Pipe dreams

By Sunita Narain
Published: Friday 15 July 2005

Delhi has been waiting. For its neighbour, Uttar Pradesh (up), to release water to its swank Sonia Vihar water treatment plant. The prime minister himself intervenes in the matter. He persuades up to release water. Only to be rebuffed by up political leaders, who say their farmers and cities need water first. Delhi is already water-spoilt, they say. Elsewhere, farmers in Tonk district of Rajasthan protest against a dam whose water, they say, is 'reserved' for neighbouring cities. They want that water. They take to the highway. Police opens fire and farmers die.

Our leaders are usually myopic about most matters. They also work with a time-tested 'manual of operations'. In this case, I can assure you their bureaucrats have already convinced them that a) the problem is temporary: it will be sorted out as soon as it rains; b) the problem is political: the opponent party is fomenting trouble; and c) the problem is merely local. Therefore, the drill is that opposition leaders use this opportunity to build sympathies as protectors of water for the poor. The ruling party must show it is in right earnest and so bring water to its people, whatever the odds.

If problems get out of hand, technocrats step in. They assure the leader there is a plan, conceptualised decades ago, that would be best to revive in the present situation. The plan is grandiose. It takes money and time. But, assure these technocrats, it will deliver. The plan is to build another pipeline from even further, from where there is no water stress. Enter bureaucrats: "Let us announce it and start the paperwork." By then something -- elections -- will happen. And a pipe dream is sold. This game is played again and again. Nothing is resolved. Nothing is sorted out.

The fact is the two events I began with are not unconnected. Both are flashpoints of what the water future of India is going to be. They are also not 'local'; they represent what is simmering across the country. In cities, which are growing, and want water -- in need and greed -- from further and further away. In villages and farms, which know that there is a pipeline that transports water -- which they desperately need -- to distant places.

Such incidents arise out of anger and stress. The worrying bit is that this stress has become more or less permanent now. So it is that we need to take stock of our water needs and -- urgently -- devise strategies built on the realisation that water, however plentiful in places and at times, is scarce. It is time we learnt. It is time the plan changed.

Take Delhi, still waiting for its water. Or Jaipur, for whose water the blood of farmers was spilt. Populations in these cities are definitely growing. The water demand is growing even faster. But while its planners want more water, very few understand the water-waste economies of their cities.

Delhi, for instance, 'officially' supplies 3,600 million litres of water to its people, everyday. But roughly only half of it officially reaches households. The rest goes in what is poetically called 'distribution losses'. What is officially supplied is officially supplied to create inequity and waste -- 70 per cent of Delhi gets less than 5 per cent of the water, while parts where government officials and the richest reside get a staggering 400-500 litres per capita daily.

What is not known is how much groundwater people or factories extract for their water needs. But one can calculate it, working backwards from the waste a city generates. Delhi, for instance, generates over 3,900 million litres daily (mld) of wastewater. After excluding the waste from neighbouring states, it means the city uses 4,440 mld water: in other words, the city has a per capita availability of 317 litres per day. Compare this to Singapore, which uses 165 litres per day per person. Who says Delhi is water-poor? Jaipur uses much less water, but totally depends on its fast-depleting groundwater. And the city dreams of going the Delhi way.

In this situation, what needs to be done? Firstly, each city will have to plug its losses. This can only be done if the water utilities are improved, services are paid for and, most importantly, we realise that distribution losses can best be plugged by reducing the length of the pipeline itself. A city will be much more efficient if it can strategise to locally collect water, supply it locally and take back the waste locally. This can be done. The city must look at its groundwater reserves carefully and create strategies to augment these reserves. It must only draw water it requires from external sources after it has optimised its own.

Then, it needs to plan carefully and reduce the water need in homes and factories. Rich Austrialia, which also is water-stressed, has passed a bill that mandates household equipment be water-efficient. But in India, flush toilets still use more water than anywhere else in the world. We are rich, after all.

Finally, cities must look at their waste economy and invest in reuse. Invest in equipment that completely cleans wastewater up, making it potable again. Singapore does that. Or, ensure the waste is segregated -- household waste from industrial waste -- so that what is relatively less toxic can be cleaned up and then used to recharge groundwater or irrigate fields. For instance, Jaipur can treat its wastewater and use it to recharge its groundwater. It could channelise the treated water to its waterbodies, so developed as to make the soil act as a cleanser. Israel does this.

But all this require a major change in mindset. The saddest fact is that we see frugality as an admission of our poverty. Any politician who asks for conservation becomes a herald of 'rationing' and scarcity. Therefore, they play bold and pitch for the pipeline: it is, they say, what the country wants.

It is macho politics, played to dry death.

-- Sunita Narain

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