Will Darjeeling’s thirst be quenched?

Poor access and mismanagement of the available water resources continue to plague Darjeeling. Can there be a way out?
17 Nov 2021
0 mins read
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)

India’s urban population is expected to grow around 800 million by 2050, which is predicted to create major challenges for urban water management. This is increasingly becoming obvious in hill cities such as Darjeeling, which continue to face acute water crisis despite the abundant monsoon rainfall and several perennial rivers and streams. The crisis gets worse in summer and people have no other water resources to rely on except a few springs in the area, which too are at the risk of drying up due to land use changes.

A study titled ‘Where does water go’? A critical analysis of nature of water crisis in Darjeeling city, India’ from the journal Applied Water Science explores the reasons behind this growing water crisis in the city and what can be done to deal with the situation.

Darjeeling, a rapidly growing city

The water challenges that Darjeeling faces has to do with the growth trajectory of the city. Darjeeling was a hilly and densely forested area where only a few Lepcha families lived. It was  converted into a hill station during the colonial rule and this led to increasing migration for labour and changed the demographic scenario of the area.  Later, tourism developed as the major source of earning for a large number of people in the region.

This has led to migration of a large number of seasonal labourers from parts of West Bengal, Bihar, and Nepal who engage in many informal activities as porters, construction workers, plantation labourers, commercial and domestic helpers, collecting and selling used plastics and papers and who stay in the city over eight to nine months. However, the Municipality and Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) do not have any estimation of their numbers.

Darjeeling also has many residential schools and is also one of the important tourist destinations in India. However, this population is not counted from the point of view of infrastructure requirement leading to a gap between available water resources and the actual demand.

Bhutia (2017) in his paper informs that the drinking water provided from the Darjeeling municipality is sourced by tapping springs from the catchment area of Senchal Forest and wildlife sanctuary located 15 km away from the main town. The water from the springs is collected in an Arrestor tank and fed to the Masonry conduit line which brings water by gravity to the twin Senchal lakes to be distributed in the town. This system was constructed to meet the demands of only around 25,000 to 30,000 citizens under the British period.

Gaps in estimation of real demand

The population in the city has expanded beyond the municipal boundaries into the western and northern parts increasing the pressure on the existing water infrastructure. This increasing gap between demand and supply has posed a number of problems for access to water among the different user groups in the city.

 A water budget of daily demand and supply prepared by the waterworks department calculates a water need of 70 L per capita per day (lpcd) or 15.5 gallons of water per day that expects people to get water after every four days, due to daily shortage of water.

However, actual observations from the ground show that people get water after every five to seven days during the rainy season, and after 10 to15 days during the dry season. Many taps and tanks remain dry throughout the year. Even on days when the municipal supply is available, duration of supply is only one hour fifteen minutes in a day, and mostly during the mornings.

The water supply system is plagued with very high leakages. While official estimates state the wastage of water due to leakages at 25 percent, studies reveal that the level of wastage is  much higher at 30 to 35 percent.

Only 10 percent of the households have municipal water connections. The official data maintained by the municipality does not represent this reality as although the municipality takes into account all the people in the city while calculating demand, half of them are without a municipal connection.

The available water is distributed inequitably

Economics and politics influence access to water in Darjeeling and it is the rich and powerful that get easy access to water. The central part of the city is the oldest and has the effluent populations residing in the area while majority of the slum areas are distant from the main city.

The core areas have markets, offices, hospitals, colleges, libraries, big deluxe hotels, guest houses, restaurants and cafes and these areas are connected with well-maintained roads, electricity, and have much better water supply as compared to areas far from the core area.

No new water connections have been added by the municipality to these new areas and the percentage of in-house water connections are thus higher in the core areas than the peripheral parts of the city. The municipality is also not very interested in connecting slum households with municipal water connections as there are risks of cost recovery.

Water markets flourish in the city

This shortage of water supply had led to flourishing of water markets in the city informs Chhetri (2019) in his paper. The local water resources such as springs, streams and jhoras that were accessible to people and were traditionally used to meet their water needs have now been converted into private property, controlled by a selected few who are in the water business. Water is distributed through tankers, handcarts, private pipelines, jerry cans in the summer season.

There is a system of illegal water transfer against high bribes. Hotels consume a large share of water supply illegally. Increasing numbers of tourists and the consequent high demands from the hotels increases the demand for water. Hotels have to pay Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 12,000 per month for getting adequate water, whereas commercial water tax of the municipality is only Rs. 2000 per year. 

The first peak season for tourists starts from March and continues till June, when more than 60 percent of the tourists visit Darjeeling and this is the driest period of the year. The second peak season continues from October to December, which receives more than 23 per cent of the total visitors. However, this lies in the post-monsoon phase, when the city does not face such acute water crisis. Thus, the pressure of the tourists is much higher during the driest months of the year.

Illegal water transfers and privatisation of water has led to large disparities in access to water and the urban poor suffer the most due to this lack of access. Chhetri (2019) in his paper informs that the poor have to stand in queues for many hours to fetch water from community springs or public taps whose supply is too irregular and uncertain. The situation worsens in the dry season and it is mainly the women and school going children who suffer as they spend a long time in queues to fetch water.

What can be the way out?

The study highlights the need for:

  • Reconsideration of the existing municipal water budget to manage water resources and services sustainably as a massive gap exists between the actual water scarcity observed in the field and the scarcity shown in the official data.
  • Having adequate governance mechanisms in place to minimise inequity and maximise access to water irrespective of class, caste, gender. 
  • Strengthening existing institutions by employing skilled staff, providing adequate funds, timely implementation of development plans, effective cost management that function based on principles of equity and justice
  • Restricting illegal constructions especially near the spring’s catchment areas to protect  springs
  • Renovating the existing lakes and focusing on increasing storage capacity through new lakes and tanks considering the increasing demand.
  • Evolving a strategy to revive the springs in the city by involving communities in managing and protecting the springs in and around the city.
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