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India Dispatch: Thriving Development Spawns Water, Resource Worries

Boy drinks from water tanker in India. (Photo by Nicole See)

NEW DELHI, India | If there are water wars in the future, conservationist Jyothi Sharma thinks they’ll happen just outside her apartment in an upper-middle class enclave in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj neighborhood.

Right across her street is a sprawling slum, an illegal — but quite rational — settlement. These neighbors are economic migrants from rural areas who come to find work as domestics across the street, or as daily laborers in India’s booming — and almost entirely urban — new economy.

The annual influx adds anywhere from 500,000 to 700,000 news residents to India’s capital New Delhi which, at 16 million inhabitants, is already well past its carrying capacity.

“Only 27 percent of this city is a planned city,” says Sharma. “You cannot stop them coming because it’s the only place they can get some livelihood.”

Since the Vasant Kunj slum is illegal, the government cannot install permanent infrastructure, such as a community water tap. Instead, the municipality dispatches a large water tanker each day. The exact time it will arrive is anyone’s guess. When it does, there’s a mad dash as people driven by frustration and even thirst converge on the truck, elbows before siphons. In a short time, hundreds of jerry cans and buckets are filled, their owners finally able to resume their lives.

“The children lose an average of one day of school and adults about four hours of productive work time just to provide for their water and sanitation needs,” says Sharma, who runs a non-governmental group called Force.

Back on her side of the street, neighbors are hardly free of water worries, but can buy their way out of long lines and waits. The municipal water supply to their apartment buildings comes on for about 45 minutes each day, a trickle so anemic that residents use electric pumps to suck it into holding tanks and later to rooftop reservoirs.

Sharma says the city’s water woes could be largely eased by simple practices like rainwater collection systems and recycling. Instead, fresh water is currently piped in from dams more than 200 miles away.

It all betrays a widespread indifference at all policy levels toward this vital, ever-dwindling resource. This is particularly true in agriculture, which consumes 80 percent of the fresh water, says Ashok Jaitly, a water expert at The Environmental Research Institute in Delhi.

Across the plains of India’s breadbasket state of Punjab, groundwater is pumped up and gushes over cotton, rice and other thirsty crops. At least half of it is wasted; draining aquifers to a point that Jaitly says will threaten the nation’s food security in a few years. But for now, farmers, an electoral force in Indian politics, pay nothing for water or electricity.

“You have the politics of populism, which encourages inefficient farm management and water utilization,” Jaitly adds. “It’s a very emotive and political issue.”

So is the issue of population.

“In India we don’t have social security for elderly people, so only they have to rely on children, says Ashish Bose, a leading demographer and author of a new book, “Headcount.” Coercive attempts to enforce family planning in the 1970s led to the downfall of Indira Gandhi’s government, Bose says, and no government dares mention the subject.

The best way to ensure a smaller family is to increase economic security, he adds. “Development is the best contraceptive.”

Ironically, India has enjoyed years of healthy economic growth. But Sharma says absent comprehensive new approaches to conserving water, it makes the water war scenario more plausible, since development spikes more demand for less water. The day these tankers stop coming, she says, her far more numerous neighbors from across the street will come after the storage tanks that provides the middle class some precarious protection from shortages.

“Populations are dense, resources are dwindling aspirations are high, this is where the conflict will be.”

By most authoritative projections, India’s population will begin to stabilize in 2050 — at a world-leading 1.6 billion.

On Wednesday’s NewsHour, Fred de Sam Lazaro reports on water scarcity in India — the start of a year-long partnership with National Geographic magazine looking at population issues. This report is part of a partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the Under-Told Stories Project at St. Mary’s University in Minnesota.

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