What is the best way to use a natural resource that seems inexhaustible but is not? There is a vast range between profligacy and austerity, but conservation is perhaps the key word. In this context, as one compares the approach to water use in California’s Santa Clara (Silicon) Valley and in Delhi, one realises that God made man equal, but science, education, and the ability to organise society made him rapidly unequal.

While speculating about the future, war-aficionados and writers of fiction (we include economists in this category) fear wars over water. There is reason for this. A United Nations report on water says if everyone in the world lived by European or American standards, the planet would need three-and-a-half earths to provide sufficient water. Unlike solar energy, renewed every day, water is a closed loop, cycled from the oceans to the landmasses.

The total quantity is estimated at 1,386 million cubic kilometres (cubic km). Of this, only 2.6 per cent or 27.72 million cubic km is fresh. The knot for terrestrial life forms tightens further as they have only 9,000 cubic km. To make this picture more graphic, think of a sheet of water, a little less than a metre high, spread over the entire United States of America (area 9.8 million square kilometres), just six per cent of the earth’s land surface.

For some parts of the globe, this is a precariously small amount. Central and southern California falls within those parts. The region gets 55 per cent of the 180 centimetres annual rainfall in Chennai, a city notoriously short of water.

But this is only part of the story. If you have an integrated water management plan that combines surface—glaciers, rivers, lakes and ponds—and underground aquifers, low rainfall can be managed well. The way to comfort lies in the responsibility each member of a community accepts for using this resource judiciously.

Treated sewage is one of the components. So far, California—and other parts of the world—uses it for irrigation, landscapes and gardens, and flushing toilets. In some areas, Orange County in California for instance, it recharges aquifers. In other areas, it is discharged into the upper reaches of rivers to mix with the flow and gain quality before it is picked up downstream. The Thames and the Mississippi, which are clean, are recycled many times. The Ganga is not, as effluents keep getting added without treatment.

Human action now plays a huge role in determining the ratio between potable and contaminated water. Santa Clara is exemplary in this respect.

But where does the most developed city in India, the National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi, stand in comparison with the most advanced region in the US? Can an area with a population of 1.8 million be compared with a megapolis of 20 million?

But the exercise is limited to the litres of water available per head in both places and this figure is not so different.

Santa Clara is a synergetic and scientifically-advanced community: racially assorted and ethnically heterogeneous with diverse nationalities. Delhi, too, is heterogeneous: a mixed bag as a result of the huge migration from rural areas, largely from the east but also from the west and the south. It is representative of the wide linguistic and ethnic diversities of India.

However, it can hardly be called synergetic, as the Oxford Dictionary defines this as “the interaction or cooperation of two or more organisations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects”.

Being largely first-generation urban, it could be described as disruptive of the kind of rationality that would optimise water use to yield an effect greater than the supply of 3,790 MLD (million litres per day) by the Delhi Jal Board (DJB). Going by this figure, per capita supply is about 190 litres per person per day (LPCD) for 20 million people.

In addition, there is groundwater and that has its own effects on the quantity of waste water and its treatment. According to some estimates, this is as high as 1,972 MLD. Therefore, the total waste water, which is estimated at 80 per cent of supply, could be between 4,000 and 4,426 MLD or 235 LPCD.

Compare this to Santa Clara Valley Water (SCVW) District’s 1,169 MLD or 649 LPCD for its 1.8 million people. But only 49 per cent is used by the domestic sector, which comes to 318 LPCD. Considering that 80 per cent of Delhi’s demand is also domestic, Santa Clara provides about 40 per cent more to its people.

In both places, about 80 per cent of the water flows into sewers as waste. But what is later released into the discharge basins at the end of the chain is markedly different. Today, the 22 kilometre stretch of the Yamuna that flows through Delhi is a sewer and contributes 98 per cent of the contamination along its entire length of 1,376 kilometres, from source at Yamunotri in the Himalayas to confluence with the Ganga in Allahabad. The treated sewage let into South San Francisco Bay by Santa Clara is, after tertiary treatment, 99 per cent free of impurities.

In addition to its 1956 San Jose facility with a capacity to treat 416 MLD 99 per cent free of impurities, its newest sewage treatment plant commissioned in July 2013 can treat 30 MLD to near-distilled water standards, 99.99 per cent free of impurities. This water would match Californian primary drinking water standards but the authority concedes people are not ready to accept “toilet to tap” supply.

SCVW’s spokesman says:  “It takes a long time to educate folks and grasp this concept that this water can be purified to a level that’s cleaner than what we are already drinking. The reality is that we are able to produce water that is cleaner than all of our other water sources.” The acceptance of pure recycled water may never come, or the need may never arise, but the scenario is no longer a possibility. It is plain reality. Scientific research has been transformed into applied technology.

Meanwhile, this water can be used to recharge aquifers or released into rivers for further oxidation and uptake downstream. For the present it will only be used for industrial, landscape, gardens, flushes and agriculture, carried to distributors in purple pipes.

Thus while the future of fish and fowl, man and animal seems assured in Santa Clara, what of the Yamuna? Chief minister Sheila Dixit says that if re-elected, her mission will be to clean the river and transform Delhi’s sewerage system. How will these aims be met? What role will recycled water play? Its significance is clear from one look at the forecasts of population and water availability on which DJB is working, in line with the Delhi Development Authority’s Master plan. It assumes that by 2021, population will be 23 million. How much water will be available and what will be the capacity and state of sewage treatment plants and hence of the river?

The answer is dotted with ifs and buts. Being dependent almost wholly on its share of Yamuna water, to which add supply from the Ganga and Bhakra-Beas, availability is limited to 3,790 MLD. There is an agreement with Haryana for an additional 363 MLD and money has been paid for the carrying channel but the matter is in suspense as the upper riparian state assesses its own needs. If it comes about, supply will increase by about 10 per cent, so per capita supply of 180 LPCD by 2021 is possible. But distribution is skewed and availability will range from 500 LPCD in Lutyens’ Delhi to 20 LPCD in the new and illegally habited areas.

The question is, do Delhi’s denizens do justice to this resource?

Santa Clara is working on a plan till 2035 on a forecast population increase from 1.8 million to 2.4 million (33 per cent). It sees demand rising from 1,169 MLD to 1,429 MLD It also estimates that demand will exceed supply by five per cent that year though per capita demand is expected to fall owing to improved fittings and fixtures and greater efficiency in use across all sectors. It also plans to increase the use of recycled water from about four per cent of the supply at 18,502 ML per annum to seven per cent of the increased supply at 37,004 ML per annum by 2035, almost double today’s.

Water quality, as already noted above, meets all standards of hygiene. Dilliwallahs do not have the luxury of turning their nose up at near-distilled water. They have to accept what they get,treated or contaminated. Musing over this, one planner wryly observed that what California achieves through technology India achieves through biology. For example, the immune system of Delhi residents, particularly in the trans-Yamuna areas, is so developed that they can withstand untreated water! Americans by comparison have no immunity. But we should also note that fortifying human immunity is not in DJB’s mission statement. Nor should it be that of the state government.

The real point seems to be that cleaning the Yamuna is not a technical problem but one of societal change. Human action poses a world-wide threat, particularly in the matter of water, a closed loop system. Dilliwallahs realise this, yet the sewerisation of the Yamuna, the city’s lifeline, continues unabated. This is not confined to Delhi but includes the National Capital Region comprising Gurgaon, Faridabad, and Noida. These expanding townships also drain their sewage into the river. Apart from the contamination threat, there is the distinct possibility that Delhi will run out of ground water.

In 2005, the Central Ground Water Authority found that the city overdrew on this source by 170 per cent. This has serious implications for aquifer integrity. Tests show that nitrates, fluorides and other materials have made ground water unsafe for consumption. So the river is a sewer, ground water is unfit for drinking, and Delhi’s water supply is in peril. Also, the effects to health, increased immunity notwithstanding, should not be underestimated.

One of the shortcomings in the Supreme Court’s intervention (“And Quiet Flows the Maily Yamuna”, a Hindustan Times report in 1994) is that DJB was not asked to attach an opinion from a medical institute on the danger posed by polluted waters, or the probability of an epidemic, or long, lingering diseases debilitating large sections of the population. Such a catastrophe would be the result of sewage, the lack of its treatment and disposal.

The wide-ranging effects of a shortage of water can be gleaned from the estimate for Santa Clara (by Sunding) in 2010. It said that if 10 to 30 per cent water reductions were imposed on industry and commerce, the loss of sales would be $900 million to $10 billion or about seven per cent of annual revenue. If contamination is added to shortage, the loss could be many times greater. What is the loss for Delhi as mosquito/insect and waterborne afflictions spread and become entrenched?

What is on the table to combat this menace? What is the quantity of the sewage and how much is treated? As mentioned above there is no single figure that is agreed to. But going by the DJB plans, and the expected supply of 3,560 MLD and an additional 20 per cent admittedly extracted by tubewells, the total contamination would be at least 4,272 MLD.

DJB also states that about 40 per cent of supply is “non-revenue earning”, lost to leakage, theft and other reasons. Thus the total quantity that should be treated is 3,417 MLD. But it can treat only 1,590 MLD. DJB contends that the additional groundwater has no effect on sewage. This factor is more than compensated by the losses in the distribution system.

Its figures do not reconcile, however, with that of the Central Pollution Control Board which monitors sewage under the direction of the Supreme Court. By its measurement the waste flowing into the river at the point of discharge was 4,426 MLD while DJB contended that it was lower by 1,176 MLD. Unless there is a reconciliation of the figures, the plans for the treatment and use of waste water will go awry.

The river will remain more polluted than the target set by the DJB unless Delhi runs out of ground water. The DJB estimates that 40 per cent of the city has no sewers. Therefore, treatment of sewage and the use of recycled water is a matter of survival both on account of the sources having reached their limit and frequent outbreaks of viral pandemics.

In Santa Clara Valley there is no contamination from waste water. As a result, San Francisco Bay area wetlands are seeing the return of fish and wildlife. Around the Yamuna in Delhi, both aquatic and avian life are declining due to pollution.

A comparison of the natural water endowments of Delhi and Santa Clara is revealing. Delhi gets 715 milimetres (28 inches) of rainfall per annum, 600 millimetres between June and September, and the balance between January and March. The latter gets just over half, 380 millimetres (15 inches) almost all between November and March.

The valley is heavily dependent on water from adjacent San Francisco and far off San Joaquin/Sacramento River Bay Delta over 270 kilometres away. This import amounts to 37 per cent of its supply but a considerable part is used to recharge aquifers. Groundwater provides 14 per cent and here, recycling plays an important role. Although total underground pumping is around 209 million cubic metres (cubic m), 109 million cubic m of the import is used to recharge aquifers. The net withdrawal is only 100 million cubic m. So water use is optimised by recycling.

What are the prospects for Delhi? Although officially the capital lives on DJB’s share of the Yamuna’s flow that has many claimants as it descends from a distant glacier, groundwater makes up nine per cent of its supply. It is under severe pressure every summer and in years of low rainfall, more frequent than droughts in California. At such times a full aquifer would be of great help. Is there a strategy to use recycled or fresh water to recharge it? Is there a plan to restore its health so that water can be extracted at six metres, as it used to be?

Unfortunately, the strategy for treatment and the enforcement of laws to prevent the Yamuna’s pollution hold out no hope. First of all, 40 per cent of Delhi is “unsewered”. But even where the system exists, the pipes are old and blocked.

Going by DJB figures (seriously doubted by many experts), the total water supply is 3,790 MLD. If 40 per cent of this is NRW, “non-revenue water” (i.e., physical and commercial losses, leaking pipes, theft, etc.) total availability is only 3,000 MLD, as the physical loss is only 20 per cent and the balance a deficit to the exchequer.

Now if sewage is 80 per cent of the supply that should be 2,400 MLD. But here too the maintenance of the infrastructure leaves much to be desired. Delhi’s citizens are among the worst on compliance with laws on discharge into the sewers and gutters. All sorts of solid material, vehicle oil, and other effluents are let into the system with criminal insouciance that should attract severe penalties, as they do even in China, to say nothing of California where littering carries a fine of $1,000.

Thus storm water drains become gutters, streets have burst sewers and filth abounds in areas of the city with no provision for gathering and conveying effluent to treatment plants. This sorry state of affairs doesn’t end here. The city’s total treatment capacity is 1,590 MLD. Thus, 635 MLD is discharged untreated into the river.

There was a proposal to use the excess water in the river during the monsoon to recharge the aquifer. Alas, even then, faecal matter was recorded at 50,000 parts per million. As in Macbeth, not all the waters of the torrent are enough to wash clean the muck that dirties the hands of Delhi’s citizens as they murder the river. Thus, no medicine is available for the aquifer.

Santa Clara has seen its share of crises: the 800 per cent population increase between 1940 and 1980, the subsidence of land from depleting aquifers, large-scale groundwater contamination from the burgeoning semi-conductor industry’s toxins, followed by an unprecedented drought. Yet today the aquifers store three times the surface water holding capacity of 210 million mt3. It is building on experience and has created capacity for cleaning waste water and establishing a water bank.

Are there any new strategies in the NCR? Is there a move to treat waters to the 99 per cent purity Santa Clara has achieved? There is some hope in the case of plants with captive use such as the Commonwealth Games village where all effluent is treated to 99 per cent and recycled for use in the residential complex. The Railways plan to recycle water in their coach washing shed, as does the bus service. The Metro, a shining example of civic rectitude, has a facility in its own servicing facilities. The city uses more than 475 MLD, 30 per cent of treated wastewater, for horticultural and cooling purposes for power houses. At about 10 per cent of officially estimated water supply this is not a figure to be despised. Other uses for non-potable water are being explored. But its ascent from toxic to bathing quality, to say nothing of fish grade, is not on the cards.

But this is not even a drop in the river, for which some new, niggardly strategies are in place. One is interceptor sewers to carry waste from areas where underground piping is not possible because of the narrowness of lanes and population density. For areas with an old system the plan is to upgrade to state-of-the-art piping. Curiously, at the fag end sewage treatment plants will not measure up to international standards. The plan is for plants with a biological oxygen demand (BOD) of 12 mg/litre against three mg/litre, ordered by the Supreme Court. For total suspended solids it is 5,000 mg/lt against the rated 500 and the dilution of coliform is not a certain figure as yet. So it is nowhere near even bathing quality.

The arguments for this decision are curious. DJB says it is quite within the budget to get the latest technology with three stages of treatment—micro-filtration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light—so that water quality will match the best in the world. But it contends that there is little point in releasing such water in the river as people will continue to wash, defecate, throw muck, immerse idols and funerary ashes from the cremation ghats into the stream so that by the time it has flowed its 22 kilometre course, it will be back from distilled water to dangerous sewage.

Public attitudes must change first, DJB says. The time will then be ripe to purify water. So what is on the cards is a collaborative effort with Singapore to treat 180 MLD to 99 per cent purity for release 20 kilometres upstream of the waterworks at Wazirabad for resupply to the city. It is not a grand offensive.

The river’s plight is compounded by a question impossible to answer: “Who owns the Yamuna?” DJB is responsible for extraction of water and its treatment. The Delhi Development Authority has jurisdiction over its banks and hence of “unsewered” habitation, the Revenue/Irrigation Department over its surface water bodies and the satellite towns over their waste water.

If there isn’t a single owner, is there some justification then in the DJB’s dubious proposition that the river should not be cleaned to bathing quality? That this should be the collective attitude of the capital’s senior administrators shows that while they understand the gravity of the situation, they couldn’t really care. Unless the courts (regrettably) or the authorities take law-making and enforcement seriously, quietly will flow the Maily Yamuna far into the future.