Damage to India canal highlights water vulnerability

Katy Daigle
Associated Press

New Delhi — Engineers were working to restore New Delhi’s full water supply Tuesday after protesters damaged a key canal in a neighboring state and disrupted supplies over the weekend — highlighting the extreme water vulnerability faced by the Indian capital’s 18 million residents.

Some supplies resumed to northern and central parts of New Delhi, and will hopefully reach western neighborhoods by Tuesday evening, said Delhi’s water minister, Kapil Mishra. In the meantime, 70 water tankers have been sent to western areas of the city where taps have been dry for up to two days.

The destruction of the Munak canal link by protesters in the state of Haryana has focused attention on New Delhi’s precarious water supply. The canal, which channels water from north Indian rivers, accounts for about 60 percent of the city’s water supply. Another 25 percent comes from groundwater, while the polluted Yamuna River supplies about 12 percent.

Yet even when the Munak canal flow is unimpeded, the overall water supply is not enough to meet New Delhi’s needs, and shortages are common during the dry seasons.

The situation is especially bad for the most marginal communities living in slums or riverside shanties, where many rely on sewage-tainted river water, leaks from broken pipes or deliveries by municipal water trucks. Others in New Delhi draw heavily from the ground, leading the city’s aquifer levels to decline by 13 feet in the last decade, according to the Central Ground Water Board.

When protesters from the underprivileged Jat community breached the canal wall on Saturday, they effectively cut off about two-thirds of New Delhi’s water. The Jats, traditionally a farming community within India’s ancient system of caste hierarchy, were demanding quotas in government jobs and educational institutions.

Clashes between the protesters and government forces left 12 people dead before Jat leaders agreed Monday to end the demonstrations while negotiating with officials, and the army took control of the canal.

Residents of Sanjay Colony, a slum in southwest New Delhi, said Tuesday that this week’s water shortage was making an already bad situation worse.

“We already spend a lot of hours trying to get water,” said Indrapal, a security worker who gave only his first name. “People haven’t been able to go to work.”

They worried that a water crisis created by political protesters was setting a bad precedent for New Delhi’s water security.

“Now it’s the Jat community. Later it will be someone else asking for something,” a Sanjay Colony resident named Lila said. “The government has been slow in reacting.”

Ram Lal, a man who runs a small shop in the slum, also criticized the protesters, saying they “have done wrong. They should not have cut the water supply. Because of that, we couldn’t get our water tanker.”

Authorities in New Delhi had issued warnings over the weekend of impending water shortages, advising residents to use the resource sparingly and canceling all school classes on Monday. But while some residents were filling buckets and bottles in case the situation worsened, others, including many wealthier households that rely on groundwater, were buffeted from the crisis.

Delhi water board authorities were working with experts in the army and Haryana state on Tuesday to repair the damage done by the protesters, said Mishra, the Delhi water minister. Of the city’s three water treatment plants, one was again working at full capacity, while the other two had resumed operations at 50-60 percent capacity.