As night envelops Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, in the Indian city of Mumbai, two dozen dwellers sidle out of their shanties clutching steel ewers and plastic cans. They hurriedly clamber over a wrought iron railing fence, race across a tangle of railway tracks, braving speeding local trains, and crowd around a spigot in a desolate patch on the other side. Soon the place is burbling with a feverish scramble for water. Amid fist fights and verbal blows, they take turns to fill their containers from the gushing spigot. Then they run back to empty them with relatives waiting on the other side of the railing, and sprint back for a refill.
Sitting on a concrete platform a short distance away, chewing tobacco, is Ravi Anna, recognized as a local goon who controls the spigot. He offers slum dwellers without water connections a chance to collect drinking water between 7pm and 10pm every day – for a fee.
To an outsider, the arrangement might sound entrepreneurial, except that this water is not his to sell. The spigot draws from a water tank belonging to the Indian Railways. Such pilfering of water, rampant across this coastal metropolis which dreams of transforming itself into the “Shanghai of India”, has gone on for decades. But it is particularly menacing now as Mumbai struggles to slake the thirst of its ever-growing population.
The demand for water from Mumbai’s 12.5 million people is estimated at 4,550 million liters a day, but the city is only able to provide 2,900m liters. Mumbai has received 30 per cent less rainfall compared to the previous year, depleting its water resources. Grim days lie ahead as civic authorities warn that the city’s major water reservoirs have only 71 billion liters of water, barely enough to last 200 days.
Water supply to homes has been cut by 15 per cent and across commercial establishments by 30 per cent. And the city is bracing itself for more cuts.
In its do-or-die bid to conserve water, the federal government announced last month that no water connection would be provided to new high-rise buildings until 2012, fuelling concerns among real estate developers over the future of upcoming construction projects worth US$250 billion (Dh918bn). It is also promoting water rationing across the city’s teeming slums, through water meters that make a fixed quota available for a fee.
Mumbai’s water deficit is evoking angry reactions from its citizens. Last month, more than 5,000 protesters gathered outside the offices of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the civic authority responsible for water supply, but were beaten back with batons by the police. One protester died in the clashes and a dozen others were injured.
Experts say such conflict over water is expected to rise around the world, emblematic of how climate change makes water supply less predictable as droughts and flash flooding become increasingly common. “With the government blaming the rain gods, people are nearing the end of their patience and it won’t be long before they take the law into their own hands,” said N Raghuram, the editor of DNA, a daily newspaper.
To contain its water woes, the government is in the process of setting up three new water reservoirs to augment supply. It is also mulling over setting up a desalination plant to convert seawater into drinking water.
But these measures do not address the widespread pilfering, which claims one-fifth of the city’s water supply.
A water mafia operating commercial water tankers are believed to be creating an artificial scarcity in some suburbs to boost their business in connivance with some BMC officials.
In a recent sting operation conducted by a private news channel, journalists posing as potential buyers of water from a wedding party discovered private tankers queuing at a BMC pumping station to fill water that should have been pumped to the city’s denizens. “It’s uncertain if the world would end as in Roland Emmerich’s 2012, but that water supply in Mumbai will come to naught if random pilferage isn’t stemmed, is a certainty,” said Mr Raghuram. “By simple arithmetic, if pilferage were to be checked, there would be no need for a water cut.”
The BMC says it has stepped up its pace of raiding areas where water theft is rampant
Anil Diggikar, the BMC’s additional commissioner, says since last month it has arrested 104 people, disconnected 742 illegal water connections and seized 327 booster pumps used to illegally siphon water from pipelines.
But stopping the theft is easier said than done.
In Dharavi, there is no one to police the pipelines, which are fissured in places and used by children to bathe, by bootleggers to make arrack and local leather factories for their business. But there is no option but to filch water, says Khemissa Bano, a 40-year-old mother of two who lives in a tiny shack within whiffing distance of an open, litter-strewn sewer. She cannot afford to get a tap connection in her shack or to buy water.
“What else can I do,” she said. “You can survive without food for a few days, but can you without water?”