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Alarming Case of Delhi’s Disappearing Groundwater: After Chennai, Water Crisis Stares Capital in the Face

By: Angana Chakrabarti


Last Updated: July 03, 2019, 12:06 IST

Representational Image (Reuters)

Representational Image (Reuters)

A study conducted earlier this year found that groundwater levels in New Delhi are depleting at an astonishing rate of 10 cm per year.

New Delhi: India is in the grips of an unprecedented water crisis with majority of its western areas reeling under drought-like conditions.

Despite several political leaders, including Jal Shakti minister Gajendra Shekhawat, claiming that the scarcity is a media-created hype, taps are running dry in both rural and urban parts of the country including metro cities such as Chennai.

Meanwhile, in the national capital, which recently saw mercury rise above 48 degrees, “unauthorised colonies” like the ones in Devli, Badarpur and Dwarka are facing acute water shortages.

Apart from the recent heatwave, depleting groundwater levels are among the reasons for the diminished supply in these areas.

According to a NITI Aayog report, Delhi is among 21 major cities that will run out of groundwater by 2020.

Another study by the National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI) from earlier this year found that groundwater levels in the city are depleting at an astonishing rate of 10 cm per year.

With plummeting groundwater levels, will Delhi stand to face a crisis as big as the one Chennai is currently grappling with?

Political Blame Game vs Reality

Claims of a looming water crisis gathered steam in the national capital’s political circles last week when BJP Rajya Sabha member Vijay Goel staged a protest inside the Delhi Jal Board’s head office in Jhandewalan. Goel claimed that the Aam Aadmi Party government has misled people on the water issue.

The vice-chairman of the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), Dinesh Mohaniya, however, rubbished the hubbub saying it was politically motivated and baseless given the city’s current water production. “The production has increased from 850 MGD (million gallons per day) to 936 MGD. We have extra water and there is a lot of availability in the rivers,” he told News18.

However, narratives emerging from both camps only address the city’s current water needs, which are being met by the Yamuna, Ganga and Bhakra system, brushing aside the falling groundwater levels.

Mohaniya himself remained dismissive when asked about the impact of falling groundwater levels on the city’s water supplies as, according to him, it only contributes 80 MGD in the in the city’s total supply.

Nitya Jacob, director of Policy and Advocacy of Swasti (an organisation working towards access to healthcare), called attention to this problem. Refuting the DJB’s figures, he suggested that in fact 40 per cent of the city’s population is dependent on groundwater.

“The DJB says around 88 per cent of the water supply comes from rivers, but it doesn’t account for the fact that almost half of that amount doesn’t reach the supply destination as a result of leakage. It’s the slum communities that are impacted the most,” he explained.

This, he said, consequentially leads to a higher dependence of groundwater, especially in the southern and western parts of Delhi, which face chronic water shortages.

Moreover, as NGRI director Dr VM Tiwari suggested, surface water sources cannot be wholly relied upon as durable solutions. “If you see the situation particularly during the summer season, the water level in the river also decreases. Even the retreat of the glaciers are affecting the water flow in these rivers,” he said.

According to Dr Tiwari, although the existing sources might be sufficient for Delhi’s current potable water requirements, activities like agriculture are left in the lurch because they primarily rely on groundwater sources.

Interestingly, the rivers are also said to be “changing course” and continually shifting in the north-east direction because of the tectonic plates shifts. Delhi particularly falls in a seismically active area, categorised under Zone 4.

Professor Saumitra Mukherjee, the former dean of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Environmental Sciences, explained that this along with the decreasing rainfall and increasing anthropogenic activity (land use) eventually spells water shortage.

The shifting also affects the replenishment of the aquifers (permeable rock that contains groundwater), which occurs when rainwater, stormwater, rivers, streams and creeks seep underground.

“When water is extracted to a maximum level from these aquifers, the geostatic pressure increases and there is a higher load on the land, especially in places where there are multi-storeyed buildings. This can lead to a collapse of land in certain soft-rock areas,” Mukherjee said.

Recharging and Replenishment

For some time now, the AAP government has in the works a plan to revive the crucial groundwater through rainwater harvesting and the rejuvenation of lakes.

Scientists and experts have stressed on rainwater harvesting as being vital to recharging groundwater given that increasing number of concrete structures hinder replenishment through natural seepage.

The water recharging possibilities are higher in areas near the river because the soil there is far more permeable, in contrast to the hard rock surface found in other regions of the city.

Mukherjee explained, “When we construct a building over this hard rock, penetration (of water) reduces. The rainwater then goes away in the form of run off, evaporation, or remains stagnant that can then lead to diseases.”

In fact, the infiltration capability is said to have decreased from 15 per cent to just 5 per cent. “Including heatwave action and decrease in rainfall, there have been many stresses (on the groundwater). The situation seems very grim right now,” said Dr Tiwari.

first published:June 20, 2019, 08:02 IST
last updated:July 03, 2019, 12:06 IST