On June 14, a dispute over water in South Delhi’s Sangam Vihar claimed the life of a 40-year-old man. Krishan Bhadana was shot dead, allegedly by his neighbour, who was infuriated that the victim’s family wanted to run a piped water connection off the main supply line.

Bhadana was the third person to lose his life over a seemingly petty water dispute in Delhi this summer. On March 17, Lal Bahadur, a 60-year-old in Wazirpur Industrial Area, died from blows received during a quarrel with a group of men about who should get water first from a municipal tanker. His son, Rahul Kumar, who was also injured in the fight, died on April 11. His family says he had received blows to the chest which led to his death.

These deaths bring into tragic focus the water crisis that has gripped Delhi. Scant rainfall, the overexploitation of groundwater and an ever-expanding population that now touches 20 million has left the city’s water sources severely stressed. A report by the Central Ground Water Board earlier this year showed a critical drop in the city’s groundwater level, leading to Delhi Jal Board sealing nearly 730 illegal borewells in the past month alone.

Another report by the government think tank Niti Aayog this month warns of a countrywide water crisis by 2030 if corrective measures are not taken in time. The report lists Delhi among 21 cities, including Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad, which will run out of groundwater by 2020.

For many families in Delhi, the crisis has already taken a heavy toll.

Manish Bhadana, 18, grieved for the death of his father, who was shot dead by his neighbour in Sangam Vihar, a densely congested unauthorised settlement in South Delhi. The young man himself sustained a gunshot wound in his left arm in the attack last fortnight.

Manish Bhadana near his home in Sangam Vihar. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

Suman Bhadana, 38, Krishan Bhadana’s widow, was also injured. “It was a fight over water,” she said. “For a month and half, we were facing an acute water shortage. Hardly any water reached our home because people use motors near the main supply line. When we went to get a connection directly from the main line, they attacked my son with a shovel. I tried to save my son and they hit me in the leg.”

Manish Bhadana claimed the neighbour who shot his father has two water connections, one of which he used to sell water illegally. He did not want others to access the main supply.

After the initial fight, the mother and son returned home, injured. When Krishna Bhadana came home from work two hours later, the argument resumed. The neighbour reportedly called more men and fired at him. They also shot his son in the arm.

'I tried to save my son and they hit me in the leg.' Photo credit: Aabid Shafi
An old picture of Krishna Bhadana with his wife and son. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

Nearly 35 km north of Sangam Vihar is the industrial area of Wazirpur. In the residential areas between the factories, residents are dependent on water tankers.

One afternoon in March, as the tanker entered the neighbourhood and residents scrambled to fill up their buckets and canisters, Rahul Kumar, 18, got into an argument with three men who wanted to take water first. Kumar’s father, Lal Bahadur, 60, tried to mediate in the brawl, but he was badly beaten up. He died on the way to hospital. Kumar died a month later on April 11 after complaining of chest pain.

Rahul Kumar and his father Lal Bahadur died within a month of each other. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

“When the fight broke out between my son and a group men over water, my daughter came rushing to the house and informed her father about the incident,” said Lal Bahadur’s widow Susheela Devi, 55. “He immediately went to mediate but they caught hold of him and thrashed him which caused his death.”

The Delhi government promised Susheela Devi's family compensation and a job but is yet to provide either. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

Lal Bahadur’s second son, Rohit Kumar, said the Delhi government promised his family compensation and a job but is yet to provide either.

The water problem, meanwhile, remains unsolved. “We get yellowish acidic water through the pipeline,” said Devi. “The municipal tanker, which comes once a day, is our only source of clean water and that is why deadly fights break out.”

'We get yellowish acidic water through the pipeline.' Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

Residents of the neighbourhood said the situation improved for a month after Lal Bahadur’s death but has now returned to normal. The water is visibly impure and unfit for drinking, they said.

Children take water from a tanker in Wazirpur. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

The absence of piped water means many residents have to carry containers filled from tankers a fair distance to their homes.

'The municipal tanker, which comes once a day, is our only source of clean water and that is why deadly fights break out.' Photo credit: Aabid Shafi
Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

Such complaints about water shortage are common in many neighbourhoods of Delhi. Sanjay Camp, a slum cluster near the diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri, sees frenetic activity every evening around 6 as men, women and children rush to the municipal taps to fetch water. Since the supply lasts only an hour, many residents make use of bicycles to take home as much water as they can before the taps run dry. The area, which is home to around 60 families, also receives a water tanker every afternoon.

A woman carries water from a municipal tap in Chanakyapuri’s Sanjay Camp. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi