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Above: Home to more than 18 million people, Delhi’s water consumption is forever on the rise/Anil Shakya

Though Delhi was one of the first cities to amend its building bylaws to make rainwater harvesting systems mandatory, there has been little action on the ground in that direction

By Papia Samajdar

Day Zero is the term which describes the looming water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa. Taps would be switched off, water would be rationed, and the dam’s storage would dip to below 15 percent. Cape Town has managed to avert the situation so far, but the threat remains. A 2018 NITI Aayog study predicts the same fate for Delhi among 20 other cities by 2020.

As Delhi prepares for yet another harsh summer, its water consumption is set to rise. Home to more than 18 million people, the consumption of water in this mega city is forever increasing. The main source of water is from the surface—mostly from the Yamuna river. But since the river can hardly satiate the water requirements of the capital, groundwater is used to augment the demand. Often, even piped water supply is not enough, leading to illegal bore­wells in the water-stressed capital.

The groundwater table across India has been falling for years. Delhi is one of the most water-stressed states due to its burgeoning demand. According to the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA), which monitors the water table across India, the groundwater level is declining by 0.5-2 metres every year. The quality of both surface water and groundwater is deteriorating due to the non-judicious use of surface aquifers, pollution from unsafe disposal of solid waste, untreated discharge of wastewater in drains and the ever-increasing demand on this resource. A CAG report flagged that more than 15 percent of Delhi’s groundwater level is below 40 metres. In January 2019, the Delhi government cleared plans to continue using groundwater. It hired consultants and requested its MLAs to identify areas where the water table is high. The Delhi Jal Board (DJB) has assured that appropriate studies have been done before passing these plans.

According to official data, Delhi has a requirement of 5,000 million litres of water per day. DJB, the agency responsible for supplying water to Delhi’s citizens, can meet up to 81 percent of this demand. The rest is drawn from groundwater. Dinesh Mohaniya, vice-chairperson of the DJB, believes that other methods of recharging groundwater should be explored. According to him, the number of rainy days in Delhi might not suffice. The focus should thus be on reusing wastewater.

Environmentalists and water activists are, however, sceptical. Manoj Misra, convener of Yamuna Jiyo Abhiyan, says Delhi has enough water to meet the demand. If the water loss during transmission can be curbed, Delhi would no longer remain water stressed. Almost 45 percent of water is lost during distribution due to leaks and theft. That is almost half of the city’s water demand, Misra added.

Spread over an area of 1,483 square kilometres, Delhi is 75 percent urbanised with 97 percent of its population concentrated in urban areas. The annual average rainfall that NCT Delhi receives is 611.8 mm—mostly in the monsoon months of July, August and September. Even if 75 percent of the annual rainfall is harvested, it would be enough to meet the annual drinking water requirement of a family of five for four years. But for now, we let 85 percent of the rainwater run off, resulting in water-logging.

Interestingly, Delhi was one of the first cities to amend its building bylaws to accommodate rainwater harvesting, but it has seen little action in that direction. The Delhi Water & Sewer (Tariff and Metering) Act, 2012, mandates rainwater harvesting systems for property of or more than 500 square metres. The rules offer a 10 percent rebate on the water bill if a rainwater harvesting system (RWH) is installed. In case of non-compliance, the consumer will be levied a bill which is 1.5 times higher.  Additionally, financial assistance is offered to registered Resident Welfare Associations (RWA), housing societies and institutions.

But getting the agency to foot the bill is easier said than done. Delhi has a varied geological formation which requires a different design, depending on the formation. DJB will provide financial assistance only if one follows its pre-approved design. The flip side is that the approved design is often not suitable for that area. “There is no database on how many households have installed RWHs. Only people who apply for rebate on their bill are registered in the database of DJB. There are instances where people just have it on paper to get an occupancy certificate,” says Sushmita Sengupta, Programme Manager, Rural Water and Sanitation Programme at the Centre for Science and Environment, an NGO which provides technical support for rainwater harvesting systems.

According to Jyoti Sharma, Founder, Forum for Organised Resource Conservation and Enhancement (FORCE), many buildings in Delhi are not required to install a rainwater harvesting system as they don’t have the required built-up area. The former technical partner of DJB was providing free of cost advisory on rainwater harvesting. FORCE was to assist DJB in promoting RWH through the three rain centres set up in 2015. But DJB did not renew the partnership contract after it was over. Cleaning of the RWH pits also comes at a cost. Cleaning two pits in a housing society can land you with a bill of
Rs 80,000. This is a huge disincentive for RWAs. “I had asked the president of my RWA to instal an RWH system, but they didn’t,” recalls Souparno Banerjee, a resident in a Noida apartment complex.

Multiple public interest litigations have been filed by concerned citizens, citing the government’s apathy towards water conservation. In May 2016, a Delhi High Court bench of Justice Manmohan had upheld Rule 50 of the Delhi Water & Sewer (Tariff and Metering) Act. Rule 50 mandates all properties covering more than 500 square metres must install a rainwater harvesting system. The diktat followed a case filed by a resident who contested the high water bills he received.

In December 2018, the Delhi government announced its plans to revive 159 lakes and create two new lakes at a sanctioned cost of Rs 453 crore. According to the statement released by the government, the planned water bodies will be scientifically designed to recharge groundwater. It plans to use rainwater and treated sewage water to maintain the water levels in the natural wetland.

While the Delhi government is looking away from rainwater harvesting—a traditional water harvesting method—he southern city of Chennai is a shining example. After facing a drought in 1999-2000, it made water harvesting mandatory in all buildings in 2003. That included new as well as old buildings. There was strict penalisation for non-compliance, which included cutting off water supply to the building. Buildings were approved only if they had a rainwater harvesting system in place. The law mandated that the structures be maintained by the occupants.

Along with that, multiple public campaign and awareness drives were conducted to promote rainwater harvesting. The government and its agencies partnered with NGOs to work closely with local communities. Conse­quently, the water table rose about six metres in the city that remains heavily dependent on groundwater despite getting piped water from other sources.

The pledge to revive Delhi’s lakes and aquifers by the government comes at the fag end of its term. It is to be hoped that the Delhi government gets the city on board with water activists who swear by the efficacy of the age-old water harvesting system.

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