Why do we still have water scarcity in Indian cities?

It is a cycle almost as predictable as the boom and bust of economic cycles – every few years, the monsoon fails and suddenly, there is water scarcity in the cities. People suffer and try everything they can to tide over the shortage. Then, the next year the rains are better and everyone forgets about the issue.  This cycle has been going on for decades now, but somehow the powers that be have not considered it necessary to find a  permanent solution to this problem.  This picture of a woman and her kids in Chennai made me so sad :

A woman cycles through the streets with her children, looking for drinking water. (Pic : M. Vedhan/ The Hindu)

A woman cycles through the streets with her children, looking for drinking water. (Pic : M. Vedhan/ The Hindu)

At least in Chennai, rain water harvesting by residences has been made mandatory and going by anecdote at least, it has made a lot of difference to the water table. If nothing else, it has cut down the amount of water flowing into the streets after every rain and waterlogging them.

Unlike Chennai, where rain water harvesting is mandatory for all residences and commercial buildings, new and old, public and private, in many other states where there is legislation on rain water harvesting, I understand it is only mandatory for new buildings.  That makes a big difference.  If people in Chennai can modify their homes to harvest rainwater, why cannot those in the rest of the country do so?  Obviously, very few will voluntarily do so unless there is legislation mandating it.

Rainwater harvesting is just one part of the story, though.  What I cannot understand is why, with such a long coastline, India has never been serious about reverse osmosis plants for providing drinking water.  I’ve heard every possible excuse now – the membranes are expensive, they need to be imported, no one will buy RO water because it is too costly etc etc.  Yet, in many cities now, people routinely buy water and some of it is RO based, set up by private companies.  But there has been no concerted effort on the part of either the Central or State governments to set up  large-scale RO plants to meet the drinking water needs of the population.  If cost is the only issue, why not subsidize?  If the government can subsidize petroleum, it can subsidize drinking water, which is far more essential, and for which there are no alternatives.

Water usage in the cities is only going to increase as cities expand, so it baffles me that there is not more focus or urgency on this issue.  A few good monsoons and everyone thinks that the problem has been resolved.  Short-term measures are used, like using water tankers to supply water at an additional cost, and these tankers then cause accidents and damage the roads.

As a child, I remember a water crisis in Chennai in the 80s, waking up to the sounds of my mother rushing to fill up on water at 3 a.m. before the taps ran dry for the day. I think it was only that one summer and we moved away from Chennai shortly after, but it is not an experience that I am ever likely to forget.  All these years later, I still  cringe at the amount of water my lawn sprinklers seem to spray around, even though I am in a different country and water is much more plentiful here.  But it is really sad and at the same time, horrifying to see that  nothing has changed for the residents in Chennai. A few bad monsoons and water becomes scarce again.

I only hope by the time the children in the picture grow up, the water scarcity issue is resolved – in Chennai and everywhere else in India.  Is that too much of a hope?

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6 Comments

  1. Actually, harvesting the rainwater would seem to me to reduce the amount of water flowing into the water table, so the bore-wells that are ubiquitous in wealthier localities go dry sooner and need to be dug deeper.

    I don’t think lack of focus is a problem, judging by the articles in the media that constantly reiterate the crying need for solutions. Political will maybe, endemic corruption, the general ‘each one to their own’ attitude that prevails…
    Class is definitely defined by where one gets their water, whether it be from massive roof tanks and sumps that are filled by lorries lugging water from agricultural wells in the greater metro area, or the neighborhood public tap with the colorful yet soulless plastic ‘kudams’ after standing in line for hours.

    Maybe it’s the sheer population pressure in the large cities, more than anything else.

    The problem with mandating rainwater harvesting is that it would be hard to enforce, without providing lots of subsidies to the poorer segments. And given the power structure in India, I wouldn’t bet that it would be misused by the powerful to line their pockets in some way or the other.

    I don’t think the scene in the photo is going to go away even in this century :(

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