New Delhi: As the third week of May rolled in, Saisha Kaushal’s family began to get worried after not receiving municipal water for 5 days in a row. When her father frantically called an official of the water supply agency, he was told water couldn’t be pumped due to a temporary electricity outage. But no water flowed the next day either. And the next.
On the 9th day, Kaushal’s household, located a mere 15 minutes away from Shimla’s iconic Mall Road, received water for just 30 minutes. “People came out on to the streets to protest that night. I have never seen anything like this," Kaushal says.
As the water crisis deepened, people could neither eat nor bathe; the price of a tanker of water shot up from Rs.2000 to Rs.4000; and schools got shut. “Since there was no water to cook, we just survived on bread," Kaushal says. “People were sitting around doing nothing. There was no hygiene. I can’t even describe how bad it got," she adds.
The hill town has now enforced water rationing, with each of the city’s three zones getting water once in 4 days. “There is water shortage [in Shimla] every summer, but the dip in availability was sudden this year. We should have taken notice sooner," says Himachal Pradesh chief secretary Vineet Chawdhry. “Several Indian cities have seen water riots, so we should have woken up earlier," he adds.
Shimla has a lot in common with many of India’s cities – the water supply network is dominated by creaky British-era pipes; roughly half of the water is lost in transit due to leakages; and even the rich don’t pay a reasonable fee that can be used to maintain the distribution network. Unlike other Indian cities, however, Shimla has five major sources of water to lean back on, instead of one or two. If a water crisis could hit Shimla, which has a population of just 0.2 million people, what’s in store for the rest of urban India?
A perpetual water crisis is the norm in most Indian cities, says Vishwanath S., who goes by the moniker Bengaluru’s water man. “In large parts of Bengaluru, water is supplied only twice a week. Ideally, 24/7 water should be the expectation. But we have resigned ourselves. Residents of most Indian cities have just made coping arrangements," he says.
In response to these perpetual shortages, most Indian cities have just resorted to pumping more water from further and further away, instead of fixing their leaky distribution networks or financially stabilizing the water utilities. Chennai gets most of its water from 30 km away; Bengaluru relies on piped Cauvery water from 86-km away; and Delhi gets its supply from 230-km away. Shimla has resorted to a similar solution, with the city fast tracking a World Bank funded project to pump in water from 22-km outside city limits.
In the long run, we can’t keep banking on getting water from distant sources, says Tikender Panwar, a former deputy mayor of Shimla. “How long can that sustain? We should be building more embankments that can recharge water bodies. The overall building plan of the city must be reviewed. Shimla also had to face an 80% deficit in rains this year. Climate resilient strategies need to be operationalized fast," he adds.
“The first priority for all Indian cities should be to reclaim and use the available water resources within the city limits," says Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. “The further you go from a city for water; it is going to be more expensive. There are costs other people are paying for it. That is leading to a lot of conflicts. The present situation is not sustainable."