Water – Pani – Water – Pani

A word about water insecurity in Delhi.


Our body is composed of 70% water. Our planet,  75% water. Cities and civilizations have emerged on the banks and shores of rivers and seas. Trade and travel has been ushered forward by the flowing of water. Water for hygiene, for food, for health, for work, for power.  Holy water, rain water, bath water, healing water. Tears, sweat, urine, saliva. Water is our human lifeline.

And yet, 1 billion people on earth do not have access to safe water, and 2.5 billion do not have proper sanitation.  In Delhi, the government claims that 90% of citizens enjoy clean water, yet according to the Center for Civil Society in Delhi – that number is more like 60%. About 10% of people have no access to piped water and another 30% receive a very small supply through standpipes. About 57% of the population here does not have functional sanitation or means of disposing human waste and waste water. The resulting diseases, filth, pollution, social disrupt, and consumption of time and muscle systematically strips people of their human rights and dignity. And in case there’s any confusion, the population we are talking about here – those for whom this is a daily reality – are people living in the slums, which incidentally is about half the population of Delhi. Phew.

Side note: The Yamuna River (check out this photo from my early morning boat ride) supplies about70% of the water for Delhi. 18 massive drains (originally built to harvest rainwater) carrying untreated sewage and garbage from all over the city dump directly into the Yamuna. This river which starts about 6300m high up in the Himalayas is relatively clean when it reaches Delhi, yet leaves as one of the most polluted rivers in India. It’s a holy river, which also means bathing and ash scattering and praying are regular occurrences along the ghats (steps on the banks). It flows about half the year – the other half it is dry. 500 million USD were spent cleaning it up and boom, basically no impact was felt. So why is the Yamuna – this holy river that is Delhi’s main water supply – so polluted still? Better ask the question, how do we change consciousness and hearts and minds?

Okay . . flowing back to the daily water story.  Here’s how it goes down for folks . . .the Delhi gov’t  through the Delhi Jal Board is supposed to provide clean water to all residents. Ha! Only about 40% of people in Delhi have access to this and even they have it for limited hours. So folks living in slums or unauthorized colonies (as they are called), really don’t have water. So these women sit with their containers and wait for the water truck to come. Sometimes it comes, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it comes at  9am, sometimes at 3pm, sometimes at 2am. . . who knows? But you better be there when it comes otherwise you and your fam are out of luck.   If there’s no truck, then perhaps there’s a nice water tank supplied by the government. But then some private guy probably has taken control of the tap and he makes people pay him to get the water – water that also comes for just a few hours a day, but who knows when really? If you are new to the community or he decides that he doesn’t like you, good luck getting any water at all.  But wait, just maybe your community mobilized back in the 80’s and built pumps to harvest groundwater.  Well, they had a good run too, but now mass groundwater extraction has caused the level to drop so low, even this ancient water storage system is caput.  If you do find a drop from your pump, chances are it is contaminated.   Check out these water storage units and pumps.

Okay, so you waited, you asked, you carried, you bribed, you horded, but great! . . . you got water somehow, somewhere. But now, what will you do with the waste water? And what will you do with your human waste?

Just pour it down the drain or flush it down the toilet. Oh, right . . what drain? What toilet? There’s no plumbing here friends. You are lucky if you have open drains running through your densely populated cluster of homes.  And even more lucky if those drains are not clogged with plastic bags (which by the way are technically illegal in Delhi), full of feces, overflowing from the rains, smelling up your  home, or breeding disease.  Check these out from BIW Camp in Badarpur in SE Delhi.

As for a toilet  – check out this one. A ten minute walk from the central area of the community. (When is the last time you walked 10 minutes outside to go to  the bathroom in the middle of the night?) Currently completely locked (who knows when it was last open). Nothing separate for men and women (which btw is important here because there’s just story upon story of women being sexually attacked when using or going to  a toilet). And clearly not seeming too clean.  Side note: lack of proper toilets for girls in schools is one of the MAIN reasons why girls drop-out of school.

Confession: Ya know it’s funny, because sometimes my privileged self gets excited about the possibility of living more “simply”. Pumping water from a well, taking time to filter water, going to the bathroom in compost toilets or in the woods. This weird complicated feeling of envy arises in me when I visit these communities. Taking the time to just sit with my women friends chatting and waiting for water to come sounds great. Developing more of an awareness about the preciousness of water and utilizing it with this regard – yes please. WHAT? It’s crazy to me when these thoughts come in. It’s some kind of romanticism mixed with development disillusionment mixed with the back-to-the-land desires AND it is so complicated. Of course it is easy feel this way when there hasn’t been a single day in my entire life where I have feared not being able to drink water (yes, there’s the hike or day in the sun where I’ve run out of water, but I also knew more was available somewhere and my momentary dehydration was just part of the adventure).  And I guess what it comes down to is choice. I have the choice to work for my water if I decide that’s what I want to do. And I also have a safety net. Yet even still, the whole thing makes me wonder if we aren’t just spiraling out of control trying to “develop” everything right and left. Who decided this was the best thing for humans anyway ?And who is responsible for bringing us to such a place where our water sources are so polluted and depleted? My homeland certainly plays a role in that, no doubt. As do I.

So do you get it? Delhi is basically in a perpetual water crisis that just gets worse during the dry seasons. Even the Delhi Jal Board is ready to admit that is faces a daily water shortage of 750 million liters per day.  I guess to some degree this is even an issue of supply and demand. Even my roommates and I in our comfy middle class flat only get drinking water for about an hour a day, and we pay a private company, then pressure our landlord to turn on the water motor to get even that.  We hoard our water in lots of bottles by the sink. But then again, this is because we can, because we have money and power in a way that slum dwellers systemically don’t.

And so these slum communities simply don’t have water.  Pause.

WATER. Hello. Water. Are you hearing this? Okay. Spend a day and just notice when/how/why you use water. Then notice which of this water you are using to do things related to consumption (drink, cook, brush teeth). A lot? A little? My 99% certain accurate guess is that you use a damn lot of water a day. And this is not including all your extra superfluous water usages (that fountain, the lawn, laundry etc etc). Ok. . . now try this. Wake up in the morning and don’t use water for the first 3 hours of your day. Seriously try it – it’s a really good exercise.  Now flip your mind and imagine that you ONLY get to use water for 3 hours a day (and even that is generous). Oh and btw, that water is not safe for drinking – for that you’ll need to figure something else out.  How does it feel? What do you have to do to make it work? How do you re-arrange your schedule? What are the emotional costs? What about the time lost dealing with the water?

Basically the water you use in your 5 min daily shower is about how much a whole family uses for a week in the slums here.

Ok. No need to feel guilty. It’s completely fine and appropriate to be able to take a 5 min shower a day. You don’t need to give that up – and even if you did it wouldn’t help the people in the slums BECAUSE unless you carry that extra water to India and bring it to someone here . . .you get the point (side note: I highly support a mindful water usage practice in all parts of the world and for people of all class backgrounds).  The point is, shouldn’t everyone be able to take a 5 min shower, and step out to 8oz of drinking water? I say yes, and I say this is a right that we all have . . . and that our health and hygiene and life depends on being able to drink water and clean ourselves.

The global picture:  Did you know?? That children die at alarming rates from water-borne diseases, diarrhea, and dehydration caused by lack of clean water.  That conflicts over water have intensified significantly over the last 5 years.  That experts warn of increasing numbers of community unrest and conflicts between nations as the world’s water resources start to diminish from over-exploitation, extreme population growth, and poor resource management.  Right now lack of clean water and poor sanitation are among the greatest risks for the lives (yes, literally the lives) of urban poor around the globe, especially with the rapid urbanization that goes hand in hand with development.

So friends, one thing I do with my days here at work is that I visit urban slum communities. Lots of them. And I ask people about their lives and I listen to them (with the help of a translator of course).  And when we talk about community issues (stay tuned for another blog post on all that), the vast majority of people living here talk about lack of water and proper sanitation as their greatest problem. The development world too can’t get enough of talking about this dire issue. It’s in there with the MGD’s  (goal 7) and every other NGO seems to have some “solution.” Yet there is currently no systematic intervention from NGO’s or the government that can inform some type reform process here in Delhi.  The issue here continues to be as deep as the diminishing groundwater levels, and solutions will not come easy, because root causes of social injustice and cultural behaviors are not so easy to undo.  And also because the reality of supply and demand, demands some kind of creative brilliance and new order of global water consumption mindfulness that I’m not quite sure we have the capacity to red carpet roll out.  Where does that leave us? I’m sorry but I don’t have solutions.  They must have everything and nothing to do with water itself, and infrastructure, and governance, and education, but who knows what the magic combination is.  You can look up article after article proposing solutions, but nobody really knows what is going  to be most effective.  What I do know is that if 15 year old Sudha is ready to do something about it, and 10 year old Archana, and these two aunties and this crew of 12 year old boys (which they all are), well then I am too. I’m starting with smiles, with moving from despair to hope, mitigating fear with song, empowering voices, and informing myself.  I’m starting with people and connections and with mindfulness and gratitude, and with education and action. Right here.


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One thought on “Water – Pani – Water – Pani

  1. Basically the water you use in your 5 min daily shower is about how much a whole family uses for a week in the slums here.


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