Delhi’s Dark Waters

Text and video by Alex Stonehill with reporting by Ernest Waititu, for the Pulitzer Center

Like many world cities, Delhi was born on the banks of a river. The Yamuna, a tributary of the Ganges, originates in the pristine foothills of the Himalayas, and flows south through farmlands until it feeds into the Indian capitol city.

But as Delhi's population has exploded – increasing sevenfold in the last 50 years, the river has become little more than a massive sewer, sucked dry of its clean water just as it enters the city, and filled back up with mostly untreated waste water just a few hundred meters later.

The scene on the banks of the Yamuna, near the Waziribad Bridge, is one of tragic irony. Hindu worshipers, who believe it is holy, "wash" themselves in water that has officially been declared unfit for human or animal contact, while destitute migrants sift through garbage and religious offerings that have been dumped into the river, in search of anything of value that they can resell.

Finding your way to the river isn't hard: you catch a sulfurous scent in the air, and follow one of hundreds of open drains – slow moving streams of dark gray water flanked by mountains of garbage – which join together like capillaries, building size and speed until they finally pour into the river itself.

But finding a place to cast blame for Yamuna's dismal state isn't so easy.

Watching city residents pull their cars over on the bridge to gleefully hurl waste into the river, I wondered if it was a simple issue of awareness. But back in my air conditioned hotel room, I couldn't come up with a waste disposal solution other than flushing a toilet that I now knew would probably bypass one of Delhi's 17 overburdened treatment plants and pour my own personal contribution directly into the river.

The simplest conclusion is that the Delhi government is asleep at the wheel – neglecting the public health needs of their citizens and failing to sufficiently invest in waste management infrastructure. But that same government has miraculously outdone America's most eco-friendly cities in the last few years, successfully implementing bans on both public smoking and plastic bags.

Sitting down at the desk of one of the Delhi Water Board's head engineers, I got an earful on interceptor sewers, expanded treatment capacities, "action plans" and the $500 million that has already been spent toward cleaning the river. But 30 to 40 percent of the city – mostly slum areas - still isn't served by the sewer system. At the current rate of expansion, he says optimistically, all of these unserved areas will have been reached in a few short decades.

By which point, I shudder to calculate, if current growth rates continue, Delhi's population will have swelled from the currently unmanageable 17 million, to an impossible 63 million. And if trends continue, most of these new residents will live in this same kind of unplanned settlements that already sprawl across the city and dump their waste directly into the river.

This reminds me of something I heard a few days earlier from Dr. Bindeswar Pathak, founder of Delhi's own Sulabh Toilet Museum, and inventor of the Sulabh Two Pit Toilet. He told me that India was home to the world's third modern municipal sewer system – built by the British Raj in Calcutta just a few years after sewers were first built in London and New York.

If India has been struggling to build infrastructure that can keep up with population growth and urbanization, maybe this isn't a simple question of "development" -- where third world cities like Delhi just need to follow down the same righteous path of America and Europe until they eventually reach modernity.

Given the water shortages projected around the world in coming years, it's much easier to believe that the future cities of the West will look like Delhi does now, rather than the other way around. And the alternatives that organizations like Sulabh are developing to deal with the problems Indian cities face today may turn out to be solutions for the entire world of tomorrow.