Himachal Pradesh High Court Monday gave the state government and Shimla Municipal Corporation 24 hours to explain the unprecedented shortage of water that has crippled North India’s most visited hill station for the past eight days. Acting Chief Justice Sanjay Karol repeatedly asked the government whether the city’s water resources were sufficient to cater to its ever-growing population.
Shimla has witnessed extraordinary scenes this past week — on Sunday night, residents frustrated after a daylong struggle to fill buckets from municipal corporation tankers, tried to march to the residence of Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur, who described the crisis as “really, really bad”. Protest dharnas and rallies have been held, and pictures of people with buckets in long queues have gone viral on the Internet. The absence of Mayor Kusum Sadret, who left Shimla for China in the middle of the crisis, has fuelled the anger.
Some neighbourhoods, especially those at the tail end of supply lines, haven’t received a drop of water since the beginning of last week, throwing day-to-day living out of gear. Educational institutions, private and government hostels, especially those for girls, hospitals, and offices have been badly hit. In Shimla’s peak tourist season, many hotels have shut for the lack of water.
So how did Shimla run into the crisis whose magnitude, the Chief Minister conceded to The Indian Express, the civic body had completely failed to anticipate?
The fundamental problem, Chief Secretary Vineet Chawdhry says, is a dramatic decline in the availability of water at the two main supply schemes that have long fed Shimla. The Giri scheme, which has an installed capacity of 20 million litres per day (MLD), has been providing only 9.75 MLD, and the scheme at Gumma, the city’s oldest, has been giving the corporation about 10.6 MLD against its installed capacity of 21 MLD.
Total availability from all the six schemes feeding Shimla crashed to 22 MLD Monday, almost half the installed capacity of 42 MLD. While demand goes up 25-30% in summer, the shortfall has never been this much: average supply in April-May 2016 was 32 MLD, and in April-May 2017, 35 MLD.
In the peak tourist season, an average 15,000-20,000 tourists visit the city every day, adding to the load of its 2.2 lakh resident population on the city’s resources. Daily tourist arrivals are estimated to reach 25,000-30,000 over the weekends.
But what is the reason for the lower availability of water?
“Water sources have been depleted,” Chawdhry said. “There isn’t enough water to pump at the stations. The dry spell with less rainfall and very little snowfall appear to be a factor. But, we will need to study the reasons,” he said. In a note submitted to the state government, the municipal corporation has attributed the crisis to adverse weather/climatic conditions which it has said has led to the drying up of water sources.
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What is obvious is that a significant amount of water goes waste due to old, leaky pipes. The civic body is often arbitrary in distributing water, giving VIP localities preferential treatment. Many hotels draw excess water, leaving common people facing shortages almost every year. Illegal constructions have mushroomed across the city, and water is frequently pilfered for use at these sites.
A large number of farmers upstream of the Gumma source grow vegetable crops, to irrigate which they have cut at least three khuls (traditional water channels) from the stream. On Monday, Deputy Commissioner Amit Kashyap got the farmers to stop drawing water. Officials acknowledge, however, that this can only be a temporary solution.
Again, the Irrigation and Public Health Engineering (IPH) Department has allowed more than 150 farmers to use pumps to draw water from the Giri river. Almost double this number are likely to be using illegal pumps. Officials on Monday rushed to plug the illegal pumping, and the IPH department withdrew its NOCs.
An important scheme, Ashwani Khad, which supplied 8 MLD of water, was shut down after an outbreak of jaundice in the city in 2015-16. A sewage treatment plant upstream was found to be discharging untreated sewage into the rivulet.
Hoteliers say an explosion of homestays around Shimla has added to the crisis.
“Most of us now have private tankers in addition to normal commercial supplies,” Sanjay Sood, president of the North Zone hoteliers body, said.