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An Inside Look at the Daily Struggle for Water in One of the World's Largest Cities

In a city like Mumbai, where the water supply is barely sufficient to fill the needs of the population, ordinary people won't get their fair share without fighting for it.
 
 
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The General Assembly declares the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights. -- United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/RES/64/292, passed 122-0 on July 26, 2010 (with 41 nations, including the United States, abstaining)

By the time the UN formally -- if belatedly -- asserted a fundamental right to water last summer, record numbers of people were already seeing that right fulfilled. Planet-wide, 1.8 billion more people have safe drinking water today than in 1990.

But that achievement, significant as it is, has barely kept up with population growth. The result, according to a recent World Health Organization/UNICEF report, is that today as in the 1970s, almost a billion people lack adequate access to water. More than 60 percent of those people live in sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia.

Some negotiators had urged that the UN resolution refer only to "access to water" (translation: you can have it if you can afford it) instead of declaring an absolute right to water. Fortunately, that effort at dilution failed. Having access to water is one thing; having the source of that water reasonably close to home at a reasonable cost and obtainable with a reasonable level of effort is another.

Time and distance are at least as important as cost. According to the WHO/UNICEF report, if people face a round trip of more than 30 minutes or have to make more than one trip to collect water, they "progressively collect less water, and eventually fail to meet their families' minimum daily drinking-water needs."

Fighting for a prime-time slot

The expansion of water availability has been most successful in large urban areas of the global South. Among the beneficiaries have been the residents of Kadam Chawl ("Footsteps Slum"), a short row of tiny homes clinging to a narrow terrace on a hillside in the northern part of Mumbai, India's largest city.

In a city like Mumbai, where the total available water supply is barely sufficient to fill the needs of the population, a community of ordinary people won't get its fair share without first fighting for it and then working hard, day by day, to keep the flow coming.

In much of the world, extension of water supplies has been achieved by piping water directly to individual residences. But that is simply not feasible in many places with severely limited public resources. In India and the rest of South Asia in particular, water has been made more widely available primarily through community water sources. In rural areas, that has been done through village wells; in urban areas, community water taps serve the purpose.

The bulk of Kadam Chawl's water supply comes from a neighborhood tap that runs for about 20 minutes each night. It's connected to a remote branch of a labyrinthine public system that funnels water from 17 reservoirs east of the city, delivering it through almost 7,000 kilometers of water mains and smaller plumbing. The sprawling system does a reasonably good job, under difficult circumstances, of providing the most important of all public services.

Kadam Chawl consists of 10 one-room, concrete-frame homes lined up along a cramped stone pathway. Near the chawl's entrance is the feature most crucial to its residents' survival: the main water tap. From there, a narrow, upward-sloping path leads past the first seven homes. Just past the seventh, the path makes a right angle, becoming a stone stairway that leads straight up the hill face to the last three rooms.

Residents depend on the municipality for their entire water supply, and the time window for capturing water is not wide. Taps begin flowing around 9pm. The water runs first for about 10 minutes from small taps located at individual doorways and then for about 20 minutes from the larger community tap.

Priya, a slight young woman who has lived in one of the chawl's rooms with her husband and two children for 10 years, told us she's grateful for her current water supply, meager as it is. Speaking in Hindi, she said things were far worse a couple of years ago, when water would run some days and not others. When it did flow, it would be at a random time between midnight and 3am. The residents staged a sit-in at the municipality's offices to demand a change--an act of civil disobedience that cost Priya and some of her neighbors a couple of nights in jail but won them the prime-time water slot.

The great water rush

View a photo gallery (PDF) showing one evening's water-collecting session in Kadam Chawl.

Each family in Kadam Chawl has a collection of at least four water pots -- known as hundis -- of up to 10 liters each in volume. When the taps by their doorways begin flowing around 9, family members start filling hundis and emptying them into a large plastic drum; each household has one or two drums kept in a rear corner of the room or, if there is space, outside the door. But the doorway taps don't come close to filling families' needs. Says Priya, "It doesn't flow with force, and it's very undependable."

The doorway taps soon slow to a trickle as water begins gushing from a hose attached to the community supply pipe. By then, families have filled the area around the pipe with empty hundis, and someone grabs the hose to start filling them. Worldwide, 71 percent of water collection is done by women and girls. But when that hose in Kadam Chawl is running, the clock's ticking. With dozens ofhundis to be filled and hauled, the men can't afford to sit and watch; everyone pitches in.

In a fast-moving, carefully choreographed routine, women and men begin hauling full hundis up to their respective rooms. Most women carry one of the 25-pound pots, on the head or hip; most men take two at a time. Smaller pots are filled for younger girls to carry. The path is only about three feet wide and obstructed in places by water barrels, so that anyone hustling back down to the main tap who meets a neighbor hauling water up has to duck into a doorway or side space.

For 20 minutes, the scene is all fast action and little talk. Water inevitably sloshes out of the full hundis, making for treacherous footing on the irregular, largely unlighted stone path. Yet another threat is posed by open drainage holes in the middle of the pathway. The water carriers know without looking exactly where to step, but a nighttime visitor has to be on constant alert for potentially leg-breaking hazards.

Families living in the three rooms along the steps at the upper end of the chawl have no doorway taps, and, because they have the longest, steepest climb from the main water source, they can manage fewer trips during the short time the water's flowing. Satish is a professional driver who lives with his family in one of those three upper rooms. He says neighbors lower on the path make allowances for his family and the others who live at the top, letting them go to the head of the line to fill their hundis.

The stress of water collection does not appear to trigger much serious conflict in Kadam Chawl; however, says Satish, arguments can flare when water supplies dwindle during the hot, dry season or if the supply is interrupted for other reasons.

Some other areas see daily disputes. A domestic cook named Sharmila who lives in another slum nearby has to rush home from work every day, to be sure she's there by 5pm when her community tap flows. She was reluctant to have us visit at that time, telling us, "The people there are real haramis" -- meaning, in the most polite translation, scoundrels. "They fight all the time over who gets the water."

No drop left behind

Even water-rights advocates acknowledge that in trying to provide clean water to almost 14 million people -- many of them living in densely crowded, highly impoverished areas -- Mumbai's Water Utility Department faces formidable obstacles. The city aims to provide more than 100 liters per resident per day, but 35 percent of households get less than 75 liters per head. A significant number of those get no city water supply at all.

The water department's target is based on Indian government standards for ensuring a "decent life." Were that target being met, Priya, her husband, and her two children would be getting a total of 400 liters of water per day. In reality, Priya says, she manages to get maybe four to 10 hundis full -- only 10 to 25 percent of the official goal. Despite his less favorable location near the top of the path, Satish says his family of three hauls in similar amounts.

Priya and her neighbors are among almost 2 billion people around the world who, according to the United Nations, live with "economic water scarcity" -- defined as a situation in which "human, institutional and financial capital limit access to water" even though sufficient water is theoretically within reach.

But that imposed scarcity is even more severe for many others in Mumbai. In the metropolitan area, 1.2 million people live in "unauthorized" slums that the city refuses to supply with water. There, reports the Times of India, women and children seeking water "have the option of walking three to five kilometers a day or going to the neighborhood shop to purchase it" from bootleggers by the one-liter plastic pouch at extortionate prices.

A city official interviewed by the Times was unperturbed by the situation: "We cannot supply water to the slums that have come up after 1995 ... The [municipality's] hands are tied, and people have to rely on informal means and ways to obtain water." Anita Bhide of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences saw nothing new in this denial of water to citizens based on a technicality, noting that "the poor have always had to struggle for access to water." But in any humane system, she urged, everyone should have the right to a fair share: "The supply of water should be delinked from proof of residence."

Even in the city's wealthier neighborhoods that receive up to 10 hours of water supply each day, there are few big domestic guzzlers. Thirty percent of Mumbai homes get more than the government standard of 100 liters per person daily, but only 7 percent get more than 140 liters -- compared to 10 to 25 liters in Kadam Chawl. For comparison, per-capita domestic consumption of publicly supplied water in the United States is about 375 liters daily.

(A small, elite slice of Mumbai's population does have ready access to plentiful water. One outrageous specimen is the 550-foot-tall, 400,000-square-foot "green" home on posh Altamont Road that was recently built for industrialist Mukesh Ambani and his family. It's equipped with a swimming pool, a waterfall and hydroponic "hanging gardens." The number of bathrooms hasn't been reported, but the house is known to have an "ice room" featuring artificial snow.)

Priya and her neighbors spend perhaps 2 percent of their income to pay the monthly water bill. That's expensive, considering the scanty quantities of water they manage to coax from the system; nevertheless, they are fortunate compared with some Mumbai families who spend more than 10 percent of their income on water.

It can be tough in the big city, but people in impoverished rural areas often face even harsher struggles in obtaining water. The Indian government, in line with international standards, recommends that every rural-dweller have access to 40 liters daily for drinking, cooking, bathing, and cleaning. A home is regarded as having access if its residents are able to reach a water source as far as a half-hour round trip away. Sixteen percent of rural households still don't have even that. (But, on the bright side, that figure is down from 34 percent in 1990.)

The residents of Kadam Chawl know they have a better water supply than many other people, either in Mumbai or in outlying villages, and they don't take that for granted. They treat every drop gathered from the taps as something of great value, until it's too dirty for further use. Women dispense water sparingly as they wash dishes in two pans and laundry in two buckets, one with soapy and one with clear water.

View a photo gallery (PDF) of Kadam Chawl residents showing how they get the day's cooking and cleaning done with just a few liters of water.

In most of the homes, it appears that almost one-fourth of the living space is devoted in one way or another to water management, and wet clothes are often hanging throughout the room and along the outdoor pathway as well. All dishes and clothes are washed inside the room; women pound the clothes on the stone floor and then sweep out the gray water. After finishing up a load of laundry, Satish's wife Lata quipped, "Our houses are always very clean -- the floors are continuously being washed!"

As water-short as it is, Kadam Chawl can seem a very wet place at times. In the steeper section, residents have agreed to abstain from washing clothes or dishes on the main pathway, because the soapy water can make footing more treacherous than it already is. Elsewhere, waste water spreads from doorways and down the path.

Women bathe inside their homes; men have the option of bathing in their underwear at a community barrel next to the main tap. And the chawl's 40-plus residents share one men's and one women's toilet. (This is one of the many places in India where there are more cell phones than toilets.)

'Then you really do have a problem'

Recognizing the knife-edge existence led by many city residents when it comes to water, Mumbai's municipal government has made plans to more than double its water supply by 2021. That may bring some relief to places like Kadam Chawl, but will require construction of new dams that will submerge tens of thousands more acres and dozens of villages east of the city, driving those villagers off their land. Most are likely to end up in Mumbai, filling their pots each day with water piped from those new reservoirs.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) announced by the UN in 2000 included the goal that by 2015 the share of the world's households with inadequate access to safe water would be cut in half. By 2007, that water-deficient segment had been reduced from 21 to 16 percent, raising hopes that it could be driven down to the desired 10 percent by 2015.

According to a 2010paper by British and U.S. experts, meeting that goal, along with the twin MDG goal of reducing by half the proportion of people without proper sanitary facilities, would come at a monetary price the rich nations have so far shown little willingness to pay:

Estimates of the global cost of meeting the MDG target range from US$6.7 billion to US$75 billion per year. Yet, the global total in 2008 of aid disbursements for sanitation and water supply by OECD members and several multilateral agencies was only US$5.3 billion. Furthermore, most of these estimates do not include the costs of support services or institutional capacity to plan, build, and manage the infrastructure.

The water tap at the foot of Kadam Chawl is an essential if tenuous lifeline for 10 families. As with millions of other such taps in cities of the global South, it is vitally important that safe water flow from that pipe, if only for a short time, every day of the year. Research shows that in places that have a good water supply, an interruption of that supply for even a few days per year dramatically increases the risk of gastrointestinal disease and "may be sufficient to destroythe health benefit from the provision of clean drinking water."

Or as Priya more vividly summed up the situation, "If you miss a day praying to God, nothing will happen to you. But if the water doesn't come for a day, then you really do have a problem."

Photographs by Priti Gulati Cox

Priti Gulati Cox is an artist. Stan Cox (t.stan@cox.net) is author of the book "Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World." They live in Salina, Kansas.
 
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