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Friday, September 29, 2006

Water crisis grows worse as India gets richer

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This article by Somini Sengupta The New York Times reveals the environment, resources, and infrastructure problems in India.



NEW DELHI The quest for water can drive a woman mad. Ask Ritu Prasher. Every day, Prasher, a homemaker in a middle-class neighborhood of the capital, rises at 6:30 a.m. and begins fretting about water.

It is a rare morning when water trickles through the pipes. More often, not a drop will come.

In the richest city in India, with the nation's economy marching ahead at an enviable clip, middle-class people like Prasher are reduced to foraging for water. Their predicament testifies to the government's astonishing inability to deliver the most basic services to its citizens at a time when India asserts itself as a global power.

The combination has left water all too scarce in some places, contaminated in others and in cursed surfeit for millions who are flooded each year. Today the problems threaten to stand in the way of India's ability to fortify its sagging farms, sustain its economic growth and make its cities healthy and habitable. At stake are not only its economic ambitions, but also its very image as the world's largest democracy.

Delhi's water woes are typical of many of India's cities. Nationwide, the urban water distribution network is in such disrepair that no city can provide water from the public tap for more than a few hours each day.

An even bigger problem than demand is disposal. In Delhi's case, the city can neither quench its thirst nor adequately get rid of the ever-bigger heaps of sewage that it produces. About 45 percent of the population is not hooked up to the public sewage system at all.

Those issues are amplified across the country. More than 700 million Indians, or about two-thirds of the population, do not have adequate sanitation. Largely for lack of clean water, 2.1 million children under the age of 5 die each year, the United Nations has reported.

The government says that 9 out of 10 Indians have access to public water supply, but that may include sources that are going dry or have been contaminated.

The World Bank, in rare agreement with Narain, who has been a staunch opponent, warned in a report published last October that India stood on the edge of "an era of severe water scarcity."

the World Bank report concluded, "India will have neither the cash to maintain and build new infrastructure, nor the water required for the economy and for people."

The fabled Yamuna River, on whose banks this city was born more than 2,000 years ago, is a case study in the acute water management crisis confronting this country.

In Hindu mythology, the Yamuna is considered to be a river that fell from heaven to earth. Today, it is a foul portrait of crippled infrastructure - and yet, still worshiped. From the bridges that soar across the river, the faithful toss coins and sweets, lovingly wrapped in plastic. They scatter the ashes of their dead. In Delhi, the Yamuna itself is clinically dead.

As it leaves the city, the river becomes the principal drain for Delhi's waste, as residents pour about 950 million gallons of sewage into it each day. Coursing through the capital, the river becomes a noxious black thread. Clumps of raw sewage float on top. Methane gas gurgles on the surface.

It is hardly safe for fish, let alone bathing or drinking. A government audit found last year that the level of fecal coliform in the Yamuna, which is one measure of filth, was 100,000 times the safe limit for bathing.

Prasher has the misfortune of living in a neighborhood on Delhi's poorly served southern fringe. As the city's water supply runs through an 8,960-kilometer network of battered public pipes, an estimated 25 to 40 percent leaks out. By the time it reaches Prasher, there is hardly enough. On average, she gets no more than 13 gallons a month from the tap and a water bill that fluctuates from $6 to $20, at its whimsy, she complains, since there is never a meter reading anyway.

That means she has to look for other sources, scrimp and scavenge to meet her family's water needs. She buys 265 gallons from private tankers, for about $20 a month. On top of that she pays $2.50 toward the worker who pipes water from a private tube-well she and other residents of her apartment block have installed in the courtyard.

Nearly a fourth of Delhi households, according to the government-commissioned Delhi Human Development Report, rely at least in some part on such wells. It is one of the principal reasons why groundwater in Delhi is drying up faster than virtually anywhere in the country: 78 percent of it is considered overexploited.

Warning of "an unparalleled water crisis," the study released in August found that a quarter of Delhi households had no access to piped water, and that 27 percent got water for less than three hours a day. Nearly two million households, the report found, had no toilet.

The slums built higgledy-piggledy behind Prasher's neighborhood have no public pipes at all. The Jal board sends tankers instead. The women here waste their days waiting for water, and its arrival sets off desperate wrestling in the streets.

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