High and dry

  • Cities in the foothills of the snowy Himalaya ironically suffer from water shortages
- Hemant Ojha

Oct 21, 2016-

While attending a conference on the environment and development in Kenya several years ago, the Kenyan organiser introduced me by saying, “We have a participant from the Asiatic Humid Climate Zone with plenty of water all around.” I did not quite understand what he meant until I met participants from the dry lands of Sub-Saharan Africa. I then realised that, with several months of rain and snowfall annually, South Asia is a water-rich region. People assume that South Asia’s problem is not inadequate water but too much of it, a view spread by media reports of constant floods and landslides. This image has been reinforced by scientific studies too. With the third largest mass of ice on earth, the Himalaya is the planet’s water tower, keeping water flowing perennially in the 10 large river systems of Asia.

The water tower narrative has misplaced policy thinking, rendering injustice to several dozen cities right at the foot of the snowy Himalaya. What goes unrecognised is that these cities have been struggling to secure water for their growing populations and expanding industrial activities. Dharan in eastern Nepal and Haldwani in the Indian state of Uttarakhand are two examples of such cities, right under the shadow of water tower discourses.

Dharan’s water woes

Situated in a Bhabar zone characterised by a low ground water level and ephemeral stream flows, the municipality of Dharan, with a population of more than 200,000, faces a major water scarcity problem. “Dharan does not have a single starred hotel despite being a regional trading hub and receiving so much remittance every year. This is simply because there is not enough water here,” said a local political leader. Popularly known as the city of ex-Gurkhas, Dharan is the gateway to the Eastern Region. More than five hilly districts rely on Dharan for everyday supplies, higher education services and other amenities of a modern town. Although 98 percent of city dwellers have access to piped water, only a fraction of the requirement is fulfilled by the utility installed three decades ago. Dharan has relied primarily on streams flowing down from the immediate upper watersheds of Shardu and Khardu rivers, which meet only one-third of the need. Additional water is pumped out of the ground several kilometres south of the city, but supply still falls short of demand.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has provided support to the government to implement a drinking water project to augment Dharan’s water supply. The project considered multiple options before finally deciding on the groundwater option. The first option was to conserve water in the two watersheds, but it was dropped as additional water is not available. There was a proposal to bring water from the Tamur River via a tunnel, but it was rejected due to its high cost. Another plan called for building an overground diversion on the Koshi River 14km away. This was seen as a sustainable source, but experts said that it would be very expensive due to the need to filter the river water which has a high sediment load. The only option left was to pump out more groundwater by sinking more tube wells in the forest. This is what is currently being done as part of the ADB-supported project.

However, some have raised questions about the sustainability of the underground system. Supporters argue that sustainability is not an issue as the reserves will be constantly recharged. They say that the area above the pumping station is porous and the pumping area is covered by dense forest, so there is a high rate of infiltration. Moreover, the depth of the water table lies below the water level of the Koshi River, which means that an infiltration gradient can easily replenish the ground water system. However plausible, this theory of sustainability of the underground water source is not a tested one, and there isn’t sufficient data to prove this. Some engineers and water experts opine that the groundwater option may be unsustainable in the long run. This concern is reflected in the ADB project which has set a project life of 30 years. This option looks sensible in the short run, but what is important is exploring Dharan’s water future across all possible water supply zones—underground, overground, upstream and downstream sources.

Way forward

Considering the limited data on hydrological systems and on how the water regime is linked to climate change and social drivers, what Dharan should do is keep all water source options open in its water management planning. The city has been bestowed with four different water sources which together can provide a secure water future. Therefore, diversifying supply sources is perhaps a more water resilient strategy in the long run, instead of relying on just one source. In addition, factoring in the likely effects of climate change should also be part of the water strategy. It is crucial to generate knowledge to reduce the degree of uncertainty involved in investments related to water supply management. Given the limited database, none of the water security propositions can be tested through rigorous data, nor is there a necessity for precise empirical evidence to move forward under a precautionary approach.

In a new research that we have started in the two cities in collaboration with the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada, we have prioritised engagement with the city actors and local communities. We believe that what we

need is a smarter way of doing research and also contributing to on-going efforts of the city to plan and develop water supply systems. A key strategy is to draw on experiential and expert knowledge while making use of the available socio-economic, meteorological and ecological data to help city stakeholders to plan and implement strategies that will contribute to water security in the long run. However, a critical challenge is that, due to the absence of elected local governments, the space for planning and making decisions is extremely limited at the local level.


Ojha is an environmental policy researcher at the University of New South Wales, Australia

Published: 21-10-2016 08:16

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