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Weekly Pullouts » Himachal Tribune

Posted at: May 12, 2018, 12:03 AM; last updated: May 13, 2018, 2:12 AM (IST)

Shimla turns into Himachal’s own Cape Town

‘Water, water everywhere, Nor any to drink’

Rakesh Lohumi

The perennial water crisis the “Queen of Hills” has been facing for the past several years reached a flashpoint during this summer with residents in most of the localities going without water for days together. Scarcity of water, particularly during the peak tourist season, has been a regular feature in the state capital, but the situation has never been so pathetic. The plight of the people getting a few buckets of water after a gap of four to six days can well be imagined. The problem has been compounded due to inefficient water infrastructure and inequitable distribution. While some VIP residential areas largely remained unaffected, taps ran dry in several parts of the city, with localities at the tail end of the supply line bearing the brunt of scarcity. 

A tweet likening Shimla to Cape Town amply highlights the gravity of the water crisis that not only affected the residents but the tourists as well. “We have our very own Cape Town. Capital of Himachal, Shimla, had no water for four consecutive days. This dhaba is serving meals in plastic plates because there is no water to wash the dishes, one environmental crisis leading to another?” tweeted Mansi Asher, an environmental activist, who was one of the thousands of visitors who felt the pinch of water shortage. 

Acute water shortage in the famous South African city of Cape Town early this year raised global concerns about the emerging threat of water scarcity, and it has become a benchmark of sorts for gauging the severity of the problem. It is being seen as a wake-up call across the world, especially in the water-stressed cities, to take corrective measures to conserve the depleting sources of fresh water.

Indeed, the availability of fresh water has been declining in the face of rising demand and the situation has been worsening progressively. “Against the peak requirement of 44 MLD (million litres per day) only 36 to 38 MLD was available and last week it hovered between 22 MLD and 28 MLD as a snag in power supply disrupted pumping of water from the Giri Lift Scheme,” says Vijay Gupta, Executive Engineer in charge of Water Supply, while explaining the reason for acute shortage of water.

According to the 2011 Census, the population of the city is 1.80 lakh but the actual number of people residing within the municipal area is around 3 lakh and during June when the summer is at peak, there is an additional influx of 50,000 to 75,000 tourists. Besides, the availability of water dwindles from all sources, except Giri which largely remains unaffected due to a decline in the discharge widening the deficit, he adds.

However, a former Mayor of the Shimla Municipal Corporation, Sanajy Chauhan, maintains that the problem has been aggravated due to mismanagement. The availability of water has improved following the replacement of 2 km length of rusted pipes  at a cost of  Rs 4 crore to plug leakages in the Giri Lift Scheme. It was now supplying 17 to 18 MLD as against 10 MLD earlier. “I got water after six days at my home in Panthaghati, something that never happened before.” He said the availability of 32 MLD to 35 MLD was not too bad, it was quite enough to ensure adequate supply to the residents by providing water on alternate days through proper distribution.

Hospitals and restaurants had a tough time, some were forced to lock the stinking toilets. Colleges, universities and other institutes with a hostel and a residential facility have been the worst sufferers. “This year the situation has turned critical at the very onset of the summer. We are procuring water through tankers on a regular basis, spending a huge amount,”says Prem Chand, Secretary of the prestigious Indian Institute of Advanced Study. The resident fellows and senior visiting scholars have been put to inconvenience as the guest house and residences hardly get any water these days, he adds.  

A resident of Boileauganj, Vivek Sharma, said, “I was forced to shift the venue of my daughter’s birthday party on May 8 to the house of my in-laws in Phagli as Dhingra Estate where I live had no water for the past six days”.

According to Mayor Kususm Sadret the discharge in most of the sources plummeted in April itself, as the region just had token snow during the winters. The frequent spells of hailstorms over the past fortnight also affected supply, as pumping has to be suspended due to excessive silt in the streams. The problem of low voltage also disrupts pumping of water. Once the schedule of supplying water on alternate days is disturbed, it takes a few days to normalise. Pumping has improved and the crisis will ease over the next few days, she claimed.   

Mansi Asher terms it as a case of “wrong priorities”. The common man was being starved of water while hotels, the big water guzzlers, are flourishing. People are being forced to consume bottled water and use disposable cups and plates, adding to the already unmanageable plastic waste.

It is also a case of indifferent planning. The Giri Lift Water Supply Scheme, commissioned in 2009, was designed to meet the demand for the next 25 years. However, the city ran into fresh-water crisis within seven years as successive governments made a mockery of the Town and Country Planning Act by allowing large-scale unauthorised constructions. “Even the orders of the High Court and the National Green Tribunal are not being implemented and builders are working overtime to raise huge structures. Construction activity is continuing in full swing and water is being used in bulk for the purpose,” points out Roshan Lal Justa, Convenor of the Himachal Professional Forum who has been opposing the regularisation of illegal constructions.

While demand shot up due to a rapid increase in population, the availability of water declined as the authorities failed to protect the sources. Water supply from Ashwini Khad was suspended in January 2016, following outbreak of a jaundice epidemic. The stream was contaminated by waste water from the Maliana sewage treatment plant set up upstream, the intake point of the scheme.

In contrast the British gave top priority to protection of water sources. The first scheme of 4.54 MLD capacities was executed in 1875 to tap spring sources from the Dhalli Catchment forest, 12.85 km away, to cater to a population of 16,000. It was kept out of bound to protect the main source of water supply. Old signage commands the visitors to even take off their shoes. Today it is acclaimed as the best maintained forest of Asia. The scheme was augmented by installing pump sets near Cherot Nallah in 1889 and Jagroti Nallah (1914) to tap 4.80 MLD of water at source. In the same year, 2.50 MLD of water was tapped from Chair Nallah and in 1924, 7.72 MLD of water was lifted from the Nauti Khad. It was adjudged as one of the best water-supply schemes in Asia in 1938. 

The scheme met the requirement even after Independence and it was only after Shimla became the capital of Himachal that demand started rising rapidly. It was augmented in 1981-82 by installing pump sets at Gumma and Darabla to tap additional 16.34 MLD of water. In April 1992, Ashwani Khad was tapped to draw 10.80 MLD of water through a two-stage lift scheme. The last augmentation was carried out with the commissioning of the Giri Lift Scheme in 2009. Now a new Rs 774 crore World Bank-funded scheme to lift 55 MLD Sutlej water from Kol Dam has been planned.

The sources are getting distant and water has to be pumped up from greater depths with each augmentation due to the declining discharge in streams and springs, a consequence of large-scale deforestation. The fact that the hills have a limited carrying capacity has been completely ignored and the true value and importance of forests in maintaining the mountain ecosystems has also been overlooked. The lack of green cover affects recharging of water sources and also makes hills prone to soil erosion leading to excessive silt during the rains. In both cases, water supply is affected. The British were well aware of such issues. While deciding to develop Shimla as a hill station, their main concern was ensuring availability of water. They realised that electricity can be brought from Lahore but water will have to be arranged locally. They preserved the green cover over the Shimla ranges so well that perennial springs spouted from the foot of almost every hill. Most of them have been buried under multi-storied structures or dried up over the past three decades. 

Wanton denuding of hills and unbridled spread of concrete structures have altered the micro-climate. The snow is declining progressively and the seasonal snowline is retreating fast. Shimla and nearby Kufri, which hosted winter games until the early 1980s, are frequently experiencing snowless winters. After a below par monsoon, the state recently experienced a lean snow season with Shimla recording 71 per cent deficiency, though frequent spells of rain during April and May improved the situation somewhat. 

SP Vasudev, a former principal chief conservator of forests, says hydrology of watersheds  can be improved by planting suitable species like oak, maple, horse chestnut, fir and spruce, in addition to deodar. The gaps in the degraded forests should be filled on a regular basis by planting taller plants, up to five or six year old, instead of saplings to minimise mortality. Besides all-out efforts should be made to revive the natural sources of water which have suffered neglect after the supply of piped water was started in rural areas. Urban forests should be raised in and around towns to improve both environment and aesthetics of landscape keeping in view the tourism aspect, he adds.

The state needed to conserve its forests all the more, as it has the lowest green cover among all the Himalayan states, except Jammu and Kashmir. According to the latest State of Forests Report (SFR)-2017, Himachal has just 15,100 sq km (27.12 per cent) area under the green cover. Even the more populous state of Uttarakhand, has a much larger area of 24,295 sq km (45.43 per cent) under forests. Arunachal Pradesh (79.96 per cent), Mizoram (86.87 percent), Manipur (77.69 per cent), Meghalaya (76.45 per cent), Nagaland (75.33 per cent) and hill districts of Assam (67.91 per cent) are way ahead of Himachal.

Developed countries are raising forests on a war footing to combat environmental degradation. China has announced its plan to plant 6.66 million hectares of new forests during the current year as part of its initiative to raise the area under forests from the current 21.7 percent to 23 percent by 2020. Similarly, France has also decided to extend the green cover to save its national capital Paris from degenerating into a city of smog. It plans to raise a new suburban forest over an area of about 13 sq km to help combat air pollution. 

In Sikkim, which has witnessed a significant fall in winter precipitation due to the changing weather pattern, efforts are being made to improve availability of water through spring-shed development. The strategy is to reduce surface runoff and ensure that maximum rainwater percolates down to recharge ground aquifers to improve discharge from springs.

Himachal needs similar initiatives to improve the quality and expanse of forests, particularly in the precipitous high altitude areas, to enhance the hydrological contribution of the mountain ecosystems and ensure that they serve as perennial water storage towers for the people.

Acute water shortage in the famous South African city of Cape Town early this year raised global concerns about the emerging threat of water scarcity, and it has become a benchmark of sorts for gauging the severity of the problem. It is being seen as a wake-up call across the world, especially in the water-stressed cities, to take corrective measures to conserve the depleting sources of fresh water.

In Sikkim, which has witnessed a significant fall in winter precipitation due to the changing weather pattern, efforts are being made to improve availability of water through spring-shed development. The strategy is to reduce surface run-off and ensure that maximum rainwater percolates down to recharge ground aquifers to improve discharge from springs. Himachal needs similar initiatives to improve the quality and expanse of forests.

(The writer is a Shimla-based freelance journalist)

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