party’s legitimacy is based on improving the accessibility and affordability of basic water. Under the new Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party, government changes to policy, water provision and political representation are motivated by public welfare (and electoral concerns). The goals are to provide free “lifeline water” to certain groups, begin connecting unserved areas, and attempt to move towards a more sustainable, decentralised water-use model through creative policy improvisation. There are a range of possible solutions for setting up a decentralised, neighbourhood-level supply from water ATMs to community-managed micro-treatment plants. However, the AAP government’s current policy is to link areas without piped water to the piped network and thereby undermine the political and economic networks built around the water supply. While this is great news for local residents, it simply shifts the water issue from unsustainable and low quality groundwater extraction to Delhi’s ever increasing use of water from distant sources in the Himalayas, which comes with social and economic costs of its own.

At the same time, the AAP government has plans for the “other end of the pipe”. A trial run of six pilot projects for colony-level water supply and sewage treatment is currently underway. This would reduce pressure on Delhi’s polluted rivers, from which Delhi officially sources the bulk of its water. As a first step in cleaning up the rivers, green water management technologies, a range of natural processes for treating waste water and sewage, are scheduled to be introduced to the Yamuna River. These methods have been successfully implemented in engineered wetlands.

Delhi, and India as a whole, are rich in many ways. If the Delhi government is able to continue implementing bold solutions for water, similar to the odd-even traffic policy designed to target air pollution, the future could be cleaner and more prosperous. Delhi may even become less of “an island” and more of a “lighthouse” in its treatment of water.

Photo: “Refrigerated Cold Water” by Rogerio Bromfman
2012 – licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

Digital Development Debates, Issue 18, Cities
Matt Birkinshaw

Unequal, Unreliable and Running Out

Big thanks to Maren, Marlies and Frederik at Digital Development Debates.  Digital Development Debates is published by the Development Policy Forum of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).