NEW DELHI // Painted green, with warning lights and sirens, Delhi has a new "tree ambulance" that rushes to the rescue of the city's quickly disappearing trees whose plight, experts warn, is an acute symptom of the city's failing environmental health.
"It is a like a mobile ICU for critical intervention to save the green lungs of Delhi," said Suhas Borker, the founder member of the Green Circle, a volunteer group of environmental activists. With pollution levels rising, groundwater tables dropping and development spreading in all directions, Delhi's trees are being cut down or are toppling over, exhausted by a combination of thirst, foul air and old age.
Staffed by six trained horticulturalists, the city's tree ambulance comes with washers, sprayers, pruners, chainsaws and manure. Most importantly, it also has a 5,500-litre water tank. Given the scale and structural nature of the problem, Mr Borker does not consider the ambulance an easy fix, but he does hope it raises the alarm. The project "will help to create critical mass awareness about saving our trees in a rapidly degrading urban environment and the onslaught [of] unbridled construction activities", such as the preparations for the Commonwealth Games this year and a subway system.
More than 100,000 trees have been cut over the past five years as Delhi prepares for the Games in October. "It is happening on a colossal scale," said Pradip Krishen, the author of Trees of Delhi. "Even for good things, like the Metro, the first thing that gets sacrificed is trees." Delhi is sometimes called the "Garden City" and its residents are proud of the many parks and trees that have for decades added shade and beauty to the sweltering metropolis.
"This is a hot city. For people who work on the street - the cycle rickshaws, the hawkers, street vendors - they sit below the trees," said Ravi Agarwal, the director of Toxic Links, a non-governmental environmentalist organisation based in Delhi. "Delhi is also a fertile nesting and birding place - You take trees away and the whole biodiversity of the flora and the fauna also disappears, and that is a very important part of Delhi itself."
Trees guard against dangerous pollution levels and help to retain water reserves at the earth's surface, lowering heat and offering shade and beauty to all the residents of this parched city. In the early 20th century, trees were a crucial component of the British plan to build the colonial city of New Delhi within the larger metropolitan area, with its graceful tree-lined boulevards and bungalows.
"There will be trees everywhere, in every garden however small it be, and along the sides of every roadway and Imperial Delhi will be a sea of foliage. It may be called a city but it is going to be quite different from any city that the world has known," wrote Captain George Swinton, the chairman of the town planning committee, in 1912. Trees still provide shade in more than half of New Delhi, but even this proportion has been dropping in the construction frenzy.
Delhi's population of 18 million is expanding each year as hundreds of thousands of people from rural India move to the city, hoping to make a living. Most end up in one of the sprawling squatter colonies on the city's outskirts, areas that are putting enormous pressure on the city's thin water supply. Groundwater is scarce everywhere except in the wealthiest districts, where residents can afford private tubewells that illegally tap into aquifers. These areas take as much as 500 litres per person per day, leaving only 30 litres available per person in poorer areas, according to government statistics.
The average use should be no more than 100 litres, according to Mr Agarwal. "It's a question of water distribution and the political equity of that," he added. "If you share it wisely, there's enough water for everybody." But the acute water shortage is now killing dozens of trees each year, their taproots unable to reach the city's sinking groundwater pools. Mr Agarwal called them Delhi's canaries in a mine shaft.
"The only condition under which the taproot would wither and die would be if the taproot had looked for water and failed to find it," he said. Vikram Soni, a professor at the National Physical Laboratory at the University of Delhi, said the city's groundwater has now virtually expired, and uncontrolled development was to blame. "The water is just not there," Mr Soni said. "New York gets its water from the Catskills forest, which is 150 kilometres away. Delhi does not have such an option."
Two other major sources of the city's water are also being threatened. The Commonwealth Games Village has been built on the floodplains of the Yamuna River to the east of the city, areas which help retain water reserves, while deep underground, aquifers that should be kept as a contingency are being accessed by developers, especially in the satellite city of Gurgaon. "Once these run out, there will be no recharge the following year," Mr Soni said. "Evacuation then becomes a real possibility."
Less dire outcomes are possible, but only if the city drums up the political will to devise development models suitable for an Asian megacity in the 21st century, rather than relying on centuries-old methods used in Europe, Mr Agarwal said. "We can't just take borrowed models of centralised systems of water and sewage as a given. We are following a model that does not work in a city like Delhi."