India's water crisis: Scarcity in Shimla has abated, but hotels still fear drop in tourist numbers
The tourism industry in Shimla was badly affected by the severe water scarcity in the Himachal Pradesh capital this summer.
Editor's note: A recent NITI Aayog report on India's water resources presented an alarming state of affairs. The country, according to the think tank, is in the grip of the worst water crisis in its history, with 600 million Indians faced with "high to extreme water stress", resulting in 2 lakh deaths a year. Firstpost will run a series of ground reports from across the country to determine the extent to which depleted reserves have affected daily life.
Chandigarh: While there is no longer a water crisis in Shimla, the scarcity this year has cast a shadow over the viability of the hill station's tourism industry. Such was the severity of the shortage this year that a number of localities did not receive water for as long as a week at a time. Now, local hotel owners are worried the problem could become an annual affair.
Tourism is a major source of income for thousands of residents in Shimla, including hotels owners, guides, taxi operators and horse owners. As word of the water shortage in the hill station spread rapidly, tourists heading there flocked to Manali, Dalhousie and other places in Himachal Pradesh instead. In fact, the water problem had become so severe that local residents, and even some hotel owners, shared messages on social media asking tourists to avoid Shimla this summer.
Of the 3.5 million tourists who visit Shimla every year, a quarter — around 8.50 lakh — arrive in May and June, when Shimla regularly faces water shortages. This floating population of tourists depletes the already scarce resource. Moreover, a lot of construction work goes into housing the tourists and catering to their needs in the city, which also consumes a lot of water.
'Leapfrog' action required to tackle rapid growth
Harman Kukreja, president of the Shimla Hoteliers and Restauranteurs Association said the industry had handled the water shortage well, with some hotels arranging for private water tankers so their guests would not be inconvenienced. "However, after the water crisis was highlighted on national and international media, the number of tourists reduced to a trickle, severely damaging our business," he added.
Shimla has six main sources of water: the Nauti Khad, Ashwani Khad and Giri Khad streams, the Dhalli catchment, and the Chair and Churat canals. As a government report acknowledges, the present water supply is insufficient to meet the needs of the city's residents even when there is no crisis as such.
"As per the records of the Department of Irrigation and Public Health, in the lean period, availability of water supply to the city is 12.38 million litres a day (MLD) and 30.60 MLD during the non-lean period. The installed capacity of water supply system is 47.40 MLD against a present availability of water intake sources of 39.21 MLD. Cost of water supply is Rs 28 per 1,000 litres. The water supply is inadequate to city residents as well as the planning area population due to the rapid growth of population."
As former deputy mayor of Shimla Tikendra Panwar said: "Small piecemeal interventions will not help. What's required is a 'leapfrog' action. The money is there, but the execution is slow for fetching water from a perennial source. Else, come summer, the situation will further worsen. The impact of climate change is also vividly evident. Little snow, more rain but in a short span. The water is hardly retained. Hence, an overall resilient strategy is the need of the hour."
In 2005, Ashwini Khad — one of the key water sources — was contaminated by leakage from a sewage treatment plant. The British had constructed the water system in Shimla for a population of not more than 30,000. But as the load on the city's water resources rose over the decades, little was done to explore alternatives and opt for more reliable sources of water.
Dharmendra Gill, superintending of engineer of the Shimla Municipal Corporation (SMC), said that the civic body had been able to supply 22 MLD of water even during the worst days in May this year. "We have been able to restore the supply of nearly 40 MLD of water in Shimla," he said.
Five-day Bollywood fest was cancelled
Gill said that the water crisis was most severe between end May and early June. This was when the administration cancelled the annual five-day festival, at which artistes from Bollywood and elsewhere perform at The Ridge in the heart of the city, a major tourist attraction.
Former Shimla mayor Sanjay Chauhan said the civic body had a guaranteed supply of 22 MLD of water and could have managed the distribution by utilising the resource judiciously. "In the summer of 2015, the SMC received only 15 MLD of water supply, but we managed even then. While the water availability may have dropped due to natural reasons, it could have been managed," he said.
The SMC regulates the duration of water supply, reducing it from two hours a day to half an hour during shortages, which forces people to be careful with their use.
Vishal Thakur, a taxi owner who operates between Shimla, Kullu and Manali, said even though the situation had improved now, he was still getting only two to three customers a week in Shimla. "On the other hand, bookings for my taxis in Manali are full, and I have had to divert three of my taxis from Shimla to Manali," he said.
May to September are the busiest months for taxi operators in Shimla, when the influx of tourists is the highest.
Sanjay Sood, president of the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Northern India, said that as the water crisis in Shimla was over and the weather in the city was more pleasant than in the rest of the country, "people must come and visit the hill station". "We will ensure that no inconvenience is caused to the tourists now," he added.
Meanwhile, hotels in Shimla have started offering discounts of up to 60 percent to woo tourists. Pawan Thakur, general manager of Hotel Landmark in Shimla, said tourists who come to the hill station were requested to use water wisely. "The water crisis broke the backbone of the tourism industry, but we are finding ways to restore Shimla's lost glory," he said.
Kukreja of the Shimla Hoteliers and Restauranteurs Association said that while this year's water crisis had ended, there are apprehensions that this could recur and cause problems for the hospitality sector in future. "We met the chief minister of Himachal Pradesh and senior officials of the SMC to get an assurance that such problems would not arise in future," he added.
With the increasing importance of the tourist trade to Shimla's economic future, it is likely that the government will come up with a solution. The question is, how long will it last?
The author is a Ludhiana-based freelance writer and member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters
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