The supply and management of drinking water to small towns of the Himalayas is a critical challenge. Around half of the urban population in the Western Himalayas, covering Nepal and the two Indian states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, live in small towns of less than 100 000 people. These small towns rely on springs, lakes and rivers for drinking water with supply systems managed and governed through a variety of approaches and institutional arrangements. Across the Himalayan region, widespread urbanisation and reports of decreasing spring water flows have increased pressures on water supplies. This paper aims to draw insights about institutional arrangements and local governance for water supply management systems for small towns in the Himalayas by drawing on six case study towns – two from Nepal and four from India (two each from Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand) – which are the focus of our on-going research in the region, funded by the ESPA programme.

In Nepal, governments and communities both share the responsibility for the management of water, while private sector management practices and interventions are increasing, as are donor supported projects, especially in the case of small towns. In the two Indian states, government agencies are responsible for the management of water sources and its supply and distribution, also frequently aided by international donor projects. In this paper, we analyse how state-, community-led and more hybrid water management practices have evolved in the region over the past three decades. Specifically, we cover three key aspects:

how processes of decision-making occur and vary across these contexts, including how and when voices of the poor and marginalized groups are represented in such decision processes; b) the role of donors in shaping institutional interventions, and how these interact with pre-existing state and community systems; and c) identifying the “winners” and “losers” from specific forms of water management and delivery, including opportunities for more equitable water governance.

Our preliminary insights reveal that the institutional structures and mechanisms, as well as the sources of drinking water in Nepal and India, are undergoing a period of rapid change with a number of shared contextual characteristics and trends. Trade-offs between different water uses and users, such as between drinking water or irrigation needs, between urban and rural populations or up- and down- stream communities, are prevalent across all case study towns, wherein respective stakeholders are affected by changing provisions for water in different ways, and with highly differential abilities to negotiate and affect management structures or outcomes. New institutional forms, and delivery and distribution systems, are being planned and implemented, often with donor support, and these are likely to result in new challenges for existing stakeholders within these systems. The paper concludes with a wider discussion of the prospects for water (in) security in the region, in light of these emergent governance regimes.