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How Shimla’s Water Crisis Flows Along Spatial and Economic Lines

How Shimla’s Water Crisis Flows Along Spatial and Economic Lines

In popular culture and popular imagination, Shimla has been cast within the columns of its colonial heritage. Credit: Pritam Das Biswas/Unsplash

An aerial view of Shimla, June 2018. Photo: Pritam Das Biswas/Unsplash

  • Shimla’s core areas, populated by more affluent people, receive water supply every day and for a greater number of hours on each day.
  • But Shimla’s poor, including those living in the city’s slums, receive much less water than the WHO’s stipulated minimum requirement.
  • The city receives pumped water, and pumping is more difficult during the monsoons due to siltation and during winter because the water freezes.
  • In the summer, the city depends on rain water – but at this time also has a large influx of tourists who stress the local water supply system.
  • The challenges posed by such erratic supply are harder on women, who are tasked with obtaining the water for their households and keeping their families healthy.

The Himalayan town of Shimla is grappling with a severe water supply shortage this year. The prolonged unavailability of water for domestic and commercial use has resulted in civil society unrest and protest.

As reported, Shimla is well-acquainted with instances of water shortage during summer, the peak tourist season. But the current water crisis, which is happening during the monsoon, warrants a deeper understanding of the seasonality of the city’s crisis.

Also, while water shortage affects everyone, implications for people of low-income groups and those on society’s margins, such as slum-dwellers, daily-wage labourers and informal-sector workers with inadequate economic and social safety nets, seem to be severe. Such a water shortage will have long-term consequences on their livelihoods and health.

Here, we explain the scale and form of the water crisis in Shimla and the specifics of its consequences for these people.

Water woes

Located on a mountain ridge, Shimla has a more than a century-old lift-water supply system that lifts water at an average head of 1,470 metres from various sources and transports it using a high-pressure water conveyor system to reservoirs.

The Shimla water supply scheme started in 1875 with a capacity of 4.54 million litres per day (MLD) and catering to a population of 16,000. Before this time, the city depended on 17 baolis, or natural springs, for its water.

Since springs were the only water source then, water was a constant problem, and the first initiative to address it began in 1880 when the government acquired 15,000 acres of land and converted it into a big catchment forest in Seog. The catchment area was further increased in 1893 to meet growing demand, and more pipes were laid later.

After that, Shimla’s water supply had five augmentation schemes – three of which were commissioned before independence, plus one each at Ashwani Khad in 1992 and Giri in 2007-2008.

After independence, Shimla has grown into an urban centre. Per the 2011 Census, Shimla has a resident population of approximately 2 lakh people plus some 31 lakh tourists who visit every year. The latter inflates the demand for water in the city and stresses the existing water infrastructure. The situation worsens in the peak summer months, when water demand exceeds supply.

In the recent past, the issue of Shimla’s water problem came to the fore in 2016, when there was a hepatitis outbreak due to water contamination in Ashwani Khad, which supplies about 20% of the city’s water. The second widely reported water crisis happened in 2018, when Shimla reached ‘day zero’ in May, with several localities going without water for up to two weeks.

One of the authors of this article, Soma Sarkar, conducted field work in 2021 and found that water shortage occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic as well despite the absence of tourists. The water crisis was also not limited to the summer.

While we can attribute the summer crisis to scanty rainfall, the monsoons are characterised by high turbidity and siltation, which makes pumping the water very difficult at the source. Water quality is also compromised at this time by the mud. In winter, when the ambient temperature drops below 0º C, water freezes in the pipes.

The city’s poorer people and people from low-income groups bear the brunt because they depend on public water taps and they can’t afford private water tankers.

Specific challenges

In Shimla, spatial inequality exists in the distribution of water infrastructure, leading to differential access to water across the city. In the core area around Mall Road, Lower Jakhoo, Middle Bazar and some other neighbourhoods, water is supplied daily and for more hours. Barring this, almost all of Shimla receives water in cycles and is replenished once every two or three days, for an hour or two.

Humare yahan paani to har teesre din aata hai” (Hindi for ‘we get water on the third day’) – this seems to be a common refrain concerning water in the city.

Peripheral neighbourhoods like Totu, Majiath and other merged areas get water only once every five or six days and four or five times a month – which has been highly challenging during the pandemic. The volume of water is also far from the WHO mandate (minimum 50-100 litres per capita per day) and the Central Public Health and Environmental Engineering Organisation’s requirement estimate (135 litres per capita per day).

Despite a record excess of summer rain in 2021 and the absence of tourists due to the lockdown, field data revealed a persistent supply gap in Shimla. In the monsoons, due to turbidity and siltation, pumping water becomes difficult. Power disruptions don’t help either.

People with lower income and those living in slums, with no access to extra water storage, and women are the most vulnerable to disrupted water supply.

A public water tap in Shimla. Source: Authors provided

The image above shows a public water tap in Shimla’s Lower Khalini area. Thirteen households depend on this tap, and water is supplied for one hour every alternate day or sometimes once every two days. Some people in this cluster are Group D government employees while some run small businesses. The families of the 13 households take turns to store water and schedule their water-based chores accordingly. For example, the houses are cleaned and clothes laundered once a week or 10 days. Bathing depends on whether enough water is leftover after that stored for drinking, cooking, sanitation and washing utensils.

This state of affairs is particularly difficult for women. Because of the gendered division of labour in the households, procuring water and maintaining family members’ health is often the women’s responsibility. Kitchen chores and house cleaning also require frequent hand-washing. Women depending on the one tap wash their hair only once a week, since it requires more water.

These adjustments aside, the COVID-19 pandemic created more challenges, due to the increased water requirement to wash hands, disinfect houses, wash vegetables and to bathe more often.

When adjustments alone don’t suffice, the people often use the nearby baolis even if they are contaminated.

Our field insights reveal that spatial inequalities intersect with the water crisis in the city, undermining the ability of its more vulnerable people to cope properly. The ambitious World Bank-funded Shimla Water Supply and Sewerage Services project aims to resolve the city’s water woes by getting water in bulk from the Sutlej river. But the absence of an integrated approach that includes the local governance of traditional water sources will continue to leave many people vulnerable.

We must urgently empower local bodies and improve their capacity for better water management and distribution – and rejuvenate the baolis that plug a significant gap in the water supply. Finally, we need to develop a bottom-up understanding of water adequacy and affordability at the household level before we can expect to attain water water equality in Shimla.

Soma Sarkar is a PhD research scholar in the school of development studies and Geetanjoy Sahu teaches – both at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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