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The great urban watering holes

We are now at the end of a hot, drought-ridden summer. Has urban India learnt the right lessons in water conservation? SUMA RAMACHANDRAN finds out.

The woman on the third floor is a cleanliness freak. She uses a hose pipe to wash the corridor leading from the lift to her flat thrice a week. A gentleman from the first floor loves to use a similar pipe to wash down his Tata Sumo every other day. The family on the sixth floor fill their coolers twice a day but forget to turn the tap off. For the next half-hour, the rest of the building can hear them overflowing, creating a dirty pool in the compound. The circulars on the noticeboard downstairs pleading with residents not to waste water since it is in short supply again this summer has no effect on them.

After two days of intermittently dry taps and finding the hose pipe lady on her splash-clean drive again, I dare to ask her why she can't have the corridor swabbed like the rest of us do. ``It doesn't feel as fresh,'' she says with a big smile. Reminding her of the recent dry spells is no use. She has a not-so-convincing explanation for everything. Nothing works until a 13-year-old elf spinning a basketball on his finger comes by and tells her point blank that it's people like her who are driving the world towards water scarcity.

``We live just a few kilometres from the Yamuna. We have 24-hour water supply, there are borewells,'' she protests. The child makes a neat bubble with his bubble gum and tells her she is committing a crime by wasting a finite natural resource just like a whole lot in urbanised India who pay virtually nothing for the water they use. The Rs 50 a month the lady pays is a joke, the kid observes before Mrs Hosepipe can get a word in. ``You've just wasted more water than most people in the villages use in the entire day,'' the boy concludes, walking off.

He was telling the truth. Delhi's daily per capita consumption is around 220 litres on paper. Since this takes into account all the water the Capital consumes parks, wastage et al the average Delhiwallah probably gets less than 150 litres at home. Nothing to feel sorry about, though. The national average is between 40 and 60 litres. One bucketful to wash, clean, cook, drink. Compare that to the 130 litres that a washing machine uses up to clean a five-kilo load of clothes.

The 40 litres that go down the drain if the tap is kept on for five minutes while you brush your teeth. Or the 100-200 litres from the overflowing bucket while clothes are washed.

I tried telling this to my maid who turned the bathroom into a virtual water park when she washed clothes. The tap was always on. Figures that seemed frightening to me meant nothing to her. ``I know how to wash clothes even in one bucket of water,'' she finally yelled one day. ``Do you think I have so much water at home?'' So why was she wasting it here? ``Tumhara kya jaata hai? (What loss is it to you?). Do you have to stand for hours to get two bucketsful? Do you have to carry them for two kilometres? You have a tap. Why worry?''

Not many people seem to, anyway. Yet, the city-dweller is not the biggest culprit of water-wastage. That honour should go to industrial units and surprise, surprise tube-well owning farmers. But when the water crisis in the country gets acute and it definitely will in the next 50 years it will be the urban middle-class that will suffer the most.

As Amit Kapur, a research associate with the Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI) puts it, ``Apartment-dwellers can't migrate when the earth begins to crack and don't have access to wells and river beds. Tankers too will soon be prohibitively expensive.'' He believes that individual habits have to change and that will not happen until the government charges people the right amount for the water they use. He agrees though that this is easier said than done.

Dr Indira Khurana, of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), however, feels it isn't right to expect the government alone to do this. ``It was a pleasant surprise to find that the crisis this summer has convinced many residents' welfare associations (RWAs), schools and even industries that they too can, must, do something about this. Rainwater harvesting is one very good option,'' she says.

It isn't an expensive affair either. Once collected, the water can be channelised into the soil to recharge the groundwater which we have so mindlessly exploited through borewells over the decades. Alternately, it can be collected in a tank and used for cleaning, gardening, washing cars, etc. A set-up like this will leave the treated water we get free for drinking and cooking instead of flushing it down the toilet. Over a longer period of time, it will also reduce the load on our treatment plants.

``As it is, the increased pollution is making the cost of treatment higher, while the cost to the people remains the same,'' Dr Khurana points out.Rainwater harvesting is a start, rather a re-start, though not the overall solution. ``The country gets 1,170 mm of annual rainfall. If this is properly harvested, over just 1-2 per cent of India's surface area, it can provide every person 100 litres per day for a whole year,'' Dr Khurana says. ``But people have to be willing to change their attitude.''

Delhi's Vasant Vihar Welfare Association is one of the several RWAs which reeling under a water crisis with even 400-ft deep borewells drying up decided to something about its members misusing the precious liquid. ``We first put up notices. And if we find anyone hosing down their cars or splashing their driveways, we call them up and tell them not to do it,'' says Deepa Kapur, president of the VVWA. It was difficult, she admits, because people said they were using only the untreated water from their borewells. ``It took quite some time to make them realise that borewells will also dry up. Some with dried-up borewells were even using the Jal Board water to water their lawns and wash their cars,'' she adds.

It was only after an organised lecture from members of the Central Ground Water Authority that residents realised that if didn't go on a conservation drive and recharge the ground water, they simply wouldn't have any in the next five years.

There's also the illegal usage of on-line boosters to get a decent pressure in the taps. ``The high pressure created can suck in contamination in the pipe. If everyone is using it, there's the added risk of sucking in contamination from wherever there are cracks in the pipe,'' says Kapur. The only solution is for everyone to stop using these. ``When there's no power in an area, the water pressure is fine because the boosters aren't running,'' he points out. The Delhi Jal Board is trying to get more water from Haryana and the Nangloi plant is expected to be fully operational soon.

Leakages also need to be plugged. But most of all, it's only if people realise what they're doing and what they need to do, that things will even begin to change.

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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