The curious case of Delhi’s disappearing water bodies

Not a single wetland notified in Delhi, seven years after the Centre passed rules making it mandatory; Delhi government yet to confirm 321 possible water bodies spotted in satellite images over a year ago

April 25, 2024 06:51 pm | Updated April 27, 2024 04:59 pm IST - NEW DELHI

The garbage dump in East Delhi’s Khichripur area, in New Delhi was once a lake.

The garbage dump in East Delhi’s Khichripur area, in New Delhi was once a lake. | Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

The area next to the primary school run by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) in East Delhi’s Khichripur is like many other parts of the city: a group of shacks, stinking from the overflowing waste dump, and the cattle rummaging through it. But the nondescript neighbourhood successfully hides a secret – it used to be a water body.

Like many others, the location has been categorised for years in Delhigovernment records as an “encroached” water body, without any chance of recovery. It is a small part of the larger story of how water bodies have disappeared from the city’s landscape.

Despite Delhi witnessing the worst flood in its history last year, there seems to be no improvement in the miserable state of water bodies in the city, which could hold extra water and help in flood mitigation.

Deletion requests

In fact, the situation is actually getting worse. Official data accessed by The Hindu shows that the different government agencies that control these areas have requested the ‘deletion’ of 232 water bodies – over 22% of the 1,045 water bodies in Delhi – from the official records, due to encroachment and other reasons.

The number of deletion requests received by the Wetland Authority of Delhi (WAD) has increased from 214 in 2022 to 232 in 2024. Data shows that there is hardly ever any recovery of water bodies from such encroachments.

Despite calls and messages, the Delhi government did not offer any official comment on the issue. However, a Delhi government official said that they have not yet deleted any water body from the official list despite requests by different government bodies.

Ground truthing on

Over a year ago, Geospatial Delhi Limited (GSDL), a Delhi government-owned company, used satellite images to identify 321 more water bodies in Delhi. However, the details of these water bodies and who owns them are yet to ascertained, multiple officials confirmed to The Hindu.

“After the GSDL sent the list of 321 more possible waterbodies, the Delhi government confirmed using GPS coordinates that these were other than the 1,045 waterbodies as per the existing list. The list was then forwarded to the Revenue Department to do a ground truthing exercise, to confirm their status, but the department is yet to complete the exercise,” an official source told The Hindu.

The Union Ministry of Jal Shakti has also sent a list of eight more possible water bodies to the WAD, but these are also yet to be confirmed. If all the water bodies are confirmed as different from existing ones, then the total number of water bodies in the city could reach 1,374.

No wetlands notified

The government is also supposed to notify water bodies that fit the definition of “wetlands”, so that they can get legal protection from encroachments or waste dumping, and to facilitate efforts to rejuvenate them.

However, not a single wetland has been “notified” in Delhi, seven years after the Union government came out with the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017, which made it mandatory for all States and Union Territories to form State wetland authorities and identify and notify all wetlands, according to officials.

Wetlands are vital parts of the hydrological cycle, which support rich biodiversity and provide a wide range of ecosystem services such as water storage, purification, ground water recharge, flood mitigation, erosion control, and microclimate regulation.

Victims of unplanned growth

Delhi has largely lost its wetlands to unplanned growth and encroachment, according to experts.

Depinder Singh Kapur, director of the water programme at the Centre for Science and Environment, said that Delhi had started losing its wetlands from the 1970s, when migration and urbanisation increased. “There were a lot of wetlands along the Yamuna’s floodplains and almost every village in Delhi had ponds. But most of them have been filled up and built over, either by the government or private individuals illegally,” he said.

Mr. Kapur said that the government should try not only to monitor existing water bodies, but should also create new ones. “Selected areas should be converted to water bodies, rather than using it for commercial purposes,” he said.

This is part four of the five-part series Yamuna - Beyond Ebb and Flow. Click here to read the full series.

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