Water crisis in Delhi


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SOME urban settlements the world over have grown phenomenally in population size. A high concentration of people within urban limits is not a unique phenomenon, but problems occur when urban governance institutions and mechanisms are unable to manage urban growth, or fail to meet the demands, aspirations and expectations of citizens from all sections of the society.

A failure in managing growth invariably has an adverse impact on the quality of life and living conditions. Such a situation is observed in most cities of developing countries which are experiencing a rapid growth of slums and unauthorized settlements, traffic congestion, environmental pollution, severe infrastructure and service deficiencies, increase in rents and land values, threats to built and natural heritage, crime, violence, corruption, and so on. Many such problems severely affect the life of urban residents, and have a negative impact on economic growth and productivity of cities.

The nature and extent of problems occurring due to urbanization may be further understood by examining specific cases. Let us look at the situation of water – a basic human necessity and a fundamental right. In Indian towns and cities, the responsibility for providing water to the citizens falls on the local government (i.e., a municipality) or a subordinate agency of the state government (such as the Delhi Jal Board). They are engaged in the planning, design and implementation of water supply schemes, and look after the operation and maintenance of water supply systems. To discharge this duty, financial and technical assistance is received from the concerned central ministry and the state government department.

The water supply agency obtains raw water mainly from surface sources (such as rivers, lakes or canals) and from under the ground (commonly known as groundwater). Rainwater harvesting is an insignificant practice. The raw water procured is first treated at treatment plants and thereafter conveyed to underground and/or overhead storage reservoirs for distribution to different parts of the city by pipeline. A legislative act empowers the water supply agency to recover from the citizens the costs incurred in the production and distribution of water by levying a water tax, or a charge. For the poor communities living in slums and unauthorized colonies, water is usually supplied free of cost by public stand posts, hand pumps and tankers.


An appraisal of the urban water supply sector reveals that numerous problems are being experienced in ensuring a safe and regular supply of water to urban residents. This situation is also observed in the case of Delhi, which is home to 16.75 million persons. India’s capital city should ideally demonstrate the best form of governance. On the contrary, the situation is alarming. The statistics maintained by the service providing agency, namely the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), confirm that there is insufficient raw water available for the people of Delhi, and due to a continuous addition to the city’s population, the deficit has been increasing over the years. In early 2011 for instance, while the water produced by DJB was about 830 million gallons per day (mgd), demand was estimated at 1,080 mgd and the deficit was 250 mgd.

Furthermore, many city-level indicators pertaining to water supply coverage and distribution – per capita supply, quality, duration of supply, water pressure, groundwater levels, water infrastructure (including reservoirs, treatment and recycling plants, pipelines, meters, etc.) – are lagging behind established norms. For example, in early 2010, as against the 100% benchmark, only 72% of the population was covered by water supply and the extent of water metering was even lower at 55%. The average water supply per day is between two and three hours.

Similarly, the capability of the service providing agency is a matter of great concern, evident from the huge water losses (about 40%) caused by leakages in transmission/distribution lines and in various stages of treatment, frequent pipeline bursts, significant proportion of non-revenue (52%) and unaccounted flow (42%) of water, insufficient capacity to treat waste water, huge energy consumption in water conveyance, inefficient grievance redressal mechanism, inappropriate water pricing and low cost recovery (42%), large number of defective meters as well as non-metered connections, lack of reliable data and information, lack of community and private sector involvement in water planning and distribution, and noteworthy intra-urban disparities.


A basic problem faced by the water supply agency is the arrangement of raw water from various sources in and around Delhi. Groundwater levels are depleting fast, falling by 80-100 metres in some parts of Delhi, since extraction outpaces natural recharge. There is also evidence of groundwater contamination and high salinity levels. The civic agency thus relies mostly (85%) on surface water sources, namely river Yamuna, Bhakra storage and the upper Ganga canal. The water available in surface sources reaches (or is brought to) Delhi after passing the adjoining states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh (UP). Delhi is thus dependent on the neighbouring states for raw water supply.

The states located near or along the route of the three different surface sources have a policy of sharing water according to an agreement. For example, Yamuna waters are shared between Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi. However, past experience shows that quite often there is arbitrariness in receiving regular supply from the adjoining states as per the allocated share. Sometimes, the ensured supply of water to the national capital as per the water sharing policy between the North Indian states is disrupted, affecting supply of water to various parts of the city. In the recent past, there has been some tension and politics over inter-state water sharing, and distribution of water in various localities of Delhi. It would be useful to understand the underlying problems in greater detail, as well as the reasons responsible for the occurrence of such adversities.

In 2005, Delhi officials publicly announced that their raw water demands for a treatment plant would be definitely met by UP. This statement was made without receiving any formal notification on release of water from the UP government.1 Such practices did not go down well with the UP government functionaries, who took it as a serious offence and refused any major water concessions to Delhi at that point of time. Again in 2006, UP functionaries argued that the ‘water meant for farmers in western UP will not be given to Delhi.’2 


The Haryana government in 2007 did not release Delhi’s share of water allotted by the Bhakra-Beas Management Board for more than two months. While Haryana state functionaries argued that this happened because the water was not received from Punjab, the latter provided evidence of release, implying stoppage of water in Haryana.3 Consequently, some water treatment plants in Delhi functioned at half their capacity and many residential localities were left unserved for long periods.

The Delhi government has also made arrangements to obtain fresh water by developing new surface sources in collaboration with adjoining states. This is due to increasing pollution levels in the river Yamuna, as well as inadequate availability of raw water. Sometimes, water production at treatment plants in Delhi is curtailed by as much as 35% because ammonia and chloride levels in raw waters of the Yamuna river go up substantially, which affects city supplies.

The construction of a 102 km. long Munak canal is a joint effort with the Haryana government to ensure supply of fresh water to both Delhi and Haryana. The Delhi government has contributed Rs 3.5 billion for canal construction. Recent news reports indicate that the water sharing dispute that arose between the two state governments, possibly because of ambiguities in sharing of project costs, has been resolved through dialogue and discussion between the two state governments.4 There are, however, concerns over receiving the full share of canal waters from Haryana in future, as water levels in the Munak canal sometimes show a fluctuating trend.5 This problem affects production of raw water at treatment plants in Delhi. In this regard it is learnt that canal waters are often diverted to the paddy fields in Haryana, especially at times when the region experiences scanty rainfall.


The quality of raw water in river Yamuna is another area of concern and conflict. It is alleged that the problem occurs when Yamuna waters enter Delhi after which untreated or partially treated effluents are discharged into the river through the numerous city drains. This practice contaminates the raw water, and creates difficulties for the Haryana government, as water available for production gets significantly reduced. Moreover, extra efforts have to be made during the treatment stage before the water can be supplied to various Haryana settlements downstream.6 


Yet another peculiar case of conflict may be mentioned here. In one instance, the water supply received from the upper Ganga canal was blocked by the local population for a few hours in the bordering state of Uttar Pradesh. Some groups were protesting for the inclusion of their community under the OBC category, as it would ensure reservation of seats in jobs. The impact of this minor social movement in UP was felt on the water availability for local residents living in several East and South Delhi colonies. They faced a severe water shortage crisis and had no option but to call water tanker operators who supplied water at exorbitant rates. To prevent a similar situation from occurring again, the Ghaziabad district administration had to deploy the Rapid Action Force at the upper Ganga canal in Muradnagar so as to avoid disruption of water supply to Delhi.

Hence, the manner in which the water sharing situation as well as other inter-state social and economic issues are managed by various stakeholders can severely affect city supplies.

Within the city too, there exist severe inequities in water availability. The data on water supply coverage shows that about a quarter of Delhi’s population does not get piped and treated water. This is the situation in slums and unauthorized colonies of Delhi where hand pumps and tankers are provided for water supply. The urban poor have also been neglected because many of the (unauthorized) colonies in which they live are yet to be regularized, thereby depriving them the right to gain access to basic civic amenities. Thus, some areas in the city get only 30 to 40 litres per capita per day (lpcd), while other parts are better off with as much as 500 lpcd. The duration of supply is another area of concern, as the average supply per day is only about two to three hours.


Such inequities in basic civic amenities often result in serious dissatisfaction among the masses as well as civil unrest. For example, the residents of Kondli, a locality in East Delhi, raised slogans against the Delhi government and the Jal Board, blocked roads and damaged vehicles due to non-receipt of water supply for several days.7 A similar situation was observed in the Khanpur locality in southeast Delhi,8 and in Sangam Vihar in South Delhi.9 A shortage of drinking water results in greater reliance on private suppliers, and affects the household budget. The residents hold the view that unless they engage in disruptive action, their complaints generally go unheard. Occasionally, there have been arguments between workers of different political parties over inadequate water supply in some parts of the city.10 

Sometimes, poor communities benefit by way of improved access to water supply.11 Such a situation is observed mainly before elections when influential candidates affiliated to various political parties ensure that their voters receive sufficient supplies of water, and other essential commodities. This shows how the politics over water is a big election issue, and politics affects equitable distribution of supply in the city. In fact, such ‘politics tend to influence and distort policies and decisions and render rationality difficult’,12 often creating a crisis in those parts of the city that are under-served, since water meant for them is diverted due to vested interests.


Public-private partnership in infrastructure and services is a popular approach adopted by governments of numerous developing countries for achieving efficiency in providing services to the citizens. This approach has, however, met with varying degrees of success and the experience differs from place to place. The Delhi government too has given priority to joint venture arrangements with private companies for the treatment and distribution of water in the city. But there is resistance to privatization of water distribution.

In 2011, hundreds of activists protested against proposed privatization of water.13 In their view, corporate houses and MNCs alone would benefit, and there would be abolition of subsidies and stoppage of free water for the urban poor. Political parties in opposition also hold the view that the experience of such reforms in the electricity sector of Delhi has not been very encouraging. A recent study on this subject shows that across the globe, the moves towards handing over urban water supply and management to private parties has increased the burden on the poorer sections. In cases, such as in Bolivia, the ensuing unrest even resulted in regime change.14 


An evaluation of the urban water supply scenario in Delhi reveals that problems have arisen mainly due to unplanned urbanization, slow implementation of national and state water policies, lack of institutional reforms, insufficient allocation of funds for the development of urban water infrastructure and institutions, under-utilization of funds, weak maintenance, management and governance of water supply systems and local and regional water resources, and inter-state issues. And if the same trend continues, possible future threats could be lower quantities of water available, more time and money spent on addressing daily consumption needs, increased local conflicts over sharing of water resources, and serious economic, environmental and health concerns.



1. ‘Delhi Victim of Water Politics’, The Hindu, 19 June 2005.

2. ‘Water Politics May Leave Delhi Thirsty’, Business Standard, 27 February 2006.

3. ‘Release City’s Share of Water, CWC Tells Haryana’, The Times of India, 12 August 2007.

4. ‘GoM to Solve Delhi, Haryana Water Row’, expressindia.com, 27 January 2011.

5. ‘Haryana Withholding Delhi’s Share of Water’, The Hindu, 12 August 2011.

6. ‘Haryana Blames Delhi for Polluting Yamuna Water’, The Times of India, 7 February 2011.

7. ‘Protest Against Water Shortage Turns Violent’, The Hindu, 7 July 2010.

8. ‘Protests on Streets Over Water Shortage’, The Hindustan Times, 26 June 2009.

9. ‘Protests Over Water Crisis in Delhi’, NDTV, 26 June 2009.

10. ‘Cong., BJP Workers Clash’, The Times of India, 27 April 2010.

11. ‘DJB Flooded With Politics of Water’, indianexpress.com, 7 May 2009.

12. Ramaswamy R. Iyer, ‘The Politicisation of Water’, InfoChange News and Features, October 2005.

13. ‘Protest Against Water Privatisation in Delhi’, The Tribune, 6 July 2011.

14. Kshithij Urs and Richard Whittell, Resisting Reform? Water Profits and Democracy. Sage Publications India, 2009.



Central Public Health and Environmental Engineering Organization, Manual on Water Supply and Treatment (third edition, revised and updated), Ministry of Urban Development, New Delhi, 1999.

Delhi Development Authority, Master Plan for Delhi – 2021.

Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi and IL&FS Ecosmart, City Development Plan for Delhi, Chapter 8 – ‘Water Supply’, 2006.

Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi, The Delhi Water Board Act, 1998.

Ministry of Water Resources, National Water Policy, 2002.

National Sample Survey Organization, Drinking Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in India, NSS 54th Round (January to June 1998), Department of Statistics, Government of India, New Delhi, 1999.

Planning Commission, Eleventh Five Year Plan 2007-2012, Chapter 5 – ‘Drinking Water, Sanitation, and Clean Living Conditions’, Government of India, New Delhi.

WHO and UNICEF, Progress on Sanitation and Drinking Water, 2010 update, 2010.