Lessons from #ShimlaWaterCrisis

Although I have spent most of my life in hill stations, I had never actually experienced water shortage per say. This week was a wakeup call. After a weekend out of town, I was back in Shimla and there was no water in my tap the following morning. I thought there was a problem with our water tank so I knocked in my neighbor’s door who then mentioned the water crisis in this queen of the hills.

Since I had stored water in the 50 liter barrel that was provided when I moved in, I had water but I skipped my morning shower and took a towel bath instead.

At the institute, everyone shared their water woes and an employee mentioned how there had been no water in his area for the last seven days. One professor and his wife had been using mineral water to cook, wash and take care of their basic needs. But the vast majority of people cannot afford mineral water bottles, and in no time people took it to the streets. They managed to block the national highway and sat on the streets chanting slogans, while some “thirsty residents” managed to gherao the Chief Minister’s house at 1:00am.

“Shimla water crisis can quickly turn into law and order situation if not handled quickly,” somebody tweeted.

Indeed, there was lathi charge as protestors’ even got into a scuffle with the cops.

So, the beefed up security was clearly visible when I went to Mall Road later in the day.

Shimla water crisis was real. It was creating news across social media. Instagram accounts warned tourists against traveling to Shimla and images of locals lining up with empty buckets behind water tanks were making rounds. My friends even teased me to come back since there was no water in Shimla.

Shimla water crisis is the talk of the town and it will remain in the memory of the people for a long while. The prestigious Shimla Summer Festival scheduled for June 1-5, 2018 has been indefinitely postponed and while water is being distributed to different parts of Shimla, there is no way of telling how long it will last. One thing is for sure –people who have gone through this experience will be more careful with water now. There is a realization that our water sources are running dry and we are running out of answers to tackle this issue.

Last year, one of my friends was telling another friend to start a water business in Gangtok. I thought it was a ridiculous idea and I even scolded him. Why would we want to sell water when it has been given to us for free? But perhaps we will only start being conscious of our waters when we have to pay for it. Bottled water is already sold and we must have purchased it every now and then without realizing that we were buying water.

Shimla introduced me to another water reality. On my first trip to the Mall road, I noticed a water ATM and let out a laugh. But I managed to take a picture and it was to be my initiation for the water problem that I would experience in this town.

The stark reality of drying water sources, climate change and the unpredictability of our times is a reminder of what we are up against. We don’t have to know the figures and numbers of this global phenomenon, our everyday living is being altered and we have issues did not exist before. While it has been difficult times for people in Shimla, perhaps it was the much needed intervention to remind us that our rivers are drying up and the regular winter snowfalls have been canceled. This a wakeup call and if we do not pay heed to it, most of our hill stations face a very similar future.

[C.K. Lepcha is Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla]