Mumbai's burgeoning water needs leave nearby villages parched; city's wasted and free supply more than Nagpur's daily need

The preferential treatment for cities over rural areas is not just limited to Mumbai. It is a common practice across Maharashtra. A November 2015 report had exposed the stark rural-urban divide, revealing the cities in the state get 400 percent more drinking water than villages even though 55 percent of Maharashtra is rural.

Parth MN March 08, 2020 11:26:58 IST
Mumbai's burgeoning water needs leave nearby villages parched; city's wasted and free supply more than Nagpur's daily need
  • Gargai dam is set to come up on Vaitarna river in the district of Palghar, which would not only include relocation of hundreds of families due to inundation, but also push the district further into water scarcity

  • Once it is completed, it is expected to supply 440 mld of water to Mumbai

  • Besides, in March 2018, activists staged a serious protest over the proposal of 89 percent water from Suryva dam – constructed over Kawdas and Dhamini rivers in Dahanu – being transferred for the twin cities of Vasai-Virar and Mira-Bhayandar, which fall under the Mumbai Metropolitan Region

Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series on Maharashtra’s water management process.  

Kamal Mahale's dread and  anticipation of the looming summer season do not suggest she lives in a normal rainfall zone. Her descriptions of the past summers bear no hint of the fact that four rivers flow through the taluka she lives in. With the beginning of the month of March, residents of Mokhada in Maharashtra’s Palghar district brace themselves for three months of hardships. "If not four," Kamal quickly added, explaining that monsoons are often delayed these days. "Initially, it is bearable with only five to seven hours dedicated to fetching water. After mid-April, it gets crazy."

Women line their pots up in front of the well at night, said Kamal, and even sleep near the well under the open sky to protect their spot in the queue. "This is a forested area," she said. "Sleeping under the open sky means taking the risk of being bitten by a snake or a scorpion."

Most of the wells from where the women fetch water in Mokhada are located at the bottom of the hills. Once the pots are filled, women have to dodge potent stones, and climb a steep gradient of a kilometre or two while balancing the pots on their heads. "In blistering heat, I have had sun strokes and collapsed while trying to balance water pots on my head,” Kamal said, sitting in her two-room, brick-walled hut, located around the bend of a dusty pathway in the hilly terrain of Mokhada.

When it comes to fetching drinking water from a distance, men and boys barely contribute to this arduous physical task. The National Sample Survey (NSSO; 69th round, 2012) notes that women did this work in 84.1 percent of rural households. Kamal’s tribal village of Brahmanpada in Mokhada taluka is not too different. The taluka is underdeveloped with literacy rate substantially lower than the national average. Child deaths due to malnourishment are common as well.

Mumbais burgeoning water needs leave nearby villages parched citys wasted and free supply more than Nagpurs daily need

Women line their pots up in front of the well at night, said Kamal, and even sleep near the well under the open sky to protect their spot in the queue. Parth MN

Ironically, Mokhada, where four rivers flow, also receives 2,400 millimetres of annual rainfall. But the mountainous, rocky terrain means the water does not seep in to help the groundwater recharge, rendering borewells and wells virtually useless. And the river water is diverted, mostly to the financial capital of India, Mumbai, which is about 100 kilometers away.

Sitaram Shelar, convener of Pani Haq Samiti, a collective organisation working on water-related issues, said when Mumbai sources water from these dams built outside the city, it deprives tribal districts like Palghar and Dahanu their rightful access to water. "When the adivasi communities migrate to Mumbai, we deny them water by terming them illegal," he said. "And even when they stay where they are, we rob them of water because Mumbai is too arrogant to do anything about its water requirements."

Daftari said when he had gone to educate people about rainwater harvesting in one of the upper middle class societies in South Mumbai, he did not know whether to laugh or cry. "I told them how it could be done by digging a reservoir in the building, and people said that they could park three cars in that room instead," he recollected.

The city of Mumbai receives majority of its water from dams built on Bhatsa, Tansa and Vaitarna. Currently, the city receives 3,850 million litres of water per day (mld), which is expected to increase to up to 5910 mld by 2030, according to the estimates of BMC. Even though the officials say that they plan to meet the increasing demand by recycling, reusing and harvesting the existing water, two more projects in the same tribal belt are underway.

Gargai dam is set to come up on Vaitarna river in the district of Palghar, which would not only include relocation of hundreds of families due to inundation, but also push the district further into water scarcity. Once it is completed, it is expected to supply 440 mld of water to Mumbai.

Another dam on the river Pinjal is mooted in the district. It is part of a larger river linking project. In 2015, Uma Bharti, as union water resource minister, had okayed a Rs. 14,500 crore project to link Damanganga, Wagh and Pinjal rivers. Former Maharashtra irrigation minister Girish Mahajan had told reporters, "After the completion of the project, 23 TMC (thousand million cu. m) of water will become available which will be enough to take care of Mumbai’s needs up to 2050."

Besides, in March 2018, activists staged a serious protest over the proposal of 89 percent water from Suryva dam – constructed over Kawdas and Dhamini rivers in Dahanu – being transferred for the twin cities of Vasai-Virar and Mira-Bhayandar, which fall under the Mumbai Metropolitan Region.

All of these projects have met with serious resistance from tribals and activists in Palghar and Dahanu. Leading the protests, lawyer-activist, Brian Lobo, said the original idea of Pinjal dam or even Bhatsa was for agriculture purposes in the tribal belt. "Over the years, it has been diverted to Mumbai," he said.

As a result, Kamal, who cultivates an acre of farmland in Brahmanpada with her husband Keshav Mahale, 47, said when the residents struggle for drinking water, irrigation for agriculture is a pipe dream. "We only cultivate crops based on monsoons," said Keshav. "The wells and borewells here are hardly of any use. Therefore, our major source of income is no longer agriculture but labour work. We go to Nasik, Badlapur or Kalyan. Men get Rs. 300 a day, and women get Rs. 250."

The preferential treatment for cities over rural areas is not just limited to Mumbai. It is a common practice across Maharashtra. A November 2015 report had exposed the stark rural-urban divide, revealing the cities in the state get 400 percent more drinking water than villages even though 55 percent of Maharashtra is rural. The Konkan division, which includes Mumbai, has 1849 million cubic meters reserved. In contrast, the parched region of Marathwada gets 540 million cubic meters of water.

An IIT study from 2016 had also pointed to the fact that Mumbai residents get far more water than what is required. The BMC supplies anywhere between 100 to 307 litres per capita per day (lpcd) depending on the topography, but the IIT pegs the daily requirement of water at 62 lpcd.

Shelar said even after the preferential treatment, the distribution within the city is grossly unequal. “It leaves out at least 20 lakh residents from the city of 1.25 crores,” he said. “They live in slums or dalit bastis. And they are forced to buy water from illegal vendors at twice the rate. The residents of plush neighborhoods, in the meantime, continue to waste water with impunity.”

According to the Central Water Commission, India’s per capita water availability in 1991 was 2,210 cubic metres per year, which dwindled to 1,651 in 2011. It is regarded as a ‘water-stressed’ condition. The projected figure for 2051 is pegged even lower at 1,228 cubic metres. The repercussions are already at our doorstep. Chennai recently hit headlines when it ran out of groundwater, and it had to solicit a water train. Experts believe the rest of the cities need to act quickly before it faces a Cape Town-like situation. According to data, between 1998 and 2018, the change in depth of groundwater level in Mumbai has been minus 34 percent.

Janak Daftari, convener of Maharashtra Jal Biradari—a water conservation body, said Mumbai has currently outsourced its water stress to the adivasi areas. "Mumbai would eventually have to be serious about conserving water. Just the rooftop rainwater is 700 mld if we tap into that," said Daftari. "Mumbai gets a healthy rainfall. If we do rainwater harvesting seriously, it would go a long way in taking the load off the water resources outside the city."

Rainwater harvesting, in fact, is one of the mandatory requirements for a residential project in Mumbai. However, observers say hardly anybody is following it with due diligence. Ajay Rathod, chief engineer, hydraulics department of BMC, accepted that the implementation could be better. "But our main focus is to fulfill additional water demand through recycling and reuse," he said.

A BMC official said the corporation is planning seven Sewage Treatment Plants that would generate 2700 mld of water once they are ready. "It would take care of all the non-potable use of water," he said. According to a 2017 report, Mumbai flushes 2100 mn litres of sewage into the sea on daily basis.

However, until the systems are in place, neither the authorities nor residents seem to understand the gravity of the water crisis. According to experts, about 25-30 percent of Mumbai’s water supply accounts for Non-Revenue Water. "15 percent is generally an acceptable number," said Shelar. "Non Revenue Water includes leakages, evaporation, illegal connections, theft and free water supplied to institutions. 25-30 percent of 3,850 is anywhere between 950 to 1155 mld water. To put things in perspective, the city of Nagpur requires 800 mld of water."

Further, Shelar said the city is making its life difficult through ill-planned development that does not take water bodies into consideration. "Apart from the three lakes, Mumbai has 227 water bodies," he said. "We have finished them with concretization. We have also ruined our rivers. Mithi being a shining example."

In 2016, Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Rajendra Singh, famously known as India’s Water Man, was asked about the role of water in fostering world peace. "The third world war is at our gate, and it will be about water if we do not do something about this crisis," he had said.

Kamal, back in Brahmanpada, said not a single week in the summers goes by without a serious fight breaking out between the women queuing up for water. "The tankers arrive about twice a week," she said. "The moment the water is emptied in the well, we have to start filling up our pots. Serious fights have erupted between close friends over water, because we lose our senses. There is pushing, there is shoving. The rope sometimes injures someone but people do not care. We have to fetch water for our kids, our families. There are 200 households fetching water from one well."

In contrast, high rises with swimming pool on each floor are being mooted in some of the residential projects in Mumbai, said Shelar. "And the BMC is supposed to supply water to them," he added. "Why can't these buildings do rainwater harvesting and look after their own swimming pools? Is that a necessity when people do not have drinking water?"

Daftari said when he had gone to educate people about rainwater harvesting in one of the upper middle class societies in South Mumbai, he did not know whether to laugh or cry. "I told them how it could be done by digging a reservoir in the building, and people said that they could park three cars in that room instead," he recollected. "The fact of the matter is that neither BMC nor citizens care about water conservation. We know we are in Mumbai, and the city going to get water no matter what."

The author is a WASH Matters 2019 Media Fellow. Reporting for this story was supported by WaterAid India’s ‘WASH Matters 2019 Media Fellowship Programme

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