Water tanker drivers a lifeline as Delhi gripped by extreme heat

As Delhi grapples with record heat, one truck driver tells of delivering water to the capital’s poor.

A heat wave has left water in short supply across India's capital region. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

As a scorching heatwave grips northern India, tens of thousands of people in Delhi have to cut back on showers, laundry and washing dishes because of a shortage of water.

With little to no piped water in many areas of Delhi, dozens of especially low-income neighbourhoods rely on tankers due to an acute water shortage the government blames on low levels in the Yamuna River - the capital city’s primary source of water.

People line up with jerry cans, buckets and barrels with temperatures hovering around 40 degrees Celsius (104°F). At the first sight of a tanker, they rush to climb on top and throw in their hoses in a race to fill their containers. Fights frequently break out.

Narendra Singh, 29, a driver of a government-run water tanker for seven years, has become a lifeline for many, including those in slums, at a time when taps in his own one-room home are also running dry.

This is his story:

“I wake up and get to work by 6 a.m. I fill my tanker truck with water at the filling station and head out to a neighbourhood. Then I repeat this at least seven times a day.   

“It is the same routine every day - 12 hours a day, seven days a week. No breaks.

“I cannot afford to take any days off because I’m the only breadwinner in my family of six, which consists of my elderly mother, my younger brother, my wife and two little daughters.

“I earn 17,000 rupees (US$204) a month. Without this my household would not be able to run, especially as everything becomes more and more expensive.

“I pay for rent, electricity, groceries, petrol (for my motorcycle), my children’s school tuition, and a dozen other things, including the occasional medical bills.

“There are not many job options for someone like me. I had to drop out of school when I was 14 after my father died and had to pick up odd jobs to feed my family. I do this work out of compulsion.

“This is not an easy job. It is very tricky driving such a heavy tanker truck. A bit of rough driving or a stretch of bad road could result in a breakdown, which happens fairly often. Then I have to spend hours or days fixing it.

“There are times when I have to sleep overnight in the truck because it has broken down somewhere with no immediate access to repairs. 

“The heat does not help. It can get unbearable, especially driving around with a hot engine under the seat and hot air blowing through the windows. These days the heat and added humidity suck the energy out of me.

“But I am lucky to have easy access to water thanks to my job. Not everybody has that luxury, including my family.

“I live in a slum. My house does not get a regular supply of water. We get water every other day and that too for about an hour. We try to stock up as much as we can and use the water as  judiciously as possible.

“During these hot days, my children and wife bathe twice a day. We do not have any air conditioning, so that is the only respite they get from the heat.

“I usually take a bath at the filling station at the end of the day. If there is even a little water left in my tanker, I use that. I have not bathed at home in years.

“I do not even carry a water bottle with me. Whenever I feel thirsty, I just have it from the tanker.

“I could easily take the tanker to my house, but all the trucks are fitted with GPS trackers. If any of us (drivers) veer from our usual routes, we can get into trouble.

“When I drive into the tight alleys of slums and villages, I can see people’s faces light up. They are so happy to see me. I serve at least 300 people every day.

“A lot them have become my friends over the years. They know if I am there, they will get water for their day’s needs.

“That is why it frustrates me when I see people wasting water. There are times when people throw away perfectly good water to get “new water” from the tanker.

“There are times when people leave the tanker’s valve open or leave their pipes running, leading to so much wastage. That is the only time I get upset and yell at them.

“People have to understand the value of water. Water is life. Every year the crisis gets worse.

“I often worry about my girls and wonder if they will have even this much water available to them when they grow up.” 

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit https://www.context.news/.

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