NEW DELHI: Strung between the embassies of the Republic of South Korea and the State of Qatar is an alley that leads to Sanjay Camp in Chanakyapuri. There are close to ten thousand houses here, whose residents are forced to rely on a variety of erratic sources for water. It’s difficult for the entire colony to survive on these shared water resources, whose availability only decreases in the summer.

In Sanjay Camp, families that live closest to the main road get the first chance to line up every day and fill water from the Delhi Jal Board tankers that visit unpunctuality. Those who live farther away often don’t even come to know about the tankers’ arrival. “By the time we reach,” says Kalavati, a resident here, “the people outside have already taken all the water. Usually we don’t know when the tanker came and when it left.”

The inadequacy and poor punctuality of the two ten-thousand-litre water tankers dedicated to this colony has forced these families to depend on a borewell. Five more women stand next to Kalavati, all waiting to fill their drums with water from the borewell here. They can only use it once in two days - if everyone were to use it everyday, it’d yield just ten litres of water per family.

“We can’t work anywhere because the water tankers have no fixed timings. Even if we want to work because of crises at home, we can’t do it because of the water problems,” says Kalavati.

The water tapped by the Sanjay Camp borewell is saline and unfit to drink, so most people in Sanjay Camp must deal with the added trouble of getting treated water from pipelines in Moti Bagh, Babu Dham, Chanakyapuri or Nanakpura. The few who can afford it, shell out 700-800 rupees every month to buy twenty-litre Bisleri bottles each day to meet their needs.

Sitting at the door of the first house next to the borewell is Mubina. The hierarchy of money within Sanjay Camp is highlighted as Mubina talks about the borewell pipeline in front of her house, which was only provided to families that could afford the connection fee. “The poor don’t have pipes to take water from the Jal Board tankers. When we don’t have enough water, we travel to Dhaula Kuan and use the handpump there to take water,” she says.

The situation is similar in Nehru Camp and Navjeevan Camp in Govindpuri. At Nehru Camp, which is closer to the main road and stands in stark contrast with Navjeevan Camp, Pooja stands next to a puddle of dirty water. She tells The Citizen how easy it has become to get water because of the Jal Board tankers that deliver water on the main road, as well as the direct pipeline from a borewell branching out to the tiny lanes of the colony.

But a little deeper inside the settlement, another Pooja tells a completely different tale. “The water that runs through these pipes is too dirty to be used. We have to sieve it with a cloth to use it even for household chores,” she says while working on a piece of embroidery.

Still narrower lanes lead to Navjeevan Camp, where Pinky, Babli and Anita sit next to walls lined with empty water containers. These alleys are bordered on each side by open drains. Most families here can’t even use the borewell water to cook with. “The water pipelines are too close to the drains. Any malfunction such as a leak or broken drainage pipe contaminates the boring water supply which makes the water unusable,” Anita explains.

Pinky’s home has a different problem. “The pipeline took a turn at our lane which is why we don’t have a direct supply. The houses that do have a direct supply don’t let us use their outlets.”

Large families which require close to 150 litres per day have to make do with only about fifty litres, because inadequate water pressure in the pipelines makes the process of filling water painstakingly slow.

The shortage of water has forced these families to make compromises. Infrequent or irregular cleaning cycles cause illness and consuming contaminated water has led to many cases of diarrhoea or chronic stomachache.

At Kusumpur Pahari in Vasant Vihar, outside every house are water containers of twenty litres each, lined up and chained together, in a statement of water’s worth. Every household has been allotted a number corresponding to one of the three tankers that arrive here once a week. On their allotted day they must collect and store drinking water for the entire week. Such irregular provision of drinking water has caused difficulties in these homes.

In Sangam Vihar, most houses are connected to the local bores via pipelines. The pipelines in some of the houses haven’t supplied any water at all the last ten days. “We save even the dirty water left after washing clothes, because that can at least be used in fire emergencies,” says Sughra Saifi, a resident who has been at the frontlines battling for the community’s right to access water.

Saifi expresses gratitude, however, for the Delhi government’s efforts to improve access to water, saying that the situation is significantly better than before.

As in other parts, when the Jal Board tankers fall short, private tankers must be arranged, which charge around 500 rupees for 2000 litres of water. The price can go up any time, and it usually does: in the summer months, a 500 rupee tanker becomes a 650 rupee one.

Devendri, who lives in L-Block, describes how “every summer, the shortage of water is so dire that I decide not to take a bath sometimes so that my kids can.” Her lane does not have a pipeline connection, though they have been fighting to get a bore dug and pipelines installed.

Although these water problems are a constant, presenting themselves every year in the same way in these areas, the drastic drop in groundwater levels and the temperature rise has made it increasingly difficult for people to manage.

As an estimated 600 million/ 60 crore Indians stare at an acute water crisis, and Delhi faces the very real possibility of running out of groundwater within the year, government planning and action seem to be lagging far behind.

Cover Photograph:A woman who lives in Sanjay Colony, a residential neighbourhood in New Delhi, fills barrels from a water tanker provided by the state-run Delhi Jal (water) Board. Water is extremely unequally distributed in India. Photo: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters