NEW DELHI (AP) — Every summer, when Minoo Phakey’s water runs out, she does what most people do in her middle-class neighborhood: She calls the mafia.
Within an hour, a man in a tanker arrives, carrying a load of dubious water drawn illegally from the city’s groundwater. With India’s capital gripped by its annual hot season water shortage, the city’s so-called tanker mafia is doing a roaring trade. An estimated 2,000 illegal tankers ply New Delhi’s roads every day, lifelines to millions whose taps have run dry, and symptoms of a much bigger problem — the city’s desperately dysfunctional water system.
The tankers don’t come cheap. But some Delhi-ites have no choice.
“You need water, you will pay anything, right?” says Phakey, a marketing executive.
She is hardly alone. In a city known for its vertiginous inequalities, the shortage affects people from both upscale gated communities and dust-blown slums, as every day, the city’s supply falls more than 160 million gallons short.
Most residents have piped water for just a couple hours a day, and almost a quarter have none at all. With a leaky water infrastructure long overwhelmed by new arrivals, New Delhi is grappling with a dizzying social and environmental challenge, worsened by chaotic management. For many, it is a distressing reminder of a daily reality that lags behind India’s superpower dreams.
While New Delhi has had water troubles for decades, the shortage has become critical in recent years as the city’s population has grown with little or no planning, rising from 9 million in 1991 to almost 17 million today.
Even many of the wealthiest neighborhoods get water for just an hour in the morning, with residents rushing to turn on pumps and fill storage tanks when the municipal supply flows.
The most urgent problem, though, is getting water to the sprawling neighborhoods of illegally constructed buildings, home to 40 percent of the city’s residents and largely without water lines. The city’s water agency, the Delhi Jal Board, sends 900 tankers onto the crowded roads every day. In some neighborhoods, a tanker passes every few minutes, its load sloshing down its sides.
But it’s nowhere near enough. Tankers usually stop for just 15 minutes, while dozens of people crowd around waving buckets and plastic tubes. Tempers flare in the fierce heat; fights are frequent. In some areas, people get just 3 liters (quarts).