Story By Tom Roberts
With most of Maharashtra in the grips of the worst drought since 1972, Mumbaikers eagerly await the monsoon that promises 94% of the city’s annual rain falling between June and September. It is the only respite in another wise dry Mumbai.
Every year it is cat-and-mouse game between fast depleting water levels in the city’s reservoirs and the arrival of the monsoon from across the Arabian sea. With the water levels at a three-year low this year, sitting under 40% capacity, the monsoon can’t come soon enough for the city.
And after a poor monsoon last year, Mumbai’s water security hinges on a good downpour in the next few months.
Shubanghi Bhute, is Operational Director at the Indian Meteorological Department in south Mumbai’s Colaba district.
Bhute is somewhat reluctant to be drawn into a conversation on water security, but she is more than happy to talk about the monsoons and the synoptic factors behind their immense force. It’s a well-rehearsed speech, but one that is packed with scientific knowledge.
She explains how the science behind the monsoon centres around two prominent weather events, the off-shore trough over the Arabian Sea in the west, and low-pressure cell that travels west over the Bay of Bengal from eastern end of India.
“The southwest winds contain lots of moisture, and during the monsoon humidity peaks at 90 to 95 percent,” she says. A trough is a convergence of winds, which isolates the wind and brings the moisture over the coast.
“If this is active, it results in a heavy spell of rain. The low-pressure system travels over the land and becomes stationary over Mumbai, creating huge rainfall”.
Bhute explains that wind speed and direction are crucial during the months of June and September. A south westerly trough, typically arriving in June, must have winds of at least 20 knots.
This event typically synchronises with the arrival of a low-pressure cell which forms over Bengal and travels west to meet the advancing south-westerly trough. The meeting, if potent enough, signals the beginning of the frenzy that is monsoon season for Mumbai.
“If the Arabian sea branch is weak then the advancement along the west coast is slow,” she says, and weak wind speeds over the Arabian sea result in a delayed onset of the monsoon.
The Mumbai Meteorological Department noted this system took longer than usual to cross the western plains and arrive in Mumbai during the last monsoon season in 2018. While Bhute is reluctant to speculate how rainfall over Mumbai may change in the future, she says rainfall patterns have already begun to change even though the meteorological parameters of rainfall continue to be fulfilled.
“In July, for maybe 2-3 days it will rain very heavy, like 400mm in two days, but the rest of the month will be dry. But the average rainfall is still (reached), which is a disproportionate figure,” she says.
“So, we can see delayed monsoon in June, heavy rain in July, then long dry spell in August and September but then a sudden heavy rainfall in the last week which maintains the average score.”
The monsoon in Mumbai is a mixed blessing – the line between a life giver, replenishing most of the city’s water supply; or a natural disaster, crippling Mumbai, is a thin one.
Nearly 950mm of rain in one day, brought the city to a standstill in 2005, costing more than 1000 lives. The city was inundated by floods again in 2017 – though thankfully with fewer casualties.
Despite the destruction that often accompanies its arrival, the monsoon restocks seven major water bodies – three lakes and four dams – that keep Mumbai supplied during the off-peak months. It is also the only source of replenishing the city’s depleting water table – the groundwater reservoirs beneath the city that are the source of much needed bore water.
The composite water management index published in June 2018, provide details of Mumbai’s groundwater reserves. The report produced by the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI), in association with the Ministry of Water Resources, paint an alarming picture.
The NITI report states “54% of India’s groundwater wells are declining, and 21 major cities are expected to run out of groundwater as soon as 2020, affecting over 100 million people.”
Given that agriculture accounts for 80% of all water use, this underperformance poses significant water and food security risks for both Maharashtra and wider India.
The report states that critical groundwater resources – which account for 40% of the country’s water supply – are being depleted at unsustainable rates. The state’s Groundwater Surveys and Development Agency (GSDA), reported in October 2018 groundwater level had fallen by more than a metre in 11,487 villages, 1-2 metres in 5,556 villages, 2-3 metres in 2,990 and more than three metres in 2,941 villages across the state.
A three-hour drive from South Mumbai in Pune, retired military engineer Col Shashikant Dalvi is on a mission to promote rain water harvesting throughout India.
He is the national coordinator of the Climate Reality Project, and has worked with Al Gore on conservation projects in the past.
The Colonel explains how he first became interested in water conservation while serving as an officer in Rajasthan after seeing people in the desert areas conserve what little water they had.
Sitting straight backed in front of an elegant mural of Lord Krishna, painted as the backdrop to his comfortable second floor apartment, the colonel, dressed in a crisply ironed traditional shirt cuts the figure of disciplined military man.
“I had seen that almost every house (in Rajasthan) had age old rain water harvesting structures, to capture rain water from roof tops and store for use after the rains,” he explains. “It was a very effective method.”
“With ocean water getting warmer every year due to rising global warming, the monsoon cycle is getting disturbed, so there is a need to save every drop of water and save every drop of rain water from our roof top,” he says sipping a cup of tea.
He says excessive concreting has stopped rainwater from seeping into the ground, instead flowing into nullahs (ravines) and rivers, where the water is not wasted but is prevented from replenishing the groundwater table.
Inspired by what he saw in Rajasthan, Col Dalvi says he developed a water harvesting system for his multi-storey apartment block in 2003, and says his efforts have been rewarded in just a few years.
“Before rain water harvesting our only bore well yield was 30 min per day, and the water table was at 225 ft, but now it is at 60 ft with 9-10 hours yield per day,” he says.
“The higher yield started almost immediately from the first monsoon after we implemented rain water harvesting and the water table started rising slowly.”
Col Dalvi explains one of his latest projects involves delivering seminars to engineering graduates in Pune, teaching them how to implement proper rainwater harvesting techniques in new residential buildings.
In has been mandatory for all new residential constructions in Pune to have rain water harvesting since 2007, and any old building that implements rain water harvesting gets a 5% rate rebate from the council. But Col Dalvi say there is insufficient knowledge on the ground to implement the laws properly.
“There is disconnect between different levels of the administration,” he says, explaining why he believes it is important for him, as an engineer, to educate young engineers on how to harvest water properly.
“Communication often doesn’t occur between the policy makers, the engineers designing the technology, and the construction workers fitting this technology.”
While Col Dalvi is passionate about replenishing the state’s water table he also believes it is vital to educate people to live within their means when it comes to water.
He explains how he was impressed by how people in Rajasthan were frugal with their water use.
“We (too) have to learn to live within available water sources without exploiting them,” he stresses.
Back in Mumbai’s Santacruz east, Rashan Agarwal is teaching water conservation to fifth grade students in St Mary’s High School’s Hindi speaking block.
If the crux of Mumbai’s water crisis stems from a lack of education, then Agarwal is working at the coalface of water conservation.
Maharashtra’s state curriculum has a greater focus on water compared to the nationwide curricula.
“Because there is such crisis in Maharashtra, we teach water conservation as a priority,” he explained through an interpreter.
“The students are tasked with various projects to further their understanding of this topic. Only recently they created charts of Mumbai’s rainfall in the last decade and attempted to predict the rain coming next year and the years after that.”
He said the students are also taught strategies to save water in their homes, such as turning faucets off correctly and washing their cars and bikes with undrinkable water.
While it is reassuring to see evidence of grassroots education paving the way for better conservation, it doesn’t always trickle down to those without access to good school curriculum.
Kunalparab from the Kalina slum a few hundred meters from St Mary’s high school is circumventing government water restrictions, securing an uninterrupted water supply by storing what he wants in rooftop tank above his wood-workshop.
Kunalparab is one of the more fortunate residents in Kalina, with his own business crafting wooden frames and pylons for the residential blocks adjacent to his shop.
While many of his neighbours are struggling to find enough water, Kunalparab says he is reasonably self-sufficient.
“We have one hour of water every day, and we pay 15 rupees per day for this water,” he says through an interpreter. Across the side road that separates the Kalina slums from the middle class residential blocks, a litre of water cost only three rupees.
“I have a tank on the roof of my business which can store 2000 litres of water. I fill this tank with a motorised pump instead of having to carry the water myself.”
Clearly, he is content with his water supply, and he assures us that even his neighbours who have to fill their buckets at a communal pump are content with their current level of access to water and believe the water pricing set by the BMC is fair.
Shortly after the major census of 2001, one of the country’s most respected newspapers of record, The Hindu reported that some 700 families or 15,000 individuals were migrating into municipal Mumbai every day. The statistics are rubbery, but there is little doubt Mumbai is growing.
In 2012, The Times of India quoting the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO), claimed 70% of these migrants were coming in from wider Maharashtra.
With the crippling drought in rural Maharashtra more people have migrated into the city in search of new opportunities – placing greater stress of the city’s water needs.
According to a 2016 Safe Water Network report the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai provides nearly 3400 mega-litres of water a day, servicing 12.5 million people within the city limits.
“Water is brought into the city from the lakes after treatment and stored in 28 service reservoirs in Malabar Hill, Worli Hill, Raoli, Pali Hill, Malad, Powai and Bhandup being some of them,” the report said, detailing how the water is captured in four river basins and six lakes.
Godfrey Pimenta, is an advocate for the NGO Watchdog Foundation, an independent organisation founded by Pimenta and fellow activist Nicholas Almeida that observes and agitates where necessary against issues of civic development.
Pimenta is no friend of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), locally known as the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) – which is also the local government authority responsible for delivering water to the city.
Pimenta is a fierce critic of the corporation, but openly concedes that the supply of water within Mumbai’s city limits is one area of government that is competently managed.
“By and large, everybody in this city has access to a safe drinking water facility,” Pimenta says.
“We should salute the corporation, because this is the only corporation in the entirety of India, irrespective of the national situation, that has supplied uninterrupted water to the city for a number of years.”
But Mumbai’s water security comes at a cost.Several hours of travel outside of Mumbai, on the outskirts of the Modak Sagar dam is Palshin, a small village that is little more than a collection of huts set against a vastly dehydrated rural landscape.
It is home to Prakash Madhu Mheskar, a second-generation farmer who has lived and worked the nearby countryside his entire life.
Modak Sagar on Maharashtra’s Vaitarna River is the second largest of the dams supplying water to the city, pumping 180 million litres of water in to Mumbai every day.
But the massive pipelines that carry water out of the dam hide the real cost of quenching Mumbai’s ever-increasing thirst.
Modak Sagar lies to the north of the Palshin village and boasts an enormous capacity of 45,000 million litres. Yet not one bucket is provided to the neighbouring communities caught in the depths of the most severe drought Maharashtra has experienced in decades.
Set in a high-security zone and just a little to far away to be accessed by foot, Modak Sagar’s supply is frustratingly out of reach to villagers.
Instead, finding drinking water is a daily struggle for Palshin villagers like Prakash who says he makes regular trips to a water pump, five miles from his village to carry water for his family of ten.
As a man, Prakash is able to transport some 250 litres of drinking water in plastic tanks on his two-bull bullock cart, but it is a trek the women in his village must do on foot – women from villages like Palshin are not permitted to use bullock carts.
As Prakash’s water cart prepares to set off home, three women dressed in brightly coloured sarees arrive at the water station, each balancing two or three copper and aluminium pots on their heads. One of the women introduces herself as Sita. She explains how women like her make this 16km round trip at least once a day, sometimes twice.
Rural communities like Palshin, which is more than 100km north of Mumbai but within view of Modak Sagar, are struggling to survive after last year’s poor monsoon arrived late and failed to deliver much needed rain.
“There was 75 percent less rainfall than the previous year,” Prakash says through an interpreter.
“Because of the lack of rain, I have lost much of my cattle and crops and it is hard for me and my family.”
“You can look around see that the country is dying.”