By 2030 the nation will have access to half the water it needs. The city of Shimla has already run out

By 2030, water availability will be half what India needs. The thinktank quoted predictions that up to 6% of GDP could be lost to extreme water scarcity. Put another way, millions of Indians could be too thirsty, or sickened by contaminated water, to study, work or live.

People queue to collect drinking water in buckets from a truck in Shimla
People queue to collect drinking water in buckets from a truck in Shimla © AFP/Getty Images

Signs of crisis are already apparent. While wealthier residents of major cities such as Delhi still drink from reliable supplies cleansed by home filters, in a northern Delhi slum in March, a father and son were killed in a brawl over a water tanker – the first reported deaths in the capital from a water dispute.

An estimated 21 major cities could exhaust their groundwater supplies within two years, government advisors believe. Several smaller cities have said they also are teetering on the edge. In the past month, Shimla, in the hills of Himachal Pradesh, has emerged as the frontline of the emergency.

Officials in the city have blamed an 82% shortfall in winter rain and snow. “There is climate change all over India and the world,” says Jai Ram Thakur, the Himachal Pradesh chief minister.

Others say Shimla is an example of how negligence can create a water crisis, one they warn will be repeated in cities and villages across India.

‘The problem is not a lack of water. It is a lack of vision’

Hours after he was sworn in as the mayor of Shimla in 2012, Sanjay Chauhan asked to visit the Giri river, one of six major sources of the city’s water supply. The Giri was supposed to be supplying the city with 20m litres of water each day. Shimla was receiving just 12m.

“It looked like no council officers had visited the place in years,” he says.

....

The British established Shimla on seven cedar-studded hills in 1851. They foresaw a maximum population of 16,000 people. Last year, more than 18 million tourists visited the city. 

Successive governments have done little to stem the flow of new residents and visitors, and looked the other way as hundreds of hotels illegally sprung up to house them. “It was a boom,” says Shimla-based environmental lawyer Deven Khanna.

“Whoever had land, built a hotel. Even some who didn’t have land just cut down trees and without sanction made a building.”

Officials estimated there are 25,000 illegal buildings in Himachal Pradesh, many of them in Shimla. The surge has overwhelmed the city’s stocks of rain and snowfall, and wiped out nearly 70% of its groundwater.

“Himachal has enough water,” says Khanna. “We have rivers, glaciers. The problem is not a lack of water. It is a lack of vision and will from the government.”

This approach is not unique to Shimla. “All over India, we have an anarchic situation in water management,” says Himanshu Thakkar, the coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, a network of advocacy groups.

He compares Shimla to Cape Town, the South African city that narrowly avoided running out of water this year after officials raised warnings and citizens restricted their use. “Once they predicted that water would run out, action followed,” Thakkar says. “In India, you would never even get a prediction. The water would just go.”

Officials in Shimla maintain the crisis was exaggerated. “Within four or five days, the situation was back to normal,” says Thakur, the chief minister.

....