From frost to flow: An exemplary community-led initiative for water supply in Ladakh, India

From frost to flow: An exemplary community-led initiative for water supply in Ladakh, India

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Date: 20th May 2024
Type: Feature
Organisation: ICLEI
Countries: Asia, India

Gangles, a ward in Leh – the joint capital of Ladakh, India – is located at approximately 11,000 feet and is one of the coldest locations in the city. It is mainly rural in character with agriculture as the primary occupation. The terrain is uneven and households are dispersed. Ensuring an adequate water supply during winters is a big challenge as the temperatures can reach sub-zero levels at -30 degrees Celsius, resulting in freezing of water pipes and other machinery, and frequent breakdowns of mechanical equipment.

Under these conditions and especially during winter, citizens eventually have to rely on public standposts or collect water from government water tankers, often waiting for hours in the harsh weather. Water leakage is another major concern. The Public Health Engineering (PHE) Department of Ladakh, in collaboration with Ladakh Ecological Development Group, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Leh and Kargil districts, and Bremen Overseas Research and Development Association (BORDA) South Asia, a civil society organisation (CSO) with expertise in water management, collaborated to implement a pilot project supplying piped water to Gangles with a further scope to scale it up in other areas. The Housing and Urban Development Department in Ladakh provided strong policy and implementation support for this initiative.

The purpose was to achieve high-quality water supply for residents through household tap connections in alignment with the National scheme of Jal Jeevan Mission (Urban). The project was initiated in 2021 and set out to address the key challenges of high elevation, low winter temperatures, uneven terrain, and dispersed households by developing an insulated pipe distribution network connected to a reliable water source that could make water available all day, every day, at 75 litres per person per day. A plan was drawn up to provide a piped water supply to more than 35 households in Gangles, where residents have not experienced a constant water supply for 60 years.

Household pipe insulation in Gangles, courtesy of Government of India
Household pipe insulation in Gangles, courtesy of Government of India

During the field visits to Gangles, it was found that more than 60% of households use spring water in summer, with the number rising to 80% in winter. Consultations were held with local communities, NGOs and CSOs. Obtaining community buy-in was critical because the city planned to introduce bulk ultrasonic water meters to monitor and fix water losses. After several consultations on the advantages of water meters, the community agreed to pay reasonable charges based on telescopic rates for improved water supply through insulated piped connections to households. Telescopic rates are water tariffs that are affordable to all sections of society and are charged based on the quantity of water used, such that total tariffs exceed the total supply cost.

Several town hall meetings organised by stakeholders, along with project partners, were conducted across Leh to understand and contextualise the water issues faced by citizens in Gangles.  A committee of senior members was established for critical decision-making throughout the process. Residents met with engineers from the Public Health and Engineering (PHE) Department to discuss alternatives and potential tariffs. They also agreed to strict actions for tampering with the water meters in the form of penalties, such as cutting the water supply or levying higher charges. Community members and decision-makers were taken on exposure visits to pilot projects in Gangles and abroad, as part of peer learning that was organised by the municipal council and PHE Department. Training on overall management and technical operations was provided to capacitate and build the required skills among the community to ensure uninterrupted water supply and minimise breakdowns. Videos, graphics, television shows and social media platforms were used to raise awareness, while regular project updates were shared through WhatsApp groups and small workshops. There were also cross-cultural exchanges with practitioners in Europe and Canada to promote peer learning.

The combined awareness raising, sensitisation and community involvement right from the nascent stages of the pilot project developed trust and enabled a sense of ownership among the community. Furthermore, extensive engagement between the city authorities and citizens established a strong partnership towards a common cause. The community were therefore willing to contribute towards the cost of insulated pipe connections from boundary walls of properties to households, ensuring both buy-in and a sense of ownership. Residents made small structural changes in their homes to insulate pipes and prevent freezing and undertook pipe repairs to reduce water leakages, which resulted in a strengthening of the entire water supply network.

The improved piped water supply system now includes: an ultrasonic water meter; a pressure-reducing valve at the main distribution pipeline that connects to households; a bulk flow meter heat tracing cable; and insulated pipes at the household level. The pipes are insulated to prevent freezing during the harsh winter season, therefore also minimising any interruptions to the water supply. Automatic meter readings are used to capture real-time data for efficient water management as well as future planning.

Water supply scheme in Gangles, courtesy of Government of India
Water supply scheme in Gangles, courtesy of Government of India

The project demonstrates the possibility of providing a consistent supply of water in extreme climatic and geographical conditions. For the past two years, Gangles has received a continuous water supply, even at temperatures of -30 degrees Celsius. The initiative has since been replicated in 11 mountain states of India with populations of less than two million and a detailed project report for a constant water supply system for the entire city of Leh is being prepared. Under the Jal Jeevan Mission, technology and learning from this project are being used to expand the network of piped water in Ladakh. Technical exchanges among PHE Departments across districts and states have helped build a better understanding to meet the challenges of providing constant water supply systems. Based on the learnings of the project, the formation of a union territory wide utility to manage water supply and sewerage for other high-altitude towns in Leh as well as surrounding regions is now being investigated.

The success of this initiative is attributed to: 

  • Existing technical capacity for developing a smart water management system, including: identifying hotspots and insulation needs; using new insulation technologies; recharging systems to replenish groundwater extraction.
  • Establishing a comprehensive operations and management system, which enable the project’s sustainability.
  • Ensuring community ownership was brought in by passing on the cost of certain elements of the project to the committee. For example, insulation for pipes from the property boundary walls to the household had to be borne by individual households, thereby ensuring the buy-in of the individuals and the community for the project

The initiative sets an example for how to provide a constant water supply and has established the critical role of smart water management systems. There is now a need to develop a policy that promotes conscious water usage and to explore innovative tariff schemes, such as telescopic rates, that ensure equitable access to water while promoting responsible consumption.

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