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Delhi’s ‘lifeline’ Yamuna is drying up. Here’s how govt can combat water crisis

Rather than lurching from one water crisis to another, Jal Board should insure Delhi against water shortages with a policy-based approach. Here’s a model.

Pedestrians walk over plastic bags scattered on the pavement along Geeta Colony Setu over the River Yamuna, in New Delhi
Pedestrians walk over plastic bags scattered on the pavement along Geeta Colony Setu over the River Yamuna, in New Delhi | PTI Photo/ Manvender Vashist

A woman in South Delhi was murdered last month over water. Different parts of the city report outages or dry taps every few days. When water comes, it is contaminated and unfit for drinking. The part of the Yamuna flowing through the city is drying up at an unprecedented rate. These are not headlines from a mofussil but the living reality of India’s capital —Delhi.

That this year has seen an unprecedented heatwave in the Indo-Gangetic Plains might lead one to presume that Delhi’s current water crisis is not systemic but occasioned by the heat. Nothing could be further from the truth. Delhi’s water crisis is chronic, recurrent, and now a permanent part of its residents’ lives.

Yamuna’s history

The history of the Yamuna can be summed up in a few words — a lifeline to non-existence. Delhi is a landlocked state with little access to freshwater sources. The daily demand for water for an estimated population of 20 million is around 1,200 million gallons per day (MGD). Delhi receives water from the following sources: 270 MGD from the Eastern Yamuna Canal, 280 MGD from the Western Yamuna Canal, 255 MGD from the Upper Ganga Canal, and 65 MGD from Delhi’s own groundwater resources. Clearly, Delhi relies on the Yamuna for about 90 per cent of its water needs.

But the river is drying up. The 22 km stretch from Wazirabad to Okhla — approximately 2 per cent of Yamuna’s total length — contributes to 70 per cent of its total pollution load.

About 201 drains (nallahs) directly flow into the Yamuna via 22 outfalls. The Barapullah nallah is a classic example. Draining the slopes of the southern, central, and northern Ridge and the sewered localities of South and Central Delhi, it still carries a significant amount of untreated sewage despite not receiving greywater from Haryana (unlike other nallahs).

This pollution leads to eutrophication, algal blooms, higher BOD levels, and finally the drying up of the river.

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Defunct in-situ water-bodies 

Delhi has 629 recognised waterbodies and approximately 500 undocumented ones. It used to source the majority of its drinking water from these, but around 70 per cent of the water bodies have completely dried up. Heavy pollution levels pervade the remaining ones.

Consider the Ghitorni Lake. Decades ago, it was pristine and used to be the primary source of water for 15,000 people of the Ghitorni village. But due to a lack of dustbins, cow shelters, and scheduled maintenance, the lake has become a veritable dumping site. It is now heavily polluted with sewage, cow dung, construction and demolition waste, and is overrun with excess plant growth.

In 2016, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) directed the Delhi government to clean, maintain, and restore all water bodies in the Delhi NCT region. As a start, out of the 629 recognised water bodies, the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) identified 100 for revival and clean-up. But minimal to negligible progress has been made so far on that front.

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Haryana conundrum

In 1994, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between the five Yamuna river basin states — Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh. The MoU mandated the following: the creation of the Upper Yamuna River Board (UYRB) to regulate the allocation of water to the states; if the available quantity of water was less than the assessed quantity, then it would be first allocated to Delhi and the balance distributed (in proportion to per capita requirements) to the rest four states.

The Yamuna reaches Delhi through the 102 km long Munak Canal (part of the 325 km-long Western Yamuna Canal) that takes off from the Hathnikund barrage in Haryana. Even though Delhi paid for the concrete lining of the Munak Canal in order to prevent wasteful leakages, Haryana has done little over the years to prevent the illegal diversion of water from the Munak Canal that is situated near the Delhi-Haryana border.

Solutions to the crisis

  1. Rejuvenation of Yamuna

To restore the Yamuna to its erstwhile status as Delhi’s ‘lifeline’, there is an urgent need to take some steps forward. First, a special purpose vehicle (SPV) under the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) must be created. This SPV will act as a unified administrative body with overriding powers to clean the Yamuna and coordinate between multiple stakeholders such as the DJB, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC), the Irrigation & Food Control (I&FC) Department, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), and the governments of Delhi, Haryana, and UP.

Second, the Yamuna can only be cleaned when the nallahs flowing into it are shut. Thus, individual action plans for each of Delhi’s major nallahs are required.

Consider the Najafgarh nallah. Sewage from 30 sub-nallahs, four sewage treatment plants (STPs) – Nilothi, Pappankalan, Najafgarh, and Keshopur – and certain areas of Haryana (Gurugram, Rohtak, Bahadurgarh, and Jhajjhar) flows into the Najafgarh nallah. There cannot be a super-STP at the mouth of the drain for such a huge amount of sewerage. The only option is to have bio-remediation via activated, floating wetlands as has been done in Osho Park, Pune.

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2. Revival of waterbodies

The DJB should adopt a five-step process to restore Delhi’s water bodies to their former glory and augment the city’s local water resources. At stage one, water testing is a must. Measuring parameters such as BOD (biochemical oxygen demand), COD (chemical oxygen demand), pH, TSS (Total Suspended Solids), and TDS (Total Dissolved Solids), and heavy metals in the water table in and around the water body will help in deciding the necessary technical interventions required.

Removal of waste comes next. It can include dredging by excavators to remove silt, sludge, weeds and all types of waste in the water body. The third stage is the proper treatment of water. Using interventions like floating wetlands and solar-powered aerators will purify the water.

Further, a pipeline would provide a steady supply of treated water from the STP. This would prevent the water body from drying up and also act to replenish the groundwater table during lean seasons. Finally, regular maintenance and upkeep are important to sustain the project. Dumping of waste in the water body should be heavily penalised and periodic silt and sludge clean-up operations taken up.

3. Just water-sharing

Haryana should comply with the Supreme Court’s 1996 order, which stated that the state should maintain the level of the Wazirabad pond in Delhi at 674.5 feet throughout the year to ensure that the capital continues to get its fair share in case of an acute water emergency.  

Under Article 262, Parliament should establish an inter-state water dispute council to adjudicate disputes between the Yamuna basin states. The Central government, using its residuary powers under Entry no. 56 of the Union List in the 7th Schedule, should protect Delhi’s interests as it is a minute sub-basin of the Yamuna with populous agro-industrial upper and lower riparian states.

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Clear strategy, futuristic water policy 

Rather than lurching from one water crisis to another, the DJB should seek to insure Delhi against debilitating water shortages by implementing a policy-based approach.

In contravention of the National Water Policy (2012), Delhi does not have any water policy in place. A policy, thus, will help in the assessment of long-term trends, demand and usage patterns and priorities, continuity in governance, and hydrological sensitivity in urbanisation and planning.

Pranav Jain is an independent columnist. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)