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Indian Government Losing Battle to Supply Water to Nation - 2003-03-18

India, the world's second most populous nation, faces growing water shortages. India faces this situation, as the World Water Forum in Hakone, Japan, discusses ways to tackle a global water shortage.

Krishna Dhir, 70, lives in a middle class neighborhood in the Indian capital. With the long, hot summer looming, she has begun worrying about meeting her household's daily water needs.

Mrs. Dhir says the taps will soon turn dry for most of the day. Sometimes the shortage is so severe she has to call on water tankers to fill storage tanks on her roof.

Krishna Dhir is fortunate because she can pay for water. Most other Delhi residents cannot.

For hundreds of thousands of slum dwellers in the India capital, the only way to get water is to get it before anyone else does. Ramu Nath lives in a slum just a short distance from Krishna Dhir.

He says says he wakes up in at four or five in the morning and spends two hours in line at a community water tap. Most days all he gets is a single bucket of water.

Government officials like Radha Singh at India's Water Resources Ministry acknowledge the problem. She says the government's efforts to provide sufficient water to its billion-plus citizens are woefully below target, with only about one-third of the population receiving piped water for sanitation.

"The figures are indeed very, very poor," she said. "The coverage is only about 30 percent in the country." Water shortages have worsened in the past two decades. Rivers and lakes are shrinking. In tens of thousands of villages, women walk miles for a pot of water. In urban areas, people drill their own wells to tap underground water. In summer, frequent street demonstrations protest water shortages. Several public policy institutes are blaming wrong policies, not lack of water, for the huge shortages. They point out that India's problem stems partly from its inability to capture the short spells of intense rainfall from the monsoons.

Sumita Das Gupta at the Center for Science and Environment says government policy should include storing and reusing this valuable rainwater.

"Surface water is seen as the only source of water for anything that we do, agriculture, industry, drinking water, everything," she said. "We have forgotten that rainwater is the fresh water source we have. That rainwater feeds the ground water, and feeds the river water, so it needs to be harvested and used to recharge these two sources."

Many environmentalist groups are urging the government and local communities to revive traditional water storage systems such as ponds, tanks and wells, which are lying disused. These were built in earlier times across villages and towns to capture rainfall, but were neglected once the government began supplying piped water.

Ms. Das Gupta says with the help of modern engineering skills, water storage projects can be put in place inexpensively. She says these would help meet at least basic needs.

"If the ponds are revived at least the drinking water problem can be solved," she said. "These structures are enough to supply drinking water and fodder to the people and animals of a particular village."

Ms. Singh at the water resources ministry says India's government is looking at big projects, such as damming rivers, as well as smaller, community-based conservation projects.

"The problem indeed is intense and one has to manage it both at the micro and the macro level," she said. "This unfortunately is a raging debate, whether dams are okay or whether rain water harvesting techniques are the way to go, but what I would say is that it is complement of both that would help countries like India and many of the other developing countries to tide over the problem of water."

In the meantime, some people are not waiting for the government to solve the problem. They are finding their own ways to "harvest rainwater." In some urban areas, for example, homes are rigged with pipelines to carry rainwater from sloped terraces and roofs to a storage facility. Others have devised a system of channels on unpaved surfaces to carry water into the ground to replenish rapidly falling water tables.