Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

New Delhi — The small Yamuna Mai mandir, or Mother Yamuna temple, stands on the sandy bank where the once-mighty Yamuna river — revered as a goddess by many Hindus — enters India’s capital city of New Delhi from the neighbouring state of Haryana.

Nagender Singh, a 40-year-old farmer from nearby Jhangola village, says that, in his childhood, the Yamuna was wide and deep. Children swam to refresh themselves on hot summer days. Today the vast riverbed is almost completely dry, except for a sluggish trickle recently released for a religious festival so the faithful could take a holy dip.

New Delhi and Haryana are locked in a Supreme Court battle over the Yamuna, with Delhi’s water board accusing Haryana of cutting the daily water supply to the capital — fixed by a 1996 court order — by a third, leading to a grave water crisis in this city of 18-million people.

Meanwhile, in the baking heat, Singh, and a group of fellow farmers, are pumping groundwater to dampen the dry riverbed and prevent the sand from blowing over their vegetable fields and destroying their crops. It is a process repeated several times a week. "When the river dried up, it felt like there was no life left," says 22-year-old Jaswant Singh, one of those helping in the arduous task.

The battle over the Yamuna, and its lack of water, highlights the profound — but scarcely acknowledged — crisis now confronting India: it is slowly running dry. As Cape Town has come perilously close this year to Day Zero — when municipal officials were to turn off the city’s taps and force residents to queue for water rations — experts are warning that Indian cities could be next.

Residents of cities including Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai and Ahmedabad already live with acute scarcity, with water flowing through their pipes for just a few hours each day, during which residents store as much as they can either in large roof-top tanks or lots and lots of buckets. Water tankers are a lifeline to millions unconnected to municipal water supplies. Affluent homeowners use private tube-wells to extract groundwater, leading to rapid drops in the water table.

Water scarcity has serious knock-on effects. According a recent study by the World Resources Institute, 14 of India’s largest 20 thermal power plants experienced at least one shutdown due to water shortages between 2013 and 2016, costing companies $14bn. Such headaches could be more frequent in the future: many of India’s thirsty power plants are in highly water-stressed areas, where they already run at well below their capacity.

The institute says water shortages in 2016 caused India to lose the amount of power that Sri Lanka consumes in a year.

As a result, water disputes are erupting across the country. In southern India, the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have fought for more than a century over the Kaveri river, a battle that pits the interests of Tamil Nadu’s farmers against the need for drinking water in India’s dynamic IT hub, Bangalore.

Meanwhile, the state of Madhya Pradesh, and its downstream neighbour Gujarat, are fighting over the waters of the Narmada river, after last year’s poor rains left water levels at an upstream reservoir 33% lower than usual. Officials in Madhya Pradesh have not fulfilled their obligations to release water into a downstream reservoir, the main supply of drinking water for 30-million people. Its water levels are now so critically low that Gujarat has ordered farmers not to sow summer crops — to maintain the drinking water supply.

In short, signs of severe water stress are everywhere. Yet public awareness of the impending crisis — or any sense of the importance of water conservation — among affluent city dwellers seems minimal.

Leaving my apartment each morning, I am greeted by the landlord’s gardener sluicing dirt and stray leaves from our long driveway. It’s common practice here, but it jars — perhaps more so for me, remembering my own childhood in drought-prone southern California.

In bad years we conscientiously minimised toilet flushes, timed our showers, and let the front lawn go brown. It was a hard lesson — and one that many urban Indians will inevitably have to absorb themselves, if not sooner, then definitely later.

© The Financial Times Limited 2018