The Merchants of Thirst – The New York Times

In fact, the state’s disregard for the water sector is so pronounced that the poor quality of tanker water is as much a consequence of shoddy or nonexistent regulation as opportunism. The state implemented a color-coded sticker system to gauge tanker water in 2012 — green for drinkable water, blue for household use, yellow for construction-quality — but years on it still isn’t properly enforced. Kathmandu Valley Water Supply Management Board says it lacks the resources to monitor more than three days a week; the tanker men say officials don’t care as long as their pockets are lined. No one disagrees that it’s a mess.

As chairman of the largest water tanker association, Pradeep Prasad Pathak is charged with defending business interests, a task that he said is getting trickier as the state falls back on “divide and rule” tactics by playing off tanker men against one another. “The government has never felt responsible for supplying water to the people. It’s always the case in cities like Kathmandu that people like us do their job for them,” he said. Some tanker men lack the education to differentiate between good water and bad, he acknowledged, which is precisely why the industry needs to be regulated. “We’re not heroes. We need some controls as well.”

For the time being, neither the state nor most tankers have much inclination to change their ways. Circumstances might soon force their hand, though. Demand for water is growing so swiftly that tanker operators can’t meet all orders in the dry season, no matter how much they hike their prices. “Every year, more people come to us, which is great,” said Maheswar Dahal, the Jorpati tanker man. “But in the winter, we have to tell them, ‘it might take five days,’ or sometimes we just have to say ‘no.’” In times of scarcity, it’s the best customers, generally the rich, who get priority from the pipeline and tanker operators alike.

Supply is also shrinking, in part because authorities are mishandling growth that in Kathmandu, as in most South Asian cities, is far outpacing that of the region at large. In addition to the tankers’ over-exploitation of boreholes, the city is eating into its remaining forests, which feed the springs, while also sprawling over aquifer recharge areas. For much of the rainy season and the months that follow, many households use hand pumps to extract from the shallow aquifers under their properties and provide for at least some of their needs, but the more the valley is tarmacked over the less the groundwater is replenished. Climate change, in turn, is making the rains more erratic, which limits rooftop rainwater harvesting, and fuels floods that contaminate some aquifers.

And as this gap between supply and demand widens, the public is beginning to lash out. Residents of water-impoverished districts have assaulted water officials when they venture into their areas. Water tankers have been attacked when they have gone on strike, and people are increasingly fighting each other as water becomes scarcer and more expensive. Though many Kathmandu area farmers welcome tanker men and often make more from leasing wells than growing crops, increasing numbers of their peers in India and elsewhere are butting heads with businessmen whom they accuse of drilling them dry. “We get no water from the pipelines, less water from our well, and we can’t afford tanker water. Of course we’re angry!” said Anjali Tamang, a student, as she picnicked with friends along the Bagmati.

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