The water crisis this summer in Shimla was just the first tile down in the domino set

First, the taps dried out.

The tourist who brought in revenue was suddenly a social pariah. Warm smiles quickly turned into direct rebukes. The price of drinking water skyrocketed. Schools shut down. Slowly, the town emptied out.

This isn’t some dystopian drama on Netflix. This was the summer of 2018 in the erstwhile summer capital and the north Indian hill station favorite, Shimla.

What is the benchmark?

In many ways, Shimla is a petri-dish problem that reflects the larger issue. It has all the ingredients of a crisis—drying aquifers, old leaky infrastructure underground and a sluggish utility provider that woke up a tad late. (In the wake of the crisis, the Shimla Municipal Corporation’s (SMC) website was updated an unprecedented number of times with water supply timings and phone numbers of valves who turn on the municipal water connection). Adding to this is the perennial issue of supplying water at a wholly exorbitant and unnecessary subsidy of ~80% when at least some consumers can afford to pay more. WHO sets the benchmark at 5% of the total income of a family, whereas in India it is about 0.6%.

But Shimla as an example is more worrying than if it were any other city. At a total population of 200,000, and with five different water sources to choose from, Shimla should have been a more containable situation than others. And yet, it failed. So, what about cities with 4x its population?

To stop this, the National Institute for Transforming India (Niti) Aayog has chosen to ring alarm bells now about the ‘worst water crisis’ that India’s ever faced.

By 2030, reads the report, 40% of the country won’t have access to drinking water. That’s currently 490 million people or the combined populations of Mexico, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. Already, close to 600 million people face acute water shortages. By 2050, India is predicted to lose 6% of its GDP to water shortage issues, provided things continue as they are.

Staying afloat

Niti Aayog also published a new Water Management Index for 2016-17, where most states share a middling score of ~50 (out of 100) for their performance across management indicators.

The End Game

How is India dealing with this? Not too well. Instead of controlling demand, the focus has been heavily supply-driven.

According to Niti Aayog’s wake-up call, the supply of water, as of 2008, is anywhere between 1,123 billion cubic meters (bcm) and 650 bcm. The corresponding current demand is 634 bcm, which means that our reaction to this impending shortfall should be anywhere between mild panic to utter horror. By the policy think tank’s own admission, these estimates suffer from weak data sources and a revised picture will emerge as more states decide to belatedly roll in their data sets. So yes, the actual gap between demand and supply could be even more disturbing.

The aim is to feed the unending demand by further tapping their depleted water resources or creating new ones. If there was more investment in demand-side factors, like pricing, then tariffs could be used by water authorities to cap demand within reasonable means,” says S.R. Ramanujam, an urban water specialist from Mumbai currently consulting with the World Bank on upgrading the SMC’s operations.

Ramanujam is tight-lipped about whether Shimla will introduce a more balanced approach to managing its water situation. But a copy of the loan agreement filed by the World Bank in 2016 shows how demand-control measures appear as a small line item in a largely capital-intensive vision. Measures like charging consumers for the volumes of water they consume, rather than a simple flat fee every month; installing meters in every house to determine this volumetric usage; and setting up a system of billing consumers regularly to collect revenues.

In bigger cities though, patterns are harder to break.

Bengaluru, with almost 9 million more people than Shimla, and estimated water demand of 1350 MLD (1000 liter = 1 cubic meter), is looking to tap into newer sources of water once the groundwater dries up. A retired senior officer of the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) shares how the utility has its eyes set on the Linganamakki dam as the next ‘super source’. “The demand for water is going to be 2125 MLD by 2023.