Nainital’s water woes: Every drop of rain counts

Naini lake, a natural freshwater body, quenches the thirst of the town (Image: Sanjay Bora)
Naini lake, a natural freshwater body, quenches the thirst of the town (Image: Sanjay Bora)

Nainital, the jewel of Uttarakhand’s Kumaun region is one of the most popular tourist destinations in northern India. Over the last two decades or so, this beautiful destination has been experiencing great pressure, due to rapid urbanisation, loosely planned developmental activities and large tourist influx. As a result, not only the town’s scenic beauty but also its hydrological cycle has been affected.

Nainital is adorned with a 48 ha Naini Lake at an altitude of 1938 m above mean sea level, around which the entire town’s economy revolves. Apart from its recreation value, the lake provides drinking water services through lake bank filtration to more than 90 percent of the resident population as well as the floating tourist influx year-round.

During the peak summer months of May and June, approximately 80,000 tourists land in Nainital, leading to increased water demand. The town is badly dependent on the lake to serve its water needs. As a result, in the summer of 2017, the water level of the lake has declined by seven feet, a phenomenon never observed in the 180 years since it was discovered.  

By 2017, approximately 18 million litres per day (mld) of water was abstracted from the lake to cater to the demands of the residents and tourists. A major reason for the consistent lake level decline in the summer months is the withdrawal of unsustainable amounts of water from the lake. The situation is further worsened due to inefficient water supply systems and poor governance.

Pumping water from distant sources is costly both in terms of energy and finances. Such programs also impact the source and downstream users who have been relying on the water flowing from the upstream for agricultural and potable use for ages. Moreover, the pumped water supply is limited to a certain period of time, eventually, it will be outmoded as the population further rises or the source itself declines.

So, the need of the hour is to conserve the already existing sources through nature based solutions and conservation strategies that are easy to manage and cost effective.

Rooftop rainwater harvesting could be a solution

A feasible option to deal with the water scarcity is the introduction of rooftop rainwater harvesting structures. The town is home to many prestigious institutions, renowned schools, and luxurious hotels, with enough rooftop area. Also, it receives above-average rainfall. These two factors can enable the development of rooftop rainwater harvesting to bridge the demand and supply gap to a great extent. To foster the idea of using rainwater, local communities, urban local bodies and civil society must come together and take advantage of the government’s initiative of ‘Catch the rain’ where it falls when it falls launched for a water-secure future for India.

The aim of the campaign steered by the National Water Mission (NWM), Ministry of Jal Shakti is to nudge all stakeholders to create rainwater harvesting suitable for the climatic conditions and subsoil strata before monsoon. To take this initiative forward and for its successful implementation, the government focus is to engage people at the grassroots, through effective campaigning and Information, Education and Communication (IEC) activities.

Current water scenario of the town

At present, the major water supply of the town is being met by abstracting the lake water through tube wells. According to a report (2018) by the Irrigation Department, Nainital, the demand for water nearly doubles in the peak tourist season but for the rest of the year, 8 mld/day water is being supplied to the residents. The seasonal difference in demand and supply creates some issues in water availability in some areas although ‘water rationing helps conserve the water source to some extent.

A recent study conducted under the Ministry of Jal Shakti by the Forest Research Institute (FRI), Dehradun and Centre for Ecology Development and Research (CEDAR), Dehradun indicates that 4 out of 15 municipal wards of the town fall under the category, ‘highly vulnerable zone’ as far as exposure, sensitivity and adaptability towards water changing climatic scenario is concerned. 

The major factors behind the water woes of Nainital are the carrying capacity of the lake town and technical glitches in the supply network. Apart from these, alternative sources of water are lacking. Over the decades, illegal encroachment on recharge zones, degraded catchments, constantly drying springs and over-dependence on the lake aggravate the situation and open up space for active political reactions and dialogues.

Rooftop rainwater harvesting: Community participation is the key

Successful examples of nature-based solutions evolved over a period and are widespread across India. However, in recent years, water and conservation strategies through nature-based solutions have been gradually replaced by the heavy mechanical and engineered solutions borrowed from the west.

Rooftop rainwater harvesting is not a new concept and has played a significant role in water conservation for a long time. It is the accumulation and deposition of rainwater for reuse on-site, rather than losing it as runoff. In this process, rainwater is collected from a roof-like surface and redirected to a tank.

This harvested water can provide an excellent back-up source of water for emergencies or at least a substantial portion of the daily water needs.

Picture of a house, well-structured for collection of rainwater (Image: Sumit Bhakuni)

The quality of the harvested water is dependent on the nature of the catchment surface, the storage materials, and site environment. In areas where water scarcity is a problem, time tested techniques such as rooftop rainwater harvesting can play an important role as the technology used in this practice is affordable and easy to execute.

However, in a town like Nainital, sensitisation or awareness seems to be lacking. Rooftop rainwater harvesting systems can be hardly observed across the town, despite being a norm in the bye-laws. Local authorities i.e. District Development Authority (DDA), Nainital should strengthen monitoring and execution of rooftop rainwater harvesting structures in the town.

In order to implement the program, the district administration should join hands with expert organisations to create awareness through non-profits, and schools through demonstration and upscaling of the initiative. Currently, the Ministry of Jal Shakti is working across India to spread awareness about rooftop rainwater harvesting. Nainital with its existing infrastructure has a huge opportunity to take advantage of the Government of India’s initiative to become the first water secure urban area in the Himalayas.

Scope of rainwater harvesting potential in Nainital's landscape 

The success of rooftop rainwater harvesting system is highly dependent on the frequency and amount of precipitation of that place. The rooftop rainwater harvesting potential estimated for different scales predicts that the surface runoff can be captured, and stored for future use.

Nainital receives on average, around 1903 mm annual rainfall. However, 90% of the rainfall is concentrated in the months of monsoon mid-June to early September. There is a difference of 551 mm of precipitation between the driest and wettest months. The retention of rainfall in the monsoon season has huge potential to overcome the shortage of water during the lean period.

Also, natural depressions in the catchment area of the Naini lake can be declared as “no go zones”, where water naturally accumulates and replenishes the aquifers, recharges the springs and the lake. Dr Vishal Singh, Senior Fellow, CEDAR advocates the‘ Catch the rain' programme of the Government of India, which entails water harvesting. “The rainwater harvesting structures render the hill town sustainable in terms of water conservation and can help the authorities to maintain the lake level throughout the year," he says.

Way forward 

Nainital has grown many folds than its original design and carrying capacity and is under great pressure to provide residential, educational and recreational facilities. The increasing demand for water has compelled local industries and authorities to adopt necessary water management practices to conserve water and check overuse and runoff.

It is unviable to rely on short-term coping strategies to meet water demand that often involve unsustainable solutions with long-term repercussions. If harvested water is managed and utilised properly, rooftop rainwater harvesting at a domestic level can help to supplement the demand of the municipal water supply of the town. To ensure the success of the campaign ‘Catch the rain’, there is a need for constant accountability from government authorities as well as the involvement of local people for a water-secure Nainital.

 

Author: Dr. Nidhi Singh is a Senior Research Associate at Centre for Ecology, Development and Research (CEDAR), an NGO that works on bridging the interface between research and practice to facilitate socially just and equitable natural resource management in the Himalaya.

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