The Week Magazine
Image Map
May 26, 2002
Daily Update


uExpectations of El Nino
uA peep into history
uPrivate water
uShowers of grace

Water Crisis

Thirst of India

Where has all the water gone?

By Nistula Hebbar/New Delhi, Quaied Najmi and Dnyanesh Jathar/Mumbai and Farwa Imam Ali/Chennai

It just takes 2,600 hand pumps running for ten hours to suck Delhi dry of all its groundwater. This is no doomsday theory but a fact of life staring at the face of the people in the capital. In Delhi's south and south-west districts, boring for groundwater has been banned as the water table has decreased to alarming levels.

Right now 81.5 per cent of all areas in Delhi receive water supply; this is likely to dip to 26 per cent in the next 20 years. Dr D. Chakravorty, a scientist at the Central Ground Water Board, said more than the population pressure, it was the failure to replenish groundwater that is at the root of the water crisis.

With a demand of 110 million hectare metres of water by 2025, Delhi tops the list of water-scarce cities

Delhi's 3,000 unauthorised colonies, which do not receive municipal supply, sink deep borewells. In the Sainik Farms area, for instance, borewells have caused the water table to drop to 250 feet. "And people spend Rs 20,000 every year to deepen the borewells," said Eklavya Prasad of the Centre for Science and Environment. "Some residents said that ten years ago they got water at 50 feet. The decline in the water table is alarming," Prasad said. Two years ago, there were water riots in West Delhi's rural areas.

Another point of concern is the quality. Many areas in Delhi receive highly contaminated water. Delhi water has a high concentration of nitrates (160 mg/litre) and fluorides (up to 13.8 mg/litre). "Fortunately, no direct link between nitrates and specific diseases has been established," said Santosh Kumar Sharma, regional director of Central Ground Water Board, Nagpur.

With a projected demand of 110 million hectare metres of water by 2025, Delhi tops the list of water scarce cities, followed by Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad.

In Maharashtra, more than three crore people in 28 districts-or 30 per cent of the population-depend on water tankers. As Water Supply Minister R.R. Patil said, only 15 of 280 rivers in the state are perennial. The rest dry out a few months after the monsoon, some as early as December.

The pity is that only 15 per cent of the rainwater is utilised. The rest runs off because the basalt soil cannot hold water.

The state government has spent Rs 25,000 crore on building 1,300 big and small dams for drinking water and irrigation-the largest such investment by any state in India. But unchecked urbanisation and large-scale industrialisation have taken their toll. Less than half the urban population has cornered the lion's share of the water resources.

To set things right, the government has launched the Shivkalin water conservation scheme with people's participation. Under the scheme, water-scarce villages in every district prepare water conservation plans before the onset of the monsoon and contribute 10 per cent of the implementation costs. The government puts in the rest. "The aim is to strengthen water resources and replenish groundwater," said an officer.

In five years, groundwater levels have gone down by two to six metres in different parts of Maharashtra. Patil said the government was planning legislation, making rainwater conservation mandatory for all houses and buildings. It also plans to popularise a simple technique that has proved a success in Aurangabad and Nagpur. The use of sandbags to stanch the flow of rainwater into drains has done wonders for the groundwater table there.

Mumbai is comfortable-but as conservationist Dr Sudhir Bhongle says, Mumbai deprives the people in neighbouring districts from where it draws 85 per cent of its water. By 2021, Mumbai will need 5,400 million litres per day (mld), which doubles its present requirement. The water is highly subsidised. It costs the state Rs 2.30 to supply 1,000 litres, but it charges the consumers only 60 paise. "The time has come to levy water charges as per the costs," said Bhongle.

Empty days: A tribal woman at a protest rally in Hyderabad

In Hyderabad, the total water demand is likely to double to 2000 mld by 2021. To make up for the shortfall, the municipal corporation is planning to draw 410 mld from Nagarjuna Sagar. The groundwater level is fast depleting in Hyderabad too.

The average Chennaiite makes do with 70 to 80 litres when there is a good monsoon. But if there is a monsoon failure, he gets only 20 to 40 litres. The frequent failure of the northeast monsoon and undependable inflow under the much-touted Krishna water scheme and critically low levels of groundwater complete the gloomy picture.

For three decades now, Chennai has lacked a permanent water source, and now the problem has degenerated into a political tussle. As Louis Menezes, former secretary in the Union urban development ministry, said, "Politicians have been fighting over the Cauvery or Krishna water as the only solution." Menezes, who served as managing director of Metrowater Board, revealed that the government had formulated a master plan in 1978 to review the functioning of water systems. Sadly, it threw up new problems when it came into effect in 1997.

The city has expanded in an unplanned manner and in the last 30 years, 40 irrigation tanks have been lost. There are 38 major tanks in the city that can be saved and used to recharge the groundwater. Cooperative societies and determined individuals like Sekar Raghavan have been doing their bit to conserve water. "Rainwater harvesting has proved successful where it has been implemented, but it should be a continuous process," said Raghavan, who has popularised rainwater harvesting among flat owners. Taking the cue, the Metrowater Board and Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority have made it mandatory for all new buildings to have a rainwater harvesting system.

Parched throats: With temperatures reaching 45 degrees Celsius in Chennai in early May, a man sells drinking water
at Marina Beach

But there are doubts about the efficacy of rainwater harvesting. "Some areas are geologically and climatically not suitable for harvesting," said Salathiel Nalli of Evangelical Fellowship of India Commission on Relief, an NGO. A Central Ground Water Board expert said that in areas with little rainfall, the water should not be stored and be allowed to seep into the ground, but in high salinity and rainfall areas, storage and purification of water were necessary.

There are certain fallacies about rooftop harvesting, said Eklavya Prasad. It is not as simple as having a tank on your rooftop and a pipe to allow water to seep into the ground. "Every building and every topography has a different requirement and we should provide a customised design for each construction," he said.
Rainwater has to go through several levels of filtration before being allowed to seep into the ground. "Most people think that the water seeps directly into the ground. If impure water contaminates groundwater, the health consequences will be disastrous," said Prasad.

India has to work out the best possible water conservation method to avoid falling into the ´┐Żnot a drop to drink' trap some years down the line.

Expectations of El Nino
In 1997, El Nino brought one of the fiercest forest fires to Australia and one of the worst floods in Indonesia. El Nino disrupts the ocean-atmosphere system in the Pacific, which affects the weather worldwide. In 2002, it is expected to revisit the Asia Pacific region.

Keeping track: A ship which gives advance warning of El Nino

During a typical El Nino, the Asian monsoon usually weakens and is pushed towards the Equator. It results in severe summer and drought conditions in northwest and central India and heavy rainfall in the northeast.

For India, which is already experiencing high temperatures and severe water shortage, this is bad news. Temperatures in 40 major cities are above 40 degrees Celsius. Many hill-stations are experiencing higher temperatures and shortage of water.

For the airconditioning and refrigeration industry, rising temperatures and dry throats mean good news. The industry, which had a meagre 4 per cent growth last year, has pinned its hopes on El Nino for increased sales.

"We have launched newer and affordable versions for the middle class," said R.S.S.N. Raju, regional vice-president of Voltas in Mumbai. The demand for the one-ton airconditioner, costing Rs 19,000 to Rs 21,000 has gone up in the middle class in Mumbai. In the rest of the country, 1.5 tons are preferred. If El Nino strikes, sales might increase by even 60 per cent.

Then there is always the time-tested way of taking refuge under a tree with a bottle of chilled beer. Liquor major Shaw Wallace says it has already sold one crore bottles of its Royal Challenge beer in one of the hottest places, Andhra Pradesh, this summer.
Sreevalsan Menon


A peep into history
Of all the rulers in Delhi, the Tughlaks were the most water conscious. When Muhammad bin Tughlak (1325-51 AD) came to power, he built a 65-metre-high dam to regulate water supply for irrigating areas falling outside the city. Called the Satpaula, it had seven sluices that controlled the water flow.

Groundwater levels have gone down by two to six metres in Maharashtra. Picture shows drought-affected Nandurbar district

Another ruler, Allauddin Khilji, built the Hauz Khas tank, now extinct, in the 13th century. It covered 3,60,000 square metres and had a catchment area of 25 hectares. Water from this tank was taken to the capital of Suri. Today, thanks to the land mafia and the general lack of interest in traditional methods, most of the 350 water bodies in Delhi have been turned into sewage dumps or apartment colonies.


Private water
Private water suppliers and packaged water suppliers have been having a field day because of the water crisis. The market for packaged water supply is worth Rs 700 crore, with a growth rate of 40 per cent every year. Bisleri, with 40 per cent of the market share, is still the leader, but the market is hotting up with the entry of Kinley and Aquafina.

The Bureau of Indian Standards has certified 406 packaged drink and four natural mineral water brands for the Indian market. About 24 packaged water suppliers have been certified in Delhi and Haryana.

Showers of grace
Sathya Sai Seva Organisation has quenched the thirst of 800 villages

When Bhagwan Sri Sathya Sai Baba announced last November that he would be supplying drinking water to parched Chennai, the people heaved a collective sigh of relief. They knew that this promise would be kept because in the past decade, the Sri Sathya Sai Seva Organisation has achieved a phenomenal success in conceiving and implementing water supply schemes in south India.

Thanks to the Sai water project, over a million people in Anantapur have potable water at the turn of a tap

The maiden venture was the Sri Sathya Sai water supply project for Anantapur district in Andhra Pradesh. During his birthday celebrations in November 1994, Baba declared that, within a year, he would provide drinking water to 800 villages of the district in the drought-prone Rayalaseema region. Few thought it would be possible but, on November 18, 1995, the scheme was ready, and Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao dedicated it to the nation.

The project had been funded by the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust with unsolicited contributions from people worldwide. The work involved the laying of 2,500 kilometres of large pipes, construction of 18 balancing reservoirs, many summer storage tanks and 125 ground level reservoirs and the drilling of borewells. Starting the work in March 1995, Larsen & Toubro completed it in nine months, tapping a canal of the Tungabhadra for water. For Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, this assurance of drinking water throughout the year in the most drought-prone areas of the state was manna from heaven!

Thanks to the project, over a million people in Anantapur have potable water at the turn of a tap. This area was notorious for fluorosis, a disease that cripples because of excessive fluorine in drinking water. Now, it will be a bane of the past. What is most striking, however, is that so much has been achieved without building any huge dam that submerges forests and dislocates people. Contrast this with the Sardar Sarovar dam project which has run into several years and millions of dollars in cost and is yet to provide drinking water even to one town, but has submerged forests and villages and caused incalculable damage and misery to uprooted communities.

The Sai water project essentially consists of four schemes; one, a protected water supply scheme for areas around the Chitravati, Pennar and Hagari rivers involving infiltration wells, collection wells and associated pumping. In the case of the Chitravati, the balancing reservoir at Peddakotla covers 169 villages. Infiltration wells related to the other two rivers cover another 93 villages. Another 93 villages get water directly pumped from the Penna Ahobilam balancing reservoir and treated through a rapid sand filtration system.

A comprehensive water supply scheme taps the water flowing through the Tungabhadra high level canal and stores it in seven summer storage tanks, some of which are 100 acres in area; this takes care of 97 villages. Through deep borewells, construction of storage tanks and adequate pipeline networks, an additional 270 villages get protected water supply.

The water supply system was handed over to the government in 1996 and in a gesture of appreciation the postal department issued a stamp on the water project during Baba's birthday celebrations in 1999.
The success of the project brought a flood of requests from the public and the Sai Seva Organisation has subsequently taken up water supply projects for Medak and Mehboob-nagar in Andhra Pradesh and in certain areas of Karnataka at the government's request. These projects are all running on schedule. And peo-ple call them Baba's shower of grace.
Hiramalini Seshadri

| subscribe | query | chat | guest book | search-archive | home | to the editor |