What other cities can learn from the Shimla water crisis

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New Delhi: After enduring weeks of water crisis, authorities in Shimla have now enforced water rationing, with each of the hill town’s three zones getting water once in four days.

“There was no hygiene. I can’t even describe how bad it got,” said Saisha Kaushal, who lives with her family just 15 minutes away from Shimla’s iconic Mall Road.

The Shimla water crisis, say experts, holds lessons for others cities.

“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.”

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., called 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 30km away; Bengaluru relies on piped Cauvery water from 86km away; and Delhi gets its supply from 230km away. Shimla has resorted to a similar solution, with the city fast tracking a World Bank funded project to pump in water from 22km 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.”

“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 the 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.”livemint