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Why Himalayan towns and cities are drying up: analysis


A recent study covering 13 cities in four countries (Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan) in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region shows that these cities face increased water insecurity, thanks to inadequate urban planning coupled with a climate that it changes quickly. The study, the first of its kind in the HKH, reveals the links between water availability, supply systems, rapid urbanization and the consequent increase in water demand (both daily and seasonal) that are leading to higher water insecurity in the cities of the region.

In an interview for Hindustan TimesAnjal Prakash, who led the research study, talks in detail about the crisis in the HKH region and the way forward. Dr. Prakash is Research Director and Associate Associate Professor, Bharti Institute for Public Policy, Indian School of Business, India.

KD: What are the main points of the study?

AP: A set of 10 research studies, covering 12 Himalayan cities, has been published as a special issue of the Water policy magazine in March 2020. We took eight cities in three countries in the HKH region: Pakistan, India and Nepal. We found that these cities face increased water insecurity due to inadequate urban planning, along with climate change; and that there is a strong interrelation between water availability, water supply systems, rapid urbanization and the consequent increase in demand for water (both daily and seasonal). These factors are leading to increasing water insecurity in the cities of the region.

KD: How bad is the water situation in the Himalayas and why should people living downstream take note of this shortage?

AP: The study shows that the gap between water demand and supply in eight of the cities surveyed in the Himalayas is 20% to 70%. There is a great dependence on springs (between 50% and 100%) for water supply in three quarters of urban areas. Based on current trends, the gap between demand and supply may double by 2050. Therefore, a holistic approach to water management that includes spring management and planned adaptation is paramount to ensure safe water supply in the Urban Himalayas.

The Himalayas are the water tower of South and Southeast Asia. Ten major rivers originate in this region that feeds around two billion people in Asia. Due to a rapidly changing climate, the water regime in this region is changing and is affecting the lives and livelihoods of millions of people who depend on river water. The problem in the urban Himalayas is more of a sustainable management problem in which climate change comes as a force multiplier.

KD: What is the future of tourist Himalayan cities like Shimla and Darjeeling?

AP: In the summer of 2018, Shimla reported on the acute water shortage. In Darjeeling, a similar situation has been reported. A recent study reported that around 65% of people in Darjeeling city do not have access to the public water supply and are forced to rely on locally available alternative water sources. This is apart from the work of our research team in the eastern and western Himalayan regions of India.

Neha Bharti and his team investigated in Mussoorie and Devprayag. In both cities, springs are the source of the piped water supply system. In Mussoorie, the municipality takes advantage of 20 sources of springs to generate nine million liters per day (MLD) of water, transported by gravity and pumping systems. There is a 98 km wide distribution pipeline network, with 4,065 household taps and 1,206 commercial taps, covering approximately 90% of the Mussoorie area.

Rinan Shah and Srinivas Badiger from our research team studied Darjeeling. They report that despite receiving a substantial amount of rain, households in Darjeeling suffer from acute water shortages. Water management problems are essential for governance. Living in regions of high precipitation and experiencing water scarcity is a paradox.

KD: What kind of measures (environmental and civic) should be taken to correct the situation?

AP: The study proposes five main steps: a combination of environmental, climate change and governance concerns.

First, water needs to be supplied in a sustainable way to close the gap between supply and demand. Since spring water is the only (and inadequate) source in many Himalayan cities, a sustainable supply could be obtained by increasing budget allocations to revive and protect springs, increase water collection, and diversify water sources.

Second, water governance and management must consider issues and services beyond public water services. A polycentric governance system, which would involve multiple government bodies and institutions interacting with each other to ensure access to water, could be a more appropriate water governance model in Himalayan towns and cities.

Third, the equitable distribution of water needs more attention. The poor and marginalized are the most affected when the water supply decreases. Many cities face the challenge of providing access to safe water for the poor, especially during the dry season when supply decreases.

Fourth, the multiple roles of women in water management must be recognized, and their role in planning and decision-making processes must be reviewed and strengthened.

Fifth, mountain cities must be seen in the broader context of mountain water, environment and energy. The impacts of climate change in these sectors present new and growing challenges for Himalayan towns and cities that require innovative solutions.

KD: How can communities help improve the situation?

AP: An important aspect of urban water management is decentralized governance and devolution of power to local bodies and institutions that manage water.

A study of Tansen and Damauli, two small towns in Nepal, by Sreoshi Singh and his team, shows that water institutions have played a very important role in managing water supply at the local level and that proper management can help prevent critical water shortages. The research compares two cities that have different results for water supply and access. In Tansen, infrastructure constraints and large-scale corruption in the upkeep and maintenance of systems have implications for water governance, while in Damauli the systems have been well managed due to the involvement of local communities.

the Darjeeling case in the Indian Himalayas by Rinan Shah and Srinivas Badiger show that the water crisis is the result of an enigma due to the interrelated problems of lack of political will, insufficient investments, lack of cooperation between state and regional institutions, and deficiencies in local government, including capacity institutions.

We firmly believe that water management can be rational only if the institutions responsible for it are efficient. Much evidence shows that community involvement in enforcing rules and regulations on illegal connections and water misuse and optimizing the budget for public services has helped maintain service levels, although access challenges persist the water. Access is a major problem of investment in water infrastructure and urban planning processes that must include the voice of local communities in the planning and management of water infrastructure.

KD: Any other key points?

AP: Our study shows that there is a mismatch between urban and environmental planning. Ideally, urban planning should include the environmental aspects of the location and include it in the planning process. We discovered that many basic services such as water supply, sanitation, etc. they have not been taken into account as we expand cities. Himalayan cities have a major problem in terms of geographic space for expansion and their carrying capacity.

Of all the cities we study, the water source is from springs. Much is required to protect the basin from springs to ensure water supply and sustainability. One more issue is the peak demand during tourist seasons: none of the cities had official and public data on the number of visitors who arrived during peak seasons.

The carrying capacity of Himalayan cities is limited and therefore dialogues are needed to understand the balance between demand and supply of services during high seasons, according to scientific data.

The third aspect is the disposition to face disasters. The infrastructure of the Himalayan city must be weather resistant so that it can withstand disasters such as floods and landslides. We find very little evidence of the readiness of these cities and that is cause for concern.

Hindustan Times