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Delhi’s drainage system collapses ahead of monsoon

Neither any action has been taken on the integrated drainage management system since the year 1995. Nor, any major modelling/remodelling/extension of drains has been done post-1995, even as the population of the Capital trebled during this period.

By Jyotsna Richhariya
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A road after rain in Okhla Vihar, New Delhi

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With recent monsoon respite for residents from Delhi’s heatwave and water crisis, it is important to look into the city's monsoon preparedness. Sheikh Abulais, a resident of Jamia Nagar, talked about drainage overflow, the risk of accidents and the day's effect on life during monsoons every year.

“It is just two days of rain and we already have water-blocked streets. Even if it rains for 15 minutes, the streets are full of water,” he said.

On the bank of the Yamuna river, minutes from the borders to Noida and Faridabad, there are many residential colonies, such as Zakir Nagar, Batla House, Abul Fazal Enclave, Okhla Head, Jamia Nagar, Okhla Vihar, Johri Farm and Ghaffar Manzil.  These are crowded, highly populated, confined places with pockets of comparatively middle-class neighbourhoods. They frequently lack access to electricity and potable water, as well as are vulnerable to flooding.

“The front narrow street was completely submerged in water last year, so my family and I were indoors for four to five days,” Abulais added.

The poor roads with potholes, water-filled, pose a risk every monsoon. Abulais also shared about his recent accident as his bike slipped due to the potholes and excessive water on the streets. 

In January, the Delhi High Court noted the complete collapse of the drainage system in the city,

"The drainage system is in a very bad state of affairs. It had totally collapsed. Do we have a drainage system in Delhi or we don't have it? It is absolutely pathetic. Look at the new areas which have been set up. The new construction gets flooded today. Who has constructed it? In today's times it gets flooded when we have so many technologies," a bench of Acting Chief Justice Manmohan and Justice Manmeet PS Arora said, mentioning an underpass close to Bharat Mandapam.

The pot-holes filled with rain water in Okhla, New Delhi.

According to Depindra Kapur, Head-Water Program, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), Delhi has no systematic drainage plan. Eventually, the sewer system turns into a drainage system every year.

“In Delhi, stormwater is directed majorly to the sewers due to the lack of drainage system. People in congested areas are then forced to open up the sewer lines to get rid of the water,” Kapur told Ground Report.

Sangam Vihar, an unplanned settlement

A study by CSE on Sangam Vihar explores water supply, sanitation and stormwater situation in unplanned settlements. It observed that non-sewered sanitation systems of sealed underground septage tanks exist in almost every property (approx. 60,000 properties). The majority of these tanks are perforated at the bottom, leading to seepage of septage and groundwater pollution. The research has identified that more than 200 kilolitres a day (KLD) of septage desludging happens every day in Sangam Vihar. Half of this amount is dumped into the sewage pumping station in Dakshinpuri and carried forward for co-treatment at the Sarita Vihar sewage treatment plant (STP). The rest is dumped indiscriminately on the corners of the roads.

Delhi Jal Board is implementing a sewerage network in Sangam Vihar. Nearly half of the area now has sewers laid out. However, the network is yet to be operational.

Water-logging in the city

Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav blamed the waterlogging in Delhi last week on clogged drains and chastised the Delhi government for failing to act despite repeated warnings.

Habiba Mohammad, a resident of Batla House, talks about negligence and overflowing drains in her area. It’s an everyday tussle to go to work through a muddy and water-logged road.

“As many years as I can remember this water-logging issue has not been solved and people in congested areas like these are forced to adapt to this situation of negligence,” she said.

Lalit Sharma, a water management expert from the Sehgal Foundation argues that the issue of water logging is caused due to three main reasons:

  • Structural failure with not enough drains in the city.

  • Lack of regular maintenance of existing drains, often overflowing even in non-monsoon seasons.

  • These drains are occupied for other purposes.

MCD has already breached its June 15th deadline for desilting the major drains. As of June 20th, MCD has completed the desilting of 250 out of 713 drains–more than 4 ft deep– with work still in progress at 434 locations. The deadline was further extended to June 30th. Despite this, more than half of the work remains to be completed.

One main reason for the lack of regular maintenance cited by Mr Sharma was the multiple ownership and coordination for the management of the existing drains.

Lack of coordination between authorities

Between many departments and agencies, there is a complete absence of cooperation. A mechanism to address the same with a unified command at an appropriate level of seniority, that can ensure interdepartmental / agency and inter-government coordination seamlessly, is the need of the hour, observed Delhi High Court.

Further, there are twenty-two (22) open drains which are out-falling in river Yamuna.

“It is a complete lack of political will and poor coordination, with no effective planning to solve the problem. One day we will discuss the water crisis and next, the concern is about flooding.” added Kapur.

Neither any action has been taken on the integrated drainage management system since the year 1995. Nor, any major modelling/remodelling/extension of drains has been done post-1995, even as the population of the Capital trebled during this period. A Drainage Master Plan prepared by IIT-Delhi over six years in 2018, has not been acted upon by GNCTD to date. In 2021, a technical expert committee which was set up by the Delhi government in 2011 said the drainage plan is “not worth considerable for recommendation” and might not be cleared. The plan earlier was commissioned by the government itself. Currently, there is no update on whether the Delhi government has rejected it.

Meanwhile, the rainwater that logs the drains can be utilised for the rejuvenation of water bodies and other purposes with an efficient system at work.

Water bodies, rejuvenation, and rainwater harvesting

The utilisation of rainwater in the city demands attention. Experts believe planning is needed in multiple domains (including management, maintenance and mobilisation) to solve water-logging problems and also channel the water effectively. According to the city government’s water supply department, namely Delhi Jal Board (DJB), daily water demand is about 1,150 million gallons per day (mgd), whereas 935 mgd of water is supplied. In the prevailing conditions, many residents of Delhi, particularly those living in informal areas, do not have adequate access to drinking water.

“We can direct the rainwater to rejuvenate the water bodies and water conservation. But, right now all the city focuses on is to just get the water out of the roads,” said Kapur.

The Delhi government has been focusing on the restoration and rejuvenation of the water bodies in the city, but there are delays and lack of clarity in the process. The Delhi Wetland Authority works to identify the water bodies to safeguard them. There are 1,367 water bodies (1,045 listed water bodies and 322 other water bodies identified through satellite imagery). Out of which, ground truthing has been completed for 344 water bodies. In addition, 272 water bodies have been restored, work is in progress for 72 others. Many water bodies, out of 1045 listed water bodies, do not exist on the ground as of this date.  The court directed geo-tagging and geo-referencing for ground truthing of the remaining 1023 water bodies to be completed by 15th May 2024. However, the work remains pending.

Water filled on the roads of Jamia Nagar, New Delhi

The Unified Building Bye Laws 2016 for Delhi make it mandatory to provide for Rainwater Harvesting System (“RWH”) for new constructions above 105 sq. m. plot area for inclusive and sustainable green urban development. However, the RWH system is yet to be installed at 1,362 government buildings. The Chief Secretary, Government of NCT of Delhi (“GNCTD”) acknowledged the necessity of building suitable Rain Water Harvesting Structures (RWHS) to collect rainwater. This includes building check dams, water harvesting pits, rooftop RWHS, and other structures; clearing out obstructions in the channels that carry water from the catchment areas; repurposing abandoned and unused water bodies to replenish their capacity; and involving the public in these efforts.

Another key cause is the long-pending 'Drainage Master Plan', which has yet to be executed due to several issues, including the initial plan being rejected and a low response to tenders.

What can be done?

“We should focus on treating water instead of flushing it down into the Yamuna, it requires a systematic action plan,” added Kapur.

Lalit Sharma suggests that water should be disposed of in a nearby open place/pond for unplanned settlements. This can help against water logging and, at the same time, recharge the groundwater. Regular cleaning of the drains and distilling process will allow full utilisation of the existing drains. Proper sloping towards drains, removal of encroachment near floodplains and an action plan as also mentioned by the court are other essential measures.

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