W. H Auden pointed that, “Thousands have lived without love, none without water”, I hope you all agree with Auden on the ‘water part’. So, the conclusion is “Water is IMPORTANT”, for each of us and every living being, who may or may not understand vague concepts like love.

This blog piece is written from a country where the three monsoon years i.e. 2016, 2017 and 2018, have created both flood and drought-like conditions. Validated government data (NITI Aayog CWMI report 2018) showed that 21 cities will reach zero groundwater level by 2020. Well, this is 2020 and the moment COVID-19 scare wears off, we will live in another paranoia in May-June (peak summers) with limited access to clean and safe potable water. Apart from this, 12 % of our population lives in day zero scenario irrespective of the bad monsoons, according to WaterAid report 2018. Right to Water is compromised on multiple levels, thanks to unequal access to water resources, high groundwater abstraction rate, wastewater generation, and lack of demand management.

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”, I like to correlate this Orwellian statement wherever I find these “less equals”. In the water scenario, these are- socially weak and marginalized among affluent households, women among men, spring among rivers, Himalayan states among other Indian states. Yes, Himalayan states. Under the picturesque mighty Himalayan mountains, ten Indian Himalayan states are looking at their wells and springs run dry, parched population and farmlands, rivers losing flow and lakes reaching to the ground.

The Himalayas; with rich forest cover are the source of major rivers, harbour rich biodiversity, and Indian heritage, which are becoming water-scarce. The reasons include unprecedented growth of population, unplanned urbanization, and development coupled with climate change.

New York Times wrote:

In my little experience of working in a Himalayan state Uttarakhand, I find all the reasons, valid as well as alarming. Let’s look at a few of the many headlines the state has made to, but for the unfortunate reasons;
Across the region, the landscape’s degradation and burgeoning tourist activities are putting pressure on the hill-towns like Mussoorie, Nainital, Almora, Rishikesh, Haridwar, etc. beyond their carrying capacities resulting in the crisis, we are in today. This put pressure on the State Government as well and they looked for immediate solutions to arrest the crisis, one is this:

What are we missing? We are missing the critical fragments of the water crisis redressal.

Fragment 1- The lip service such as diverting the waters to augment an urban center which doesn’t even fit to the national standards of urban centers. Why? Because we don’t have a mountain-specific policy/standards for water management.

Fragment 2- Total disregard for the upstream and downstream linkages and bringing much talked public-private partnerships model into conservation strategies. I know about a private body that bottles pristine and untouched water of the Himalayas but I don’t know of a private body that is independently recycling Himalayan wastewater or conserving the water and benefitting local population who have no access to clean drinking water. Whereas, few private entities are providing technical support to the state, but decentralized methods or measurable developments are lacking to tackle the wastewater issues in the hills.

Fragment 3- The reliance on piped water supply has now shadowed the ingenious water storage systems of the mountain communities and faded the traditional knowledge of water harvestings such as Naulas, Dharas, Guls, Khal, Kund or Gazar and Gharats etc. Not mainstreaming public participation in the management and disregard towards these systems has meddled with the self-sustaining hill communities.

The Government now recognizes the neglect towards small water systems such as springs upon which a largely rural, as well as sub-urban centers, are dependent. There are many layers that one needs to go through. Foremost among them is identifying and addressing the disproportionate workload of household water management in the hills. The lack of water infrastructure to cater to the remote parts have also led to outmigration in the Himalayas. In many cases the male out-migrations are documented; in few, the whole village has migrated creating ghost villages. In the prior case, the women left in the hills, for both productive as well as reproductive roles. Women are now under severe stress; physical as well as mental, where they invest 2–3 hours to fetch water- as per a case study from the slum population of Dholakbasti, Haldwani. To share the burden, the health and education of children are also sacrificed.

The changing climate and depleting water resources have adverse impacts on food security in the hills. Livelihoods alternatives are few and the water crisis has multifaceted impacts on sustenance, health, and quality of life.

The Central, along with the state, implementing agencies has just started the mapping of springs in difficult mountain terrains for proposed spring rejuvenation programs, which looks like a beacon of hope in a much-discussed crisis. Cooperation among governments, NGOs and communities can help ensure that historical mistakes aren’t repeated and vulnerable groups aren’t overlooked to sustain the life-giving Himalayas.

(Author is  currently working with a Dehradun based Centre for Ecology Development and Research as a Research Associate. She tweets at ManyaSingh11)