Political ecologist Eszter Kovacs and photo-journalist Toby Smith report on the water issues of Mussourie, Uttarakhand, India.
The hill station Mussoorie’s urban expansion is exhausting its spring-based drinking water supply. The town has been in a water crisis since early March, as the hot season’s scarcity meets its tourist peak.
The tourist economy defines hill station towns across the lower Himalaya: visitors sustain and give rise to food vendors, hotels, local museums and amusement venues. In turn, they demand more and better roads, electricity, sanitation and water.
The numbers of tourists to Mussoorie have increased linearly over the past decade. According to local hoteliers and shopkeepers, people today are more likely to visit the town for short weekend breaks instead of week- long trips, leading to demand for services all through the year.
Mussoorie’s thirst for water is further propounded by the growing numbers of its permanent inhabitants, whose households tend to have informal status. However, these households successfully blur the lines between formality and informality vis-a-vis the state through their usually successful individualised access strategies for piped water.
From the time of hill stations’ Britisher establishment in the early- to mid- nineteenth century, the towns have been a respite from the scorching heat of the plains.
The roads linking the main Mall, Himalayan Club and Landour are the most popular walking, shopping and exhibit areas. This popularity has been matched as the majority sites of new hotel, vendor and houses’ construction.
Linking all these landscape uses is the unchecked and lop-sided nature of urbanisation, which is overwhelmingly precarious and dangerously unplanned for a seismic zone that also experiences large seasonal rainfalls with attendant landslides.
Urbanisation has consisted of myriad tenuous tenements for new permanent arrivals as well as for the average tourist, but there has been little corresponding investment in sanitation, waste management, and water provision.
Water arrives to households in Mussoorie through a complex gravity- and pumping system that taps over twenty local springs. Over the past decades, these water sources have experienced serious declines, further stressed by the increased water demand of Mussoorie that now far exceeds its capacity.
The continued development of Mussoorie as a town dependent on tourism seriously stretches and jeopardises the long-term sustainability of these springs, especially as water catchment areas are very visibly not adequately protected from construction nor tree felling, despite the Supreme Court ban from 1980.
Kempty Falls demonstrates how rapidly these processes take place, as the Falls have been built around through the past decade.
The construction surrounding the falls epitomises broader urbanisation processes that circumvent planning and safety for immediate expediency, access and profit, putting tourists at risk.
Further, the Falls depict how ‘tourism’ is no longer an activity only of the elite: local 50-rupee bus deals link surrounding villages and towns with the Falls, making the precarious facilities available to an ever-burgeoning crowd.
Changing tourist identity and demand also affects peri-urban and rural communities around Mussoorie, some of whom traditionally made their living from water, such as the local laundry-families at Dhobighat.
Demand for their services are in decline as their washing methods no longer meet tourists’ expectations: speed of laundry turn-around and higher cleanliness standards mean that both hotels and the Dhobighat community now invest in water- and energy- consuming washing machines and dryers.
These narratives and dynamics of growth, tourism, unregulated urbanisation, demand for services and water security concerns bind and challenge the hill stations of the lower Himalaya today, and call for a mountain-specific conversation and strategy around urbanisation and for the ecological maintenance of water systems.