Hop, skip and jumping along one of the water pipes
“There’s so much poverty to be seen here and at the same time so much joy and happiness.” This is how photographer Rob van Kessel describes his two-day journey along the giant pipes that supply the growing metropolis of Mumbai with water. From lakes high in India’s Western Ghats, these water mains snake their way down into the city like steel-encased rivers, impossible not to notice.
By the time these kids grow up, the pipes will likely have been replaced.
The pipes provide the slum dwellers living along their flanks with water, a road, a playground for children, and sometimes just a place to hang out. Soon these pipeline settlers will be relocated, however – indeed, many have already been evicted, their huts demolished – as the government attempts to overhaul a water supply system that has failed to keep up with the times.
A good place for some quiet contemplation
Most of these water pipes – or “trunks” as they are sometimes referred to – are old and corroding. Some are relics of the British, who laid them down around 100 years ago to provide for a very different city than the one that exists today, massive and teeming with people.
Taking the high road
The water pipes wind their way through countryside, fields, suburbs and shantytowns. According to one source, Mumbai’s pipelines cover an area of 2,400 kilometers (1,491 mi), above and below ground. And, on their way to the sprawling metropolis, the main pipes, like the seven seen here, run for 160 kilometers (99 mi) and range between 24 and a gigantic 108 inches in diameter.
Crossing the water
Most people in Mumbai don’t have the luxury of taking water for granted. Even when the monsoon season provides enough rainwater to fill the reservoirs, the supply, which is regulated by the municipal corporation of Mumbai (the BMC), is rationed. This is mostly due to deficiencies in the supply system, with leakages in the old pipe system a major issue. Taps that rely solely on this official source only run for about six hours a day (much less, it’s said, in some areas).
A quiet stretch of pipeline
The wealthier apartment blocks overcome this shortage by installing tanks, which fill up when the municipal water supply is turned on. If necessary, this is supplemented with water bought from private water companies – a big business in Mumbai and sometimes referred to as the ‘water mafia’.
There's always a place to sit along the pipeline.
Even middle-class residents often have to do without this additional water cache and are forced to collect their water in containers when the municipal supply is turned on – however inconvenient the hour.
For some, the pipes are just a very long playground.
Ironically, getting enough water is much more difficult again for those who live in the slums alongside – and sometimes even on top of – the massive water mains. Here, the life-sustaining liquid is an expensive commodity, requiring money, great effort or commonly both in order for an adequate amount to be collected.
Those who do not have access to municipal plumbing find themselves at the mercy of corrupt officials, or the water mafia. A 2003 survey reported that slum and pavement dwellers in Mumbai spent almost 10 to 13 percent of their already meager earnings on water.
Fruit n veg
Another study revealed that 35 percent of adults and 69 percent of children living in these disadvantaged circumstances miss work or school to collect water from shared municipal taps. Out of these, 81 percent are then forced to carry their water home in buckets, which can mean a three-hour journey for some.
The daily commute
Considering the high price of water, it’s not surprising that many slum dwellers prefer to draw it directly from the city supply. They do this by drilling holes into the main pipes, usually between 6 to 12 inches in diameter. Unfortunately, not only does this cut down on the quantity of water the already leaky pipes deliver to the city; it also creates security and health risks.
Sneaking off for some ‘alone time’, maybe?
There are reportedly around 35,000 illegal shacks that have sprung up along the length of Mumbai’s pipelines. According to the government, these shanties present a danger not only to the consumers who rely on the water the pipes carry, but also to the residents of the shacks themselves. Access to the pipelines is an issue, for one, and if they are damaged, massive flooding is a very real risk.
A line of auto-rickshaws drive under water
The chief hydraulic engineer of the municipal corporation (BMC) explains the main threat to the encroaching residents. “A burst in an eight-foot-diameter trunk main will release an instantaneous hydraulic force of 250 tons. It can throw water up to a height of 190 feet,” he says, likening any such accidental mains explosion to a “mini-tsunami”.
Lots of smiles
This burst water pipe scenario has happened, several times. In one shantytown, 50 huts were reportedly flooded with knee-deep water for over 10 hours when one of the pipes ruptured. According to the chief engineer of the BMC, this is not a rare occurrence, either. He explains that the inner lining of the old water-supply pipes is so thin that it can simply crack open during the hotter months.
Yet it’s not only slum dwellers who impinge on the pipes. At one point there’s even a police shelter built on top of them. In other areas they are covered in piles of garbage. It’s all part of the risk for large unguarded and unmoving objects in a city where even the smallest space is coveted. These types of obstructions to the pipes obviously make repairing and maintaining them difficult, as well.
Although the people who live in the shanties are known to tap into the pipes, they’re certainly not the worst water thieves. Many tankers belonging to private water sellers are filled by illegally tapping into the pipelines. By doing this, not only do they have a product that they can sell at practically 100 percent profit; they are also creating a shortage of that same product and therefore contributing to the demand. The local government has promised to stop these water stealing trucks. So far, they have been let off with minimal fines.
Selling one’s wares
As suggested, theft, leakage and obstructed access to the pipes for repairs are all problems that contribute to Mumbai’s ongoing water shortages. Contamination of water – with sewer and water pipes running side-by side – is also a big problem. The government has promised to deal with such issues by replacing and repairing the antiquated water mains. They have also begun relocating the slum residents who live around the pipes and increasing security along their lengths. It is hoped that this will reduce the wastage and theft of such a precious resource.
Work, rest and play
Another plan aimed at preventing people from breaking the pipes to steal water involves the installation of prepaid water meters. The idea is that people will pay a set amount for a guaranteed supply of water. Many slum dwellers oppose the idea, however, fearing that the meters, which are to be privatized, will end up costing them even more than they pay already.
Staying on track
Nobody knows exactly when the old water mains will be replaced completely, although it is surely inevitable that it is going happen. After all, a city that is expected to become the world’s second largest megalopolis by 2015 – with 27 million citizens – will need much more water than these old corroding pipes can supply. No doubt the many people who live alongside the giant pipes will be relocated by then, hopefully to better situations.
With special thanks to photographer Rob van Kessel for the use of his incredible photographs.