Sunday, March 11, 2012

The End of Free Water by Charles Fishman

The global water crisis is an illusion. It is a distracting illusion that often gets in the way of solving the real water problems that plague 40 percent of the people in the world. Journalists and activists talk more and more about this “crisis” as if the water problems of Delhi and Bangkok, of Atlanta and Las Vegas and Mexico City, were all part of a sweeping set of interrelated issues, like the global recession. With water, that’s a mistake, and not just one of semantics.

Water problems are different. Almost all of them are local or regional. They are the result of poor water management or poor water understanding, environmental issues or soaring economic growth, right where the problems are happening. And the solutions are local and regional as well. We can solve our own water problems, almost anywhere we live. No one else can solve them, nor is anyone else likely to. When you realize that, it changes your sense of urgency, and your sense of how much power you have over them.

I found an illustration of this in a neighborhood of Delhi, India, called Rangpuri Pahadi, home to 600 families – about 3,500 people amid Delhi’s sprawl of 21 million. A few years ago, they reached the limit of their patience with the way they got their water. The people in Rangpuri Pahadi were fed up. Although they were living in the heart of a thriving, modern metropolis near Indira Gandhi International Airport, they had no water service. Every day, several members of each family had to stand in line, surrounded by buckets and water containers, at a public spigot. That spigot was dry 22 or 23 hours a day. The water was turned on for an hour or two, at unreliable times. You had to be in line waiting for that water, whether it came at four in the morning or one in the afternoon. If that was inconvenient – preventing children from going to school, preventing adults from holding jobs – too bad. If you weren’t in line, you and your family got no water that day.


Drilling wells

The people of Rangpuri Pahadi push forward with their lives on the most modest of incomes. A family with three members working might bring in US$100 a month. Yet in their frustration, these people pooled their resources and, with some local advice, solved their own water problem. They collected enough money to have two wells drilled. They purchased a 530-gallon water storage tank, and stacks of small metal piping that looks like electrical conduit.

Right in their small settlement, where the homes are little more than cobbled-together shacks, they created a water utility. Families who want water delivered by pipe to their homes can sign up for 30 minutes or 60 minutes a day, at a predictable time that works for them. Two people from the neighborhood staff the water system. The families who “subscribe” to the service – 500 of the 600 do – pay the equivalent of either $2.50 or $5.00 a month.

And they are thrilled. “This saves standing in line at the hand pump,” said Bhawan Devi, who is on the board that oversees the water utility. “That was at least an hour a day, which meant you often couldn’t get a job with regular hours. That’s why people are willing to pay to get water.”

The story of Rangpuri Pahadi is a small success, but it’s a crucial and revealing parable. The people are among the most economically and politically powerless in the world. But many of them work in the upper-class homes and businesses of Delhi, so they are fully aware of what kind of water service is possible. And so with a little energy and a little advice, and with resources they managed to gather themselves, they solved their own water problem.

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