Contrary to 2018, Shimla has enough water today, but will it last?

In the summer of 2018, Shimla's peak tourist season, not a drop flowed in the taps of the town for over a week and thousands of visitors had to leave. May 2019 has seen a remarkable reversal in the water situation, but can the town afford to be complacent?

“This is only a Band Aid and will not work as a long-term measure,” said Sunita Narain, Director General Centre for Science and Environment, about the state government’s claims that Shimla’s water shortage problem has been solved and there will no water crisis this year. “The solution lies in conservation measures and recycling of waste water. Citizens should be involved in water conservation of and made aware about the value of each drop of water saved,” added Sunita Narain.

The approximately two lakh citizens of Shimla are certainly aware, remembering as they do the unprecedented water crisis of last summer, the first ever to hit this popular tourist destination. In June 2018, Shimla literally ran out of water for eight days, with hoteliers putting up notices that read “we are in water crisis, don’t come to Shimla.”

The 20,000-25,000 tourists who visit Shimla every year during the summer could and did leave. But for Shimla’s citizens, those days are still the stuff of nightmares. Widespread protests broke out across the town, with people marching to Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur’s home at midnight to highlight their plight. At that time, Sunita Narain had drawn a parallel between Cape Town and Shimla and sounded a wake-up call to policy planners, social action groups and citizens, as she spoke about climate change happening in Shimla and the resultant water crisis.

Water availability in Shimla during the 2018-crisis period had dipped to 18 million litres per day (MLD) against the requirement of 44 MLD. For one week, not a drop flowed in the taps of the town’s homes. Recalls Rachna Jhina Sharma, a housewife at Kasumpti ward: “Last year’s experience — sending my daughter to school, managing the household and caring for aged family members — was a nightmare. This year, it’s like a miracle. We are getting daily water supply. I haven’t heard of water scarcity anywhere in the town.”

Breathing easy

This year, the start of the 2019 tourist season coincided with the Lok Sabha elections. Water however did not appear to be much of an issue in this campaign. “We will not have any problem this year,” said Sanjay Sood, President Shimla Hotels and Restaurants Association. “We have been assured by Managing Director, Shimla Jal Prabandhan Nigam (SJPN) Dharmendra Gill that there will be no cut in supplies as sufficient water was available for daily needs”.

Water availability and supply data, which SJPN shares with citizens and hoteliers daily, shows that total availability of water from eight main sources or khads (as perennial rivulets and natural water stream are called in the local language) — Gumma water supply, Old Gumma scheme, Nauti khad, Giri river, Churat pumping station, Seyoug supply scheme, Chaid and Koti-Brandiis at a record high of sorts.

One supply area, the Aswani khad, which provided 10 MLD was shut down in 2016 after a jaundice outbreak which claimed nearly 30 lives, and remains abandoned. All the other sources of supply are from natural water sources located in a 15 to 30 km radius of Shimla’s periphery.

City authorities proudly point out that on May 5th, 55.73 MLD of water was pumped through the main supply system, 10 MLD higher than what was available two months back. “The good news for Shimla is that there will be no water rationing this year,” said mayor Kusum Sadret, the first BJP mayor heading the corporation. She could not resist taking a dig at the opposition, blaming the Congress and CPM headed municipal corporations for last year’s crisis.

But Kusum Sadret herself had come under fire last year for neglecting her responsibilities when she left for a China tour even as Shimla was in deep water crisis. Governance was sorely lacking as the BJP did not want the then CPM mayor to get the credit for resolving the water crisis. Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur was forced to take command and deputed Chief Secretary Vineet Chaudhary was called upon to do the firefighting, after the townsfolk, mainly women, blocked roads in protest. It took the intervention of the Himachal Pradesh High Court and the then acting Chief Justice Sanjay Karol’s surprise night vigil to force the municipal and other local agencies into action.

Causes and remedies

Shimla was not an isolated case of water scarcity becoming the biggest challenge in the future for urban landscapes. But Shimla’s response to the water crisis showed that there is no quick fix solution to the issue

“Sometime, the worst crisis gives the best solutions,” said Srikant Baldi, principal secretary to chief minister. “The biggest breakthrough in overcoming the water shortage came through two or three major decisions, and rest were follow-ups”. The major decisions were to replace the entire 7-km pipe line from Craigneno park to Dhalli, replacing the main Giri river pipeline to plug leakage and replacing all the 12 nearly century old pumps at Gumma schemes with new ones.

A study done by WAPCOS Ltd, a government agency set up to assess drinking water supply and demand position in 2017-18, had found that around 47 percent of drinking water pumped for supply to the town was going to waste due to leakages and pilferage from the old pipeline. Leakages in distribution accounted for another 25 percent which meant over 70 per cent of water was being wasted. There were other mismanagement issues, like water being supplied to unauthorised buildings and establishments including hoteliers and illegal colonies. Some hoteliers had more than one connection, some in fact had eight. Now, the hotels have been restricted to just one supply source.

The work done in the past one year is now showing results. The old supply line from Creigneno to Dhalli which was laid in 1924 was replaced at a cost of Rs 8 cr. Eight of the 12 old pumping facilities at Gumma scheme have been replaced with the remaining four to be replaced soon. These two steps alone will save 26 MLD of water.

Another major lift water supply scheme from the Giri river, 43 km from Shimla, underwent a major upgrade. Commissioned in 2007 at a cost of Rs 64 crore with a slated capacity to supply 21 MLD of water, it was supplying only 12 MLD due to faulty design and leakages. It has been augmented with a newly designed pipeline that is now supplying water to its full capacity.

The SJPN also proposes to add an additional 10 MLD of water into Gumma khad via a 15-km pipeline that will bring Sutlej river water from a place called Chaba, 35 km from Shimla. The trial run of this river lift project is underway. “We are planning to start a pilot project on 24X7 water supply in some municipal wards,” said Dharmendra Gill of SJPN. “If it works, we will introduce other measures of water conservation to make Shimla self-sufficient in water”.

No room for complacence

But do the current measures offer a sustainable long-term solution to Shimla’s water woes? Not exactly say environment experts like Sunita Narain. “Shimla must think of some comprehensive plans,” she said. Even in 2018, the problem was not only because of water wastage in distribution or mismanagement. At that time, all the eight sources of water that met Shimla’s water needs, particularly Gumma, had completely dried up. There was no discharge in the Nauti khad, the source for the Gumma scheme, due to the dry spell in 2017-18 and inadequate snowfall.

“Adverse impact of climate change is very evident in Shimla’s water supply system,” said former deputy mayor Tikender Singh Panwar, who is currently working on a conservation project at Leh. “There was 80 per cent rain deficit in 2017-18. Retention of water in April-May is much below the average. The city is experiencing less snow. The whole eco-system is disturbed.”

Growth in Shimla’s population, haphazard and unplanned constructions activity and loss of green cover added to the town’s water woes. The WAPCOS report also pointed out that decrease in forest cover was a major cause of depletion of natural water sources. One major reason why the present sigh of relief is purely temporary, say environment activists.

Increasing tourist inflow in the town built by the British for 30,000 people, also put the entire water administration and distribution system under added stress. “The tourist season is yet to pick-up but we are prepared this time,” said Suresh Bhardwaj, Shimla, state’s education minister.

This year, the situation is also better on the weather front. “We have had good snowfall and rains in April and May, so availability at the source is sufficient”, said Rajesh Kashyap, SJPN Deputy General Manager. The SJPN is also engaging in outreach programmes, having meetings with citizen groups, NGOs and school students. Like Arya Rattan, a 10th class student of Loretto Convent. “The last crisis taught us some lessons on how to save water,” said young Arya. “Whenever I see leaking pipes or overflowing of water storage tanks, I report to the municipal corporation”.

Sanjay Chauhan, former mayor of Shimla (CPM), claims credit for the improvement in water availability. “All the projects we started are yielding results now. There are 85 traditional water springs (called baudis) in Shimla, and waste water pilot projects were started under AMRUT (Atal Mission Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation) which should now be tapped”.

The state government has also roped in Magsaysay award winner and Rajendra Singh, well-known conservationist and environmentalist, to advise in building small check dams at the two main catchment areas of Ashwani Khad and Nauti khad, to ensure that Shimla’s principal water sources don’t dry-up even in extreme weather conditions. “We will sign an agreement with Rajendra Singh’s organisation to end Shimla’s water problems for ever.” Srikant Baldi said.

A boast the bureaucrat and politicians may well come to rue in the not so distant future. For neither Baldi nor the SJPN bosses, while talking a lot about it, have taken any concrete step on implementing any conservation measures. The outreach programme being conducted is half hearted and has no mechanism to incentivise citizens to install water conservation systems in their homes. Neither has the Shimla Municipal Corporation framed any norms for hoteliers and other institutional water users on conservation.

Also, the much-talked of rainwater harvesting, which many see as a viable conservation option for Shimla, has seen no implementation on the ground as yet. “There is an urgent need to strictly implement rules which make it mandatory for every new building, including government buildings, to have rainwater harvesting systems,” said Harinder Hira, former Chief Secretary and Secretary, Town Planning and Urban Development.

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