Water wars: tempers fray as shortages bite in New Delhi | Land Portal | Securing Land Rights Through Open Data

Soaring temperatures and a long delay to the start of the monsoon season are behind some of the most severe water shortages in New Delhi's history – and the water scarcity is even leading to violence.

The shortages and rising prices for this precious commodity mean that the Indian capital's residents are easy prey to criminal gangs, known as the ‘water mafia’, who are attempting to fill the gap in supplies. 

Fights are breaking out when the tankers reach parched neighbourhoods as residents are desperate to get the first drops.

An official at one police station told Reuters that the number of fights is increasing and make up almost half of daily complaints. 

Shalini Chaturvedi, programme co-ordinator at WaterAid India, said the problem was that demand for water is outstripping supply.

“As tankers are available for a limited time and have limited quantity available, everyone wants to collect the maximum amount. This leads to disputes,” she said.

Last year an Indian government think tank warned that New Delhi is set to run out of groundwater by 2020 as climate change and dramatic population growth hit supplies.

Based on data collected from 24 of 29 Indian states, the National Institute for Transforming India (NITI) warned that the country's worst ever water shortage is likely to adversely impact some 600 million people.

It said that by 2020 some 20 Indian cities besides Delhi, including megacities such as Bangalore and nearby Hyderabad, were also likely to run out of groundwater, impacting over 120 million residents. 

New Delhi is currently governed by the left-wing Aam Admi Party which promised in 2015 that it would deliver 20,000 litres of free water to each household every month.

However, around half of the drinking water stored by the Delhi Water Board is either stolen or lost from poorly maintained pipes.

As a result, the amount each household receives is thought to be well below this amount.

Crucially, only New Delhi residents that live in official housing neighbourhoods are entitled to water.

In reality, around half of its 18.6 million inhabitants live in unofficial or slum settlements and have to buy drinking water from private tankers.

“Most of the poor or informal settlements do not have household level piped water supply connections due to lack of land rights,” said Ms Chaturvedi.

“People have to depend on tanker supply which is untimely and insufficient. It affects people’s livelihoods, as they often have to skip their jobs to be available to collect water at the time of tanker supply,” she said. 

This has fuelled a black market in water. The ‘water mafia’ is thought to control 450,000 illegal boreholes and make good money, hiking prices during shortages.

Amar Nath Shukla lives in Sangam, one such informal settlement in the south of New Delhi.

He told Reuters that prices of drinking water had increased by 40 per cent to 700 rupees (£8) for a small tanker containing 2,000 litres.

Mr Shukla can now only afford to purchase half the water he did previously for his family of five.

There is also concern over the quality of the water, with WaterAid saying it contributes to a range of health problems, including diarrhoea and skin conditions. 

“People keep going back to contaminated water sources [in times of shortages] which further impacts their health and becomes a bigger burden in terms of finances,” said Ms Chaturvedi. 

The Central Pollution Control Board estimates that almost 40 per cent of untreated sewage in New Delhi drains back into the ground and contaminates water supplies.

Shortages are a huge concern for the well-being of residents with the summer heatwave already claiming the lives of more than 200 people.

In response to the latest crisis Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a water conservation awareness programme on July 1.

NGOs have questioned how this policy alone can secure a consistent, clean drinking water supply for the booming city over the next decade.

WaterAid told the Telegraph that a multi-faceted approach was needed to end the water crisis including connecting slum houses to taps, harvesting rainwater and fixing leaks in the supply network.

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