From ‘water-starved’ to ‘water-surplus’: Shimla’s success story inspiring other Himachal towns

WATER CONSERVATION IN HILL TOWNS

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Queueing up for water during the 2018 water crisis.

The 2018 drinking water crisis in Shimla, a horrifying time when the hill town did not get a drop of water for almost eight days, was a wake-up call both for citizens and urban planners on the need to conserve its water resources. Environmentalists had then stressed the need for putting in place an efficient water management system, not only for Shimla but for the entire hill region.


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“The 2018 water crisis was an opportunity that called for a response based on scientific inputs about the overall water scarcity problem in the Himalayan region and a way forward to avert such situation in the future,” recalls Manisha Nanda, a retired IAS officer and  former Principal Secretary to CM Jai Ram Thakur.

In fact, the government is set to launch a state-wide water conservation drive in 13 water-stressed urban centres in the state, including the tourist towns of Dharamshala, Kullu, Manali, Palampur, Dalhousie and Jawalamukhi.

“The World Bank has in principle agreed to fund the project with focus on public /citizen participation as part of the revised water conservation strategy,” said Dharmendra Gill, Managing Director, Shimla Jal Prabandhan Nigam (SJPN) Ltd. “Seven Urban Local bodies (ULBs) have also passed their resolutions to be part of the new drive”.

In Shimla particularly, things did change. By the end of summer the next year, water availability in the hill town had gone up significantly — from 38 MLD (Million Litre per Day) to 49-51 MLD. During the 2018 crisis period, water availability was a shocking 18 MLD, an all-time low.

The measures undertaken in 2018-2019 ranged from augmenting water availability from all six available sources, natural streams around Shimla within a 10 to 35 km range, plugging leakages in the main century-old supply line, improving the entire water distribution network and motivating consumers to adopt efficient water management regimes. This was a conservation drive that involved women and other stake holders, especially hoteliers .

Now, with the coronavirus lockdown, Shimla has gone a step further in its drive for long term water sustainability. With the hill town totally shut down in what would otherwise have been peak tourist season, the administration has been able to introduce better water conservation systems, and improve operational efficiencies including energy-saving measures.

Replicating Shimla’s efforts

The measures are expected to be replicated in the other urban centres as well (Himachal Pradesh has 54 Urban Local Bodies and seven cantonment Boards, which however is home to just 10 percent of its population). Earlier, the Urban Development Department received a Rs 207 cr grant from the 15th Finance Commission to undertake water conservation measures like rain water harvesting, reduce wastage and rejuvenation of natural water sources in all the urban hill towns.

“Last year,  we received special funding under Jal Shakti project, which the GoI had launched for 756 water stressed ULBs,” said Ram Kumar Gautam, Director Urban Local Bodies. “Five ULBs – Nahan , Kullu, Nalagarh, Solan and Una were adopted under the scheme to address drinking water issues. Each was provided Rs 5 lakh. Major activities included cleaning of water bodies, plugging leakages, rejuvenation of abandoned and dying water bodies with community participation.”

Quality, not just quantity

There are lessons to be learnt in Shimla’s transition from a water starved city to a water surplus one. “In the past three months, we have added 3 MLD of additional water in the existing system,” said Rajneesh, secretary, urban development and environment. “This was done just by plugging the leakages in the 220-km long distribution network and improving energy efficiency.” The SJPN Ltd is now supplying 24-hr running water in half a dozen localities and introducing real-time water quality checks.

Water quality is monitored separately in every locality. For this, said Rajneesh, all Shimla MC personnel responsible for distribution of drinking water by opening 966 valves (mechanical device  operated manually) have been issued testing kits. If the tests find that water quality does not meet the required standards, the person operating the valves can immediately switch off water supply and alert the control room. People still remember the 2015 jaundice outbreak caused by highly contaminated water, in which 30 persons lost their lives and half of Shimla’s population was affected.

Tackling wastage

Surveys commissioned by Shimla MC, including one by WAPCOS Ltd, a government agency in 2017-18, had exposed an unsavoury aspect of Shimla’s water crisis. About 47 percent of the water pumped was being wasted. The reason: leakages in the old main water supply line commissioned in 1921-22 which carried water from the pumping stations to the town’s storage tanks. “Of this, 25 to 30 percent of the water, even after reaching the 45 sectoral storage tanks, were lost in the distribution network because of the worn out distribution pipes,” said Rajneesh.

The upgraded Gumma Pumping station outside Shimla. Pic: Pradeep Kumar

The SJPN Ltd identified 61 points in the town where loss of water from leakage was maximum. It involving deep digging to expose the underground pipes which needed to be fixed or replaced. Since there was no traffic on the roads due to the lockdown, SJPN Ltd easily managed to accomplish an otherwise difficult task. As a result, water availability increased noticeably.

But Shimla faces one more problem during monsoons. High turbidity at the water pumping sources affects lifting of water and supply. Just last week, Shimla faced this problem with reports of a breach in one of the pipelines. 

While fixing such issues, the SJPN Ltd has also embarked on a plan to provide continuous water supply to all localities. The congested locality of Sanjauli was the first to be picked to test the stability of the system. “After a base-line survey, we selected 550 households for 12 hour supply and another 90 for 24-hr supply,” said MD Dharmendra Gill. “It’s now over a week and the results are encouraging. Next, we have selected Mall road –Shimla’s core area and the households next to the historic Ridge, parts of Middle Bazar and Kali Bari. All these areas are located on the Right and Lift sides of the Ridge, which is Shimla’s lone sprawling open space.”

Reducing energy costs

Another profitable off-shoot of the new measures is the drastic reduction in SJPN’s energy bill. Since less water was needed in the midst of increased availability, SJPN Ltd decided to stop pumping (lifting from source) during the peak power load time.

“Power charges during peak load time between 6.30 to 10 pm cost about Rs 1.50 more per unit as against the normal rates of Rs 4.50,” said Gill. “We hope to save Rs 15 crore from this. The energy bill last year was Rs 103 cr. This will be a net saving by way of operational efficiencies.” SJPN Ltd is currently supplying only around 40-42 MLD, though the availability is almost 51 MLD.

But not all are convinced that the measures can be sustained in the long run. “This year, tourism has been shut down and people have moved to their villages, reducing the demand by 50%,” said Shimla Mayor Sanjay Chauhan. “The government is delaying implementation of major development initiatives, proposed during my tenure and before the BJP was elected to head a Shimla MC in 2017.” These include the the World Bank- funded integrated water augmentation and sewerage rejuvenation project (Rs 900 cr).

Setting its own benchmarks

Chauhan also points out that environmental degradation, unplanned urban construction, water mismanagement and depleting water sources are the biggest challenge for Shimla, as for all hill towns, and stressed the need for effective water conservation measures, efficient rain water harvesting and treatment of waste water to ensure long-term solutions.

The state meanwhile is pushing ahead with its planned measures. “Himachal has set its own bench marks to conserve water and augment supplies in urban towns,” said Amitabh Awasthi, Secretary Jal Shakti Vibhag (earlier Irrigation and Public Health). “Shimla is a big success story. Dharamshala, situated in the lap of Dhauladhar ranges and having so many snow-fed streams had never experienced water scarcity, yet we are implementing water conservation drives there too.”

“Some of the other hill states, including Uttarakhand, have achieved quite a significant progress in water conservation knowing that rise in population, climatic factors and urbanisation will result in depletion of sources,” Awasthi added.

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