Never mind Cape Town - water shortages affect cities across India

Rapid population growth leaves residents of urban areas with limited supply

A boy walks past plastic containers filled with drinking water at a tribal settlement in Mumbai, India, March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas
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The world has been transfixed by the severe drought and looming "Day Zero" in Cape Town, but several Indian cities suffer water scarcity that is just as bad or worse.

South Africa's second-largest city restricted usage to 50 litres per person per day in February to avoid becoming the first city in the world to run out of water. Day Zero — the day taps run dry — has now been postponed beyond 2018, but had it arrived, Cape Town residents would have had to make do with just 25 litres each, collected from distribution points.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says a person needs between 50 and 100 litres of water each day to meet basic needs and avoid dangers to health. Indian cities frequently fall short of this standard. 

A survey of 28 cities by India's ministry of housing and urban affairs, conducted most recently in 2012, found that one town — Chas in Jharkhand state — received just 37.3 litres of piped water per resident per day.

The Indian government's benchmark for per capita water supply is 135 litres daily, but only eight of the cities met or exceeded that figure.

On average, residents of the cities surveyed received piped water for just 3.3 hours a day. In some cities, such as Bhopal and Indore, the water supply was for less than an hour, during which residents scrambled to fill water containers for use during the remainder of the day.

A study by a Bengaluru-based research institution called the Indian Institute of Human Settlements, which surveyed 1,400 cities, found the daily per capita water supply to be 69 litres. Another government survey discovered that, on average, members of urban Indian households spend half an hour each day fetching water from a supply point outside the home.

India's biggest metropolises all face shortages of water. In the capital, Delhi, the local government this week announced a plan to set up 500 "water ATMs" — automated public dispensers to buy extra water — in areas with insufficient piped-water supply. In Chennai, reservoirs dry up every time the monsoon rains fall short.

But it is Bengaluru, the city dubbed India's Silicon Valley, that is closest to Cape Town's predicament.

Once a small town with a mild climate and an old, efficient system of lakes to store water, Bengaluru's population has exploded with the tech boom to more than 10 million today. Only 81 out of 389 lakes remain; the rest were filled in or paved over as the city expanded.


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The needs of a growing populace mean that Bengaluru's groundwater levels "are approaching zero", said P N Ravindra, an official at the city's Water Supply and Sewerage Board. 

The city is forced to draw its water from further and further away, reaching out to sections of the Cauvery river dozens of kilometres to the south.  

As in most Indian cities, Bengaluru's network of water pipes is old and leaky. It is also vulnerable to thieves, who siphon off the water and sell it on. These two problems account for the loss of 44 per cent of the piped water, Mr Ravindra said.

The water board is working to bring these losses down to 16 per cent.

During summer, residential and commercial areas, particularly in the suburbs, pay privately owned water tankers to fill their storage tanks. Between 1,000 and 3,000 such tankers, according to varying estimates, deliver tens of millions of litres of water to Bengaluru each day. This water is pumped out of the ground, on the outskirts of the city or beyond, from borewells that reach hundreds of feet into the earth.

Deficits in rainfall make the situation worse, said T V Ramachandra, an ecologist at the city's Indian Institute of Science. Last year, Karnataka — the state of which Bangaluru is the capital — experienced its worst drought in 42 years.

Similar challenges plague every major city in the country. The water infrastructure everywhere is leaky, and water tankers are a common sight on Indian roads. India's urban population was 377 million in 2011, and it's likely to reach 600 million by 2031, according to a new report by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. The increase will further stress the water resources of cities.

But averting a Day Zero-type crisis is very much in the Bengaluru's hands, Mr Ramachandra said.

"There should be a halt to building over lakes and making the entire city a layer of concrete, which stops water seeping into the earth," he said.

If current trends continue, 94 per cent of Bengaluru's surface will be covered in concrete by 2020, he said.

S Vishwanath, an urban planner and ardent advocate of sustainable water use, said Bengaluru's annual rainfall could in fact support an even larger population.

What is needed is better water management: a system to recycle wastewater and widespread harvesting of the rainfall the city receives every year, he said.

Mr Vishwanath dismissed predictions that Bengaluru would run out of water in the very near future as "scare stories".

"But the city does have to think not just about delivering water physically but about managing water."

Bengaluru, he said, "has to be a pioneer".