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Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Portraits of Delhi's Water Crisis

This area will be submerged if the Renuka Dam is built as planned Over the last few months there have been increasingly loud murmurs of discontent over Delhi's proposed Renuka Dam. Planned for construction 300 kilometres outside the capital in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, the dam will be designed to meet a third of the city's burgeoning water demand and provide 40 megawatts of power to Himachal. But not everyone is firmly behind the £480 million project. With the dam in place, the homes of 750 families in 37 villages, 1,700,000 trees, a diverse range of wildlife and 1630 hectares of agricultural land will all be under water. And the kicker: Delhi doesn't need it.

This contradiction was the subject of Delhi's Might, Renuka's Plight, a photography exhibition held at the Jai Bharat Centre this week. A social investor turned photographer, Neeraj Doshi believes in meeting environmental and social challenges of our times with novel solutions, and hopes photography will help him make his case. "Sometimes pictures can be far more powerful than words", he says.

Tara Devi, a dalit farmer, looks at the land she will lose to the dam

Doshi's pictures sketch life on both sides of the dam. In the green areas of Himachal, a woman cooks dinner over an outdoor stove, as grassy hills "notified for submergence" stretch into the distance behind her. Farmers tend their doomed fields with sober expressions - perhaps looking towards a future as city construction workers. Yet as the images shift to the city, one sees dripping pipelines, disused and sullied water bodies, polluted riverways, and overflowing tanks - portraits of waste.

"People in Delhi need to realize that dams are short-term solutions," explained Doshi. "This is not a problem of supply, but of wastage and poor management."

Close to half of Delhi's public water supply is lost in leaky distribution and non-metered connections. Further supplies (an estimated 15-20 billion litres) could also be captured by improving the city's 900 storage structures. City-based rainwater harvesting, for example, has tremendous potential to improve supply, Doshi argues, pointing to recent efforts in Bangalore, and even at a few sites in Delhi.

In addition to improving efficiency, Doshi is eager to address the issue of inequity as well. "At 200 liters per day, Delhi has the highest per capita usage of water in the country, yet many - particularly in the slum areas - remain without access."

Tales of India's looming water crisis are not new, nor is Renuka the first controversial dam or Delhi the only wasteful city. 2010 estimates suggest demand will exceed supply by 50 percent in just 20 years. Yet Doshi, along with the organizers at the Jai Bharat Centre, believes facts and figures on their own aren't enough to get the point across.

"Pictures are, many times, far more accessible than words," said Dipanwita Das, one of the Jai Bharat founders.

And indeed, while this exhibition is about the Renuka Dam, it also serves, more broadly, to highlight contradictions around resource supply and demand across much of India. Doshi hopes the images will make visitors think about how they are connected to these larger problems.

"This is not about assigning blame," he said. "We are all a part of the problem, but we can all be part of the solution too."

"So many such stories have gone untold in the past," said Doshi, "but with the media and internet revolutions we are seeing today, this is no longer possible. Those without voices can be heard in a way that was never possible before."

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