Himachal Pradesh's capital, Shimla, which featured as one of the most liveable cities in India in the recent Ease Of Living survey, has one dark secret. The city runs of out drinking water in peak summer months. The problem is so grave that in 2018, New York Times and Washington Post described it as India's Cape Town, the South African city known for its water woes.
But now, even other parts of Himachal have become vulnerable to water scarcity as there has been a huge rain deficit, ranging from 58 percent to over 90 in some districts, between January and March 2021. Lack of snowfall and depletion of other water sources have further worsened the situation.
Of a total of 9516 drinking water sources in rural areas, more than 770 have turned dry. Major water sources like Beas and Satluj rivers have a significantly reduced inflow. The perennial ‘khads’, high-mountain rivulets, streams, lakes and snow-catchments have also dried up.
“The situation is really alarming, it's making me really nervous," said Mohinder Singh Thakur, minister Water Resources, in the state Assembly.
Shimla’s water crisis of 2018, was dealt with effectively and in the past two years, there had been a surplus of water supply. But, according to Singh, the present crisis in the rural areas is far more serious.
One of the main factors contributing to water shortage is reduced snowfall. The Rohtang Pass usually sees 30-40 feet of snow in the winters but it was down to just three-four feet last year.
In Mandi, where the river Beas flows down to Kangra valley and finally enters Punjab, has turned into a rivulet. People can easily walk across the river instead of taking a longer route or using the bridge. Two other glacier-fed rivers, Satluj and Ravi, have got only 30 to 40 percent of their normal flow. Experts estimate a loss of 19% of the glaciers due to climate change.
Of the 12 districts in Himachal, nine had a huge rain deficit. Some of these districts received zero rainfall. Chamba and Kullu were 99% rain-deficit with just 0.3mm of rainfall each this year. Lahaul-Spiti reported 95% less rainfall with 1.5 cm of rain. This, when the demand for drinking water has shot up by 45% in the last ten years.
Former Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal recalls how during his tenure, the groundwater level in Hamirpur district increased significantly even as the rest of the state witnessed a declining trend.
It was only due to a pilot project started to build a rainwater harvesting system and check dams.
"All the good work has been undone by the subsequent Congress government. I am afraid the situation may return to the times when we used to walk three to four kilometres to fetch water for drinking. I have myself gone through it”, said Dhumal.
The shortage of potable water has also triggered a political blame game.
“A state which has natural resources, rivers, lakes, and glaciers in abundance, the man-made water crisis could trigger desertification of the mountain valleys", says Asha Kumari, six-time Congress MLA from Dalhousie, Chamba. She says because of the present government's folly, many areas of the district have started facing the crisis ahead of summers.
Thakur suggests a solution, "inter-linking of the drinking water supply schemes". He said efforts are on to reduce the use of water tankers to a minimum. The areas with water scarcity will be supplemented with hand pumps and new borewells depending on the level of the groundwater availability.