Water access strategies in Delhi’s informal settlements

I spent the summer in Delhi, India, interning with the Center for Urban and Regional Excellence (CURE), an NGO that builds water and sanitation infrastructure in informal settlements. Though I was not a part of the group that visited Lagos, the conditions my colleagues described were familiar. Like Lagos, Delhi is a sprawling megacity that struggles to deliver safe water to all its citizens. Only two Indian cities have a continuous water supply, and in Delhi running water is only available for a few hours a day. Heavy reliance on groundwater has depleted and contaminated the city’s water resources. Residents of wealthier areas can insulate themselves from inadequate services by building cisterns and buying bottled water, but poor and informal communities have no choice but to depend on deeply flawed infrastructure.

Through my work with CURE, I had the opportunity to visit a number of informal settlements and observe the water and sanitation infrastructure (or lack thereof). My understanding of water infrastructure in these areas is also drawn from meetings with officials of the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), the municipal water utility. One of the most striking aspects of water access in Delhi is the heterogeneity of services and facilities that people use. I found this especially surprising because my prior experience working in informal communities had been in Rio de Janeiro, where water access is at least fairly uniform. Most residents have constructed their own piped water systems, using tanks that are filled every few days from mountain springs or illicitly connected to city water mains. In Delhi residents employ a startling variety of strategies—often within the same settlement or even the same block. This heterogeneity reflects the hazards of confusing, overlapping policies, jurisdictions, and classifications.


Rooftop water tanks

The first strategy I observed was similar to the infrastructure in Rio: piped water and rooftop tanks with water pumped from borewells or city mains. This was common in commercial and apartment buildings on the main streets of larger settlements, presumably higher income areas. As far as I could tell, tapping into water mains was unofficial but tacitly allowed by the DJB.


Well and pump



Hand pumps



Hand pumps and borewells were also widespread. In one community, a single pump served 150 households, meaning that water had to be carefully rationed to avoid overdrawing the groundwater too quickly. Running water was available in two hour windows, twice a day. Groundwater is generally used for washing and construction, because it is not potable. This means that people must use several water sources for different needs. In some areas, however, residents drink groundwater after straining it through cloth.


Buckets waiting to be filled at public tap

Borewells are an uncertain proposition because they frequently dry up and have to be deepened or replaced. Depending on the depth of the groundwater, they can be contaminated by sewage overflows and flooding. Extremely contaminated water cannot even be used for washing because it causes skin infections.

Wells are either built by the DJB or financed by residents pooling their resources. Use of wells can be highly contested; one woman told me that construction workers had started taking water from a well that she and her neighbors paid for, and they beat her up when she protested.

In communities near water mains, the DJB installs public taps with running water a few hours a day. This water is usually closer to potable than groundwater.


Residents filling containers from a public tap



Delhi Jal Board tanker truck (photo credit: The Indian Express)

Sending water tankers to informal settlements should be a last resort, an emergency measure to hold people over until permanent systems are installed or repaired. Unfortunately, tankers are the primary water source for some communities, even years after their establishment. This is the case in Savda Ghevra, a resettlement colony built in 2006 to house people evicted from the city center around the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Piped water networks have yet to be extended to Savda Ghevra, so residents rely on DJB and private tankers, private borewells, or even public taps at a nearby train station. Long lines and unpredictable schedules make the tankers extremely inconvenient.


Water for sale in a small shop

Some households buy bottled water to supplement this range of sources, or when none are available. In some cases groups hire private water tankers; in others individuals resell water jugs bought outside the settlement. The owner of the small shop shown in the photo buys jugs in the suburbs and sells them for a small profit. He supplies his neighbors when their nearby borewell’s water is particularly dirty.


Water storage



 Plastic barrels, buckets, jugs, and bottles filled the alleys of all the settlements I visited, stacked precariously on stoops, hung from doorframes, or tossed onto corrugated roofs. Storing water dovetails with services like tanker trucks and handpumps, allowing residents to take advantage of these brief interludes of access to water. It has a number of drawbacks: containers take up precious spaces in houses and streets and may contaminate the water. The burden of filling them tends to fall on women and children, who sometimes miss school or work to be ready when the water starts to flow.


Water pit

Some of the poorest households in the communities I visited used water pits, small concrete lined holes next to their houses that store water gathered from other sources. This struck me as the least desirable of all the water strategies I observed, both because of the difficulty of keeping water clean and the inconvenience of emptying the pit.

My internship was focused on developing a rainwater harvesting plan, so I also visited a few of the rainwater systems that they constructed in Agra and Delhi. Rainwater harvesting is probably the least common water access strategy, but it has potential to provide free, relatively clean water during the summer monsoon, when Delhi receives ten inches of rain a month. These systems channeled water from rooftops through simple gravel filters into concrete tanks. Some of the barriers to widespread rainwater harvesting include the lack of storage space and the multiple uses that rooftops serve.


Rainwater harvesting system installed by CURE, Agra

The heterogeneity of water access strategies in Delhi reflects the convoluted classification systems for informal settlements: there are seven categories, each permitted different levels of formal services and land ownership. It is not easy to discover which areas fall under which categories. And the rules are fuzzy even when a community’s status is known. A report by the Centre for Policy Research states that “according to the [DJB Act of 1998], the DJB is not obligated to supply water to ‘unplanned’ settlements. At the same time, it is important to note that the legislation does not inhibit the DJB from supplying unplanned settlements…the DJB can expand its services to any settlement—planned or unplanned—as long as the Board considers it practical.”

The complexity of these rules and classifications essentially leaves water service at the DJB’s discretion. The Board is as susceptible to local politics as any city agency, and it predictably overlooks poor and vulnerable communities like Savda Ghevra, leaving them stuck with supposedly provisional infrastructure. The ad-hoc strategies that residents develop, like borewells and water pits, may have adverse environmental and public health effects.