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Exploring and Unraveling Domestic Water Scarcity in Urban Mountain Towns

Do you plan your day around the ways in which you could procure water?

A large group of the people who are reading this have the benefit of turning on the tap and always being certain that water will gush out from it. It is something which is taken for granted as one groggily turns on the tap to refresh oneself first thing in the morning.

However, there are large sections of the society, who do not have access to a formal water supply. And water being a very essential need in our lives, procuring water IS the primary activity around which they plan other activities be it educational or economic.

The Eastern Himalayan Region of India is one such region where access to formal water supply is non-existent or at the most, intermittent.

In Darjeeling town; the communities mention how they need to synchronize their daily routine with the timings of the public taps for if they miss it the little water that is supplied would get lost. Acquiring a private tap water connection in this region is expensive. The costs can be attributed to the difficult terrain, the lack of physical space, and the difficulty to produce all the necessary documents to prove their residence. Apart from these, the actual cost of installing connection is also formidable for an ordinary resident in Darjeeling town.

My study shows that the cost of getting a connection to the formal supply is about Rs.17,000 exclusive of labour and supplies charges which can bring the total costs to around Rs.70,000.

Even accessing natural springs has its own set of problems. Earlier, it is said to have been far more in number, but have been decreasing steadily – both in number and the volume of water they provide.

This could be due to increasing urbanization, increasing population pressure, and climatic changes. In Jawahar Busty, Darjeeling the wait time for the spring in their vicinity since people moved into this locality has increased from 5 minutes to 5 or 6 hours. And for every turn that one gets there is a cap on the amount of water that one can collect which is around 60 litres. The turns for filling water among the residents of the locality sometimes come once in two days!

If we step back from the settlement focus and look at the geography and the climate of the region, it brings in another aspect of the problem. The region as a whole is considered a water “rich” region, volumetrically.

However, this region characteristically experiences a “water paradox” – water scarcity in a volumetrically water “rich” region– a phenomenon which can aptly be called a “too much, too little syndrome”. It has been categorized as a region with the highest “per capita” and “per hectare” availability of water in the country. This categorization only looks at the rainfall, population numbers and the area of the region. This labeling excludes the political economic and institutional drivers that lead to the reality of water scarcity. It also fails to address the entitlements and well-being of communities at a household level.

Previous studies that have looked at this issue have ignored the drivers of what have led to water scarcity and have started off from the pre-existing condition of water scarcity and have gone ahead with suggesting solutions, or studying adaptations to it. But, in order to understand and therefore resolve a problem, it is necessary to look at the context that created the problem.

The Eastern Himalayan Region exhibits a low level of development , of the many problems that need solving, access to reliable water sources is essential as it helps in moving up the value chain and creating sustainable livelihoods. Access to reliable sources of water, a basic necessity in every human’s life, is an indicator of the overall development of a region. Resolving this problem through a better understanding of the issues, would subsequently lead to better performances in the development sector such as education, livelihoods, healthcare, etc.

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