Visibility of Water Infrastructure

By Rinan Shah

Urban networks in the contemporary city are largely hidden. They are opaque, invisible and disappear underground. This tends to hide social relations and power mechanisms enacted through them [1]. Water infrastructure is a good example of such networks which makes water truly invisible by turning it into something which is readily available at the turn of a tap. Water infrastructure such as reservoirs, supply tanks, distribution networks and pumps is used to harness water from its naturally occurring environment and distribute it for human consumption. The visibility of pipelines which make up the distribution network for the case of Darjeeling is looked at because it does not align itself with how infrastructure is defined to be invisible in contemporary cities. The term “spaghetti pipes” has been aptly used to describe such pipelines for Mumbai [2,3].

Darjeeling is an urban mountain city which lies in the district by the same name in West Bengal, India.  It is an example of a 21st-century urban mountain city where the water infrastructure is visible hence not adhering to the definition of a contemporary city where urban networks are invisible. Here, the transformation of the city over time might have undone the process which had tried to render invisibility in the first place. A contradiction of a contemporary city in terms of the visibility of urban water network of both state and non-state water supplying entities, it might help in unravelling the dynamics of the city with regard to water provisioning. And hopefully, contribute to my larger PhD research!

About Darjeeling

Darjeeling lies on a Y-shaped ridge which bifurcates into two spurs into the north. Majority of the people entering the city use the NH55 highway which is along the western slope of the city. Once the entry is made, one can enjoy the vista of the city’s western slope. In order to gauge the vertical spread of the city along the slope, one has to move away from the highway into smaller arterial roads and even smaller non-motorable roads. After every small section of the walk, the view changes. When one looks from the bottom-most extent of the city, upwards, it is a daunting view which makes it seem like the buildings are stacked one on top of the other!

Figure 1: A view of the western slope of Darjeeling city. It is a view that one comes across when one moves away and below the main road (NH55) which connects the city to the rest of the world.

Before entering the city, at Jorebungalow, NH55 snakes around Jalapahar and enters the city along the western slope. At this junction, the road diverges into three routes, the first is the NH55, the second towards Jalapahar cantonment which further bifurcates in the Jalapahar Cantonment Road and Gandhi Road and the third, named after Tenzing Norgay Sherpa winds along the eastern slope. The eastern slope seems much steeper, with smaller settlements which are spread out, and greener with multiple water sources and wet patches. However, closer to the centre of the city, this slope too gets as thickly inhabited as the western slope.

The main water supply pipes from the primary reservoirs at Senchal runs along the eastern slope to the supply tanks within the city. This side of the city can be seen as the black box which provides all the mechanism for a city to function without showing its innards.

Figure 2: A view of the eastern slope of the city.

Drawing pipelines into households

The municipality supplies water to 10-15% of the population through the age-old distribution system created during the colonial era . The system has been made to work with patchwork maintenance. No large overhaul has been done to upgrade the system which served a population of 10,000 people in 1910-1915 and is supposed to serve an approximate fixed population of 2 lakh people in the 21st century. Tourism and boarding schools and colleges contribute to a floating population of around 2.5 – 3 lakh creating more demand.

Figure 3: This is a typical distribution system provided by the Darjeeling Municipality Waterworks department. The valves and pipes distribute water to the lower reaches of the city. The entire distribution system is gravity-based.

Bunches of pipes emerge from the main supply tanks and distribution networks all over the city. The density of pipes decreases as one moves away from the city area whether horizontally or vertically. There are areas where only one pipe is drawn for kilometers to supply one household!


Figure 4: The visibility of water infrastructure of the Waterworks Department. It is quite a treasure-hunt as one can find parts of the water distribution infrastructure across the city.

Almost all areas of city acquire water from a variety of water set-ups, including those with municipal piped connections because the municipal water supply is intermittent. One of the many set-ups by which the communities acquire water by is pulling pipelines from various springs and streams.

Figure 5: In addition to the inability to make the water infrastructure invisible, the other, much larger concern is the incapacity of the Municipal Waterworks Department to provide water to the entire city. Hence, they are substituted by communities drawing their own pipelines from various springs and streams some of which are public and many private. The privatisation of springs would be studied in a future article 🙂

These self-drawn pipes are called “private” by the households that use them. The term private used by the households imply that they receive it from suppliers other than the municipality. The suppliers could be persons with springs on their private land or people who have drawn water from the surrounding cantonment area and then supply it. These pipelines run for kilometres together. As most of these private sources are located at higher altitudes, there are bunches of pipes which even make way across the NH55 highway and to the lower reaches. They generally follow the trajectory of the jhoras (natural drainage systems).

Figure 6: Self-drawn pipes creating another kind of infrastructure is a common sight in mountain cities. The pipes run overhead and along the entire length of slopes even crossing the main highway and leading to the lower reaches of the city.

Presented in this photo story are two of the many water set-ups that the communities in Darjeeling city use to fulfil their basic water requirements – municipal pipelines and self-drawn pipelines. These two set-ups reflect the visibility of infrastructure in this city. The self-drawn pipelines also highlight the route communities have taken to acquire water for themselves due to the absence and/or irregularity of the municipal piped water system.


  1. Anand, N. (2011). Ignoring Power : Knowing Leakage in Mumbai’s Water Supply. In J. Anjaria & C. McFarlane (Eds.), Urban Navigations: Politics, Space & the City in South Asia (pp. 191–212). New Delhi: Routledge Publishers.
  2. Bjorkman, L. (2014). Un/known Waters: Navigating Everyday Risks of Infrastructural Breakdown in Mumbai. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 34(3), 497–517.
  3. Kaika, M., & Swyngedouw, E. (2000). Fetishizing the Modern City : The Phantasmagoria of Urban Technological Networks. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 24(1), 120–138.


About the author: Rinan Shah, PhD student who is striving towards understanding questions around environment and development. Her task for acquiring a PhD involves unravelling the drivers towards the manifestation of domestic water scarcity in urban mountain cities, particularly located in the Eastern Himalayan Region.



One Comment Add yours

  1. Nikesh limbu says:

    It’s so enlightening to read these examinations proven that the water scarcity in our Darjeeling hills is absolutely dreadful . Much pleased .

    Liked by 1 person

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