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Looming water insecurity in Himalayan towns

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A recent study covering 13 towns across four countries – Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan – in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region shows that the Himalayan towns are facing increased water insecurity in the wake of inadequate urban planning coupled with a rapidly changing climate. The study – the first-of-its-kind on the HKH – shows that the interlinkages of water availability, water supply systems, rapid urbanization, and consequent increase in water demand (both daily and seasonal) are leading to increasing water insecurity in towns in the HKH region.

This water insecurity is attributed to poor water governance, lack of urban planning, poor tourism management during peak season, and climate-related risks and challenges. The study, published in the journal Water Policy, also shows that communities are coping through short-term strategies such as groundwater extraction, which is proving to be unsustainable. There is a lack of long-term strategies for water sustainability in urban centres, and this requires the special attention of planners and local governments.

Based on the findings of the HI-AWARE research project undertaken by International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and partner organisations, the study suggests that urbanization has pulled people from rural areas in the HKH region into nearby urban centres. Although only 3% of the total HKH population lives in larger cities and 8% in smaller towns, projections show that more than 50% of the population will be living in cities by 2050. This will naturally place tremendous stress on water resources.

The study, published in a special issue of Water Policy journal, shows that the water demand–supply gap in eight of the surveyed towns is 20%–70%. There is a high dependence on springs (ranging between 50% and 100%) for water supply in three-fourths of the urban areas. Under current trends, the demand–supply gap may double by 2050. A holistic water management approach that includes springshed management and planned adaptation is therefore paramount for securing safe water supply in the urban Himalaya. Along with springshed management, other options could be explored in the wake of rising water demand and use.

From the case studies of the Himalayan towns, it is evident that increasing urbanization and climate change are two critical stressors that are adversely affecting the biophysical environment of the urban Himalaya. With development plans and policies focusing more on rural areas, issues surrounding urban environments have been side-lined. Across the region, the encroachment and degradation of natural water bodies (springs, ponds, lakes, canals, and rivers) and the growing disappearance of traditional water systems (stone spouts, wells, and local water tanks) are evident. The degradation and reclamation of water bodies affect wetland ecosystems and reduce retention capacities that prevent flooding. Consequently, urban drainage and flood management systems are being impaired.

The study points towards five important issues concerning water insecurity in the urban Himalaya.

First, water needs to be sustainably sourced to bridge the gap between supply and demand. Given that spring water is the only (and inadequate) source in many Himalayan towns, sustainable sourcing could be done by increasing budgetary allocations for reviving and protecting springs, increasing water harvesting, and diversifying water sources.

Second, water governance and management need to consider issues and services beyond water utilities. A polycentric governance system – which would involve multiple governing bodies and institutions interacting with one another to ensure access to water – could be a more suitable water governance model in Himalayan towns and cities.

Third, the equitable distribution of water needs more attention. The poor and marginalized are most affected when water supply dwindles. Many cities are faced with the challenge of providing access to safe water for the poor, especially during the dry season when supply dwindles.

Fourth, women’s multiple roles in water management need to be recognized, and their role in the planning and decision-making processes needs to be reviewed and strengthened.

Fifth, mountain cities need to be viewed in the broader context of mountain water, environment, and energy. Climate change impacts on these sectors are presenting new and growing challenges to Himalayan towns and cities that require innovative solutions.

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