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A bird’s-eye view of Guwahati, a sprawling city located beside river Brahmaputra in Assam
A bird’s-eye view of Guwahati, a sprawling city located beside river Brahmaputra in Assam|EastMojo image
DOCUMENTARY

Brahmaputra’s dry city: Why Guwahati faces crippling water crisis

With depts concerned failing to deliver the ambitious Greater Guwahati Water Supply Project, residents continue to fight for every drop of water, year after year

Sandeep Borah

Sandeep Borah

Kalyan Deb

Guwahati: Guwahati -- a sprawling city located right beside river Brahmaputra -- reels under floods almost three times a year. Yet, it also battles an acute water crisis. If this isn’t cruel irony, what is?

However, unlike the floods, the water shortage is apparently man-made.

Despite receiving an average rainfall of 1,722 mm per year -- which is equivalent to 5,64,816 million litres of water, enough to serve 37,65, 440 people -- residents of the city struggle each day to access their share of water. The sight of people lining up near community water taps or pumping tubewells is very common in the city.

A dimming ray of hope

People of Guwahati rejoiced when the ambitious Greater Guwahati Water Supply Project was sanctioned in 2009 -- announced at a cost of Rs 389.53 crore. After years of initiation, in which roads across the city were excavated to lay water pipelines, officials now say that the completion date of the project has been pushed to 2022. However, representatives of the departments concerned refuse to go on record to mention the exact date when people of Guwahati will actually get running water at their homes.

Divided into four sections covering four water supply schemes -- Guwahati South West project, Guwahati South Central project, Guwahati South East project and Northern Guwahati Water Supply Project -- the master project claims to provide 433 million litres of water a day, once completed.

A water treatment plant constructed near Pandu area as part of the Greater Guwahati Water Supply Project
A water treatment plant constructed near Pandu area as part of the Greater Guwahati Water Supply Project
EastMojo image

While the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) funded the 37 MLD (million litres per day) North Guwahati and the 191 MLD Guwahati South Central projects, the 107 MLD South West Guwahati project is funded by Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) and the 98 MLD South East Guwahati project is funded by Asian Development Bank (ADB). After completion, the project will be taken over by the Jal Board.

Implementation began in 2013 and ever since, the project has missed several deadlines starting from April 2015. The completion dates shifted on several occasions and the project has failed to see the light of the day till date. In 2018, Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal instructed the departments concerned to complete the project by October 2019.

  • Greater Guwahati Water Supply Project started in 2009
  • Project implementation began in 2013
  • Cost of the project when announced was Rs 389.53 crore
  • The current estimate of the project has now gone up to Rs 1426 crore.
  • Partial commencement of the project to be done by November 2019
  • Estimated completion of a project by 2022

While terming the project as an inherent headache, Guwahati Development Department minister Siddhartha Bhattacharya mentioned that the project will be partially commenced by November this year.

“We have completed the first phase of the West Guwahati Project. The treated water from there can cater to more than its requirement so we have built a pipeline through which water will be brought to the Kharguli reservoir. The pipeline network is more or less in place and we have already asked the people to apply for connections. Hopefully, we will be able to inaugurate the project by November and complete the remainder of the project in a phased manner,” the minister told EastMojo.

Story off the record

Over the years, several factors have acted upon for delay in the completion of the project. It was also provided an extension by JICA till 2022 due to the expiry of the term of fund agreement.

“Several factors that have not been considered in the project implementation book, appeared once the groundwork of the project was initiated. Factors such as seasonal work, non-availability of labours on festive seasons, restraints faced during pipeline laying process, companies signed with for pipeline supply going in liquidation and finally terminated have added to the multiple delays in the progress of the water supply project,” mentioned an official of Jal Board on condition of anonymity.

Heavy downpour during monsoons also played spoilsport, the source added.

Pointing out to restraints that are being faced on the ground, the official said that Guwahati being a city with challenging demography and terrains, pipeline cannot be installed at one attempt and alternate ways were needed to be undertaken in order to address such problems consuming large sums of money and time adding on to further delay.

It was also informed that many of the companies signed up to supply pipelines went to liquidation and later got terminated. In the process, huge sums of money, water pipes and other materials required for construction were engaged from the local contractors. However, advertisements for tender of new companies have already been floated and the signing of new companies is underway.

“The pipe-laying work has been stalled since we terminated the concerned contractor, IVRCL, which is based out of Hyderabad, due to non-performance”, the official said informing that as a part of the commissioning, the department has covered nearly 60 and 150 households in Kharghuli and Pandu, respectively, and water is supplied to those households.

So far, nearly 60% of the work has been completed in the North Guwahati region under the JICA-assisted project. Nearly 70% of the pipe-laying work in the South Central Guwahati Metropolitan Area (GMA) including Chandmari, Zoo Road and Kharghuli have been completed so far under the project. However, the locations with drains, hard rocks and other gaps are yet to be connected with water-supply pipes.

No efforts spared

The multiple delays have only added to the struggles of the people. While some are dependent upon groundwater, there are many who have to buy their share of water giving a significant rise to an illegal water supply syndicate.

“I had filed an RTI with GMC where it was replied that no permission has been issued to install commercial bore wells. Installing bore wells does not require permission and there is no such scheme from the government. The reason I filed the RTI because several vehicles can be seen that sell water. Since no such permission is provided, so in 2014 I had filed cases in several police stations across Guwahati following which several such vehicles were seized that were selling water,” said Dulal Bora, an RTI activist.

A vehicle selling groundwater plying on the streets of Guwahati
A vehicle selling groundwater plying on the streets of Guwahati
EastMojo image

Residents either resort to illegal tankers that sell 1,000 litres of water for Rs 250 to Rs 300 or dig borewells that cost upwards of Rs 5 lakh depending on the depth of the water table.

“We have to buy water on a regular basis. The water supply is not adequate and there are days when they don’t even provide water. We have to be very calculative with the water as it costs Rs 300 for 1000 litres and when it rains, we try to collect the rainwater which we use for household chores,” said Nilima Deka, a resident of Swaraj Nagar in Dispur.

Meanwhile, residents of Maligaon, who are also affected by the scarcity of water, have come up with a unique technique to filter groundwater due to high iron content. The RCC water tanks here have a layer of stones, charcoal and sand to filter the iron out.

“The richer people have installed borewells or placed iron filters but those belonging to poorer sections are facing a lot of problems. Even if they are consuming iron-filled water there are a lot of difficulties. Cleaning the tank also comes with a cost. We have to buy charcoal worth Rs 600, we need to pull the water to over three-storeys, man-power of around four to five people, the wage of each person is around Rs 750. Cleaning the tank costs around Rs 4,000 to 5,000. The material that we use while constructing can’t be used again,” said Shankar Das, plumber and resident of Padumbari near Maligaon.

The struggles of the residents do not end with the filtering of water as they have to then store their share of drinking water.

“We have to store the filtered water in a large container and we use it only to drink which is not adequate enough for the entire day. We have to repeatedly filter the water. They say that water is life and even science teaches us to drink purified water but till date we did not access to purified water. It is very unfortunate for us that the Brahmaputra is flowing right beside us but till date the people of Guwahati have not been able to access purified water,” said Manoj Das, area member, Ward number 1, Maligaon.

Sluggish state of existing projects

The scarcity exists despite the existence of three water supply projects where water is provided by Guwahati Municipal Corporation, Urban Water Supply and Sewage Board and Public Health Engineering. Of the three, only Guwahati Municipal Corporation and Urban Water Supply and Sewage Board provide water to households whereas Public Health Engineering caters to the water requirement of government institutions. Guwahati Municipal Corporation covers most areas in East and West Guwahati, Central Guwahati is provided by Urban Water Supply and Sewage Board which are languishing as they GMC provides 45 MLD (million litres per day) out of its installed capacity of 74 MLD whereas Urban Water Supply provides 6 MLD out of its capacity of 12.3 MLD and this has been the state for several years now.

  • Only 3.75 lakh out of 9.57 lakh people in Guwahati have access to water supply
  • Guwahati Municipal Corporation supplies 45 MLD water against its capacity of 74 MLD
  • Urban Water Supply and Sewage Board provides 6 MLD against its capacity of 12.3 MLD

The dilapidated condition of water pumps and worn-out machinery have irked the people of Guwahati as the wait for running water still continues. People now question the government’s intentions about delivering a solution to the problem.

“If the government wants, they facilitate us but why have they not done anything? Or have the people not complained enough? Have they not seen how much water we are getting? They can only see our apathies when they come to ask for votes but can’t they see our condition after the elections are over?” said Amiya Saikia, a resident of Swaraj Nagar in Dispur.

“Despite being situated on the banks of Brahmaputra; the people of Guwahati have not been able to use its water. This is because of the lack of goodwill in the government. The issue is being kept alive just like issues regarding terrorism because if solved, the government will have no agenda while asking for votes,” said RTI activist Bora.