The water crisis in Shimla is a warning for India
In India, every ecological crisis — and we have plenty of them — has a familiar lifecycle. No one, be it administrators, politicians or the public, take note when things just begin to go wrong, but once it finally crosses a critical threshold level, all hell breaks loose. Take the case of Shimla. The capital and the largest city in Himachal Pradesh, a tourist haven, and the principal commercial, cultural and educational centre of the state has had no water for the past week. Things would not have come to such a pass if the administrators, politicians and the local residents took note of the impending crisis and did something about it. Over the past three summers, water availability had plunged to 29 or 30 million litres per day (MLD). This year, the supply was only about 20 MLD. The water demand in Shimla during peak tourist season is around 45 MLD. It is not difficult to ascertain why the water availability to the city has been decreasing. It could be that a combination of population explosion, unplanned growth of the city and its expansion to some traditional catchment areas (a region from which rainfall flows into a river, lake, or reservoir) have led to a reduction in the natural flow of water, and large-scale deforestation.
Water stress is not new to India. Many Indian cities, including Delhi and Bangalore, face a water crisis, especially that of freshwater. A World Bank study puts the plight of the country in perspective: 163 million Indians lack access to safe drinking water; 210 million Indians lack access to improved sanitation; 21% of communicable diseases are linked to unsafe water; 500 children under the age of five die from diarrhoea every day in India. This is not surprising because the country has failed in so many fronts. There is no attempt at the central or state levels to manage water quantity and quality, a lack of implementation of existing laws and regulations, pervasive corruption, poor adoption rates of technologies such as desalination plants, no charges on water usage and huge distribution losses. Add to this deforestation of catchment areas and pollution of water bodies, export of water-intensive crops, and excessive dependence on groundwater. There is also a lack of interest in maintaining India’s traditional water harvesting structures.
In India, water is on the State List, which means states can make their own laws. But there is a feeling in the central government that water should be brought under the Concurrent List though states are opposed to the idea. But for now, urban India needs to focus on recycling and harvesting water, having better testing and purification facilities and increase public awareness on the need to conserve water. India will have to get its act together on urban water. Otherwise, Shimla-like incidents will recur across the country.