Delhi and Karachi struggle to cope with glaring water crisis

By Abdul Latif, Poorvi Gaur, Rishabh Jain and Tamanna Rafique

2 May 2019

A normal day at Sangam Vihar, one of New Delhi’s many water-deprived slums, starts with uncertainty among residents, as they wait for the arrival of Delhi Jal Board Tanks which have the task of distributing water in this area. On fortunate days the trucks arrive after a wait of around two hours. As soon as the trucks reach, the gathering turns into a brawl as people await their turn for the water pipe.  

“There is a huge shortage of water. We don’t know if the water that comes is even clean but we don’t have many options..The water tank comes only once a week and even that is not for sure,” says Afsana, a resident of Sangam Vihar.

image3Sangam Vihar, New Delhi

According to a report published by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in 2018, Afsana represents a shocking 163 million of the total population of India, who till date, struggle to attain their constitutional right to safe drinking water (Article 27) (1)(b). A similar crisis resonates in Karachi, Pakistan. Shafiq Ahmed, a resident of Ali Nagar, Karachi leaves his house at 7 AM every day, in search of water. This often means him getting late for work and sometimes, even wasting his entire day in search of water for his family. The World Bank categorizes Pakistan as a severely water-stressed country.

With the increase in unchecked urbanization in India and Pakistan, lack of water is a major issue in cities. The Composite Water Management Index(2018) states that Delhi will run out of groundwater by 2020. Unregulated slums such as Sangam Vihar(New Delhi) and Orangi Town(Karachi) bear the brunt of unequal distribution of water in both cities. As a result, the residents of these colonies in Delhi and Karachi are forced to depend upon illegal tankers. The residents of Karachi pay 21 USD monthly, whereas in Delhi residents pay close to 7 USD.

Resident, Orangi Town, Karachi

One of the major reasons for this dire crisis is the wastage of water that occurs across the major metropolitan cities of developing countries. According to reports by NITI Aayog (2017), Delhi loses 40 percent of its water to pipe leaks. The water supply system is old and the broken pipelines are left to rot at the hands of the municipal corporations. Mismanagement of water is a major threat to the water economy of Karachi, as well. “Karachi requires its water supply network to be maintained, avoiding leakage of water which causes millions of gallons water wastage,” says Dr. Noman Ahmed, Dean, Faculty of Architecture at NED University, Karachi.

The water resources are depleting and there is an increase in consumers and effective utilization is the only way forward.Mr.S.K Goyal, Head, Council of Scientific & Industrial Research-National Environmental Engineering Research Institute(NEERI), New Delhi, stresses on the need to treat sewage water as he points out that most upper-class urban households in Delhi and Karachi, use RO purifiers that generate huge amounts of wastewater.“Reusing reject-water can cut down the city’s fresh water requirement. We need to aware our citizens of budgeting water consumption at each level,” he says.

image2Sewage-waste treatment can improve the roads & restore groundwater in Orangi Town, Karachi.

In places like Sangam Vihar, shopkeepers fill unsealed plastic bottles and sell them as mineral water. The reason why the residents of both cities have to rely on illegal water tanks and bottled water is the deplorable quality of groundwater. Report by the World Bank(2019) states that poor groundwater quality and lack of wastewater treatment cause water-borne diseases that kill 110 children in Pakistan every day. “Our kids fall ill every day after drinking this saline water, the water trucks demand huge bribes..It has been five years since we last saw clean water,” says Mumtaaz, mother of three and resident,Orangi Town, Karachi. Sangam Vihar resident and father of two, Kanhaiya too, worries about his children who end up visiting the doctor more than their classrooms due to frequent water infections.

image4Plastic tanks and bottles are the most profitable business ventures in Delhi’s Sangam Vihar.

Irregularity of tanks is a common phenomenon across borders(Location: Harkesh Nagar, New Delhi).

Any improvement in the current water situation in both cities can only occur through a revamp of the current water policies of Delhi and Karachi. “In order to meet the challenges, there needs to be a shift in the way we manage urban water systems. Integrated Urban Water Management approach must be adopted by these cities which involves managing freshwater, wastewater, and stormwater, using an urban area as the unit of management,” says Mr.Qazi Syed Wamiq Ali, Research Associate, TERI, India. Mr.Ali’s call to action must raise concerns as now is the only time left to act upon this humanitarian crisis before it becomes a lost battle.


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Dr. Fathima Nizaruddin is a filmmaker and researcher whose interest lies in bringing performance and film practice together to create interventions in the public domain to counter narratives of violence and hate. Her film Nuclear Hallucinations which was part of her practice based PhD at University of Westminster, London has been screened across the world at various film festivals and academic spaces. Fathima prefers to approach film as a process rather than as a text. In her work, she looks for possibilities to use the porous nature of the production and circulation phases of factual filming to create sites of engagement from where multiple actors can approach an issue or topic through diverse entry points. She is a recipient of Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media (CREAM) studentship for doctoral research from University of Westminster, Inlaks Scholarship, Film Fellowship from Public Service Broadcasting Trust, India and National Geographic’s All Roads Seed Grant.

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