Saroj, who has been living in Okhla’s Sanjay Colony for 34 years, arrives at the end of her street a little before 3 pm on Friday. She gestures to a man who has parked his bike close to a row of water cans at the corner. “The tanker will come, move the bike,” she shouts. The bike is moved, but the tanker does not arrive at gali number 2 for the next two hours.
While residents of gali number 2 sit on top of large water cans, prepared to wait, a Delhi Jal Board (DJB) water tanker arrives for their neighbors in the next street. Deepmala (37) climbs onto a tall blue can to connect a plastic pipe that will carry the water from the tanker into the cans. “Only one tanker comes every day for this gali. Since the demand is high in the summer, it’s more difficult to collect water. We get around 200 litres for the seven of us at home. In the winters we can make do with collecting just once in two days,” says Amarchand (39), Deepmala’s husband, who is a construction worker. Both Amarchand and Saroj have pipelines and motors that connect the cans on the main road to their homes in the bylanes.
Harish Kumar (42) rolls an 80 liter can of water from the tanker down the narrow street, placing it in the front of his house. He usually collects around 250 litres a day for his family of nine. “If my brother is around, we manage to collect a little more. A pipeline was laid here about three years ago, but there’s no water coming from it,” says Kumar, gesturing to an exposed pipe close to his front door.
It has been a harsh summer for residents in areas that are yet to receive piped water supply at a time when there is a shortage of water. “There is a shortage every summer. But this time, it seems to be hotter, and two tankers are not enough,” says Neeru, who has been living in the area for 22 years and runs a shop.
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The service level benchmark for per capita supply of water in urban areas is 135 lpcd (litres per capita per day), according to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs.
An early start to the summer coupled with the lowest amount of rainfall that Northwest India has seen for the pre-monsoon season in recent years has made the past three months particularly grueling. Dwindling water in the Yamuna has amplified the city’s existing water shortage.
The rainfall from March 1 to May 31 over Northwest India, which includes the basin states of the Yamuna, was only 42.3 mm against a long period average (LPA) of 114.4 mm — a deficit of 63% for the pre-monsoon season. This figure, which is around 36% of the LPA, is the lowest at least from 2013 onwards, going by figures with the India Meteorological Department.
Last year, Northwest India received 110% of the LPA, while rainfall was 131% of the LPA in 2020. In 2013, it was nearly 50% of the LPA. The rainfall deficit for June is around 92% till June 10 over Northwest India.
With depleting levels in the Yamuna, production at Delhi’s water treatment plants has been affected for longer than usual this year. Out of an average of around 953 MGD (million gallons per day) of water that is produced in the city, around 40% or 389 MGD comes from the Yamuna.
Water from the river is drawn partly from Wazirabad by the Chandrawal and Wazirabad water treatment plants (WTPs), which have a combined capacity of 210 MGD. To be able to draw water, the level of the pond at Wazirabad is to be maintained at a level of 674.5 ft. With the river running dry, the level at Wazirabad as of June 11 was 667.7 ft, according to a senior DJB official who asked not to be named. The production from the two plants was around 45 MGD short of the normal on Saturday, the official said.
On June 9, the DJB said that production was also affected at the Haiderpur, Bawana, Nangloi, Okhla and Dwarka WTPs, since water was being diverted towards Wazirabad and there was “floating material” in the CLC (Carried Lined Channel) and DSB ( Delhi Sub-Branch) which bring Yamuna water to Delhi from Haryana. Supply was, therefore, affected at seven out of nine WTPs in Delhi. The shortage is in addition to the demand of 1,380 MGD that the DJB is already unable to meet.
Parts of the riverbed are visible close to the Wazirabad barrage. Temporarily deploying dredging machines and additional pumps in the river to draw from the pools of water at Wazirabad has helped lift around 25 MGD, the official said. DJB vice-chairman Saurabh Bharadwaj said on Friday that such measures have never been used before.
“Last year, the level at Wazirabad remained ‘low’ for around 16 days. ‘Low’ level is below 672 ft, beyond which production is badly affected. This year, ‘low’ levels have remained from May 13 onwards. The level at Wazirabad does not usually remain low for so long,” the official said.
The DJB is relying more heavily on groundwater through tube wells now to meet the demand. “All tube wells are operational now, including ones that are not usually used in the winters. Water would be drawn from them for around eight hours earlier. They are now being used for about 20 hours,” he said. According to the DJB’s summer action plan, around 5,623 tube wells were to be operationalised this summer.
State of play
The shortage has sparked off the annual quarrel between Delhi and Haryana over the release of river water by the latter. While the deficit in rainfall has played a role, the Haryana government has also not been releasing water into the river, the DJB official said.
The DJB has sent multiple SOS requests to the Haryana Irrigation Department from April 30 onwards, requesting an additional 150 cusecs of water and asking them to maintain the required flow in the CLC and DSB.
In response to requests for additional water, the Chief Engineer, Yamuna Water Services, Haryana Irrigation Department, had written in a communication dated May 12 that “Haryana is supplying full share of Delhi water required to honor Hon’ble Supreme Court of India orders, through CLC and DSB.”
An official of the Haryana Irrigation Department said that a written request will have to be placed on a proforma specifying how much additional water is to be released and for how long. He added that the flow in the CLC and DSB is being maintained, though minor fluctuations might occur. Supply issues on the Haryana side are also a problem, the official added.
On May 17, the DJB Chief Engineer wrote to the Haryana Irrigation Department stating that Delhi’s raw water requirement from the Yamuna is 683 cusecs from the CLC, 330 cusecs from the DSB, and 120 cusecs from the river at Wazirabad pond, amounting to 1,133 cusecs . The flow from the Yamuna was disrupted since the river was dry, resulting in a shortfall.
According to a Memorandum of Understanding from 1994 among the States of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and the NCT of Delhi, Delhi is to get 0.076 billion cubic metres (BCM) from March to June. The annual allocation for Delhi is 0.724 BCM.
The annual allocation for Haryana is 5.730 BCM. The allocation of flow among the States is to be regulated by the Upper Yamuna River Board (UYRB).
The CLC, a lined channel meant to reduce losses while transporting water, was commissioned in 2014. The channel is used to carry water from Munak to Delhi, instead of transporting water from Haryana to Delhi through the river itself.
In 2021, the DJB filed a petition before the Supreme Court seeking a direction to Haryana to stop the discharge of pollutants into the river. An interim direction was also sought to the State of Haryana to supply sufficient water to maintain the level of the Wazirabad barrage at 674.5 ft, as per a court order from 1996. In April 2021, the court appointed a committee to submit a report on the matter. The committee’s report stated that Haryana was releasing more than 1,050 cusecs of water as per the UYRB allocation. The petition was disposed of by the court granting the DJB the liberty to approach the UYRB to seek allocation of more water.
The DJB’s plan to improve water supply includes setting up six new RO plants with a combined capacity of 90 MGD, and installing new tube wells, the official said. “This year, an extra 30 MGD to 40 MGD was drawn from tube wells that were installed,” he added.
Environmentalist Manoj Misra said it all depends on how much water is being diverted at Hathnikund into the Western Yamuna Canal. From the Hathnikund barrage, the Western Yamuna Canal carries Yamuna water to Munak and then onwards through the CLC and DSB to Wazirabad, and the WTPs at Haiderpur and Dwarka.
Misra added: “Heat is on the rise and so is demand for water. The requirement of every state is going to go up. Delhi will have to look for resources within its own areas, like tapping floodwaters. Far more important is for Delhi to reduce its demand. The problem in Delhi is water distribution and the losses in distribution.”
For residents of Sanjay Colony, the shortage is a perpetual affair that they have been facing for as long as they can remember. After having collected his water from the tanker on Friday, Annu Sharma (32) says: “If you’re here when the tanker comes, you’ll get water. Our lives revolve around that tanker. Everything else is put on hold for it.”