Until last weekend, few residents of the vast metropolis of Delhi knew that it depended for so much of its drinking water on sources so far away.
Large parts of one of the world’s biggest cities — the greater metropolitan area is home to 25m people — ran dry at the start of this week when rioters in neighbouring Haryana state seized control of a canal and breached its banks. Troops were sent in to recapture the waterway on Monday, and two of the 19 killed in the unrest died in the battle.
The protesters — members of the landed but often poorly educated Jat caste demanding the same access as lower castes to privileged placements in government jobs and universities — also burnt trucks and school classrooms and shut down factories. But the canal closure exposed the extreme water vulnerability of the Indian capital and prompted an immediate military response.
“It was the worst crisis Delhi has ever seen. Seven [of nine] water treatment plants were totally shut down,” said Kapil Mishra, the Delhi state water minister. “Right now the canal is damaged very badly. I’ve not seen anything like this . . . But there was no panic.”
Although supply has been partially restored through another canal, the treatment plants are working at only 50 per cent capacity and water is still being distributed by tankers in parts of the capital. Guarded by paramilitary forces, workers are starting to repair the breach near Sonipat north of Delhi and hope to complete the task in two weeks.
Almost all of the 900m gallons a day of water consumed in Delhi has its origins in the foothills of the Himalayas. It is extracted from the relatively clean upper reaches of the Yamuna, Ganges and Sutlej rivers and sent southwards by various canals that pass through Haryana or Uttar Pradesh.
It was the modern “Carrier Lined Channel” — a 100km, leakproof aqueduct lined with cement and known as the Munak Canal — that was damaged by the Jat protesters. Delhi’s water board sometimes cannot replace that supply with water direct from the Yamuna River that runs through the city because it is contaminated with ammonia from industries in Haryana.
“It’s sabotage,” said SS Chhikara, chief engineer of the Haryana irrigation department, as he watched the repair work. “Delhi’s drinking water depends on it [Munak], and Delhi’s the capital of India. We cannot afford more problems.”
Himanshu Thakkar, co-ordinator of a pressure group called the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, said the crisis showed how Delhi and other Indian cities need to manage their water resources better — by recycling waste water and by reviving local lakes, ponds and traditional water reservoirs known as tanks during the monsoon season.
“Delhi is like a pampered child. Whenever it wants, it gets water from these far-off sources,” he said. “We should try and reduce this dependence as much as possible.”
While Delhi extracts fairly clean water from the Yamuna upstream, much of what flows in the dry season downstream from the city towards Agra and the Taj Mahal, and ultimately the Ganges itself, is a foul-smelling combination of raw sewage and toxic effluent.
Delhi’s latest crisis — triggered in this case by a political dispute in a neighbouring state — is also a reminder of the water shortages and pollution problems that face the 1.3bn inhabitants of the country as a whole.
So much water is pumped from rivers and tube wells for irrigation in India that rivers often run dry and the groundwater is severely depleted.