It is ironic that a few weeks before a social media post went viral asking tourists to not visit Shimla this summer because of a water shortage in the hill station, a video of a deluge of water sweeping down the town’s arterial Mall Road was being widely shared.
The Shimla region has good precipitation all through the year. It is even blessed with rainfall in the summer. In May alone, it rained in the area at least on four different occasions. On May 8, the rainfall, accompanied by hailstones, was so heavy that the roofs of hundreds of houses leaked.
Yet, the capital of Himachal Pradesh has always had a water problem. More than that, however, it has a laziness problem. Back in the day, on a bad water day in a boarding school here, school authorities would suspend the morning physical training and march students – toothbrush and towel in hand – to brush and wash in the khuds below the school. There was no water for the school’s swimming pool so the solution was to not use it. For the nine years I was there as a student, it remained a dank, dark cesspool, collecting a medley of flotsam over the years.
Make do attitude
Today, many years later, the attitude to Shimla’s water woes remains much the same. If there is no water, the town’s residents simply learn to live without it. They have got used to taking their baths in rotation, whenever the municipal supply of water comes, which is usually once in three days. They do not grow plants, partly because the monkeys destroy them, but mainly because, ‘Where is the water to water them?’
This week, however, the water crisis became so bad that its residents, who weren’t able to bathe for seven days in a row, stormed newly-elected Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur’s residence at midnight and raised a stink.
Shimla’s big folly, however, is to assume that the government somehow has a magic solution to its water woes. Yes, of course, the Shimla Municipal Corporation could do better – least of all plug the leaks in the system and save thousands of litres of water being wasted in the town each day. The corporation could also ensure that the water it supplies is not contaminated. In December 2015, it supplied a toxic broth of sewage and potable water, killing over 10 people over the next few months and infecting hundreds of others with jaundice.
The water shortages Shimla faces are due to its exploding population. The town is designed to house only 25,000 people, but today about 2 lakh people, including the floating population of tourists, live here. A population this size needs at least 44 million litres of water a day, and it is unrealistic to assume that the Shimla Municipal Corporation can provide this huge requirement even in a year of good snowfall and rain.
What Shimla’s residents must do is give up their dependency on the government, and begin to follow water conservation practices like harvesting and recycling water, which have so far been adopted by a minuscule portion of the population.
Residents of Shimla expect the government to provide them with clean drinking water even though the corporation has often let the residents down, such as in 2015-’16.
In July 2016, for instance, I offered to give my neighbour the surplus rainwater from my roof, but she scoffed at the idea of using that water. Just a month after this rebuff, authorities fished out the skeleton of a four-year-old child, who had been kidnapped two years earlier, from a municipal corporation water tank.
It will not be difficult to rig rainwater harvesting systems in homes across the town. Most houses already have sloping roofs, with rainwater drains attached. All that needs to be done is to connect the pipe that funnels the rainwater down to a storage tank. This water can be filtered and pumped back to an overhead tank, and can be used for all bathing and washing needs. But the majority of Shimla’s residents somehow choose to live without water than harvest it.
The several hotels in the tourist town are loath to invest in water-saving efforts too. For instance, on paper, its compulsory for all Shimla hotels to harvest rainwater. But to avoid the costs of a filtration plant, most hotels fill their rainwater tanks with municipal water. Very few hotels have recycling plants.
Rainwater harvesting will immensely lessen the water strain this town faces. It will also keep the municipal corporation from dredging streams and rivers, which have been drying up over the years, possibly because of climate change and due to overuse by the region’s orchardists.
Orchards sucking streams dry
Rich apple orchardists in Shimla district channel potable water from the region’s streams and rivulets for their pesticide sprays. An average orchardist conducts at least two sprays a month. In one year, he draws over one lakh litres of water directly from a water source, which is usually a natural spring or a forest rivulet.
If you apply that average to my village, Ratnari, which has about 300 households, over 30 million litres of water is utilised here for the chemical sprays alone. Multiply that figure with the thousands of villages dotting Shimla district.
To add to this, new varieties of imported apple plants, which start bearing fruit in a couple of years and are not labour intensive, are increasingly becoming popular. But these plants have shallow roots and require constant irrigation. Wealthy orchardists can easily dig water-harvesting tanks in their land for their irrigation or spraying needs. But they prefer to petition the government to introduce water-lifting schemes, which further suck the already dying streams dry.
Finally, it is also a question of priorities. In a drive to make Shimla look pretty, there is a rule that the roof of every house must be painted either red or green. Non-compliance leads to a fine, so everyone complies. It costs about Rs 30,000 to paint a roof, and half of that to install a rainwater harvesting system. The residents of Shimla, the hotels who profit from the tourists who visit the town, and the state government need to get their priorities right.
Sanjay Austa is a journalist, an orchardist, and the owner of two new eco-resorts in Shimla. He divides his time between Shimla and Delhi.