Shimla's Water Woes: India's Favourite Hill Station Continues To Be At Risk Of Scarcity

Many remember the 2018 Shimla water crisis which had led to days of protests and outrage against the government. Three. years since, conditions have improved but risks remain.
Published: 24 Nov 2021, Updated: 25 Nov 2021 10:22 am
Despite adequate water levels in all the major rivers of Himachal Pradesh – Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Yamuna, Chandra-Baga (Chenab in J&K) and countless perennial streams and rivulets originating from melting glaciers,  the state capital Shimla continues to be at risk of water insecurity.
Many in this town have not yet forgotten the 2018 water crisis when disturbing images of residents quining up for hours for a bucket of water went viral, a crisis that some environmentalists compared with that in Cape Town. The water availability at the time had dropped down to 18 to 19 MLD against the daily requirement of 38 to 40 MLD making the town go dry for almost eight days.
Almost three years since the crisis,  conditions have shown more minor improvements. The measures taken by the Himachal Pradesh government, including setting up of Shimla Jal Prabandhan Nigam (SJPN) Ltd, have solved some of the crisis by plugging leakage and wastage by replacing old pipes of the British era and augmenting the availability of the water at different sources.

(A defunct British-era water tap at Mall Road in Shimla)

Having lost two summer tourist seasons to Covid-19 lockdown, water woes seem to be under check for now. There are no street protests, no overflowing tanks, no mobile tankers deployed to supply water to scarcity-hit areas and of course hoteliers are no longer sending “Don’t come to Shimla” advisories to tourists as in 2018.  Instead, many in the city are now boasting about the city having an adequate water supply.
“It’s unbelievable yet true that the Shimla water crisis is a thing of the past. Whether it’s peak or lean tourist season, the town is getting a supply of 42 to 44 MLD, sufficient to meet daily needs without water rationing. We also have the capacity to lift more water now if demand increases,” says Dharmendra Gill, Managing Director, SJPN Ltd.
In fact, he claims, Shimla is heading towards having 24 X7 water supply and a soft-run of the system has already been done in some localities of the town.
However, not all are satisfied with the city’s current water supply.
Citizens like Sanjay Chauhan, former Shimla Mayor, raise questions on the distribution system which, according to him, continues to be in shambles.
“There is no shortage of water, availability has risen from 37-38 MLD to 44-45 MLD. Yet, many areas in Shimla including mine only get water on alternate days. This is simply a problem of water management which continues to give Shimla a bad name,” Chauhan says
Despite improvements in water supply, water scarcity remains a pertinent issue for Shimla, one that is likely to become an impediment for tourists visiting in future.
A survey done by WAPCOS, a government agency, in 2017-18 had revealed that 47 per cent of the city’s water pumped from six different sources, gets wasted in the distribution network and also supply line. Leakages in the water pipes that make up the main supply line were one of the main causes of water loss. The main supply line, which was laid in 1924 by the British, has now been fully replaced adding at least 3 MLD of water to the supply system..
In 2018-2019, Shimla Municipal Corporation got the old pipeline between Craigneno and Dhalli replaced after an Rs 8 crore investment. A new scheme, Koti-Brandi, was also commissioned with the aim of adding an additional 5 MLD of water. The British Era Gumma water supply – the town’s most dependable system, was totally overhauled. It supplies 21 MLD of water to the town.
Even after plugging leakages, the after water flowing into 45 sectoral water storage tanks was going to waste in the distribution network. This has been checked to a great extent.
Shimla historian Raaja Bhasin traces the water history of Shimla back to the 1870s, when Shimla relied heavily on the erratic supply of water from a dozen-and-a-half baolis and springs. All these sources were scattered around town and while some are perennial, others could dry up when they were needed the most.
“The Combermere stream, now totally obscured by construction activity, was a somewhat more reliable source in early days. Most of the town’s residents used to draw water from here. The servants carrying goatskin bags, ‘mashks’ strapped on their backs used to come and fill the water and carried it home,” he wrote in one of his books on Shimla.
Former Congress Mayor Narinder Kataria also recalls how Shimla roads, especially the Mall road, used to be washed every day. There used to be enough water in the public taps. But when the population increased, the town’s civic infrastructure came under stress and drinking water shortage cropped up. The increased tourist influx further aggravated the situation which reached its climax in 2018.
Since the formation of SJPN Ltd, however, the availability of water has substantially increased. Nevertheless, the distribution network, which is quite old and woven through millions of small and big pipelines, is still not dependable. Disruption in electricity supply, for instance, can affect pumping and thus disrupt the water supply schedule of the entire town. These variables still pose a danger to smooth and continuous water supply.
Monsoons also pose serious problems to the city’s regular water supply. During monsoons, water streams flow with high turbidity due to heavy slit load, causing water shortage. So far, no proper systems have been put in place to meet such contingencies.
Environmental issues and climate change also impact the availability of water. Most of the water sources are tapped as perennial streams and are highly vulnerable to climate change. Less snowfall, low or no rainfall can lead to depletion of water.
“Climate-related risks are bound to impact Shimla’s water availability in the times to come. Natural water sources are highly dependent on snow and rains. It’s high time to focus on long term solutions. The upcoming World World Bank funded (Rs 1813 cr)  project for Shimla to lift water from Sutlej river, however, is moving at a snail’s pace,” Vishal Gulati, a conservationist who was part of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Glasgow, tells Outlook.
Former Mayor Sanjay Chauhan was also highly critical of the delay in the implementation of the WB water supply project, which he recalls was cleared in 2014-15. The cost of the project was just Rs 900 cr then but now is now Rs 1813 crore. This speaks volumes about the non-seriousness of the government towards Shimla‘s water woes, Chauhan feels.
The Shimla resident blames the town’s water insecurity on poor water governance, lack of urban planning, poor tourism management during peak season, and climate change. He further admits that there is a lack of long-term strategies for water sustainability in urban centres.
Principal Secretary (Urban development) Rajneesh, who was part of WB negotiations on the Sutlej water project, nevertheless says the project has been a breakthrough. Once completed, the project will help supply water 24×7 to areas in ‘Greater Shimla’ as well as areas in the peripheral belt through a robust distribution system.
The main objectives of the Shimla Water Supply and Sewerage Project include augmenting Shimla Water Supply from river Sutlej with an additional 67 MLD to meet the water demand by 2050, and providing bulk water supply to Shimla Peri-Urban areas to meet the water demand of Special Area Development Authorities (SADA) Kufri, Shoghi, Ghanahatti and additional planning areas by 2050.
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