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India Grapples with Severe Water Shortages

Water shortages are intensifying across India as its economy booms and its population grows. From New Delhi, Anjana Pasricha reports, experts are calling for better water management practices in the country.

It is a typical morning in a slum adjoining Delhi's posh (wealthy) diplomatic area. Men, women and children have lined up for a truck to bring their daily supply of water.

As the truck rolls in, chaos ensues. People rush ahead - some even scramble onto the vehicle and push pipes into the tank in a desperate bid to ensure that they can fill their buckets and cans.

Resigned slum residents say the battle for water is now a part of their daily routine. But it is not an easy one.

A young woman says people jostle and push so much in the desperate struggle for water that she fears anything can happen - someone can be crushed or even die.

This is not an unusual story. The water crisis in this Delhi area is repeated across hundreds of urban slums across the country - taps have run dry, and hand pumps do not work. Trucks show up daily to provide water. But the timing is erratic, sometimes forcing people to miss work or children to skip school as family members take turns to wait for the precious commodity.

Water shortages have intensified in recent decades in both rural and urban areas as water supplied by the government has failed to meet the surging demand. A growing population and expanding industries each day need more and more water.

And it is not only the poor who have been hit hard. Even in middle-class urban neighborhoods, water supplies can be erratic.

But experts say the lack of water in homes and farms cannot be blamed on just a shortfall of water.

The World Bank says the problem has intensified due to lack of infrastructure such as dams to store water. For example, it says India stores only one-fifth of the amount of water that is stored per capita in countries such as China and Mexico.

Others are calling for better water management practices. An urban planning consultant, A.K. Menon, points out that unlike other places, India does not recycle sewage and waste water because it does not have enough treatment plants.

"The water in the river Rhine ([n Germany]is used six times, they throw it back into the river [fter treatment]and reuse it, here we use it once and waste it," Menon explained. "There is no concept of proper planning and reusing the water. Hence there is only a finite supply of water, as demand rises it gets short supplied."

Sunita Narain heads an environmental activist group, the Center for Science and Environment. She says crumbling water infrastructure has exacerbated the shortages.

"We have very high inefficiencies built in the system, so very high rates of water losses," she said. "Almost 50 percent of the water which is supplied disappears, most people assume it disappears in the leakages that exist in the piping system …. We have to rethink these systems."

Experts point out that the water table in the country has already fallen dramatically, and the shortages will likely worsen unless new strategies are adopted to address the problem.