Hills in summer: Tourists causing water scarcity

Even villages in Himachal Pradesh are getting starved of water but policy makers seem oblivious to the scarcity

Water- representative image
Water- representative image

Avay Shukla

We came up to our home in Puranikoti village in Mashobra (near Shimla) on the 8th of this month, as we have been doing every year these last 13 years. And realised, with a shock, what the Doomsday clock is all about.

I have never seen our village as dry, scorched and parched in April as it is this year, and that too after an unusually wet winter with record snowfall. Clearly, something is not right. The terrific heat has made nature skip spring and go straight into summer. The apple and rhododendron trees are at least a month ahead of their normal schedulethe former have shed their flowers and the setting of the fruit has begun. The latter are already ablaze with red like a lady of pleasure on her night out. The bees and butterflies are no longer taking flight in my garden.

The biggest impact of this month-long dry spell, however, has been on the water sources in the whole Panchayat of about seven villages. The IPH Department supplies water through tube wells sunk in the forests, the latter acting as a sump for storing the rainfall underground. There are also natural sources in the forests which the villagers have traditionally tapped for their homes and irrigation of the vegetable cash crops. The system worked well so far but has been thrown out of balance this year.

The sources have almost dried up, IPH supply has been reduced to once in two days, the hoteliers and homestay owners are tearing their hair out by their shallow roots.

The dry spell this year has exposed the huge deficiencies in the state govt's planning and policies, something which many concerned citizens and conservationists have been flagging for many years. Puranikoti this April is a microcosm of what happens when state govts don't listen and prioritise short term gains over sustainable planning.

The balance which had been struck between demand and supply of water in our area over decades has been disturbed. On the demand side, the govt has allowed mushrooming of hotels and homestays without considering water availability.

In Puranikoti itself we have added about 80 hotel rooms and 25 homestay rooms, meaning an additional demand of at least 50,000 to 75,000 litres of water every day. This is just not available.

These days the place is just crawling with tourists, every room booked, even the nooks and crannies in the rocks occupied by laggards who had forgotten to make reservations! Private tankers are selling water at Rs. 1,000/ for 1500 litres, and God only knows from which contaminated nullahs they are lifting the water. This rate is bound to go up exponentially as summer advances.

Local villagers do not take kindly to "outsiders" (read hotels and tourists) trying to lift water from their already depleted natural sources, especially at a time when they themselves need it the most to save their stressed vegetable and apple crops. There is tension in the air, as palpable as the suppressed sexual undertone in a striptease show.

As I see it, there are two prime culprits responsible for this mess. The first is the Tourism Dept. which has been permitting/ registering hotels and homestays all over the state with gay abandon, without considering the carrying capacity of the areas or villages and towns, or without coordinating with other departments to enhance the capacity wherever needed. This short-sightedness has already ruined all of Himachal's towns, without exception, and it is the turn of the villages and rural areas now, to get a taste of "development".

The second culprit is the state's Forest Dept which seems to think its only job is to levy fines rather than prevent a forest violation, or to plant trees of which 70% do not survive, or to grant permission for felling of trees.

Given that water scarcity is looming large in the Himalayan states according to every study on climate change, one would have expected that this department would have taken proactive steps to manage its forests with a view to conserving water. But its dozens of PCCFs, Addl PCCFs and CCFs clearly think this is a waste of time. Not only have they not initiated any forward looking programme, they have let even the existing ones run to ruins.

Puranikoti (indeed, the whole panchayat of Moolkoti) is surrounded by thousands of hectares of the most dense and lush forests of deodar, blue pine and oak trees- an ideal sponge for absorbing rainfall and snow- melt. This is proven by the dozens of nullahs and water courses that snake through the forests, supplying water to the villages and charging the many natural springs here. All that is needed by way of human intervention is to construct a few check dams on these nullahs to impound the flow- off and allow the ground/ forests to absorb the waters.

Not only is the department not doing this, but it has also failed to maintain the few check dams that existed. Barely a hundred meters from my house is a watercourse that till a few years ago had a stream that flowed happily the whole year round, thanks to three check dams built on it. Today it is dry and waterless except for a few hours when it rains, because all three check dams have collapsed into rubble.

In 2008, when Mr. J.P. Nadda (the BJP president) was the Forest Minister, we had launched a conservation scheme called the Van Sarovar programme. Its aim was to dig/construct thousands of baoris (water bodies) in the forests, along the natural contours, to impound and collect the rainwaters, with funding from CAMPA and MNREGA.

They would have manifold benefits: provide water holes for wildlife, recharge the groundwater and streams, prevent erosion from the runoffs, make available water to fight forest fires. It was a low cost (only local stones and earth was to be used), low gestation, employment intensive and immensely beneficial scheme- just what Himachal needs in the times to come. But for some unexplained reasons, the department has allowed this programme to wither away like its plantations.

It is time the Himachal govt. wakes up and adopts this and similar conservation measures...

Tourism is Himachal's biggest revenue earner and employment generator. But even a milch cow needs to be carefully nurtured and should not be taken for granted. Right now our milch cow is running on near empty.

(The writer, a retired IAS officer blogs at View from Greater Kailash)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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