An acute water shortage was declared in Shimla, a city in northern India, on 21 May. Shimla, which was the summer capital of the British Raj, is located in the foothills of the Himalayas and, considering the number of water sources available to it in the surrounding province of Himachal Pradesh, it is surprising that it faces a water crisis. Low water discharge at local sources and the contamination of the Ashwani Khad (a stream that provides the city with most of its water), have reduced the quantity of water available. The now dilapidated colonial-era water distribution system adds to those problems, with parts of it in need of replacement due to severe leaks.
Some areas of the city have been without water for two weeks, with some locals left with no alternative but to spend hours waiting in line for a bucket of water. Others buy water from private suppliers at double the normal price or obtain it from relatives in neighbouring villages.
Shimla is supplied by five major water sources and has a water distribution system with an overall capacity of 65 million litres per day (MLD). On paper, Shimla should not have a water shortage as its average water demand is only 45 MLD, but water leakages that occur during the pumping and distribution stages result in the loss of approximately 30 MLD.
The city, therefore, receives an average of 35 MLD throughout the year, significantly less than installed capacity. It received barely 18 ML on 29 May, two ML less than the day before and significantly less than half of the 45 ML demanded by residents. The city gets the majority of its water from the Giri River because the Ashwani Khad, which once met the water needs of one-quarter of the population, was contaminated in 2005 by a nearby sewage treatment plant that caused an outbreak of hepatitis. As of 2016, pumping water from the Ashwani Khad to the city has been suspended, for fear of further outbreaks.
The Ashwani Khad is not the only water source that has been contaminated. The Irrigation and Public Health Department stopped drawing water from over 50 sources in and around the city due to concern that they are also contaminated. That has led to a reduction in the municipal water supply and an overreliance on other sources, such as the Giri River.
An overreliance on key water sources and leaking water supply infrastructure has added to the drying trend that Himachal Pradesh has experienced in recent decades. There has been a decrease in rain and snow during the winter months and monsoon periods across the province. Last winter was the driest on record and further reduced water levels in rivers that were already lower than usual, due to the operation of hundreds of legal and illegal pumps by irrigators.
In an attempt to calm widespread protests over government inaction to the water crisis, the Himachal Pradesh High Court ordered water supply tankers not to operate in high-profile areas that house judges, ministers or police officers. High demand has increased the price of water to an extent that only those of substantial wealth or influence can afford it. Hoteliers in particular, are accused of hoarding water for their guests. It is for that reason that tourists are being urged by residents on social media to not come to Shimla until the situation improves.
The High Court has also directed the state’s Chief Secretary to approach the army about diverting water from the nearby Annandale golf course to households and implemented bans on car washing and construction activity until the situation improves. Those efforts only deal with the symptoms of water scarcity, however, and are unlikely to resolve the underlying issues. Shimla’s water infrastructure is not adequate to manage its water resources in these times of increasingly unpredictable rainfall and snowfall.
To prevent future water crises, the pipes that supply water to Shimla will need to be replaced and properly maintained to reduce the leakages that currently occur. Water sources, including the Ashwani Khad, will need to be decontaminated to increase water supplies, while regulatory bodies will need to be strengthened to prevent the contamination of the state’s vital water sources and curb illegal pumping.
Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh’s second capital, is an example of how effective water management and appropriate infrastructure can alleviate water shortages, even during the driest of times. With the necessary funding and expertise, there is no reason why the residents of Shimla should have to experience another water crisis.