Residents queue up for water, Shimla, May, 2018(Deepak Sansta/Hindustan Times)
Residents queue up for water, Shimla, May, 2018(Deepak Sansta/Hindustan Times)

Why Himalayan towns and cities are running dry

By KumKum Dasgupta | Hindustan Times
PUBLISHED ON MAR 21, 2020 04:29 PM IST

A recent study covering 13 towns across four countries – Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan – in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region shows that these towns are facing increased water insecurity, thanks to inadequate urban planning coupled with a rapidly changing climate. The study – the first-of-its-kind in the HKH – reveals the links between water availability, supply systems, rapid urbanisation, and consequent increase in water demand (both daily and seasonal) that are leading to increasing water insecurity in towns in the region.

In an interview to Hindustan Times, Anjal Prakash, who led the research study, talks in detail about the crisis in the HKH region and the way ahead. Dr Prakash is research director and adjunct associate professor, Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business, India.

KD: What are the headline points of the study?

AP: A set of 10 research studies, covering 12 Himalayan towns, has been published as a special issue of the Water Policy journal in March 2020. We took up eight towns across three countries in the HKH region: Pakistan, India and Nepal. We found that these towns are facing increased water insecurity due to inadequate urban planning, coupled with changing climate; and that there are is a strong interlinkage between water availability, water supply systems, rapid urbanisation, and consequent increase in water demand (both daily and seasonal). These factors are leading to increasing water insecurity in towns in the region.

KD: How bad is the water situation in the Himalayas and why should people living downstream take note of this scarcity?

AP: The study shows that the water demand-supply gap in eight of the surveyed towns in the Himalayas is 20%–70%. There is a high dependence on springs (between 50% and 100%) for water supply in three-fourths of the urban areas. Based on current trends, the demand-supply gap may double by 2050. A holistic water management approach that includes springshed management and planned adaptation is, therefore, paramount for securing safe water supply in the urban Himalaya.

The Himalayas are the water tower of south and south-east Asia. Ten major rivers originate from this region that feeds around two billion people in Asia. Due to a rapidly changing climate, the water regime of this region is changing and it’s impacting the life and livelihood of millions of people who are dependent on the river water. The problem in urban Himalayas is more of a sustainable management issue wherein climate change is coming as a force multiplier.

KD: What is the future of Himalayan tourist towns such as Shimla and Darjeeling?

AP: In 2018 summer, acute water scarcity was reported from Shimla. In Darjeeling, a similar situation has been reported. A recent study reported that around 65% of the people in Darjeeling town do not have access to public water supply and are forced to depend on the locally available alternative sources of water. This is apart from our research team’s work in eastern and western Himalayan regions of India.

Neha Bharti and her team researched in Mussoorie and Devprayag. In both the towns, springs are the source of the piped water supply system. In Mussoorie, the municipality taps 20 spring sources to generate nine million litres per day (MLD) of water, transported by gravity and pumping systems. There is a 98 km-wide network of distribution pipelines, with 4,065 domestic and 1,206 commercial tap connections, covering approximately 90% of Mussoorie’s area.

Rinan Shah and Srinivas Badiger of our research team studied Darjeeling. They report that despite getting a substantial amount of rainfall, households in Darjeeling suffer from acute water scarcity. Water management issues are essential for governance. Living in high rainfall regions and experiencing water scarcity is indeed a paradox.

KD: What kind of measures (environmental and civic) need to be taken to redress the situation?

AP: The study proposes five major steps -- a mix of environmental, climate change and governance concerns.

First, water needs to be sustainably sourced to bridge the gap between supply and demand. Given that spring water is the only (and inadequate) source in many Himalayan towns, sustainable sourcing could be done by increasing budgetary allocations for reviving and protecting springs, increasing water harvesting, and diversifying water sources.

Second, water governance and management need to consider issues and services beyond water utilities. A polycentric governance system – which would involve multiple governing bodies and institutions interacting with one another to ensure access to water – could be a more suitable water governance model in Himalayan towns and cities.

Third, the equitable distribution of water needs more attention. The poor and marginalised are most affected when water supply dwindles. Many cities are faced with the challenge of providing access to safe water for the poor, especially during the dry season when supply dwindles.

Fourth, women’s multiple roles in water management need to be recognised, and their role in the planning and decision-making processes needs to be reviewed and strengthened.

Fifth, mountain cities need to be viewed in the broader context of mountain water, environment, and energy. Climate change impacts on these sectors are presenting new and growing challenges to Himalayan towns and cities that require innovative solutions.

KD: How can communities help in improving the situation?

AP: An important aspect of urban water management is decentralised governance and the devolution of power to local bodies and institutions managing water.

A study of Tansen and Damauli, two small towns in Nepal, by Sreoshi Singh and her team, shows that water institutions have played a very significant role in water supply management at the local level and that proper management can help avert critical water shortages. The research compares two towns that have different outcomes for water supply and access. In Tansen, infrastructural constraints and large-scale corruption in the systems’ upkeep and maintenance have implications on water governance, while in Damauli the systems have been managed well due to involvement of local communities.

The case of Darjeeling in the Indian Himalaya by Rinan Shah and Srinivas Badiger show that the water crisis is the result of a conundrum due to the interlinked problems of political unwillingness, insufficient investments, failure of cooperation between the state and regional institutions, and inadequacies in local governance including institutional capacity.

We are of the firm belief that water management can be rational only if the institutions responsible for such management are efficient. Many shreds of evidence show that community’s participation in the enforcement of rules and regulations on illegal connections and the misuse of water and optimisation of the budget for public utility services has helped in maintaining the service levels although the challenges of access to water persist. Access is a larger issue of investment in water infrastructure and urban planning processes that must include the voice of the local communities in the planning and management of water infrastructure.

KD: Any other key points?

AP: Our study shows that there is a mismatch between urban and environmental planning. Ideally, urban planning should include the environmental aspects of the location and include it in the planning process. We found that many basic services such as water supply, sanitation etc have not been taken into account as we expand the towns. Himalayan towns have a major issue in terms of geographical space for expansion and its carrying capacity.

Of all the towns we studied, the source of water is from springs. A lot is required to protect the springs’ watershed so that water supply and its sustainability are ensured. One more issue is of peak demands during tourist seasons – none of the towns had official and public data of the number of visitors come during peak seasons.

The carrying capacity of the Himalayan towns is limited and, therefore, dialogues are needed to understand the balance between demand and supply of services during peak seasons based on scientific data.

The third aspect is the readiness to deal with disasters. The Himalayan town’s infrastructure has to be climate resilient so that it can withstand disasters such as floods and landslides. We found very little evidence of the readiness of these towns and that is a matter of concern.

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