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 favourite, Shimla.

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 valvemen 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 total income of a family, whereas in India it is about 0.6%.

Average tariffs by GDP

Water charges as non-food consumption

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 top 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 metres (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.

AUTHOR

Olina Banerji

Based in Delhi, Olina writes about mega-trends in urban mobility, education, skilling and the environment, with a focus on how institutions and innovations can help cities grow sustainably. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics, and has worked previously with India Today and global non-profit Ashoka.

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