Disentangling the Drivers of Domestic Water Scarcity in the Eastern Himalayan Region

Disentangling the Drivers of Domestic Water Scarcity in the Eastern Himalayan Region

20.02.2023, Monday
ATREE auditorium


The Eastern Himalayan region receives significantly high amounts of rainfall compared to other regions in India. However, communities living in the region have been experiencing acute water scarcity, not only during the dry summer months but also during the monsoon. My thesis aims to uncover the drivers that have led to scarcity in the region. I have adapted Lyla Mehta's (2006) framing of different orders of scarcity, ranging from biophysical factors to political economy, institutions, and household drivers, with overlapping factors. The analysis moves from a macro-regional level to a micro-household level, with the local or community-level in the middle.

Darjeeling, the primary study site is one of the first municipalities established by the British in 1850s. It is also one of the most densely populated hill stations in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region. Previous literature has focused on scarcity as a pre-existing condition, resulting in a depoliticized and dehistoricized analysis that only addresses the symptoms of scarcity and not its causes. The focus has primarily been on the town's formal municipal water supply infrastructure, built in the early 20th century. There are very few studies carried out at the household level – an important scale to understand coping mechanisms and behavioural aspects of dealing with uncertainty in water availability and access.

The thesis uses a mixed method approach, combining data from transect walks, topic-guided interviews, and analysis of public records and documents. To understand the biophysical factors, I analyzed the rainfall patterns in the region and land use changes, as well as mapping springs. The household-level data was collected through semi-structured interviews with open and closed-ended questions.

Since scarcity is seen as the starting point, I first analyse the biophysical, political-economic, and institutional drivers that results in different forms of domestic water scarcity. The thesis begins by establishing the volumetric water availability in the region from total annual precipitation and changes in the land use and land cover. It also examines the decline in springs, both in quantity and flow duration through the summer, through key informant interviews, household questionnaires, and existing records. Access to water for communities is assessed by examining the role of formal and informal water institutions, the state's investments, and the multiplicity and hybridity of institutions, along with the regions’ developmental, political, and economic history. The focus on institutions other than the formal municipality becomes evident and is reinforced in the household-level analysis.

This is one of the few studies that have engaged in household-level analysis of water security, not only in Darjeeling but across the mountain towns in the HKH region. The manifestation of water scarcity at the household level is explored through two major framings of water scarcity: objective or norm-based and subjective or perception-based. The dependence on informal water sources is demonstrated by the fact that they are the primary and most reliable water sources for households. The study also provides insights into how households cope with such a complex system, navigating around the multiplicity of water sources, and create a water bundle for themselves, as well as how they define sufficiency and the importance of one water source over another.