Many Of India's Cities Are Getting Water Delivered After Reservoirs Dry Up

Jul 1, 2019
Originally published on July 1, 2019 8:14 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Temperatures in India have soared past 120 degrees this summer. Many reservoirs have dried up. Local officials are delivering water by tanker in many of India's already sweltering and overcrowded cities. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from the capital, New Delhi.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Nobody knows exactly when each morning the government water truck will pull up. But when it does, it's often the local children who are first to sound the alarm.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Chanting in foreign language).

SANTOSH SHAH: We all have to run for the water.

FRAYER: What do you mean run for the water? You mean...

SHAH: I mean when the tanker comes through, we all have to come out from our homes.

FRAYER: Santosh Shah and his neighbors have to drop everything and grab their jerrycans. He lives just behind the American Embassy School, where high school costs $30,000 a year. But few of the homes right next to it have running water. There's a communal tap, but it went dry two summers ago.

BHAGWATI DEVI: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: In this heat, brawls break out in the line for water, says 59-year-old Bhagwati Devi. She's watched this slum grow from 500 little cinder block houses to 5,000, more people and not enough water. The head of India's Council on Energy, Environment and Water, Arunabha Ghosh, grew up in Delhi.

ARUNABHA GHOSH: As a kid, I threw picnics with my parents. The lakes I went to - a few weeks ago, I took my 6-year-old daughter to one of these lakes, and it wasn't there. I mean, it's there on the map, but it wasn't there.

FRAYER: Reservoirs dry up when the monsoon is delayed, as it has been this year. Hospitals report a spike in heat-related deaths. Asphalt roads literally melt. And Ghosh says this may be the new norm.

GHOSH: India is going to be, perhaps, the most hit by our changing climate. How well prepared are we? I would say not very well prepared.

FRAYER: Delhi has proposed planting 1 million more trees and converting more buses to cleaner natural gas. Some Indian cities have also mandated rainwater harvesting. But millions of Indians are emerging from poverty, buying cars, moving to the city and consuming more energy. Only about 6% of Indian households have air conditioning, but it feels like there's a new appliance shop on every street corner.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR CONDITIONER BLOWING)

FRAYER: And once inside, it's a festival of air conditioners.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR CONDITIONER BLOWING)

FRAYER: Here's one that's literally blasting you with cold air the second you get in the store. It feels amazing.

But Tarun Gopalakrishnan at the Centre for Science and Environment says all these new A/Cs are going to make matters worse.

TARUN GOPALAKRISHNAN: Because what air conditioning essentially does is cools the interiors of a few people while making the ambient weather far worse for others.

FRAYER: The United Nations estimates that the global temperature has risen 0.85 degrees Celsius in the past century or so. But in India, Gopalakrishnan says...

GOPALAKRISHNAN: The increase in annual average temperature has been about 1.2 degrees Celsius, so higher than the global average. Now, that's concerning, particularly in developing countries where there are large vulnerable populations to begin with.

FRAYER: Meanwhile, India's urbanizing rapidly. Slums like the one next to the American school are the first stop for migrants moving in from the countryside, says Sandeep Kumar, who's lived here all his life.

SANDEEP KUMAR: Most of the people want to come here in Delhi to earn money a lot.

FRAYER: So the city's getting more crowded.

KUMAR: Yeah, more crowded, and more hot because of the vehicles.

FRAYER: More cars.

KUMAR: More pollution.

FRAYER: Is it getting to be a more difficult place to live?

KUMAR: Yeah.

FRAYER: When I asked around about climate change...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Climate change...

SHAKUNTALA DEVI: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: ...Shakuntala Devi, a mother of three, says she may have heard something about it on TV once, but she's too busy fetching water to pay much attention. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.