Cape Town is fast running out of water. After three years of scanty rainfall, reservoirs supplying water to South Africa’s second-largest city have nearly dried up. As of last fortnight, their combined storage was 23%. When it falls below 13.5%, tap water will be cut off and residents will have to take water from common collection points. That will be “Day Zero”. It was estimated to come as early as April 12 but has now been pushed beyond 2018 at least. Nonetheless, a severe drought persists and strict restrictions on using water for domestic use and irrigation, imposed in 2016, continue: per capita consumption was limited to 87 litres per day in late 2017 and just 50 litres in February.

This is a cautionary tale for India.

Recently, BBC listed 11 cities that are at risk of running out of water like Cape Town. Only one Indian city, Bengaluru, made the list. But given that many Indian cities need to be supplied with water tankers every summer and public taps go dry for days on end, it is safe to assume the situation is grimmer. So, how do Indian cities and urban centres fare in comparison to Cape Town?

In 2015, in keeping with its commitments under the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, India reported that about 90% of its urban households have access to “improved sources” of drinking water. As to what constitutes an “improved source”, it did not say.

Change in storage level of Theewaterskloof, the largest reservoirs supplying water to Cape Town. Source: NASA

Dire situation

Cape Town gets domestic water supply round the clock even now. But, save for isolated parts in a few cities, none of India’s cities do. A Service Level Benchmark survey of 28 cities across 14 states and one Union Territory found average daily supply to be just 3.3 hours a day. Only two of the cities surveyed received water for over 12 hours; the rest averaged about two hours. This, too, was only for 62% of the urban households that have access to treated tap water as per the 2011 census.

Per capita supply of water, according to the survey, averaged 126.4 litres per day as against the benchmark of 135 litres. However, there are stark inequalities between cities, with per capita supply ranging from as high as 298 litres a day to as low as 37 litres.

Analysing a bigger data set of 1,400 cities, the Indian Institute of Human Settlements found that, on average, our cities get only 69 litres a day per capita. Another study by the National Institute of Urban Affairs, using data from 1999-2000, showed that nearly 41% of the country’s 115 class 2 cities – population 50,000-1,00,000 and 22% of class 1 cities – population 1 lakh-10 lakh – received less than 70 litres of water per capita on average. There is little to suggest that much has improved since the survey was conducted at the turn of the century. To the contrary, the increase in India’s urban population, from 286 million in 2001 to 377 million in 2011, may have worsened the situation.

In other words, a number of Indian cities already supply less water than what Cape Town is forced to do under extreme drought.

When Day Zero comes, people in Cape Town are expected to collect water from common collection facilities. In Indian cities, this is quite common, especially for people living in informal settlements. As per the 2011 census, 71% of India’s urban households collect drinking water at home, 21% take it from near home and 8% away. In all, about 22.5 million households have to collect water from outside their home. According to the National Sample Survey Office’s 69th survey, a member of a typical urban household – a woman in 72% of the cases – spends an average of 30 minutes travelling and waiting to fetch drinking water from outside the house. Thus, for many in Indian cities, Day Zero has long arrived.

Running out

That Cape Town is completely reliant on rain-fed reservoirs outside the city has made it especially vulnerable to drought. India’s cities are also increasingly getting water from sources outside city limits, some such as Delhi as far away as 200 km. This means a deficient monsoon or low winter rainfall could bring cities to their knees. This is, in fact, already happening: low rainfall in the Narmada river’s catchment area is threatening to leave Gujarat without water for drinking or irrigation.

Similarly, in February 2016, Delhi had to endure “extreme scarcity” when protesters in Haryana shut down the main canal supplying the national Capital. Because the source was outside its borders, Delhi had no option but to drastically reduce its already stretched water supply.

The consequences of this will be the harshest for India’s urban poor, whose numbers are growing as the country urbanises rapidly. India’s urban population is expected to reach 600 million by 2031, an increase of nearly 60% from 377 million in 2011. A report prepared by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry in India and the auditor PwC states that the gap between demand for water and its supply is estimated to touch 50% by 2030.

It is thus imperative that India reassess how it manages its depleting water sources. Focusing on “improved water sources” only serves to mask the fact that a tap without water is as good as having no tap. The clock is ticking. We must act now.

Mohammd Faiz Alam is a consultant with the International Water Management Institute, Delhi.