Waste, corruption dry up New Delhi’s water

Miranda Kennedy Jan 23, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: Americans probably do it dozens of times a day without ever thinking about it. We turn on the tap and water comes out just like it’s supposed to.

The United Nations said recently the world does have enough water. But there is still a shortage. Old pipes and lousy management have left more than a billion people high and dry.

Cities in developing countries are the worst off. In New Delhi, a quarter of all households don’t have any water piped in. And Miranda Kennedy reports that has created criminal opportunities.

MIRANDA KENNEDY: This is a comfortable, middle class neighborhood in India’s richest city. But retired colonel Kawel Salwan battles the same problem as residents of the city slums: he has to schedule his life around getting enough water.

KAWEL SALWAN: You don’t get up at 5 o’clock, that means that day your supply is gone. You cannot miss it. That day you miss it, you pay for it.

He gets up before 5 every morning because that’s when the city turns on the water. It flows for a meager 20 minutes in the morning, and just 10 minutes at night.

So he pumps the water into 500-liter black plastic containers in the alley outside, hoping enough will come for his family of six to cook and wash with.

SALWAN: Everybody’s got a tank down below. They pump in water, fill up these tanks, then from these tanks . . .

KENNEDY: To another tank on the top. So how many tanks do you have?

SALWAN: I’ve got two tanks down below and one tank on top.

The alleys between the apartment blocks are crowded with tanks to store the precious city water. All the residents here have had to invest in their own personal waterworks systems.

Salwan has a pump to get the water up to a rooftop tank that feeds the kitchen and bathroom. Then he puts it through a purification device to remove the contaminants, so he can use it without getting sick.

Still, there’s rarely enough to meet his family’s needs. Almost every morning is like this morning: Salwan has to call a private water service to get more delivered. And he has to stand outside his house, waiting and hoping the tanker truck will appear.

KENNEDY: So what’s the news, is the water tanker coming?

SALWAN: No, nothing has come so far.

[Salwan shouting in Hindi]

Half an hour later, he sees the truck go past, and runs to ask a guy in the street where it’s going.

SALWAN: I’ll just see where they are going.

He has to catch the driver and then bribe him to make sure he’ll come back tomorrow.

Salwan often spends an hour in the morning chasing down the water truck. He doles out $70 a month on extra water and bribes, in addition to his city water bills. That means he spends 40 percent of his monthly retirement check on water.

Social activist Arvind Kejrival says many Delhi residents are forced to pay private water dealers for the water they’re supposed to get for free.

ARVIND KEJRIVAL: The government says there’s a shortage of water, and you don’t get water for days together in your house, in your taps. But there are private water tanker companies where if you call up, you can buy any amount of water. So they are getting their water from somewhere. So there’s a huge theft of water which is taking place.

Water is stolen from the city reservoirs by a powerful mafia ring that pays off corrupt officials to turn a blind eye. The mafia has capitalized on the city’s inept water distribution system and effectively privatized the water supply. So Delhi residents can either do business with the water mafia or do without water.

But corruption is only part of the problem. The other part is waste. A huge amount of water is lost as it flows through Delhi’s antiquated system of cracked and filthy pipes.

KEJRIVAL: And the government says that 50 percent of the water is going down the drain because there’s a water leakage. It’s not a problem of shortage of water. They’re not accountable for corruption. I think it’s a problem of governance.

Kejrival is leading a citizen’s movement to try to hold the government accountable for the waste. And for allowing the mafia to hijack the city’s water supply.

[Sound of water tanker filling on street]

In the meantime, Delhi’s 16 million residents continue their daily struggle for water. Some of them are so desperate that they fill up buckets from city water trucks, like this one. Some even go so far as to drill their own wells in their yards.

In New Delhi, I’m Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.

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