ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Pushing Back Delhi’s ‘Day Zero’

Centralised Efforts Needed for Rainwater Harvesting

Georgina Drew ( is at the Department of Anthropology and Development Studies, University of Adelaide, South Australia.


To prevent a water crisis in New Delhi, city dwellers are being asked to take up the socially responsible act of catching rain where it falls, known as rainwater harvesting. Just how viable, however, are individual and household efforts for addressing the water challenges on the horizon? Drawing from a selection of documents and interviews, it contends that several disincentives deter people from acting on the clarion call of household-level rainwater harvesting. The observations shift the onus of responsibility back onto the centralised water system and the municipal agencies charged with water management.

The author would like to thank Sohail Hashmi for his insights and for his comments on an early version of this text. The author also gratefully acknowledges the generous funding of the Australian Research Council (DE160101178).

We get a lot of rain, yet we do not have water. Why? Because we have not reflected enough on the value of the raindrop. (CSE 2003: 3)

Alarm bells have been ringing in India after a report by the NITI Aayog (2018: 125) declared that 21 cities could “reach zero groundwater levels” by the year 2020. As soon as the report was published, news outlets started to discuss what this means for the regions listed as being in danger of running out of groundwater. The commentary that ensued focused not only on water stress, but on what could possibly be done to offset an impending “day zero” in major cities like New Delhi. Many of these news articles discussed conservation measures that should be put into place, including the viability of catching New Delhi’s rainwater in order to recharge the precious groundwater that lies beneath the nation’s capital.

As the call to address groundwater depletion through rainwater harvesting gains renewed traction, it is worth looking at prior efforts to implement the technology in a burgeoning city such as New Delhi alongside contemporary efforts. In this article, several past lessons are identified and they are put alongside forward-looking measures for effective rainwater management. The key point of tension is whether or not the onus for rainwater harvesting should be put upon individual households and housing colonies as opposed to governmental agencies and the municipal infrastructures that they oversee. At stake in this discussion is the viability of expanding urban rainwater harvesting in order to improve water stewardship, and to create a city that is self-sufficient for its water (Arabindoo 2011).

Within this discussion, the challenges of “downscaling” and “upscaling” rainwater harvesting are an additional area of focus. Upscaling refers to efforts to augment the scope of large-scale urban rainwater harvesting projects. “Downscaling,” in contrast, refers to efforts to promote the technology’s widespread implementation at the household level. Since, even at the smaller-scale household level, it is the municipality and the government that is involved in promoting and even enforcing urban rainwater harvesting, downscaling is more apt a term than decentralising.1 According to Arun Agrawal and Elinor Ostrom (2001: 487), decentralisation entails the democratic transfer of power over the management of resources towards those who are most affected by management decisions. They, therefore, consider decentralisation to be “synonymous with (the) redistribution of power, resources, and administrative capacities through different territorial units of a government and across local groups” (Agrawal and Ostrom 2001). Since we do not see this level of transfer of power in municipal efforts to promote rainwater harvesting, the notion of downscaling is preferable.

In the interrogation of the upscale and downscale challenges of rainwater harvesting, this article draws upon public documents, interviews, and case studies. The main empirical evidence for the present discussion is a set of 40 interviews and conversations in New Delhi, conducted over a series of visits from 2016 to 2018.2 The open-ended interviews specifically inquired into the promise and pitfalls of urban rainwater harvesting in India’s capital. The data from these interviews was supplemented by site visits to 25 locations mentioned by interviewees, as well as by the informal and formal exchanges that took place with the people operating urban rainwater harvesting infrastructure within New Delhi, especially in the southern part of the city.

Upon analysis, the data demonstrates that several disincentives deter people from responding to the clarion call of household-level rainwater harvesting. While reflecting upon this observation, this article additionally argues that the successful uptake of urban rainwater harvesting requires enhanced centralised leadership and an increase in the construction and maintenance of municipality-operated rainwater harvesting infrastructure. Even though the responsibility for improved water stewardship rests upon all resource users—given the extensive water crunch that lies ahead—it cannot be put on individual households alone, as has been the inclination to date.

Simultaneous Scarcity and Abundance

A number of overlapping factors have led to the extreme groundwater extraction that is in evidence in New Delhi. Arid for much of the year, the water that is in circulation in New Delhi’s underground pipes is mostly sourced from inter-basin water transfers. The result is that the city’s water system is dependent on five rivers, and on the five states through which these rivers flow: Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, and Haryana. Since the long-term availability of water from these rivers is in question because of rising population, agricultural demands, and the water-stressing effects of increasing temperatures, there are frequent political fights between the national capital and upstream states for the continued supply of water. The tensions between Delhi and Haryana alone have escalated to the point of some journalists labelling the interstate dispute a “water war” in the making (Press Trust of India 2012, 2016). Even in the absence of a major altercation, the capital city is perennially vulnerable to significant water stress. As D Kalia (1997: 78) observes,

Delhi’s water supply system will work well as long as the river(s) on which it depends provide water; the state chief ministers remain docile to Delhi’s rulers, and there is no sabotaging of the watercourse. Should any one thing go wrong anywhere, the whole water grid will go haywire.

These words are ominous given the wider political ecology of water resource management, which in New Delhi includes ongoing disputes and political battles over who has the right to the upstream waters upon which the city depends (Bakker 2012; Swyngedouw 2009).

NITI Aayog had to raise an alarm about the impending lack of water in New Delhi because the city’s water regime is already stretched. In 2016–17, New Delhi suffered from a freshwater supply gap that ranged from 200 to 250 million gallons per day (MGD) (Joshi 2016). Of the 900 MGD that it received, roughly 120 MGD was sourced from the city’s groundwater, while 540–50 MGD came from upstream diversions of the Yamuna river (not the segment that flows through the city, which effectively serves as a sewage canal). Another 240 MGD came from transfers from the Upper Ganges Canal (Halder 2017). The gap in supply and demand is often met by private water tankers, who charge handsomely, besides indulging in illegal groundwater extraction (Joshi 2016). What is worse, the population is rapidly increasing and the rise in water demand has no end in sight. In 2017, New Delhi’s population was estimated at between 18 million and 25 million people. The United Nations contends that the city could reach as many as 36 million by 2030.3

When the city began its exponential growth in the early years of the 21st century, projects such as the Tehri dam of the Uttarakhand Himalaya had to be completed to increase water supply from 650 MGD to 900 MGD (Kumar 2014). However, it is unclear what upstream projects can be added to the grid in the future in order to double the current supply of 900 MGD, which is ostensibly what would be needed if we assume that the population will reach up to 30 million and if we assume that there will be no major efforts to reduce demand by promoting water-light lifestyles, as was passionately argued by Ramaswamy Iyer (2003: 132–35).

The problem, however, is not just one of total supply; the inefficiencies underpinning the management of water are also a critical challenge. Of the resources that flow through New Delhi’s infrastructure, roughly 40% of the water is lost in transit through outdated leaky pipes and illegal connections (Rai 2011). What is left in the system is not enough to supply everyone with 24/7 tap water. At least 25% of the population manages with four hours or less of running water per day. The per capita ratios of water access are also inequitable: a number of wealthy urban residents—such as those living in the enclave of Chanyakapuri—receive as much as 500 litres per day, while the larger population struggles to access 50 to 75 litres of water per day, which is every person’s right. As indicated earlier, residents tap into scarce groundwater supplies to make up for the shortfall. These groundwater supplies are not sufficiently regenerated and are in danger of drying up entirely, leaving the capital without emergency reserves. Thus, a city essential to the smooth functioning of the world’s 10th largest economy is vulnerable to a full-fledged “water crisis” (Chellaney 2013).

However, as scholars of water conflicts would point out (Said 2014), the real downfall of cities like New Delhi is in the everyday shortcomings in resource management. Such water management failures are rife with self-perpetuating and competing political as well as socio-economic dynamics (Bakker 2012). The result is that, as in many cases around the world, the experience of water scarcity and insecurity is often manufactured by humans rather than it being an outcome of inadequate water resources (Donahue and Johnston 1998; Johnston 2005; Mehta 2005; Wutich and Brewis 2014). This is further revealed when we examine the unmet potential for supplementing inbound water supplies with an expansion of efforts to harvest rainwater within the city.

Harnessing the Value of the Raindrop

Rainwater harvesting has been suggested as a salve for New Delhi’s water woes by a range of institutional advocates and environmental activists. In 2003, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) published a booklet urging city dwellers to take up the socially responsible act of catching rain where it falls. Titled,  A Water Harvesting Manual for Urban Areas, the text argued that unless people are involved in urban rainwater harvesting at the household level, it would be “very difficult to meet the looming water crisis” that India is confronting (CSE 2003: 1).4

Simply put, rainwater harvesting involves catching rainwater where it falls, storing water in natural or concrete tanks, and distributing it to resource users. As the CSE (2003: 3) booklet states:

In scientific terms, water harvesting refers to the collection and storage of rainwater and also other activities aimed at harvesting surface and groundwater, prevention of losses through evaporation and seepage, and all other hydrological studies and engineering interventions, aimed at conservation and efficient utilisation of the limited water endowment of [a] physiographic unit such as a watershed. In general, water harvesting is the activity of direct collection of rainwater. The rainwater collected can be stored for direct use or can be recharged into the groundwater.

At the turn of the 21st century, confident about the potential of urban rainwater harvesting, organisations such as the CSE claimed that the city of New Delhi could be “entirely self-sufficient” if it were to capture, filter, and reuse every ounce of rainwater that falls in the city over the three months of the monsoon rains. This practice builds upon a time-honoured approach that has allowed rural areas to thrive for centuries (Mishra 2001). Rainwater harvesting, in fact, is an engineering feature that enabled the flourishing of early sultanate settlements in Delhi dating from the 13th century and continued in the reign of several Mughal rulers (CSE 1997, 2001; Lort 1995; Welch 2008; Westcoat 2014). It has, however, been neglected in politically powerful cities such as New Delhi, which rely on diverted river waters to survive. This, according to the CSE, reflects an unnecessary dependence on secondary as opposed to primary water supplies. As they state in their rainwater harvesting manual,

Rain is the first form of water that we know in the hydrological cycle, hence [it] is a primary source of water ... Rivers, lakes and groundwater are all secondary sources of water. In present times, we depend entirely on such secondary sources of water. In the process, it is forgotten that rain is the ultimate source that feeds all these secondary sources and [we] remain ignorant of its value. Water harvesting [is a] means to understand the value of rain, and to make optimum use of rainwater at the place where it falls. (CSE 2003: 3)

The CSE has put forward impressive calculations for harvesting this “first source” of water. Since the city has an annual average rainfall of 611.8 millimetres (mm), they argue that the city’s rainwater harvesting potential is 907 billion litres per year. They add: “This is equal to about 270 days of water requirement for the entire city” (CSE 2003: 4). These estimates are arrived at by using an equation that calculates the average annual rainfall with the total area of the city—1,486 square kilometres—and then applying a fractional extraction success rate of 0.6 (which equates to 60% success in the act of rainwater harvesting). The generic calculation, also used in their training programmes, is as shown in Table 1.

Note that the sample equation in Table 1 is for an individual household. Assuming a flat surface of 100 square metres (m2), an average rainfall of 600 mm, and a 60% success rate, a household can expect to harvest 36,000 litres per year. This volume, the CSE notes, “is about twice the annual drinking water requirement of a five-member family” if you assume that the average daily drinking water requirement per person is 10 litres.

In addition to the work done by the CSE, other scholars have also investigated the rainwater harvesting potential of residences in New Delhi. One study focusing on south Delhi calculated that urban water harvesting efforts can decrease practising residents’ reliance on municipal supplies by 30% to 70% (Said 2014).

Given the technology’s potential to offset water stress, it is somewhat stupefying that urban rainwater harvesting is not more prevalent. The lack of uptake requires us to revisit the queries that we began with: Why has urban rainwater harvesting not been implemented more aggressively in a city as important as New Delhi?

Downscale’ Challenges

Although successful models of rainwater harvesting in practice can be hard to find within the city of New Delhi, praise of the technology is readily available in official government documents. Municipal and federal government agencies have long-cited the benefits of rainwater harvesting and have repeatedly called for its expansion in urban zones (MoWR 2012).5 Over the last 15 years in New Delhi, in fact, the former and current chief ministers have made prominent declarations about the urgent need for immediate and large-scale interventions that would retrofit existing buildings and mandate urban rainwater harvesting units to be built into all future buildings. In 2014, Chief Minister of New Delhi Arvind Kejriwal publicly encouraged its uptake as a means of water “self-reliance.” Since the state was embroiled in yet another water sharing dispute with Haryana at the time, he indicated that urban rainwater harvesting might help alleviate such conflicts moving forward (Hindu 2015).

Notably, Kejriwal’s statements in favour of rainwater harvesting built upon precedents set by the late Sheila Dikshit, a long-standing former chief minister. Over the course of nearly 15 years in office, Dikshit spoke forcefully about the immediate need for the widespread uptake of rainwater harvesting. In 2007, she backed her vocal support of the technology with the launch of a scheme called the “Best Rainwater Harvester Awards.” This programme awarded cash prizes to institutions and households deemed to have implemented exemplary rainwater harvesting structures (Hindu 2007).6

Political support for urban rainwater harvesting has been accompanied with some policy changes. Since 2014, buildings with a rooftop over 500 m2 are required to have urban rainwater harvesting systems. In some instances, there are government subsidies to offset the costs of installation; in others, there is an added tax on the municipal water rate if there is non-compliance with rainwater harvesting guidelines. At an earlier stage of policy development, the New Delhi municipality covered 50% of all water harvesting instalment plans or, alternately, it offered a payment of ₹50,000, whichever was less (Planning Department 2006). The residents that did not install the mandated water harvesting units were warned that they would be charged an additional tax of 1.5% on their water bills (Planning Department 2006).7

Despite the carrot-and-stick strategy, and despite the rhetoric of policy moves, there remains widespread scepticism about the viability of urban rainwater harvesting in New Delhi. Indeed, stories abound about how new buildings are made to look compliant with rainwater harvesting regulations only for initial inspections; after these compliance checks, the infrastructure is not maintained and is allowed to fall into disuse and disrepair. The result is that the installation of rainwater harvesting units within the city is, in the words of one interlocutor, a “tick box” exercise.

To explain some of the complications around successful implementation of rainwater harvesting at the household or individual level, I defer to the perspective of a heritage enthusiast of the sultanate of Mughal India, and of Delhi’s hydrological history. My interlocutor for this first insight is Sohail Hashmi, a man whose ancestry in the geography that is now called New Delhi goes back several generations. I first met Hashmi in 2016 when I joined him and a group of 20 other people on a five-hour-long walking tour of Delhi’s oldest living habitation: the enclave of Mehrauli. After our tour of the water features of the sultanate—which included large tanks and step wells dating back to the 13th century—I asked Hashmi what he thought about the renewed pushed towards water harvesting in the contemporary city. “Ah, urban rainwater harvesting,” he remarked, “It works very well—on paper.” Hoping for more insights, I arranged an interview at his home on 28 October 2016. It was during this interview that he called urban rainwater harvesting “faff” and a bunch of “hot air.”

Within minutes of sitting down at his living room table, Hashmi laid out a topographical map of New Delhi that predated the colonial era. He first explained the water provisions of the seven cities that preceded the one set up by the British. These cities, he claimed, did not depend on river water. All but Shahjahanabad, with its seat of power at the Red Fort, were located at a distance from the Yamuna.8 Their main sources of water were springs and wells, along with a series of tanks that the early inhabitants of the Delhi plains created. The emphasis on building water features align with the belief that one earns religious merit when building a well, or when supplying water to the thirsty.

As a result, the Delhi plains were populated with a vast number of wells, tanks, and step wells (baoli). This is the landscape that the British overtook when they moved the seat of power from Calcutta to New Delhi in 1931. In their refashioning of the city, and due to their concerns over malaria and other vector-borne diseases, they filled in and destroyed many of the water features that had served the land’s residents for centuries.

Return to Past Practices

Hashmi believes that if the current government of New Delhi was to revive the use of rainwater harvesting and to expand the number of water features in a way that mirrors the city’s precolonial past, then “Delhi will not need any water from outside.” The increased blue cover (as opposed to green cover) could even help to bring down the high summer temperatures. In Hashmi’s summary of this work, the result would mean that instead of “baking at 46 degrees” in the heat of the summer, “the maximum temperature ... would not cross 45 degrees.” A return to past water management practices, following this perspective, is also a climate resilient move.

As experts like Hashmi indicate, there is some disagreement over the extent to which individual households should be forced to engage in urban rainwater harvesting (Said 2014). While several interlocutors agreed that households could catch rainwater where it falls and use it for their gardens—and for the washing of pots, pans, and cars—there is a concern that households do not have the wherewithal to engage in the kind of upkeep for the structures that can substantially lead to the recharge of the groundwater table. Without a substantial amount of investment in maintenance, the rainwater captured might even mix with sewage, since many of the existing storage drains function as open sewage lines in contemporary New Delhi. Thus, a major disincentive for urban residents in painstakingly investing time and money in a rainwater harvesting unit that might help save a modest amount of water is that it might run into the storm drains and sewers as soon as their limited storage tanks overflow.

Put in other words, numerous spatial limitations and infrastructural challenges mean that residents can realistically only harvest what they can store, and the storage potential of many households is relatively minor compared to the scale that is needed to bring the city’s water supply into balance. Since a huge volume of water falls in New Delhi in a short duration of three to four months, and since the water has to be stored throughout the year in order for the investment to pay off, individual efforts can improve household water access during the monsoon months, but they cannot improve water access throughout the year. It is because of the short duration of rainfall that the CSE argues that cities such as New Delhi have to focus on recharging groundwater aquifers. In other cities where the rainfall is spread across the year, however, “one can depend on a small domestic-sized water tank for storing rainwater, since the period between two spells of rain is short” (CSE 2003: 7).9

Allow me to return to that point, and to restate it: the CSE, in its manual on rainwater harvesting for New Delhi residents, argues that cities such as New Delhi have to focus on recharging groundwater because individual plot sizes are often too small to accommodate the monsoonal deluge. This alone demonstrates that there is some slippage in the rationale of individuals engaging in household-level urban rainwater harvesting. Recall, for instance, that the purported benefit of rainwater harvesting on a 100 m2 rooftop (or plot) was 36,000 litres or double the annual drinking requirement for a family of five. This, in principle, sounds impressive. However, if the CSE is encouraging groundwater recharge instead of underground tank recharge (often referred to as a stump), then this “drinking water” is, in fact, groundwater. While a family that puts water back into the ground might be able to pump it back and purify those 36,000 litres as drinking water at some point, it is also possible that their neighbours can also avail this water, even if they have not put it into the ground themselves. This means that the water supply gains to individual households are not as guaranteed as suggested.

The total water access benefit from urban rainwater harvesting is another key factor that deters some people from building and maintaining rainwater harvesting units. To explain this, let us return to the above-mentioned five-member family with a rainwater harvesting area of 100 m2. According to the CSE, their daily per person water consumption is estimated at 240 litres, which is the average for New Delhi (CSE 2003: 1).10 According to the numbers arrived at earlier, on a per day basis, they can expect to capture roughly 20 litres per person through urban rainwater harvesting. When put in the perspective of their total annual water requirement for drinking and non-drinking purposes, that amount is only 8.3% of the 240 litres that an average New Delhi resident expects to receive. It is hardly surprising why households refrain from maintaining mandatory rainwater harvesting infrastructures when the figures are put in that light. The exception to this, of course, will be the areas that are already water poor. In the southern parts of south Delhi such as Narela and Mehrauli, some neighbourhoods only get 35 litres per capita every day (CSE 2003: 1). It is in these zones where residential rainwater harvesting makes the most sense. The average household benefit of 20 litres per person per day for a 100 m2 area then goes from being 8.3% of the total accustomed supply to 56% of the total accustomed supply.11

Upscale Challenges

While we can look to households to help with rainwater harvesting, municipal and central governments need to do more to expand its use in a concerted way. The pressing need for a comprehensive groundwater recharge—which can be made possible by proper centralised infrastructure—has prompted a representative of the World Wildlife Fund in New Delhi to contend that the real issue is a need for integrated urban infrastructures, which in her opinion requires a level of “good governance” that we do not currently see in the city.12 During our interview on 3 November 2016, she stated that it is impossible to effectively implement rainwater harvesting when the municipality has not addressed the problems of pollution and sewage that are under its purview. In her words, “you cannot have a successful rainwater harvesting system unless you have solid waste management done successfully. So, they are all like dominos—steps which are linked one by one.” Another interlocutor, who has spent decades studying and critiquing government water policies, provided a similar perspective. He stated emphatically, “Let me make one thing clear,” he stated emphatically, “If you talk about water, I promise that I will talk about sanitation. Because you cannot handle water problems without looking at sanitation.” He clasped both hands together to stress how intricately intertwined the issues are while saying, “They are like this.”

Several other respondents agreed on the need for improved sanitation infrastructure as a means of incentivising rainwater harvesting. As an anonymous interlocutor who promotes rainwater harvesting as part of his profession stated in his New Delhi office on 9 November 2016, one of the major challenges is in convincing householders to pay for the cost of rainwater harvesting infrastructures when they do not have adequate space for building a tank or a well to recharge that water in the ground. Since many Delhi residents are aware that the harvested water may end up in storm water drains, and since they know that most of these drains eventually flow untreated into the Yamuna, they often say that the expenditure is unnecessary since the rain will find the city’s river regardless of their actions. In fact, some residents will further point out that the storm water drains are already open-air sewer lines by default. As a result, any rainwater that they intentionally direct into these drains will only hasten the flow of sewerage into the Yamuna.

In our conversations, Hashmi agreed that the central system has to be overhauled and that addressing the use and maintenance of the storm water drains was an important prerequisite for improving the amount and efficiency of rainwater harvesting. He also pointed to what he called a “simple solution” that could utilise the city’s storm water drains and benefit its groundwater recharge. He explained that every road in the city has storm water drains on both sides. “Now what you need to do is, every 200, 300, [or] 500 metres beneath the storm water drains, create a rainwater harvesting mechanism” that allows that water to percolate into the ground. “Then,” he argued, “your stormwater drains, which are all solid concrete now, will become your aquifers. They will gradually begin to replenish the subsoil water ... this is one thing that can be done.” The capture of rainwater run-off from public roads, pavements and plazas is also something that Asim Waqif (2019: 270) contends would significantly improve Delhi’s water management practices.

Hashmi also had suggestions for sewage management, which he pre-empted as an “even simpler” solution. In his opinion, the first point of action is to stop the flow of sewage water that moves through New Delhi’s drains and canals. Pipelines could be laid to “trap all the dirty water” and redirect them into solid waste treatment plants. These plants can then remove all the filth that is flowing through the city’s residential areas. He explained: “Treat the water and then release it into the drains. Eventually, this water will get cleaned up before it reaches the Yamuna. And then you won’t have to clean the Yamuna—the Yamuna will clean itself. Because 60% of the filth that is flowing into the Yamuna is generated by Delhi.” As Hashmi further stated, “We have the technological know-how. We have the manpower. We can do this.”

The problem with this solution, in Hashmi’s opinion, is also its main benefit: “no one gets to make any money” because of its implementation. As someone who has spent years arguing for proactive and simple solutions, he reflected, “I am absolutely convinced that no one is interested in this—in simple solutions. Because simple solutions do not require massive financial outlays. And there are no kickbacks. The budgetary allocations would be so small that nobody would be interested in whatever kickbacks you can get.” The major disincentives for upscaling urban rainwater harvesting, in other words, are the vested economic interests that stand to benefit from the building of large infrastructure projects.

Numerous interlocutors independently came to the conclusion that the management solutions most often enacted are ones that serve narrow economic and political interests. The water experts interviewed, in fact, were never far from veering towards the issue of corruption as soon as questions about the viability of urban rainwater harvesting were asked. These charges of corruption invoked a “malleable and morally charged discursive field” that allowed accusers to do different kinds of political work “at distinct conjunctural moments” (Doshi and Ranganathan 2017: 184).

In the crosshairs of critical commentary about corruption were the engineers, contractors, and politicians who are caught in a web of mutually beneficial economic exchanges (Gupta 2012). Also mentioned were the private water providers—the “water mafia”—who service underserved parts of the city through tankers. According to Yaffa Truelove (2011), some of these privately-owned tankers get their water supplies from the water tankers owned by the municipality, which have been paid off to redirect provisions that are often meant to go to slums and other economically struggling settlements. This example shows that profit-seeking behaviour can prevail even in times of water crisis. Since this behaviour benefits those who are in positions of socio-economic and political power, it is no surprise that inefficient water management and delivery systems are allowed to continue without a significant overhaul. Such observations point to the struggles over capital capture that, counterproductively, make engaging in sustainable urban water harvesting so difficult.

To emphasise the point that the municipality is not fully motivated in the upscaling of urban rainwater harvesting, some interlocutors underscored the fact that an insufficient number of the city’s municipal buildings have implemented this technology, even when government officials vocally express their support for its urgent uptake. An interview with an architect at his New Delhi home on 16 October 2016 was particularly revealing. After 25 minutes of discussion about the usefulness and long-standing histories of rainwater harvesting, he stated emphatically, “I mean, it is a no brainer—we have to do rainwater harvesting.” Despite this need, however, he lamented that the city of New Delhi was looking to build new dams upstream (at places such as Renuka) while, at the same time, not enough was being done to harvest rainwater on the buildings of the municipal water supplier, also known as the Delhi Jal Board. Reflecting on the status of municipal buildings back in 2016, he explained:

Somebody was telling me that they live in some really posh neighbourhood (and) they got a notice from the Delhi Jal Board saying that, “We are going to charge you four times the amount of money that we used to charge because you don’t have rainwater harvesting.” So ... water supply billing is being increased manifold if you don’t have rainwater harvesting. But, the Delhi Jal Board itself is doing hardly any rainwater harvesting; there are only one or two of their campuses where they are doing rainwater harvesting. So, I think (they are) just putting it out and saying, “Everybody else should do it.”

One of the critiques provided by this architect was that the municipal water supplier had mandated residents of housing enclaves in New Delhi to adhere to new rainwater harvesting requirements, while their own buildings did not feature this technology sufficiently. This is illustrative of the government’s priorities, he felt, since the city’s “biggest landowner” was not, to paraphrase a saying, fully “walking the talk.” What this interlocutor ultimately wanted to underscore is that it does not make sense that the Delhi Jal Board has devised a strategy to penalise residents for not installing rainwater harvesting units while not doing everything in their capacity to follow their own recommendations. Such statements also bolster the argument that even modest efforts to promote urban rainwater harvesting are mired in politico-economic factors that deter sound water management practices in New Delhi.

Concluding Remarks

The issues and perspectives itemised demonstrate that the problem of water stress in a city of over 18 million people is as much an issue of economic and political power as it is one of actual resource scarcity. At stake is the power to decide how water is managed and how water is valued as a commodity rather than as a public good (Maria 2008). Also at stake is the power to determine who receives more water than others and at what cost (Gandy 2008; Swyngedouw 2009). At the top of the resource use power structure—and in descending order—are the politicians, municipal employees, engineers, contractors, and private water suppliers. Each of these groups plays a role in stalling, derailing, or misguiding the efficient and equitable management of water resources based on narrow institutional, and sometimes even personal, interests. It is in this way that the complicated, unruly, and unjust water landscape of New Delhi continues to be mired in money and politics, despite the potential for upscaling proactive solutions such as rainwater harvesting. In this money-driven political landscape, rainwater harvesting units (and their absence) serve as infrastructural sites in which water management is a visible hallmark of power relations (Mathew 1997).

In addition to observations of political inertia, the data also demonstrates the pragmatic complexities of downscaling and upscaling urban rainwater harvesting in New Delhi. The perspectives of interlocutors also indicate that revised approaches could significantly improve the overall efficiency of resource management. A proactive approach is needed because, as Saif Said (2014: 145) notes, based on a 2014 study, rainwater harvesting “can prove to be an enormous supplement to our existing resources if it is utilised wisely and judiciously.” This is particularly true, he goes on to note, if every individual were to engage in demand reduction by curtailing their water usage by “at least 20%” per day.

Other experts agree that rainwater harvesting is an important part of an efficient water management approach, despite the challenges of its implementation and maintenance. As Aditya Sharma, co-founder of an initiative called RAIN Water, states: “Rain water harvesting is not a remedy to the problem, but a kind of insurance. We need to insure against some degree of water scarcity” (Zee News 2015). According to such perspectives, urban rainwater harvesting is a useful and necessary means of improving water supply and water resource access in cities such as New Delhi. As such, it deserves to be integrated into government approaches to water management to a greater degree.

Despite the promise of rainwater harvesting, the data also indicates that the simplest means of doing this is for the municipality and the central government to focus on improving centralised infrastructures. The conversion of storm water drains into groundwater recharge infrastructure, for instance, could do more to improve the aggregate amount of water available in the ground—and it can do it faster and more efficiently—than getting individuals and households to retrofit their residences for the same purpose. This means that the urban (rain)water revolution has a better chance if it receives improved centralised treatment than with successful downscaling. The challenges of downscaling are particularly robust given that small household rainwater harvesting systems lack sufficient storage and they require consistent maintenance to stay effective. Centralised infrastructure, by contrast, covers a vast amount of area within New Delhi and it can be maintained by paid staff members who receive the training needed to keep the systems running properly. The resulting transformation of water management would allow India’s capital to supplement the water that it draws in from other regions and water basins. If done correctly, Delhi’s “day zero” may be avoided.


1 The Goyder Institute, for instance, uses the word “downscale” to discuss interventions that happen at a local scale. See .

2 For four years within that window of time from around 2004 to 2018, the author served as an affiliate with several New Delhi based non-governmental organisations and academic institutions working on issues of water rights and sustainable water management. Although never officially affiliated with the Centre for Science and Environment, her thinking on the potential of rainwater harvesting for improving water access in Indian cities was highly influenced by a week-long course on urban rainwater harvesting for water professionals that she took with the CSE in the summer of 2009.

3 Media and government reports in 2016–17 often cited the population as 18 million residents as per Joshi (2016) when discussing water demands. But, reports such as the ones by the United Nations claim that, perhaps as early as 2014, New Delhi had 25 million inhabitants. The same report estimated that the city will have a population of 36 million by 2030. See

4 This booklet was in addition to other important texts published by the CSE in 1997 and 2001.

5 According to one source, for instance, in 2009, the Central Ground Water Authority, a body under the Ministry of Water Resources, “sounded an alarm” to call upon all federal states to adopt rooftop rainwater harvesting systems in government institutions. Yet by 2015, the implementation process in New Delhi was “still restricted” to only a few institutions. Zee News (2015) noted that even in the private sphere, only a few resident welfare associations in New Delhi have made good use of the technology, “leaving most citizens unaware of the veracity of depleting surface water resource.”

6 The awards are showcases to demonstrate how rainwater harvesting can be successfully implemented in a range of contexts. In 2009, while enrolled in the aforementioned urban rainwater harvesting training course through the CSE, the author visited the two institutions that won the award in 2007. She also visited the home of one of the households that won the award in that same year. The institutions were awarded ₹1,00,000 each and the households were awarded ₹50,000.

7 This policy approach builds upon the precedent set by the city of Chennai, a prominent example of centrally mandated rainwater harvesting. However, work by Arabindoo (2011) and others indicates that uptake and upscaling problems persist in cities such as Chennai despite significant policy revisions and despite some initial improvements in the groundwater levels attributed to the rainwater harvesting projects. In 2017, Chennai underwent yet another “water crisis” due to interstate water disputes, low reservoir levels, and the over-extraction of groundwater (Thirumurthy 2017).

8 Even though the British built near the Yamuna, they also “turned away” from it. This, says Amita Baviskar (2011: 52), has had significant consequences for the river’s continued neglect as well as the “fluctuating fortunes” of Delhi’s urban ecology.

9 Due to relatively consistent rains throughout the year, the CSE’s report (2003) cites urban centres in Kerala and Mizoram as good candidates for year-round efforts to harvest water via modest storage tanks, as opposed to groundwater recharge.

10 This average quantum of per day water use is among the highest in India.

11 Another implication is that extremely low-income residential areas, including what are known as “slums,” could greatly benefit from rainwater harvesting (assuming proper installation and regular maintenance is done). This is particularly true for slums that do not receive municipal water supplies.

12 Other than Hashmi, who writes on the topics presented in this article, the names of key interlocutors have been blinded in the interest of their privacy.


Agrawal, Arun and Elinor Ostrom (2001): “Collective Action, Property Rights, and Decentralisation in Resource Use in India and Nepal,” Politics & Society, Vol 29, No 4, pp 485–514.

Arabindoo, Pushpa (2011): “Mobilising for Water: Hydro-politics of Rainwater Harvesting in Chennai,” International Journal of Urban Sustainable Development, Vol 3, No 1, pp 106–26.

Bakker, Karen (2012): “Water Security: Research Challenges and Opportunities,” Science, Vol 337, pp 914–15.

Baviskar, Amita (2011): “What the Eye Does Not See: The Yamuna in the Imagination of Delhi,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 46, No 50,
pp 45–53.

CSE (1997): Dying Wisdom: Rise, Fall, and Potential of India’s Traditional Rainwater Harvesting Systems, New Delhi: Centre for Science and Environment.

— (2001): Making Water Everyone’s Business: Practice and Policy of Rainwater Harvesting, New Delhi: Centre for Science and Environment.

— (2003): A Water Harvesting Manual for Urban Areas: Case Studies from CSE, New Delhi: Centre for Science and Environment.

Chellaney, Brahma (2013): Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis, New Delhi: Rowman & Littlefield.

Doshi, Sapana and Malini Ranganathan (2017): “Contesting the Unethical City: Land Dispossession and Corruption Narratives in Urban India,” Annals of the American Association of Geographers, Vol 107, No 1, pp 183–99.

Donahue, John and Barbara Rose Johnston (eds) (1998): Water, Culture and Power: Local Struggles in a Global Context, Washington, DC: Island Press.

Gandy, Mathew (2008): “Landscapes of Disaster: Water, Modernity, and Urban Fragmentation in Mumbai,” Environment and Planning A, Vol 40, No 1, pp 108–30.

Gupta, Akhil (2012): Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence and Poverty in India, Durham: Duke University Press.

Halder, Ritam (2017): “Haryana Sending Less Water to Capital, Delhi May Face Major Supply Woes,” Hindustan Times, 12 July,

Hindu (2007): “Rainwater Harvester Awards Presented,” 3 February, 14715361.ece.

— (2015): “Delhi Must Harvest Rainwater,” 2 March,

Iyer, Ramaswamy R (2003): Water: Perspectives, Issues, Concerns, New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Johnston, Barbara Rose (2005): “The Commodification of Water and the Human Dimensions of Manufactured Scarcity,” Globalisation, Water, and Health: Resource Management in Times of Scarcity, Linda Whiteford and Scott Whiteford (eds), Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press, pp 133–52.

Joshi, Mallica (2016): “Why New Delhi Can Never Be Self-reliant in Water,” Hindustan Times, 27 February, /delhi-news/why-delhi-can-never-be-self-reliant-in-water/story-m0GjHufZsb7ptYRmr

Kalia, D (1997): “Delhi: The Murder of a River,” Dying Wisdom: Rise, Fall, and Potential of India’s Traditional Water Harvesting Systems, A Agarwal and S Narain (eds), New Delhi: Centre for Science and Environment.

Kumar, Dinesh M (2014): Thirsty Cities: How Indian Cities Can Meet Their Water Needs, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Lort, J E (1995): Curious Seen: Baolis of the Delhi Sultanate, Diss, Department of History in Art, University of Victoria.

Maria, Augustin (2008): “Urban Water Crisis in Delhi: Stakeholders Responses and Potential Scenarios of Evolution,” Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations,

Mathew, Hannah (1997): “Space and the Structuring of Disciplinary Power: An Interpretative Review,” Geografiska Annaler, Vol 79B, No 3, pp 171–80.

Mehta, Lyla (2005): The Politics and Poetics of Water: Naturalising Scarcity in Western India, New Delhi: Orient Longman.

MoWR (2012): “National Water Policy,” Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India,

Mishra, Anupam (2001): The Radiant Raindrops of Rajasthan, New Delhi: Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology.

NITI Aayog (2018): “Composite Water Management Index: A National Tool for Water Measurement, Management, and Improvement,”

Planning Department (2006): “Evaluation Study of the Scheme of Rainwater Harvesting,” Delhi Secretariat,

Press Trust of India (2012): “Delhi-Haryana Water War Intensifies; Chief Ministers to Meet Today,” NDTV, 18 June,

— (2016): “Delhi, Haryana Water War: Construct Your Own Canal to Carry Water, O P Dhankar Tells Arvind Kejriwal,”, 18 March,

Rai, Suresh Chand (2011): “Water Management for a Megacity: National Capital Territory of Delhi,” Water Resource Management, Vol 25, No 9, pp 2267–78.

Said, Saif (2014): “Assessment of Roof-top Water Harvesting Potential in South Delhi, India: A Case Study,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Development, Vol 4, No 2, pp 141–46.

Swyngedouw, Erik (2009): “The Political Economy and Political Ecology of the Hydro-Social Cycle,” Journal of Contemporary Water Research and Education, Vol 142, No 1, pp 56–60.

Thirumurthy, Priyanka (2017): “Chennai Water Crisis: It Is Time You Know What is Happening,” Quint, 4 July,

Truelove, Yaffa (2011): “(Re-)Conceptualising Water Inequality in Delhi, India through a Feminist Political Ecology Framework,” Geoforum, Vol 42, No 2, pp 143–52.

Waqif, Asim (2019): “From Bundhi to Delhi: Water Harnessing Systems in Semiarid Regions, Water Histories of South Asia,” Water Histories of South Asia: The Materiality of Liquescence, Sugata Ray and Venugopal Maddipati (eds), New York: Routledge, pp 260–75.

Welch, Anthony (2008): “The Emperor’s Grief: Two Mughal Tombs,” Frontiers of Islamic Art and Architecture: Essays in Celebration of Oleg Grabar’s Eightieth Birthday, Gülru Necipoğlu and Julia Bailey (eds), Leiden: Brill, pp 255–74.

Westcoat, James L (2014): “Conserving Urban Water Heritage in Multicentered Regions: An Historical-Geographic Approach to Early Modern Delhi,” Change Over Time, Vol 4, No 1,
pp 142–66.

Wutich, Amber and Alexandra Brewis (2014): “Food, Water and Scarcity: Toward a Broader Anthropology of Resource Insecurity,” Current Anthropology, Vol 55, No 44, pp 444–68.

Zee News (2015): “Rooftop Rainwater Harvesting Can End Delhi’s Water Crisis,” 5 July, 80%99s-water-crisis_1608032.html.

Updated On : 29th Oct, 2019


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top