Co-authored by Ishani Pant & Aishwarya Birla
The acute shortage of water in Shimla has resulted in yet another round of blame games, while affected residents have been protesting to shed light on the inefficiency of the local administration. Who is actually to be held accountable — the municipal corporation, the local populace, or just climate change? At this volatile junction, three questions must be asked and answered: how did we get here, should we have seen this coming, and what do we do now?
Shimla primarily receives water from seven municipally controlled water sources, out of which three have been shut down. The Chair and Cherot reservoirs were shut down due to the bad quality of water, and the Ashwani Khad was shut down after the nearby Malyana sewage treatment plant contaminated the water leading to a jaundice epidemic.
An Indian Express Report (2016) predicted the upcoming water crisis unless lost water sources were replaced, which the municipal corporation made no effort towards. The local government has not only encouraged illegal construction and jeopardised environmental homeostasis, but also failed to follow through with any new water schemes, nor have they found a new source of water to make up for Shimla’s water deficit. Corruption, inefficient agricultural techniques and water pollution have all been left unchecked. While the Congress is calling for the dissolution of the BJP controlled municipal corporation, both parties have done nothing to address these challenges in the past. In comparison to areas like Sao Paulo and Cape Town where administrative vigilance has more or less helped narrowly overcome water crises, Shimla appears to be failing not just due to a lack of resources, but mismanagement and faulty implementation. Protesting citizens have additionally spoken out about the issue of improper garbage disposal, pointing to an overall failure in the functioning of the Shimla Municipal Corporation.
Good Governance? Not Here
The initial culprit appears to be climate change, but this seemingly dramatic change was predictable and one might even venture to say that the damage was easily avoidable. There are no bodies of water near the main city of Shimla, and excess runoff in the hills, along with deforestation, has been a continuing reality. From the year 1800 to 2001, average annual rainfall has decreased by about 20 cms, as has the average amount of snowfall.
Despite these signs and past crises, no organised water conservation plans have been implemented. Shimla’s is one of the several outdated water systems in the country; no new source of water has been identified for over three decades. The system was built in 1875, based on the needs of a 16,000 strong population. Now, however, the city houses around 1.72 lakh residents. In peak tourist season, Shimla’s population swells to three times its size. The existing infrastructure is not, and has not been, capable of sufficiently handling this intense load. Ashwani Khad was the last reservoir added to the city’s system, and that was back in the 1980s. Seemingly little effort has been made to raise awareness about rainwater harvesting techniques and other effective conservation methods.
The Pandora’s box that is the Shimla water crisis has only just been opened. Now that the shortage is reaching its apex, the gap between supply and demand of water continues to expand. The minimum requirement for a city the size of Shimla is close to 35-37 million litres per day (mld). Additionally, the tourist populace of roughly one lakh adds a burden of 8-10 mld. The supply capacity, on the other hand, is 30 mld — it is no surprise then that the crisis is this bad. Further, unplanned depletion of water sources to meet public demands is leading to excess pressure and no opportunity for water sources to recharge. Logistical dilemmas are not where it ends; residents either face inconveniences while receiving water from government tankers, or are forced to pay exorbitant amounts to private supplies called the “tanker mafia”, who allegedly steal from the public supply of water. Residents have also accused the Municipal Corporation of perpetuating the class divide by unfairly distributing water supplies to the VIP areas and hotels, while locals struggle to procure the bare minimum.
The committee appointed to monitor the crisis has asked people not to give political colouring to an environmental issue. But it’s hard to not look at it politically when there has been so much negligence from the local authorities and inaction from the two biggest national parties for as long as one can remember; shrugging off all authorial responsibility sets a precedent for future carelessness of a similar kind.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The success of all future action is contingent primarily on the efficiency of the Shimla municipal corporation today, and of each corporation that follows. While finding another permanent source of water by implementing the Kol Dam project with funding from the World Bank is a long-term goal, the immediate strengthening of the water supply system to lower shortages must be actively pursued. Conservation efforts in private homes must be encouraged and practised in order for residents to attain any relief. K J Joy, a senior fellow at the Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management, Pune, advocates for an adaptive management approach. He writes,
“Adaptive management allows us to make changes in the water sharing plan in the light of an improved understanding of the biophysical and social systems, new information resulting from changed or unforeseen circumstances, and new or updated models. It provides space to review and make changes in the principles that embed the water-sharing plan in accordance with the changing context and stakeholder preferences. It encourages stakeholders to discuss disputes in an orderly fashion while environmental uncertainties are investigated and better understood.”
What ultimately caused the Shimla water shortage? There seem to be several answers, each different from the last. Was it some good old fashioned climate change? Or unplanned urbanisation and illegal construction? Perhaps a population increase incompatible with city planning in place since colonial times, and an outdated water supply system? But it’s clear that there is one perennial problem; the ‘chalta hai’ attitude of our elected officials, and their habit of ignoring an issue until it’s too late to act.