Shortly after it was elected to power for a second term, the Bharatiya Janata Party announced the launch of Nal Se Jal, a programme to fulfill its 2019 poll-promise to ensure piped water to every household by 2024. How big is the task?

In India, only 32% of households have tap water supply from treated sources, as per Census 2011. In Delhi, only 18% or 6,25,000 households in Delhi, do not have piped water supply. Despite this, it ranks among the states and Union territories with one of the highest percentages of households with piped water. Only in seven states and Union territories do over 80% households receive tap water supply.

“When the source has no water, how will the tap produce water by itself,” said Rajendra Singh, an award-winning water-conservationist whose 35-year stint with four colleagues in arid Rajasthan has made 1,000 villages water sufficient.

Groundwater supplies in many Indian cities, including Delhi, are running dangerously low. They’ve built Akshardham temple and Commonwealth Games Village on Delhi’s water bank, so there’s no recharge of groundwater,” said Singh. He was referring to the Yamuna floodplain, the area surrounding the river that absorbs most of the water that recharges the Delhi’s groundwater.

The Akshardham temple is built on the Yamuna floodplain, which is most critical for recharging ground water. Credit: Rajaraman Sundaram/Wikimedia Commons

Extent of loss

That’s not the only loss of opportunity in recharging the city’s groundwater.

A 2014-report by Delhi Parks and Gardens Society states that at least 200 among more than a thousand water bodies in Delhi – lakes, ponds and moats – have been encroached upon and lost due to inaction and possible connivance of the numerous agencies that owned the land that these water bodies existed on. These include the Delhi Development Authority, Block District Officers in Delhi’s urban villages, the Archaeological Survey of India, the Forest Department and the five municipal corporations – East Delhi Municipal Corporation, South Delhi Municipal Corporation, North Delhi Municipal Corporation, New Delhi Municipal Corporation and Delhi Cantonment Board.

The lost water bodies have illegally been turned into cremation grounds, temples, a government school, stadium and even a bus terminal of the Delhi Transport Corporation. “We had these water bodies giving recharge to groundwater, but they have become extinct now,” said Veena Khanduri, executive secretary of the non-profit India Water Partnership. “Restoration of these bodies is needed.”

Even though the Delhi government recently announced that it was starting work on the rejuvenation of 200 lakes along with the Delhi Jal Board and Flood and Irrigation Department, the path to recovery is a long one. The remaining water bodies exist in poor condition, filled with sewage and garbage dumped by residents and also deliberately by land sharks or developers who want to encroach upon the land.

The Delhi Jal Board owns the land on which these waters exist and the five municipal bodies are responsible for sewage and garbage management.

Unchecked groundwater use

This is not the only part of Delhi’s water bankruptcy. There are more than 5,000 bore-wells and tube-wells drawing groundwater in Delhi, as per Delhi Jal Board records from 2014. India’s laws are ambiguous in regulating groundwater, largely giving the owner of the land the right to the water beneath it, according to The Indian Easements Act, 1882. It is no surprise that India is the world’s largest user of groundwater, drawing one-fourth of the global reserves every year. “We have withdrawn 25% more groundwater than the natural recharge rate in Delhi, meaning there’s been over-drafting,” said Khanduri.

However, the state also has a duty to protect groundwater against excessive exploitation, as per the Supreme Court’s interpretations of Article 21 which grants the right to life and Article 48A which directs the state to “endeavour to protect and improve the environment”. “It was the job of the Central Ground Water Board to stop extraction and exploitation of groundwater,” Rajendra Singh said.

But clearly, action from all agencies – of the Centre as well as the state – has been deficient, which is why Delhi is facing an unprecedented water crisis.

Campaigning for the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections passed by with hardly any mention of this water emergency by Delhi’s parliamentary candidates. The debate was limited only to personal attacks. It remains to be seen whether the seven winning Members of Parliament from the Bharatiya Janata Party will institute corrective action for Delhi’s situation.

“When Delhi was battling severe air pollution, the government stepped in to sensitise city residents,” said Arvind Nema, professor of water and waste-water management at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. “That’s what the approach also has to be for tackling ground-water depletion.”

Damage control, please

Like every year, Delhi faced severe water shortage this summer as well. “Sixty percent of the water supplied by Delhi Jal Board comes from the Yamuna, around 34% from Ganga and the rest is from groundwater,” said Dinesh Mohaniya, Delhi Jal Board vice chairperson and Sangam Vihar MLA.

Yamuna river, the major provider of the city’s drinking water, runs heavy with pollutants and is thick with toxic waste even though a nearly clear-water Yamuna enters Delhi. Moreover, 40% of the Delhi Jal Board’s water supply is non-revenue water: it goes to illegal connections, a kinder term for water theft and to the community taps that Delhi Jal Board installs in Delhi’s unauthorised colonies.

It is also the unauthorised colonies and slum settlements that bear the brunt of the water shortage, left at the mercy of a water mafia that’s an accepted illegality. Poorly connected to the sewage networks, they also discharge wastewater directly into nearby river bodies and the Yamuna, thus being one of the major causes of pollution.

Solid waste clogging the Yamuna. Credit: BS Rawat/SANDRP, courtesy Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan

Despite this, efforts to tackle non-revenue water and to improve the sewage network have been limited. “We can’t be too stiff and stop illegal water connections, because water is essential,” said Mohaniya. “We’re on to narrow down to identify areas of non-revenue water by installing a meter after every 500-600 houses.”

This strategy is called the creation of district metering areas. Presently, he said, the Delhi Jal Board has started this work in “nearly 100 district metering areas while about 400 district metering areas are needed to cover all of Delhi”.

On the Delhi Jal Board’s management of Delhi’s water needs, Rajendra Singh said, “Delhi Jal Board is only functioning as a contractor, not focused on maintaining the sustainability of the sources of water.”

Said Nema of the IIT, “Rainwater harvesting is compulsory but there are no compliance checks.” Indeed, rainwater harvesting was made compulsory 19 years ago, in 2001, but has little presence in Delhi with no solid data about effective implementation. Authorities have gone on passing the buck and municipal corporations allege a loophole in the law that allows for the construction of new buildings without mandatory rainwater harvesting systems.

This loophole works well for builders, who get their building plans that include rainwater harvesting systems approved from municipal corporations, but don’t actually get the systems installed. Nor do they apply for a completion certificate for the building after construction has been done. While getting a completion certificate is mandatory on paper, there is no penalty in case the builder does not obtain one. In effect, therefore, municipal corporations would never know if the rainwater harvesting system was actually built or not.

Procedural complexity adds to the problem. Even with Delhi Jal Board’s financial incentives for those adopting rainwater harvesting, a resident has to approach multiple agencies for approvals – the municipal corporation, the Delhi Jal Board and the district commissioner of the groundwater authority. Cutting red tape and ensuring easy implementation, along with sensitisation can be the push that the policy needs.

Everybody’s problem

Nema insisted that consumers also have to do more to check their water-usage practices. “Households are using RO filters that remove minerals and cause 40% of the water to be wasted,” he said. “Just a UV-based water-filter is needed, to only remove microbes.”

Veena, too, insisted on minimising wastage. “Individuals and residential clusters need to be incentivised to water-recharge and preventing waste,” she said. “Big institutions have to be encouraged towards zero liquid discharge policy, meaning treating and reusing water.”

Emphasising the need for strong political will and decision making, Rajendra Singh offered hope, citing the promising outcomes of his work in Rajasthan. “We have one-third of the rainfall that Delhi gets,” he said. “If aggressive pace of recovery is done, Delhi can be saved from being bepaani [waterless].”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.