Sikkim reels under water woes, faces the hottest June

  • In April, a cloud burst-induced landslide, led to acute water shortage in Gangtok.
  • The water shortage was exacerbated with a heatwave in Sikkim, which is uncommon for a hilly state. Many parts recorded 3 to 5 degrees above the normal temperature.
  • The water issue in Gangtok is further aggravated by the growing number of tourists. There are allegations of water being diverted to hotels and shopping complexes.

Gangtok, in Sikkim, was reeling under acute water shortage, after a cloud burst-induced landslide on April 20 damaged the city’s water supply system. This year, Sikkim also experienced a heatwave and the water shortage has only made it worse.

According to Chetraj Mishra, Chief Engineer, Public Health Engineering (PHE) Department, Sikkim, the cloudburst happened at 9th Mile, which is 3.5 kilometres from Ratey Chu. “The cloudburst happened along a stretch of 150 metres, causing a landslide which damaged seven water lines,” Mishra said. “There were three 14-inch pipelines and four six-inch pipelines. Within 4-5 days, we temporarily renovated those lines, and we are now carrying out permanent restoration work, which will be completed soon.”

Gangtok citizens forming queue with buckets to collect water during the water crisis in the city. Photo by Suraj Tsong.

Mishra added that during the crisis, there were tankers supplying water to households. “There are a lot of springs and rivers in the lower belt of Gangtok, from where water was filled in the tanker and brought by our vehicles and distributed in the neighbourhoods.” A resident of Gangtok, who did not wish to be named, said they had to stand in queues with buckets to collect water.

Ratey Chu, a river which emerges from the glacier-fed Lake Tamze is the main source of water for Gangtok. From Ratey Chu, water is taken to the Selep Tanki Treatment Plant and further supplied to Gangtok. This is not the first time natural calamities have damaged the water distribution system in Ratey Chu. In 2010, severe landslides ruptured and damaged water pipes which then went dry and supply was restricted by the authorities, owing to which, many tourists left Sikkim.

Heatwave in Sikkim

Sikkim has been a getaway for people to escape the heat. However, this year, the state itself faced a heatwave.

Change in Sikkim’s land surface temperature. Map by Technology for Wildlife Foundation.

“Since May 29, Sikkim has witnessed heat waves at a few places, which is definitely abnormal for a hilly state,” Gopinath Raha, Meteorologist, IMD, Sikkim told Mongabay-India.  “On June 7, our observatory at Tadong (five kilometres from Gangtok) recorded a temperature of 32 degrees Celsius, the highest for the month of June, so far.  From May, most of the hill stations recorded 3 to 5 degrees Celsius above normal temperature,” he said, adding that hilly areas are becoming more vulnerable now as temperatures are rising.

He also added that even though Gangtok is hotter than previous years, the weather is much cooler than in the plains. “We are also expecting rain in the next few days, which will bring the temperatures down.”

Omi Gurung, a social entrepreneur from the state, said that felling of trees in Gangtok in recent years has also facilitated the erratic change in climate.

Last year, there were rampant protests in the city, when authorities chopped down a 100-year-old Banyan tree for development purposes. This led to the Sikkim High Court issuing directions to the State Government addressing indiscriminate felling of trees under the Gangtok Smart City Project.

What led to the water crisis?

Usha Lachungpa, naturalist and retired Principal Chief Research Officer (wildlife) of Sikkim said that the Himalayan geology is different. “Every time there is a landslide or earthquake, there is a disturbance in the soil which leads to these pipelines getting dislodged. This has always been an issue, not just in Sikkim but in other hill states as well. Because of the terrain, repairing also becomes difficult.”

Public Health Engineering officials inspecting and repairing the damaged water pipes at Ratey Chu. Due to the distinct geology of Himalayan states, a landslide or earthquake disturbs the soil which eventually damages the pipelines. Photo by Suraj Tsong.

Lachungpa said that South Sikkim particularly is a drought prone area, and always has water shortage. “They tap water from the nearby Meenam Wildlife Sanctuary. This highlights the significance of keeping our hilltops green because they catch and store rainwater. With all the road construction happening, it hampers the natural percolation of water.”

While tourism is a major source of revenue for Sikkim, Lachungpa points out the adverse effects of tourism. “Tourism has actually increased beyond the carrying capacity of Sikkim,” she said. Hotels and resorts are using a lot of water because they have to cater to tourists. She pointed out that the the Himalayas are one of the first places to be affected by climate change. “Black carbon settles on the snow, when tourist vehicles pass through the area. Climate change is affecting us in many ways, including drying up of our water sources.”

M.G. Marg in Gangtok. Tourism has increased beyond carrying capacity in Sikkim. Photo by Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons.

Anti-dam activist from Sikkim, Tseten Lepcha, said that the change in climate   is aggravating the water crisis. “Gangtok is seeing an increase in population and the old water source is not sufficient to cater to the increasing population,” Lepcha added.  “Also, the water distribution system is quite old and rusty.”

Lepcha said that there have also been allegations of water being diverted to some big hotels and shopping complexes.


Banner image: The damaged water pipes at Ratey Chu, the main water source for Gangtok. Photo by Suraj Tsong.

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