Beyond climate predictions and long-term managing long-term supplies, it’s clear that getting enough water day-by-day is foremost on people’s minds.
When the challenge is so great and their children so thirsty, they often take their water sources into their own hands.
Some entrepreneurs bring water by tank pulled by a tractor, and sell at an inflated rate… while others drill their own unsanctioned wells… some even in the middle of the street…
Across town, in southwest Delhi, we arrive at the Vasant Kung informal community, a barrio, just as residents press against each other to reach a city-owned water tanker. Each person carries their own hose to siphon water from the truck into a mass of salvaged plastic containers.
Just as quickly as the truck arrives, its tank is empty and it moves on.
Like many of the world’s megacities, Delhi relies heavily on groundwater supplies. The surface water is too polluted or limited.
But Delhi is sinking. Too many wells, too much water extracted. What water there is left underground is increasingly contaminated with agricultural runoff and industrial chemicals.
But some believe that hope may yet fall from the sky.
The FORCE center for rainwater harvesting… along the outskirts of Vasant Kunj, is just across the street from the poorest neighborhoods where wells save lives. Jyoti Sharma shows me how efforts to capture and store the heavy rains from the summer monsoons may become the literal lifeblood of Delhi’s water supplies.
A few blocks away though, in the Harijan Basti block of Vasant Kunj, water flows freely from the ground.
It’s not an artesian well, but rather an oasis of sorts created by a persistent leak in a city water main. The community has cleverly built a make-shift cement catchment system to collect the flowing water and redirect it to pipes where children fill buckets and take baths.
Our guide, describes the scene.
Ram Rati is president of this community of about 300 families, mostly immigrants from rural districts. She tells me that, ironically if the pipe was repaired, the water would pass them by… and the community would literally dry up.
It’s a stark reminder that in many major cities basic infrastructure is in shambles and is doesn’t have the capacity to reliably deliver safe water and treat the sewage of millions.
And the tradeoff between sanitation and drinking water can be stark.
In another camp along the edge of Vasant Kunj, neighbors disassembled public toilets just to get to the water supplies that made them flush.
“They need water more than they need toilet.”
Toward the end of the day, we stop in another camp in southwest Delhi. I hear women laughing, children playing and flying kites, and… water splashing.
We make our final stop, as a pall of dust and smog catches the sun’s glow over the city. Brightly colored saris are saturated by the evening light. About 50 women line up to fill their buckets from a single rubber hose that will flow for about 2 hours each morning and evening.
Nearby, the young boys I heard are playing near a putrid, green sewage lagoon and, in the bushes, is where the residents go to the bathroom.
In 2014 Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swash Bharat initiative in a drive to end open defecation within 5 years, and to upgrade the nation’s sanitation infrastructure. But today, the sewage still flows freely down hill.
While the women filled their tanks, and one stopped to pose for a picture — “I am going into business, the 20-year-old proclaims with confidence” — I wondered where this water comes from…
Following the hose, I find that it’s connected to a small pipe which disappears off into the trees.
I take the path through garbage and feces to a single rusting well, poking out of the ground, pulling from the shrinking supply beneath the city.
A woman approaches… I had seen her watching from as distance as the others filled their buckets. She cradles her arms as if holding a baby and points to the clouds above. Through tears, she tells me that her baby became sick from the water and recently died.
A young girl wanders through the rubbish and stands on the rusting well as the last bit of light fades through the trees.
Together, we can hear the women in the distance haul their buckets home, hoping that the water will flow again in the next morning.