Climate Change: Is An Urban Water Crisis Caused Only By Water Scarcity?

·5 min read

Water supply is increasingly becoming a ubiquitous concern among cities around the world. More and more cities are now experiencing water stresses with the onset of summer, purportedly due to scanty rainfall and depletion of surface water resources on account of climate change.

On closer investigation, this proves to be an overly simplified narrative. While there is no doubt that climate change has profound impacts on natural water systems and has exacerbated the issues of urban water supply, it is not an exclusive factor leading to the urban water crises. Water crises in most cases have little to do with scarcity which is the physical endowment of water and more to do with the social, political and technical factors that produce ‘shortage in pipes’.

This is exemplified in the case of Shimla where in May 2018, the city experienced one of its most severe water shortages with the municipality pumping 18-20 MLD water for a week as opposed to the demand of 45 MLD. This crisis was attributed largely to deficit in snowfall which translated into scarcity of water at source, and in turn provided impetus to a water augmentation project.

Myths Of Naturalised Scarcity

Scarcity and shortage in pipes are two different phenomena. In Shimla, scarcity is constructed as a monolithic problem arising due to reduced precipitation. This obscures anthropogenic factors such as deforestation, land intensification, haphazard urbanisation which culminate into reduced availability of water over a period of time.

Shortage in pipes is governed by the state of infrastructure, poor planning and monitoring and social factors relating to distribution and access.

In 2018, 49 percent of the water was wasted in leakages (non-revenue water, NRW).

This implies that despite installed capacity of 60 MLD, the town receives 35-38 MLD of water daily, on an average. This along with unequal distribution and closing of water source due to contamination caused by poor monitoring contributes to the quantum of water scarcity in places like Shimla.

While this is a situation of shortage in piped water supply, it is hardly a situation of scarcity of water as a resource. These factors are obscured and precipitation is highlighted as the most likely cause of the crisis, naturalising the phenomenon of scarcity.

Consequences Of Naturalisation Of Scarcity

Naturalisation of scarcity leads to a conjecture that scanty rainfall leads to scarcity of water which leads to a shortage of water supply in the city.

It is important to deconstruct this simplification because the way we understand and frame problems impacts the nature of the solutions proposed. So, if scarcity is established as the root of the problem then the direct solution for all such water management issues become supply augmentation.

This is seen in Shimla where water augmentation from the Sutlej river was deemed the only solution. The project increased the cost of water production by 220 percent due to extraction from a farther off source and higher energy required to lift the water to Shimla’s altitude. This problem was exacerbated by targets for a full cost recovery which showed little consideration for a pro-poor tariff regime and therefore a complete disregard towards ensuring access and equity.

Finally, on a theoretical level, narratives of scarcity also nudge us to imagine water as a commodity rather than a resource which is widely recognised as a human right. And by doing that, it fails to consider the multiple functions of water and its indispensability in sustaining all forms of life.

Are These Issues Endemic To Shimla?

The answer is unfortunately no. Most of our cities have old infrastructure with poor maintenance which means the water supply system has inherent vulnerabilities resulting in inconsistent supply.

In that sense, impacts of climate change and scanty rainfall are an intensifier and not an exclusive cause for the crisis.

Technical, ecological and social factors continue to impact the availability of water in most of our cities.

The leakages (NRW) in cities vary from 40 percent to 50 percent. The availability is also reduced due to rampant contamination in water bodies with only 31 percent of the sewage water generated in 23 major cities being treated. At present, this is causing massive pollution in 18 of India's major rivers.

Finally in cities like Mumbai and Delhi, concerns over equity and access continue to be grave with a large proportion of citizens in informal settlements lacking access to tap water. This has given rise to heavy reliance on irregular and expensive sources such as private tankers.

There is an immediate need to scale up initiatives and achieve universal access to water due to the pandemic.

At the same time, the uncertainty over natural water systems with the IPCC report confirming our worst fears, have made the task strenuous. These uncertainties only turn into situations of crisis when vulnerabilities in our water systems remain unaddressed.

For ensuring resilience, water management has to be efficient. This means leakages have to be plugged to achieve installed capacity. Further, contamination of surface water should be checked in urban areas and urban planning has to be compatible with local ecology. Local sources such as lakes and ponds should be revived and finally, the water system as a whole, will have to be imagined, designed, and managed to sustain equity.

(The author is an Associate Consultant (WASH) at Athena Infonomics. Her work lies at the intersection of climate change mitigation, adaptation and building resilience in cities. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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