“If you love Shimla, please do not visit” is one of the viral messages in social media this season, encapsulating the water crisis in the hill city this summer. The current round of severe water crisis in Shimla possibly had some roots in what happened here in Dec 2015-March 2016. In winter of 2015, Shimla faced severe water quality issue[i], out break of hepatitis lead to huge reduction in water use in Shimla from Ashwini Khad. Thousands suffered from the outbreak and dozens of people died. The poorly functioning Malyana Sewage Treatment Plant, was releasing the effluent in the same Ashwini Khud from where the Hill city was taking a significant part of water. That water supply was then reduced, but nothing has been done to improve the situation. The Himachal Pradesh Chief Secretary has also told media[ii] that water available from Giri and Gumma streams have hugely reduced currently.
Shimla lies on the ridge between two river basins: Sutlej and Pabbar (Yamuna basin). Rainwater, Springs, streams and forests should be the most important water resources of this hill city.
Multiple causes Its true that there are multiple other reasons for the current water crisis in the queen of hills. Our friends in Himachal Pradesh are calling Shimla the Cape Town of Hills[iii], referring to the Zero Day in Cape Town when the city water supply was expected to be exhausted. The unplanned growth of the hill station, degradation of the catchment of its water sources, including deforestation and blasting, destruction and pollution of springs and streams in the hills, changing climate and complete inattention to the local sources and options have hugely contributed to worsening Shimla’s water situation. The groundwater recharge is thus continuously decreasing, while groundwater use is increasing at unsustainable rates, destroying the fall back mechanism that was available earlier at such times of crisis.
All across the Himachal Pradesh, hydropower projects have had a huge role[iv] in deforestation, tunneling, blasting, muck dumping, catchment degradation, changing micro climate, inducing landslides, drying up rivers. The Himachal ecology that used to soak, store and slowly release the rainwater is no longer able to perform that role, due to the multiple adverse impacts of hydropower projects and other construction onslaught.
A recent UNDP report has documented the situation of springs in Uttarakhand[v], we possibly need similar assessment of state of springs in all Himalayan states, including Himachal Pradesh. Like in all cities, the water tanker business, most of which sources water from the groundwater, is flourishing in Shimla. But such unregulated groundwater use has so many implications, including the adverse impact on springs. Springs, incidentally, is a major source of freshwater supply in all Himalayan states, including Himachal Pradesh in general and Shimla in particular.
Climate change and other destruction we cause The snowfall last winter has been very low, most places less than 50% of normal. But during April-May, temperatures are expected to go up leading to snow and glacier melt in the Himalayas, contributing to increasing water flow in the rivers and streams. But this summer, there has been a series of western disturbances along with storms leading to significant rainfall in northern plains, and reduction in temperatures, leading to reduced snow and glacier melt. The March-May rainfall[vi], however, is 28% deficit in Shimla. The water flow in the Himalayan streams have been so low that the Bhakra Beas Management Board, which manages the Bhakra and Pong reservoirs, had to call a series of emergency meetings, leading to reduction in water flow to Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. Shimla being in the same catchment, the water flow in the rivers that Shimla depends on has also reduced, leading to water availability dropping to unprecedented 18 MLD (Million Liters per Day), when requirements in summer is over 45 MLD. The water infrastructure itself has been designed for much lower population and needs up-gradation.
Such sequence of events, in which one can see multiple signs of climate change impacts, are going to come with greater frequency and intensity in years to come, but we are completely ill prepared to face them. On the contrary, the kind of damage we are wrecking on our ecosystems in the name of Urbanisation and growth, we are only inviting greater trouble and crisis.
Need Urban Water Policy In general, the water footprint of India’s Urban sector is increasing by leaps and bounds. Both in terms of direct need of water and from where this is sourced and also what the cities do to the effluents, both liquid and solids that it generates. This has increased the number of conflicts and kind of conflicts that cities face. However, the whole urban water sector is operating in complete policy vacuum. There is no Urban Water Policy in India. We urgently need one to guide the Urban Water Sector with all its massive impacts. That would be possibly one of the first smart things to do.
As usual, such crisis leads to proposals for new mega projects. In case of Shimla, a massive, centralised, high cost, high impact World Bank funded project to source water from Kol Dam on Sutlej River is being pushed to solve Shimla’s water problem. This is likely to create more problems rather than provide a sustainable solution of Shimla as the project is cost intensive, energy and hence carbon intensive and ignores lower cost options. There is also need to assess carrying capacity of the Shimla city and ensuring that the city does not have tourism and construction influx beyond the carrying capacity. We may have a lot to learn from Bhutan in this context.
What is needed What Shimla needs is a comprehensive package that starts from taking stock of city’s local resources including rain, catchment, streams, recycling of the sewage of Shimla at decentralised Sewage Treatment Plants, plugging of significant transmission and distribution losses and stopping wasteful, destructive use of the available resources.
In fact, Shimla is facing not just water crisis, but also a governance and management crisis, closely linked with environmental crisis. The writing was on the wall, but we were totally unprepared, showing how smart we are getting in managing our cities. The Shimla High Court has pointed this out and recommended a series of measures. But one hopes the HC ensures that its directions are implemented and even more crucially, it ensures that the governance and management problems are systematically addressed.
Water crisis in a hill station depending on revenue from tourists is such a bad advertisement. In fact, the peak tourist season is expected to start now. One expected that a government obsessed about GDP growth would at least understand that, anticipate and take advance action! Wishes!!
NOTE: An edited version of this was published at: http://www.atimes.com/going-with-the-flow-policy-gaps-behind-shimla-water-crisis/