Why Himalayan towns are on the brink of a Shimla-type water crisis

In an interview with Hindustan Times, Director of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute Professor Bhaskar Vira, who along with his colleague Eszter Kovacs and photojournalist Toby Smith has documented the ecological challenges of the Himalayan towns including Shimla, speaks about the reasons behind the crisis and the way forward.

analysis Updated: Jun 04, 2018 17:38 IST
KumKum Dasgupta
KumKum Dasgupta
Hindustan Times
People fill water from water tankers in Shimla, June 1 (HT)

Shimla, the capital and the largest city in Himachal Pradesh and a tourist haven, is facing a water crisis of gigantic proportion. The water scarcity, prevailing in the town for the last 13 days, has hit the tourism industry as well as the residents hard. On Monday, even though the Shimla Municipal Corporation claimed improvement in the water supply situation, the department of education has ordered closure of government schools in the capital town in the wake of the impending tourist rush.

In an interview with Hindustan Times, Director of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute Professor Bhaskar Vira, who along with his colleague Eszter Kovacs and photojournalist Toby Smith, has documented the ecological challenges of the Himalayan towns including Shimla, speaks of the reasons behind the crisis and the way forward.

HT: What are the main factors behind the current problem in Shimla?

BV: While I have not studied the specific triggers for this summer’s crisis in Shimla, the longer term trends are growing numbers of travellers over the summer, increasing numbers of hotel rooms, and higher consumption of water in the luxury resorts; environmental changes which have impacted both the amount of water in the landscape, as well as land use change which impacts the capacity of the landscape to hold water – loss of trees on steep hillsides adds to water run-off, for example; and, still somewhat uncertain, but changes in precipitation/rainfall patterns due to longer term climate change.

This is coupled with complete apathy, in a strict governance sense – lack of controls on illegal construction, very little demand management in terms of water use, no long term planning for water security, lack of investment in the ecological and physical infrastructure – which means that the system only wakes up when there is a crisis. (See this for some previous analysis from me)

HT: Is this a sign of things to come for other towns in the mountains? Which ones need to worry the most?

BV: There is also evidence from elsewhere. All of the sites in which we worked are water stressed – there has been significant citizens’ mobilisation in Nainital already. The crisis is especially acute in towns that bear the brunt of summer tourist traffic, as well as towns that are in the path of religious pilgrimages and tourism. What used to be difficult to access locations are much easier to get to, and most of the existing infrastructure is not adequate to cope with this demand.

HT: How will climate change impact these towns?

BV: Mostly through changes in precipitation patterns, some impacts on land cover and land use, and (where relevant) impacts due to changes in the snow melt and glaciation processes higher up – all of these processes affect the balance of water in a landscape, and need to be considered in the context of growing demands.

HT: Is it time to do a study on carrying capacity of these towns?

BV: This is definitely needed. Carrying capacity, of course, is a complex issue, but we must understand the ecological limits within which we have to manage our human activities, and also recognise the trade-offs between our leisure activities – such as tourism, trekking and pilgrimage – and the impact they have on the ecosystems and the services that they provide to local residents, as well as beyond this.

The need to move towards a more responsible attitude to travel might help – people have to try and take responsibility for their impacts, leaving nothing behind (in terms of waste, especially plastic), and not extracting more from the local environment than their fair share.

In some places around the world, the pressure of short term visitors has become so acute that they have to limit the numbers through strict controls. It would be a great pity if we were forced into such a situation in the Himalayas, but these fragile and beautiful ecosystems are currently experiencing an unsustainable level of pressure from our collective human impacts, and something needs to be done!

HT: What is the Pani, Pahar Project all about?

BV: We have been working in the lower and middle Himalayas for a number of years, exploring issues of water scarcity and environmental and social change. We felt that it was important for these issues to be communicated more widely, and to contribute to public debate.

Our broad objectives were to depict water through the landscape, from source to tap, and the really different communities that come into contact with it, take from it and modify it, in order to bring attention to long-term questions around the sustainability of water sources and their use in the Himalayas.

One medium that allows us to reach a wider audience is the visual image, especially when we have been working in a landscape that is both awe-inspiring and fragile at the same time. The pictures tell their own story, but also leave so much room for interpretation and hopes that it generates a narrative that provokes a reaction, and makes people think about these issues.

The four themes reflect the findings and focus points that emerged from our three-year research project around small town-urbanisation and water management in the lower Himalayas.

One of our main perspectives throughout this was how water flows through, overlaps and intersects with everything else in the landscape – including how it sculpts the landscape. So in many ways our themes try to capture how water makes forms of human life possible, particularly urbanisation (Mussoorie nightscape); how sources are increasingly interlinked with people and management approaches because of urbanisation; how water is ‘controlled and captured’ through infrastructure (shots of Tehri dam); and then how water’s abundance and role varies through stark seasonal differences in the hills.

All our pictures were taken from our research sites, from Dhulikhel and Bidur in Nepal, to Nainital, Rajgarh, and Mussoorie. In this sense, the research topic and findings are strongly represented and interlinked with the core objectives of the “Pani-Pahar.” photo exhibition (currently on in Delhi).

At each site, we tried to understand the up-and down-stream dynamics of water flows and access, the ways in which towns had planned (or not) their water distribution networks, how well these worked and how people accessed water informally alongside these systems.

HT: How important is the concept of ecosystem services and is it time to implement it?

BV: This concept has been growing in recognition and importance, and makes very visible the role that nature continues to play in providing us with the essential ingredients that allow us to live meaningful and comfortable lives. So much of what nature provides is invisible, or taken for granted – and we only realise this during times of crisis.

So, the concept does bring some of these issues more visibly into public discussion. There are some attempts to implement these ideas in practice – for example the 14th Finance Commission has rewarded states that have higher forest cover, and this can be seen as a way of recognising these ecosystem services, and incentivising forest protection. But more needs to be done.

First Published: Jun 04, 2018 17:36 IST