[Marxism] The Merchants of Thirst

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jan 12 12:09:59 MST 2020

NY Times, Jan. 12, 2020
The Merchants of Thirst

In Nepal and many other countries, private tanker operators profit from 
growing water scarcity.

By Peter Schwartzstein

KATHMANDU, Nepal — It had been 11 days since a ruptured valve reduced 
Kupondole district’s pipeline flow to a dribble, and the phones at 
Pradeep Tamanz’s tanker business wouldn’t stop ringing.

A Malaysian embassy residence had run perilously low on water, and the 
diplomats wanted to shower. They’d pay extra for a swift delivery. A 
coffee processing plant was on the verge of shutting down production 
after emptying its storage tank. It, too, would shell out whatever 
amount of money it would take. Across the neighborhood and other parts 
of the city, the calls were coming in so feverishly that Sanjay, a 
tanker driver, jokily wondered if he might get carjacked. “This is like 
liquid gold,” he said, jabbing at his precious cargo, large amounts of 
which seeped from every hatch. “Maybe more than gold.”

Dashing from filling stations to houses and factories and back, Mr. 
Tamanz tried to meet demand. His three tanker crews slept in one or 
two-hour spurts, often in the cramped, refrigerator-sized truck cabins, 
and kept the tankers on the road for up to 19 hours a day. He fobbed off 
business to competitors, an unusual practice in the cutthroat world of 
Kathmandu tanker men, and even sounded out a mechanic about converting a 
flatbed truck into a new tanker. With fat profits pouring in, the young 
businessman figured it might soon repay its cost.

But no matter how hard the crews worked or how furiously they pushed 
their lumbering vehicles over the potholed roads, there was no 
satisfying the city’s needs. The going was too slow. The water shortage 
too severe. By the time the pipeline was fully restored, some households 
had subsisted on nothing but small jerrycans for almost an entire month. 
“You know it’s not even peak season, but this is what happens here,” Mr. 
Tamanz said. “Just imagine what things would be like if we didn’t 
exist?” He trailed off as his phone rang once more.

In Kathmandu, as in much of South Asia and parts of the Middle East, 
South America and sub-Saharan Africa, these men and their tanker trucks 
sometimes prevent entire cities from running dry. Without them, millions 
of households wouldn’t have sufficient water to cook, clean or wash. Or 
perhaps any at all. And without them, an already deteriorating 
infrastructure might break down completely, as the tanker men know well. 
“The city depends on us,” said Maheswar Dahal, a businessman who owns 
six trucks in Kathmandu’s Jorpati district. “There would be disaster if 
we didn’t do our work.”

Yet there’s another side to them, too, one that is less pleasant and 
sometimes outright nasty. Tankers frequently deliver poor quality water, 
which can sicken. They usually charge much more than the state, 
devastating to the poor. Tanker water costs on average 10 times more 
than government-supplied pipeline water, according to a World Resources 
Institute study of water access in 15 cities across the developing 
world, a figure that rises to 52 times more in Mumbai.

Greedy, uncompromising and fearful of being knocked from their perch, 
some tanker operators even conspire among themselves to fortify the 
conditions that contributed to their emergence in the first place. 
Locals tell tales of frequent underhand deal making, pipeline sabotage 
and egregious environmental destruction. “They’re all thieves, rotten 
thieves, who should be hanged,” said Dharaman Lama, a landlady who rents 
out rooms alongside the Bagmati River in the Nepali capital. “It’s 
disgusting what they do to us.”

Leaky Beasts

In some ways, these tankers are just another phase in a decades-long 
global process of water privatization. Many authorities believe the 
private sector is better at eking results out of overwhelmed utilities 
and have given up control of key resources. Tankers have piggybacked off 
that trend to secure contracts, or simply muscle in, across dozens of 
cities — even as officials elsewhere have concluded that water is best 
kept in public hands and reined in corporatized services.

The tanker fleet in Karachi, Pakistan, might have doubled over the past 
decade. The number in Lagos, Nigeria, has quadrupled during that time, 
two researchers there estimated to me, though, like in many other 
cities, its tankers operate in such administrative shadows that not even 
ballpark estimates exist. In Yemen, tankers have cornered much of the 
urban market since the Saudi-led intervention began in 2015. And 
throughout the Indian subcontinent, in particular, tanker businesses big 
and small have boomed as the region’s cities have swelled. Often 
arriving in puffs of acrid black smoke, these leaky, rust-coated beasts 
have become a ubiquitous sight from Bangladesh to Bolivia.

But the tanker industry might also be an early illustration of how parts 
of the private sector stand to profit from a warming and fast-urbanizing 
world. The urban population of South Asia alone is projected to almost 
triple to 1.2 billion by 2050, and as infrastructure decays and cities 
continue to sprawl into areas that aren’t served at all, tankers are 
well-placed to absorb some of the shortfall. Up to 1.9 billion city 
dwellers might experience seasonal water shortages by midcentury, 
according to the World Bank.

“Tankers meet a need in the short and medium-term,” said Victoria Beard, 
a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University. “ You 
can function without electricity, but not without water. And where you 
have no alternatives, you’re going to have all sorts of players filling 
the gap.”

For city authorities that are already struggling to maintain the current 
supply as climate change strikes, let alone source additional water, 
tankers can seem like a safety net they feel powerless to resist. When 
severe drought emptied Cape Town’s reservoirs in 2017 and 2018, wealthy 
residents sidestepped restrictions by buying extra water from informal 
operators. When Chennai, one of India’s largest cities, almost ran dry 
amid weak rains this summer, over 5000 private tankers ferried in water 
from outside. As these shocks intensify and affect more cities, the 
tanker men look set for boom times.

Perched at the foot of the water-rich Himalayas and blessed with a 
fierce monsoon, Kathmandu should never have become a poster child for 
the perils of tanker dependence. But years of rampant state 
mismanagement and booming in-migration from the countryside, 
particularly during the Maoist insurgency, have massively overextended 
the its pipeline network. Interviews with dozens of businessmen, 
officials, and residents reveal the extent to which the tanker industry 
has taken full advantage.

Beginning in the late 1990s, tankers began to spread from neighborhood 
to neighborhood, picking up customers among both poor and rich 
residents. At first, they were welcomed as a solution to the city’s 
interminable water pipeline disruptions. That soon changed as the less 
affluent began to chafe at their high prices and unsavory practices. 
Previously run-of-the-mill tasks, like washing, began to require careful 
financial calculations. “Before, I didn’t think about how often I could 
shower or when I can clean the house,” said Laxmi Magar, a housewife and 
mother of six. “But now that water is so expensive I watch every drop.”

Many families have been forced to alter what they cook, how they cook 
and whom they host. Water-intensive dishes, such as spinach, are off the 
menu for many. Large open fires in aging apartment blocks are frowned 
upon because there is insufficient water to douse flames if they spread. 
In a country where hospitality is treasured, guests are sometimes 
unwanted, or almost feared, as extra bodies to accommodate. At roughly 
1800 Nepali rupees ($15.60) for 5000 liters, tanker water is about 40 
times more expensive than pipeline water.

Among the city’s poorest and most vulnerable, tanker shenanigans have 
fueled some of the worst urban water access in the world. Because few of 
Kathmandu’s slums are connected to the water grid, they’re completely 
dependent on outside assistance during the dry season. The tankers raise 
their rates accordingly. And because many of these areas have narrow, 
tuk-tuk-wide streets sprawled across steep hills that often turn to mush 
in the monsoon, the bigger trucks can’t get through, meaning residents 
have to buy in smaller sums from middlemen at grossly inflated prices. 
Even ostensibly middle-class families are suffering as a consequence.

Nira Kasaju and her husband work in government factories in Bhaktapur, a 
city a few miles to Kathmandu’s east, and together earn more than their 
neighbors. But with limited vehicular access to their crumbling 17th 
century apartment building, they depend on narrow-bodied, tractor-drawn 
tankers that sell water at double the normal rate. They’ve since had to 
cut back on everything from toys for their children to holiday 
decorations. “Whatever it costs, we pay. We have no choice,” Ms. Kasaju 
said, as she sprinkled her stairwell with a few drops of water to keep 
the dust down. “This is unacceptable, of course, but what can we do?”

The World Health Organization recommends that households spend no more 
than 3 to 5 percent of their income on water, but tanker-dependent 
Nepalis shell out up to 20 percent of their earnings, a figure that can 
rise to over 50 percent in parts of rural Jordan.

Many customers say they would be able to manage the expense if only the 
water came clean. But that’s increasingly not the case. Residents report 
frequent skin problems, intestinal bugs and diarrhea, which compels 
those who can afford it to spend more money on “jugs” of potable water, 
and forces those who can’t to miss school or workdays. Again, it’s the 
poorest and most captive customers who get the worst of the water. (It 
could be even worse. Tankers in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba have 
been known to fill from chlorinated swimming pools, according to a WRI 
researcher in that city.)

Tankers strike deals with corrupt officials to limit pipeline flow and 
thus maximize their earnings, while also campaigning against public 
works projects that might break their strangleholds. In Lalitpur, 
Kathmandu’s adjoining city, residents around the landmark Patan Durbar 
Square said tankers paid officials not to fix many of the free, ornate 
public standpipes that were knocked out by the deadly 2015 earthquake. 
It’s a similar in Bangalore, India, where some state valve men are 
reportedly conspiring with businessmen.

Competition among Kathmandu’s roughly 400 tanker-owning businessmen is 
so ferocious that they regularly smash one another’s vehicles and call 
in favors from friendly politicians to shut down their rivals. “The 
competition is just unhealthy,” said Dharmanda Shresthra, who owns three 
tankers and a water bottling factory. “Everyone is always after each 
other and after profit, and it affects the quality of the water.”

And, crucially, the kingpins have few inhibitions about over-exploiting 
water resources, jeopardizing the environment and their cities’ 
long-term vitality. Tankers are tapping groundwater so relentlessly that 
many wells yield up to 20 percent less water every year. Dozens of deep 
boreholes and springs have already been exhausted. Unless there is a 
dramatic change of course, water experts — and many of the tanker men 
themselves — fear there will soon be few local resources left to tap.

Standing alongside the water filling station he operates at Khahare, in 
the hills to the south of Kathmandu, Krishna Hari Thapa was in a 
reflective mood in October. For the best part of a decade, he’s watched 
— and profited — as the number of tankers at his spring has increased 
from around 30 to over 80 a day. He’s watched too as the once mighty 
local spring has slowed to an unimpressive trickle. “Twenty years ago, 
it was like a river here, and now it’s not. You can only guess what it 
will look like in another twenty years,” he said. But Mr. Thapa won’t 
stop, no matter how low the flow goes, he says. The money is too good. 
And besides, “where else would people get water?”

Rocky Roads to Recovery

Amid mounting public anger and shriveling resources, even big-time 
tanker operators admit their industry is out of control. For all their 
distasteful ways, though, the tanker men say they’re not the biggest 
villains in this sordid saga. That label, they insist, is best applied 
to the state, without whose repeated failures they never would have had 
an opening. The industry has a point. “Let’s face it: the private sector 
came in because the public sector failed,” said Dipak Gyawali, a 
political economist and former water minister. “And until you clean up 
government’s act, nothing will change. The tankers are just a symptom.”

These failures begin with the pipelines. Kathmandu Valley’s water 
delivery is so poor that its recipients average as little as one hour of 
running water every week, during which they’re expected to fill rooftop 
or underground cisterns. The pressure is so weak that many households 
capture no more than 250 liters on each occasion. For these people and 
the roughly 30 percent of residents who receive nothing at all, tankers 
tide them over until the next pipeline flow. Officials recognize it’s a 
crisis, but say the solution is out of their hands.

“Frankly speaking, the demand-supply gap is huge: demand is 400 million 
liters a day. Supply varies from 90 to 150 million liters,” said Sanjeev 
Bickram Rana, the executive director of the Kathmandu Valley Water 
Supply Management Board. “How can we bridge that gap?”

The roads in the area also impede water delivery to residents. Most 
trucks source their water in places like Khahare, where the terrain 
begins its slow climb to the Himalayas. But the rural roads are so rough 
that they can’t drive fast for fear of snapping axles, and the city’s 
poorly designed transport network is frequently snarled with traffic. 
Businessmen say their trucks could perform double their current daily 
average of four deliveries and thus sell more cheaply if they could move 
quicker. But with no expectation of improved roads, tanker drivers have 
implemented their own precautions.

Some pad their ceilings with folded newspapers to cushion the blows as 
they get bounced around their suspension-less vehicles; others deck 
their cabins out with so much religious iconography they can scarcely 
see through their windshields. The most impatient, or those who work the 
most traffic-clogged routes, take things further. Many trucks have 
equipped themselves with mini TVs or booming sound systems.

The government’s proposed solution to these grave water shortages, the 
Melamchi project, has turned into a four-decade-long fiasco of almost 
unrivaled incompetence. First proposed in the 1970s and begun in 2000, 
this scheme to divert a mountain river from the Himalayas has been so 
delayed that the water it will bring — 170 million liters a day in its 
first phase — is already insufficient to cover half of Kathmandu’s 
needs. It’s not a good plan, anyway, experts say. The pipeline network 
is so riddled with holes that “you could have Lake Baikal on the other 
end and it still wouldn’t be enough, ”Mr. Gyawali said.

In an interview at her family’s tightly guarded compound, Bina Magar, 
the minister of water supply, blames her predecessors for the severity 
of the water deficit. “For so long we had unstable governments that have 
lasted one year, six months, eight months.” she said. “Now we have an 
opportunity to bring stability and fix everything.” And while the 
minister conceded that tankers have helped mask the state’s shortcomings 
— so much so that every ministerial residence relies on them — she 
insists they’re living on borrowed time. “They charge too much. We 
charge much less. Once Melamchi is complete, we will be the answer.”

But corruption and bureaucracy riddle almost every level of state, 
ensuring the tankers perform even worse than they otherwise might. 
Tanker men field so many demands for bribes that they sometimes keep 
wads of cash on hand for that purpose. If they don’t pay sums that vary 
from 5,000 ($43) to 100,000 ($866) rupees, they can get shut down, a 
dozen businessmen said. These costs, too, must be passed on to the 
consumer. Officials are noticeably tentative in their denials. “These 
claims are not related to our organization, but perhaps the traffic 
police or someone else,” said Mr. Rana of the water management board, 
citing what’s widely seen as the greediest branch of Nepali officialdom.

In fact, the state’s disregard for the water sector is so pronounced 
that the poor quality of tanker water is as much a consequence of shoddy 
or nonexistent regulation as opportunism. The state implemented a 
color-coded sticker system to gauge tanker water in 2012 — green for 
drinkable water, blue for household use, yellow for construction-quality 
— but years on it still isn’t properly enforced. Kathmandu Valley Water 
Supply Management Board says it lacks the resources to monitor more than 
three days a week; the tanker men say officials don’t care as long as 
their pockets are lined. No one disagrees that it’s a mess.

As chairman of the largest water tanker association, Pradeep Prasad 
Pathak is charged with defending business interests, a task that he said 
is getting trickier as the state falls back on “divide and rule” tactics 
by playing off tanker men against one another. “The government has never 
felt responsible for supplying water to the people. It’s always the case 
in cities like Kathmandu that people like us do their job for them,” he 
said. Some tanker men lack the education to differentiate between good 
water and bad, he acknowledged, which is precisely why the industry 
needs to be regulated. “We’re not heroes. We need some controls as well.”

Drying Out

For the time being, neither the state nor most tankers have much 
inclination to change their ways. Circumstances might soon force their 
hand, though. Demand for water is growing so swiftly that tanker 
operators can’t meet all orders in the dry season, no matter how much 
they hike their prices. “Every year, more people come to us, which is 
great,” said Maheswar Dahal, the Jorpati tanker man. “But in the winter, 
we have to tell them, ‘it might take five days,’ or sometimes we just 
have to say ‘no.’” In times of scarcity, it’s the best customers, 
generally the rich, who get priority from the pipeline and tanker 
operators alike.

Supply is also shrinking, in part because authorities are mishandling 
growth that in Kathmandu, as in most South Asian cities, is far 
outpacing that of the region at large. In addition to the tankers’ 
over-exploitation of boreholes, the city is eating into its remaining 
forests, which feed the springs, while also sprawling over aquifer 
recharge areas. For much of the rainy season and the months that follow, 
many households use hand pumps to extract from the shallow aquifers 
under their properties and provide for at least some of their needs, but 
the more the valley is tarmacked over the less the groundwater is 
replenished. Climate change, in turn, is making the rains more erratic, 
which limits rooftop rainwater harvesting, and fuels floods that 
contaminate some aquifers.

And as this gap between supply and demand widens, the public is 
beginning to lash out. Residents of water-impoverished districts have 
assaulted water officials when they venture into their areas. Water 
tankers have been attacked when they have gone on strike, and people are 
increasingly fighting each other as water becomes scarcer and more 
expensive. Though many Kathmandu area farmers welcome tanker men and 
often make more from leasing wells than growing crops, increasing 
numbers of their peers in India and elsewhere are butting heads with 
businessmen whom they accuse of drilling them dry. “We get no water from 
the pipelines, less water from our well, and we can’t afford tanker 
water. Of course we’re angry!” said Anjali Tamang, a student, as she 
picnicked with friends along the Bagmati.

With some households subsisting on as little as 15 liters per person a 
day, well below the United Nations’s minimum acceptable standard of 20 
liters for refugees, community leaders warn of more severe violence 
unless the government solves the crisis.

There are signs of hope. With their profits threatened by depleted 
resources, some tanker men have begun to adopt more sustainable 
extraction practices. In Chandragiri, a fast-expanding outer 
neighborhood of Kathmandu, six tanker men have banded together to try 
and save the forest on which their springs — and income — depend. In 
several municipalities far to the south of the capital, local 
administrators have signaled what can happen when they, not the central 
government, are entrusted with control of utilities. Hetauda 
municipality now delivers at least six hours of running water a day, at 
60 percent of the price the state charges in the capital, which has shut 
out most private water providers.

Away from Nepal, in other water-impoverished megacities, authorities 
have proved that seemingly intractable shortages can be addressed, or at 
least somewhat allayed, while reining in private tankers. From Delhi, 
which is rehabilitating up to 500 lakes and wetlands in order to boost 
groundwater recharge, to large parts of urban sub-Saharan Africa, where 
public standpipe access has expanded, a number of cities are at least 
trying to cut back on informal water provision. “I think optimism at 
this point would just make us complacent, but not everything is lost,” 
said Aditi Mukherji, a senior researcher at the International Water 
Management Institute in New Delhi. “We have solutions, even if none of 
them are easy.”

But until Kathmandu and its growing cohort of struggling urban peers 
radically alter their ways, they won’t be among that select few. 
Residents certainly expect little to change. If anything, they’re 
gearing up for more thirst, more expense and even more vulture-like 

On a Saturday morning in late October, Sunita Suwal waited outside her 
house in Bhaktapur for the weekly pipeline delivery to flow. She grew 
increasingly angry as the scheduled time passed. Then, she waited 
another hour, losing out on a shift at a seamster’s workshop that she 
could ill afford to miss. Finally, as the morning ticked by with no 
water in sight, Ms. Suwal snapped. “The state fails us. The tanker men 
rob us,” she said. “They all just want to make money from us. Really, 
what’s the difference?”

Rojita Adhikari contributed reporting from Kathmandu.

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