Supply-line disruptions are only one part of the problem
by SUBASH RAI
Gangtok is lucky to have a dependable perennial source of water in Ratey Chu, the mountain stream, which contributes more than 21 million litres of water for Gangtok every day. What the capital does not have, unfortunately, is an equally reliable supply-line to carry the water from Ratey Chu to the Selep water reservoir around 9 kms away. The terrain is challenging and the repair works dangerous, as a result of which breakdowns are frequent when the weather turns inclement. The recent weeks have tested the resilience of the Water Security & Public Health Engineering Department work gangs maintaining the supply line. The weather has been unforgiving and the pipelines have suffered, been repaired, been damaged again, and the cycle continues. If this is the situation with the pre-monsoon Nor’westers, what the monsoon months will impose can only be imagined.Tshering Tashi, a geologist who understands the land well and who retired as Director, Mines & Geology Department, attests to as much, and says, “It is more a problem of distribution than scarcity. There is no dearth of natural water sources in Sikkim. These water sources should be monitored and budgeted.”
He also believes that the annual problem at Ratey Chu can be mitigated with concerted efforts bringing together geologists and engineers. “Geological studies should be conducted to determine where pipes should or shouldn’t be laid. Such efforts can help in finding a temporary solution and maybe for a period of say ten years we might be saved from supply problems,” he suggests.
The concerned agency may have remained unable to deliver a durable solution to the pipeline disruptions for now, but it is only a matter of time before a resolution is worked out. It is hence important for the planners, now that the supply challenges have made water a talking point, to plan ahead and long-term by factoring in the challenges of climate change, the ferocious pace at which Gangtok is growing and the increasing development of residential spaces into commercial enterprises, all of which increase demand for the same volume of supply. The pipelines can be repaired, but policy failures, should the planners not prepare better, cannot be fixed as quickly.
What cannot also be denied is that the water situation is as fluid as the Gangtok skies are temperamental. Consumers in some areas complain of perpetual shortage - even alleging denial only so that VIP homes can be serviced better – while the Department remains adamant in arguing that there is no shortage in supply, only the occasional disruptions caused by damage to the pipelines carrying water for Gangtok. Go back to the consumers, and they will insist that supply is short and has remained “short” for longer than supply has been normal.
What could be causing this?
Contact the WS&PHE Department and they will insist that shortage is not a chronic condition and that is only an occasional inconvenience. Consumers with complaints of “longterm” shortage should check the pipes carrying water to their homes from the PHE junctions. The Department is responsible to reach water to the junctions, after which, it is for individual consumers to manage. An official mentioned that a recent, rather dramatic complaint by some consumers who landed up at PHE office with empty buckets, turned out to be a case of such misdirected anger. When the lines were checked, the fault was found in the section installed by the consumer and not the Department’s supply, he claims.
But surely, not all complaining consumers can be explained away to faults in pipes laid by them.
Of course there are other contributing factors, one of which is the increasing practice of people using pumps to pull water from the pipeline. It is illegal to attach such pumps directly to the mainline, but it is an open secret that more and more people are resorting to it. A casual survey of hardware stores reveals that water pumps are among the faster moving goods, with even the smaller stores selling up to 15 such pumps a month. Water supply in Gangtok is gravity-driven, so when consumers attach pumps directly to the mainline, they sap the “pressure” for consumers downline and with that starts the domino effect of everyone “requiring” to use motors to pump water. The department occasionally conducts surprise checks to have such motors disconnected, and consumers are wizening up to it and hiding the motors inside homes instead of keeping them out.
But even such disconnections are still just band-aid solutions for what is a much larger problem – the fast-changing consumer profile. Look at the areas which have chronic water supply problems – areas of Gangtok like MG Marg, Kazi Road, parts of Tadong etc – and the common thread through them is the breakneck commercialization of these areas. From a line of ration and general goods shops, the MG Marg stretch has converted into a street of hotels and restaurants. Water consumption has multiplied several times over, but the pipelines and duration of supply remains the same. Areas like Kazi Road were residential zones which only recently started making space for tenants and is has now already bristling with hotels. The demand for water has exploded here as well and the same holds true for other parts of Gangtok which have “grown” in the recent years. The volume and “pressure” of water in these areas has remained unchanged but the number of consumers has multiplied, something obviously has to give under such circumstances.
As per the Census data of 2010-11, the PHE Department is supplying water to 1,25,000 consumers for Gangtok Municipal Corporation expanded from Bojoghari to Ranipool Bazaar. This entails a supply of 21 million litres of water per day.
But even here one wonders about the soundness of the demand-supply data. If the 21 million litres per day is enough for consumers in Greater Gangtok, what is the requirement during peak tourist season when the number of people here in need for water more than doubles? The same 21 million litres could not possibly be enough then. Shouldn’t the planners have worked out the shifting water requirements by now and regulated supply accordingly? No such effort has been made which is why hotels now have vehicles on standby to fetch [untreated] water from jhoras and restaurants are known to refuse serving tea or coffee due to shortage of water and toilets at MG Marg invariably have “no water” signs.
Water supply in Gangtok is desperate need for proper strategizing and not just the occasional repair of the main supply lines. Demographic projections for the capital project its population to at least double by 2040. If tourism continues to grow at its current rate, water security will present a serious test.
At some levels, the Department appears seized of the matter, and apart for repairs on the Ratey Chu to Selep pipelines, it is also working on replacing the lines. Selep is currently fed by one 14 inch diameter main pipeline, supplemented by an 8 inch CI and four 6 inch GI additional pipes. The Department is laying two more 14 inch diameter pipes to increase the volume of supply to Selep. Simultaneously, a new reservoir is being constructed at Selep, and once completed, the reservoir will be able to store 1.40 crore litres at a time, ensuring a 42 million litre supply per day to Gangtok – double the present volume. This, the Department informs, will meet Gangtok’s projected demand till 2030.
What could also check wastage and even water theft will be a proper metering system for water consumption. The Department is currently engaged in such a project funded by the Asian Development Bank.
“We are targeting the metering project to complete within this fiscal - 2015-16 and hopefully billing systems can begin from the next fiscal,” the Secretary, PHED, informs.
Meanwhile, the continuous downpours continue to wreck havoc on the supply lines. It is a fallen tree on day, and a land slip on another which disrupts the main supply line and requiring repairs undertaken under considerable danger. Such occasional disruptions are however merely trailers for what could trouble Gangtok if water security planning is not made more multidisciplinary involving experts from more fields.