Millions of people living in the Himalayan region of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal may face a grim water future if the rapid and unplanned urbanisation taking place in the ecologically fragile mountains is not quickly addressed, said a study which recommended long-term mountain-specific urban planning to tackle the threat.
The study by researchers Sreoshi Singh (Nepal), SM Tanvir Hassan (Bangladesh), Masooma Hassan (Pakistan) and Neha Bharti (India), was published in the journal ‘Water Policy’ in February 2019. The findings are significant as the Himalayan region in these four south Asian countries is home to over 100 million people. The study emphasised that the Himalayan region is witnessing rapid urbanisation due to factors like migration, tourism and religious pilgrimage and one of the inevitable consequences of rapid urbanisation is water shortage.
“Unfortunately, the unprecedented population growth has led to overexploitation of water sources in the region pushing the inhabitants to a state of despair,” it added.
The entire Himalayan region is spread across an area of 4.2 million square km across eight countries, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan, sustains the livelihood of 240 million people. It is also the source of 10 major river basins and home to four of 36 global biodiversity hotspots.
Explaining further, the study stated that urban centres in the mountains largely depend on springs and rivers, but as these sources are snow and glacier-fed, the impact of climate change may affect the quantity of water available from these sources, leaving groundwater sources as more critical for these cities in different seasons.
“Several mountain urban centres are now augmenting their water supplies through water transfers from distant sources, as existing water sources are insufficient to meet rising water demands. However, due to the inherent fragility of mountain environments, such water transfers may not always be feasible due to the high infrastructure and energy costs involved,” the study said.
The study highlighted that the “uniform definition of urban centres applied with equal weight across plains and mountains, often tends to ignore important strategic locations as ‘urban’ in the mountains, although, in terms of water security, the capacity of mountains is much lower than that of the plains.”
"A mountain-specific definition of urban centres needs to be introduced in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, which Nepal has already done.”
“In the mountains, smaller settlements like district headquarters or market towns perform a number of functions typical of an urban centre. However, they are not formally classified as urban centres because they do not meet the nationally set criteria. This calls for a mountain-specific definition of urban areas, which takes into cognisance mountain specificities like fragility, limited water sources and remoteness,” said the study.
It, however, noted that Nepal is an exception as it has a mountain-specific criterion for demarcating urban centres.
SM Tanvir Hassan, who is one of the authors of the study, told Mongabay-India that, “for better planning and management, first, a mountain-specific definition of urban centres needs to be introduced in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, which Nepal has already done.”
Why the Himalayas vulnerable to water stress
The study emphasised that the “haphazard growth of mountain urban centres coupled with their fragile geography makes them particularly vulnerable to water stress and insecurity” and that the majority of urban areas in the Himalayan region “cannot meet water demand from municipal sources.”
“Some of these mountainous urban centres are of historical importance while some are popular tourist destinations. The present planning process has failed to provide alternative systems incorporating seasonal influx of population in these urban centres leading to acute water scarcity, congestion and pollution,” it said.
As per the study, highly visited tourist areas in the Himalayan region in the four south Asian nations include Bandarban district (Bangladesh), Jammu and Kashmir, Shimla, Haridwar and Rishikesh, Darjeeling and all north-eastern states in India, most of Nepal and the Himalayan region of Pakistan.
Last year, Shimla witnessed serious water crisis, which according to reports was due to deficit in rainfall and snowfall.
The study also noted that using groundwater, either from spring sources or through dug-wells and bore-wells, is one of the most commonly adopted strategies by people for coping and adapting to water scarcity.
"Unless supplemented with adequate and well-planned recharge programmes, excessive reliance on groundwater will lead to further potentially deleterious consequences in the future, given that aquifers in mountainous regions are inherently fragile,”
“However, unless supplemented with adequate and well-planned recharge programmes, excessive reliance on groundwater will lead to further potentially deleterious consequences in the future, given that aquifers in mountainous regions are inherently fragile,” the study warned.
The study called for long-term strategies such as mountain-specific urban planning which takes into account “the myriad fragilities of mountain ecosystems and ecological restoration of forested uplands that feed the urban water systems.”
“Without long-term and sustainable urban planning and accountability of the stakeholders, many of these urban centres in the HKH are poised for a grim water future, which will only be exacerbated by climate change,” it added.
Tanvir Hassan emphasised that “it is not just climate change that is threatening the water security in the Himalayan region but also uncontrolled and unplanned urbanisation which is leading to water scarcity, pollution and congestion in the region.”
“A long-term and well-planned strategy is needed to address this problem otherwise the whole region and millions living in this area would face a severe crisis,” Hassan added.
A recent report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) had noted that the Himalayan region provides two billion people a vital regional lifeline via water for food, water for energy and water for the ecosystem.
It had also stressed that India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China together account for more than 50% of the world’s groundwater withdrawals which mostly take place in the plains of river basins that originate in the Himalayan region.
Sreoshi Singh, S. M. Tanvir Hassan, Masooma Hassan, Neha Bharti; Urbanisation and water insecurity in the Hindu Kush Himalaya: Insights from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Water Policy wp2019215. doi: https://doi.org/10.2166/wp.2019.215
This article was first published on Mongabay-India.