State of the Planet

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Water Reflections: Crisis of water supplies in New Delhi, India

Written in collaboration with Meghna Bhattacharjee.

Failed monsoon rains put a cloud over the Columbia Water Center’s journey to India this summer.

Soaring temperatures hitting 40 degrees Celsius with 100% humidity made for a hazy sweltering experience which begged for some precipitous relief.  As we traveled around New Delhi from air-conditioned cars to air-conditioned rooms, furnished with icy bottles of mineral water, I was distinctly aware that much of what we were experiencing was not in fact the “reality” of living in India during such a behemoth water crisis.

In fact, the reality of the living in New Delhi, one of the most developed cities in India with a strong middle and upper class holding, is very much burdened by constant water pressures that stem from both a lack of water and poorly designed water policy.  The Hindustan Times – one of the most widely read and respected newspapers in India – published a series of feature stories on the difficulties associated with access to water in Delhi.  For example, according to the article, Vasant Kunj, one of the oldest upper middle class colonies in South Delhi (and a veritable microcosm for the larger metropolis), is constantly locked in a losing battle with elusive authorities over their lack of access to water.

Clearly there are two Delhis; one which puts up an illusion of smooth sailing and another where every problem of living without efficient water policy hits home.  So while I was experiencing the former, sitting in air conditioned meeting rooms and drinking bottled water, much of the city was suffering though the latter.  The challenges of living without reliable water, even for middle and upper class families, are numerous.  The Hindustan Times article relays stories of various families in Vasant Kunj who have undergone all sorts of trials from getting a trickle of water only 15 minutes a day to going for days without water while dealing with toddlers with all sorts of stomach viruses.

In many cases, the families in Vasant Kunj can afford to pay for alternate solutions, including tanker deliveries of water and installation of large holding tanks.  In this sense, they are much better off than the hundreds of thousands of poor Indians with no reliable access to water whatsoever.  Still, the enormity of India’s water crisis really hit me in considering the families in Vasant Kunj – upper middle class families similar to my own, but living without a regular supply of water.

Back home in the U.S it is normal to brush your teeth with tap water and gape like a fish in the shower without the threat of falling dangerously ill from that consumed shower water. And yet these are unimagined privileges for most of the world’s population.  So while I was brushing my teeth with bottled mineral water at the hotel, I could not help musing on this unsustainable habit, and on those “privileged” Delhites in Vasant Kunj, paying 300-600 rupees to have private tankers of water delivered to them because they know their sinks and showers will remain dry yet another day.

This is the third and final article in a series inspired by the recent Columbia Water Center trip to India

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Samantha Tress
14 years ago

Thanks for writing about this Dan. It’s so interesting to read a comparison between economic classes here and in India. In a way it underscores the ongoing controversy that comes up during international negotiations for climate bills and similar topics– that there is a wide gap between developing and developed countries which needs to be addressed, but how to address it is a huge problem. In this case, the middle class in Vasant Kunj is wealthier than the majority of other Indians, but they still don’t enjoy the same luxuries as middle class Americans. And at the same time, we can already see that, ecologically, India is overstretched in some parts. So while we want to make sure that everyone has access to safe and abundant water, ecologically this might be nearly impossible. I wonder if advancements in technology, rather than huge shifts in policy, will be the solution.

Brooks Bartholomew
14 years ago

This was a great topic more people need to know what’s going on here. I hope that we are able to find a good solution that has balance for people and eco impact. Everyone should have good water to use.

Richard Rosas
Richard Rosas
14 years ago

How long does anyone expect those poor folks in India will last without water? Im sure those folks would construct for free(or a guranteed water supply), water tanks,pipelines and desalinization plants along the beach so long as India and other nations supply the material. Next, Biodiversity! If we dont release some fresh water back to the wild then we suffer from increased global climate change, extinction of flora fauna and pandemic mutated disease. You can live 30 days without food and only 3 without WATER!