Water, at a price!

The water woes of Darjeeling continue to grow with unreliable public water supply and highly elastic private water markets. Is there a way out?
Darjeeling, in the grip of a water crisis (Image Source: Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia Commons)
Darjeeling, in the grip of a water crisis (Image Source: Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia Commons)

Darjeeling, a water starved town

Hill stations in India are increasingly getting water scarce. Darjeeling, a well-known Himalayan town, continues to face water scarcity every year during the dry season, despite the abundant monsoon rainfall and several perennial rivers and streams.

The paper titled 'Estimation of price and income elasticity of water: a case study of Darjeeling town, West Bengal, India' published in Current Science informs that the typical hydro-geological setting and steep alignment of rocks in the region makes it very difficult to construct borewells to procure groundwater and also to access water from rivers and streams. The people of this town thus depend on springs (groundwater) to meet their water needs.

Expansion, growth and developmental activities have further led to problems in the availability and management of water in the town. While the old colonial public water supply system still exists, it has been unable to bridge the gap between demand and supply.

The daily water requirement of the town is about 1,860,0000 gallons. The municipality supplies around  527,5000 gallons of water and the town experiences a water deficit of about 1,332,5000 gallons per day. This water deficit is taken care of by the expanding private water supply and emerging water markets in the town, making the urban poor vulnerable to severe water scarcity due to limitations in accessing water.

The growth of tourism industry, hotels and restaurant chains has resulted in the consumption of large quantities of potable water as a commercial commodity. This has worsened the situation of water inequality in the town and generated stress and a high dependency on the local natural springs.

While natural springs provide about 70 percent of water for drinking and domestic use, destruction of the natural environment, depletion of forests, and the rapid urbanisation have deteriorated the quality and discharging capacity of the existing springs.

Water markets flourish in the town

People mostly depend on water supplied by private vendors through water tankers and pipelines in the dry season. People are forced to pay different rates to collect water from the water tankers (depending on the distance covered by the tankers and also compromise in terms of the quality of water used for drinking and domestic use. The tankers collect the water from Jhoras (mountain springs) without any considerations for the quality of drinking water.

While consumers convey their dissatisfaction with the existing water supply through changes in demand, very little information exists on the extent to which the consumer price and income influence the water demand in the town, and the sensitivity of consumers’ drinking water demand to Darjeeling’s prices and income.

Price and income elasticity of water

The paper presents the findings of a study that measures the price as well as income elasticity of water for households in Darjeeling town based on different modes of consumption of water namely, domestic pipeline connection, commercial pipeline for hotels and restaurants, domestic water tanker, and commercial water tanker.

Elasticity in this study implies the changes in demand of water based on price as well as income of house holds. The study finds that:

Commercial water pipelines and commercial water tankers charge very high for water as compared to domestic pipelines. Commercial water tankers charge the highest.

The monthly revenue collected by the private water suppliers from households from all four water sources is Rs 111,805.38 in the year 2017 and Rs 179,899.42 in the year 2018. The households in Darjeeling have spent around Rs 1,341,664.55 and Rs 2,158,793.07 per annum for 2017 and 2018 respectively. On the contrary, the municipality charges only Rs 500 per annum per household. This gap indicates the inequality between water demand and its pricing and its access for the urban poor in Darjeeling.

The demand for water from commercial tankers and households that have commercial pipeline connection depends on the price of water thus showing high elasticity as compared to households depending on domestic pipeline connection and domestic water tanker.

The demand of water also depends on the household income levels with income elasticity being less in households having domestic pipeline and domestic water tanker connections as compared to those having  commercial pipeline and commercial water tanker connections.

Thus elasticity of demand is more in case of households who depend on commercial water tanker and commercial pipeline connections as compared to the domestic pipeline and domestic water tanker for the consumption of water. Thus even a small change in price brings about a reduction in demand of water and people use less water and resort to finding other sources of water.

In such cases, people turn to rainwater or fetch water from nearby public springs. Many residents practise rainwater harvesting and use rainwater for domestic purposes, including washing, cleaning, bathing, etc and in some cases for drinking as well. People collect rainwater through the fitted pipelines connected with a tin roof and boil it before drinking. However, this is only possible for people who live in their own houses. Others staying on rent, or those who do not have a structured tin roof cope with the price rise by collecting water from nearby public springs.

Changing demand of water by income is less for domestic pipeline and domestic water tanker-dependent households as compared to the commercial pipeline and commercial water tanker dependent households.

Thus, the consumption of water for commercial (water tanker and pipeline) purposes is highly elastic i.e. changes with change in price and income as compared to the domestic (water tanker and pipeline) usage. The rising water per litre price forces people to compromise on the quality of drinking water.

The study highlights the urgent need for better and equitable distribution of water through the municipal water supply and revitalisation and repair of the outdated colonial public water supply systems in the town.

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