Booming Economy, but No Water

Water took away Mitlesh Kumar's pride. It took away part of Mahend Naranna's faith. And it took away Mrs. Sevak's son.

"My 4-year-old died of diarrhea," she told ABC News near her home in Kamali, a small village near the banks of the Ganges River. "I took him to the hospital so many times, but nobody cared."

For all the success stories about booming India, all the anecdotes about new affluence in the second-fastest-growing economy in the world, a much more fundamental aspect of life is lacking.

Hundreds of millions of Indians experience it every day when they wait for a government water tanker, when they go to the bathroom in the dirt outside their home, when they catch cholera. There is not enough clean water to drink. There are not enough water pipes to guarantee constant supply. There is not enough electricity to process the sewage.

India is facing a water crisis. Of the 1.1 billion people who live here, some 400 million do not have consistent access to clean water, according to the World Bank. For those who do have water, there is no guarantee that it is clean. Some 400,000 children under the age of 5 die every year from water-borne diseases.

"It's time for us to wake up," says Dr. Veer Bhadra Mishra, a priest and the former chairman of the civil engineering department at Benares Hindu University. He has been fighting to clean up the Ganges River for the past 25 years. "If we are not able to manage our water … we will die. I see us as an endangered species of human beings."

The shortage reduces the poor to bribing government workers to deliver water. It reduces them to finding a shady spot outside to go to the bathroom. Some 700 million people in this country don't have adequate sanitation.

It moves the rich to use water tanks and pumps to ensure adequate supply to their homes. Even the most powerful are not exempt: last month the prime minister had to go without water for a day. And just this week the lieutenant governor of New Delhi, India's capital, had no water in his home.

This is a country that plans to send a spaceship to the moon. But it cannot provide its citizens with the most basic of services: water and functioning sewers.

New Delhi: Quantity and Distribution

The lack of both can be seen in the Kalkaji section of New Delhi, a working class neighborhood in one of India's richest cities. This community has a single communal tap but it only works for one hour each day, and that's only when there's electricity.

So every morning a few hours after sunrise, women in saris walk bicycles to the main road, empty jugs hanging from the sides and clanging against the wheels. Fathers and sons carry their containers to the road and sleep in a rickshaw as they wait.

They are all waiting for a government water tanker to arrive. Sometimes it's late. Sometimes it never comes.

"The tanker doesn't have a fixed time; sometimes it comes at eight, sometimes at nine or ten," Mitlesh Kumar, the president of the local council, told ABC News as she waited one recent morning.

Sixteen million people call New Delhi home, and about 4 million of them don't have access to water in their houses. The problem is growing as fast as the city is — New Delhi adds half a million residents each year.

"With all possible resources at hand, the city will still be facing a shortfall of water by over 50 percent in 2021," according to a report released by the government this week. In 2021, the government says, 22 million people will live in Delhi, requiring 1.5 billion gallons of water a day. The city will be able to provide at least 713 million gallons a day, 1 billion gallons a day at best.

The gap between supply and demand is the same amount of water that the city of Chicago consumes from Lake Michigan every day.

"There is good amount of supply to meet the demand. But currently there is a huge amount of mismanagement of the water in terms of leakage loss, which is accounting for 40 percent of the loss in water," R.V. Srinivasan, who studies urban water issues at New Delhi's Center for Science and Environment, told ABC News.

By some accounts, Delhi wastes more water than any other city in the world.

The mismanagement spreads to how the water is distributed. The rich have it comparatively easy, but the poor are starved.

"The poor people, they're spending more money — say, 200 to 300 rupees [$5-$7.50] per month to get the water," Srinivasan says. "At the same time the people in elite colonies where they are connected to the pipelines, they are spending 60 or 50 rupees [$1.25-$1.50]."

The problem is infrastructure. There are simply no pipes that reach much of the city. And the pipes that do exist are old.

Many of them are leaking, and almost as many are siphoned off by criminals who collect their own water and sell it to the highest bidders. Worse, many of the old pipes are situated next to sewage pipes. In some areas of the city, the water that comes out is brown.

Delhi produces 2.2 billion gallons of sewage every day, but only has the capacity to clean half that amount, according to the Center for Science and Environment.

Ultimately, all that sewage goes to the Yamuna river, which flows through the middle of New Delhi. And the river, Srinivasan says, "becomes a sewer drain," infecting dozens of major cities to the south that rely on it for their drinking water.

Varanasi: Are polluters of a holy river considered sinners?

Indians say they have four mothers: Mother India, mother cow, their own biological mothers, and mother Ganga.

Mother Ganga is the Ganges river, the single most important body of water in terms of the number of people it supports. More than 400 million people rely on the Ganges for water to drink, water to grow their crops, water to live.

And there is no river in the world that is considered more holy.

Every day some 60,000 people take a holy dip in its waters. At sunrise men waddle into the cold water in loincloths. Women hold their saris tightly against their chests as they submerge their heads repeatedly, almost violently, into the water.

Hindus cremate their dead in the water, thinking it can guarantee a direct trip to heaven. And each night, hundreds of people hold candles and sing songs on its banks, thanking mother Ganga for letting them live another day.

"It's the source of the spiritual life of this entire country," Art Boucher, an American who moved to India a decade ago to study transcendental meditation, told ABC News while walking along one of the main ghats, or steps, that lead to the water.

"When people take a dip in the river, it's symbolic of coming back to the source of their own life and the source of the life of the universe. You go in and for that brief moment you forget everything — you transcend. And in that experience you experience the source of what you are as a human being and as the source of the whole universe. And you come out of that purified and refreshed."

But as holy as it is deemed, Indians do not treat it well.

"There are 114 cities situated along the length of Gangaji which have population of more than 100,000 each. And none of these cities, even today, have sewage treatment plants. So where does the sewage go? The domestic sewage all goes into the river," Dr. Veer Badra Mishra told ABC News while sitting on the banks of the Ganges.

Mishra heads a temple in Varanasi and is also an engineering professor. "Ninety-five percent of the pollution in the Ganges is caused by domestic sewage," he said.

The sewage has poisoned the water to the point that the people who bathe in it are swimming in their own filth. Mahend Naranna, for one, can't enter water he's visited all his life without thinking it will kill him one day.

"The raw waste water is approximately 10,000 times more concentrated with fecal coloform or disease causing microorganisms than the standard for a river of this type," Dr. F. Bailey Green, the president of GO2 Water, a water treatment company based in Berkeley, told ABC News while riding a boat down the Ganges. "It's roughly equivalent to the volume in 100 Olympic-sized swimming pools per day discharged untreated into the river."

Swimming pools of sewage that have poisoned the drinking water in villages along the river have caused "water-borne disease, dysentery, diarrhea … one of the leading causes of infant mortality in the world today," Dr. Green said.

One of those villages is Kamali, where Mrs. Sevak's son died from diarrhea.

"The water is not hygienic, it's polluted. Many diseases spread because of this dirty water. And the poor people are so miserable," Sharda Debi, one of the village elders, told ABC News during a recent visit to Kamali.

"We have often complained to the district magistrate and to the Government of Uttar Pradesh but nobody cares… They know the bad condition of this place but they do not bother to improve the situation of the poor people. They do not care to find out the reason why the people over here die so soon."

Solutions: Rivers and Cities

Now, Mishra, Green, and a team of Indian and American engineers have developed what they think is a solution for the Ganges River: sewage treatment that doesn't require electricity.

"We have given a non-electrical system. Interception and diversion is done by gravity force. No sewage pumps," Mishra said.

Which is exactly the opposite of what the government has done. On a recent visit to a government sewage treatment plant, a dozen workers sat having tea, doing nothing, because the plant wasn't operating. There are only four to eight hours of electricity every day in this area, and the huge Rolls Royce engines that power the final steps of the treatment sit idle the other 16 hours.

"How do you operate a plant without electricity?" Green asked as he was escorted away from the plant by government workers, shaking his head. "The interception and delivery of sewage to the treatment process requires electricity, and the treatment process requires electricity, and when the electricity is not available, obviously those two facilities cannot operate."

The organization that Mishra leads has taken the government to court to try and force it to fund their plan. So far, there has been no movement.

"If we are successful here, it will be a very, very inspiring model for all the river cities of India, for all these cities situated along the river," he said. "Because so much money has been spent, from 1986 to this date, but no river … has been cleaned. I think we need commitment, I think we need faith and love for the environment and I think we need to act in rational decisions for science and technology."

In New Delhi, the solution lies in management instead of technology.

"The government currently focuses on bringing in more water from a huge distance," Srinivasan said. But instead, if the city made the distribution more equal, reduced the amount of leaks and rebuilt crumbling pipelines, "everyone in the city can get water without any problem."

Which is exactly what this city and this country needs if it's going to continue its advancement.

"We need water for everything," Mitlesh Kumar said. "If there is no water, what will we do?"