Updated: Jul 9, 2020

In the popular imagination, steeped in consumer culture, the hills are exotic and aesthetically sublime places for finding solace away from busy urban life. This kind of imagination by the outsiders (people living in the plains) conveniently ignores and de-contextualizes the hills with the problems that they are facing. The Himalayas, often known as the Water Tower of Asia, are revered since many of the world’s important rivers originate from them. However, Himalayan states are not untouched by the water problems and the overarching effects of climate change which respect no borders.

A climate crisis seems to be brewing in the Himalayas as many recent studies indicate that it holds less water than previously estimated. There has been a glacial retreat in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region and as estimated, the region is to lose 90% of its snow and ice by 2100. The problem of water manifests in Himalayan states with the drying up of springs, the major source of water supply for its people’s domestic and livelihood needs. The issue of the disappearance of springs is quite severe and is very much a part of the groundwater crisis that the country is grappling with.

Simply put, spring is groundwater flowing out of the aquifer as surface water. The understanding of springs is incomplete without the study of the aquifers feeding them. Aquifers are the rock strata which can store and transmit water. Despite being essentially groundwater-in-movement, springs have hardly found a place and emphasis in the mainstream discourse and education on groundwater. This is majorly reflected in the overall policy neglect of springs in India’s groundwater policy. The Central Ground Water Board never paid heed to the mountains because their definition states that land with a slope of over 20 degree is not considered suitable for groundwater. However, with the concerted efforts of many organizations things are changing for better and these definitions are also been revised. One such organization is Central Himalayan Rural Action Group (CHIRAG), a 33 year old organization based in Kumaon region of Uttarakhand working with the rural communities on livelihood and revival of springs.

“I have been working with the organization since its formative years, all our solutions to the problems here are context driven and come out of participatory immersive exercises with our hill communities”, says Surendra Negi, team leader of the Livelihood and Spring Programme as he takes us on a tour to the serene villages of Nainital district where the springshed work has taken place. He further adds, “we had been hoping to work on the rejuvenation of springs for a very long time but did not know exactly how to, the revival activities were earlier based on the classical approach of watershed management and spring source protection. Most of the trainings I went to, adopted a watershed approach for water conservation, which doesn’t fit completely in our area because of the complex mountain geology. It was only when I attended training by ACWADAM, and understood the aquifer-science, that I saw the possibility of working on a springshed management with a revised approach”.

Going by the UNDP’s estimate, about 260,000 springs provide 90 per cent of the drinking water sources in the state. Many perennial springs have become seasonal, others have dried up and many now have a less rate of discharge, all of which is causing drinking water shortage for the Himalayan settlers. He attributes, land use change (ecological degradation), change in rainfall pattern (especially reduced winter precipitation) for the present condition of springs in the region. The intensity of water shortage is felt the most by the community in the lean period of May-June.

Within springshed management, recharge areas are identified through the use of simple field based hydrogeology and community knowledge, thereby creating local cadre of para-hydrogeologists and deploying appropriate recharge measures with the help of the community to recharge springs.

On our arrival at a village named Kumati, we met Anand Joshi, one of the inhabitants of Kumati who has been involved in the whole springshed exercise with CHIRAG. He walked us through the recharge area, effortlessly explaining the purpose of the recharge structures such as khanti (contour trenches), khaal (pond), in the local language Kumaoni.

The Kumati dhara.

Expressing the significance of springs in the lives of the villagers, he told us how usually every hamlet has a particular dhaara (spring) and normally there are 10-15 families that are dependent on it. Speaking of his village, Anand tells us that about 40 families used to be dependent on the Kumati dhara, but in the wake of mass exodus from the hills, only 8 families are left in the hamlet. With declining discharge from the springs, it becomes a tedious task to collect water in banthas (copper pots) and tin canister to meet day to day water needs. Prior to the springshed work, in 2014, the discharge was 4 litres per minute, but now the discharge is 7 litres per minute. This has eased the lives of the families dependent on this spring.

Prema Bhandari explaining the the local hydrogeology to our team.

In the next village, we met the flamboyant Prema Bhandari, member of Saraswati Swam Sahayata Samuh who explained the geology of the mountains by breaking down every concept to us like it was a child’s play. While speaking to us, Prema also recollected her memory of her second day of marriage when she had to offer her prayers to the Kulgarh nuala, perform certain rituals and remove the mukut (crown) that is worn by the bride on the wedding day.

Nualas are small temple like structures that are designed to collect water from subterranean seepages or springs, catering to the domestic water needs by the local communities. Since centuries, nualas have been common pool resources, central to the lives of the people living around it. They are remnants of distinguished local architectural and ecological knowledge which is slowly withering away with each generation and heavy out-migration.

The families in Kulgarh depend more on distribution line across all three seasons, however post-monsoon the piped water supply becomes inconsistent and there’s an increased dependence on the Kulgarh nuala. But with the availability of piped water, and receding recharge from nualua due to cumulative factors, there have been issues around poor maintenance of these old harvesting structures. Yet, with the collective action, facilitated and aided by organization like CHIRAG, ACWADAM and Arghyam, the community has made efforts to renovate and revive these naulas. The conservation practices are also improving the soil and vegetation cover in the treatment area controlling soil erosion and deforestation.

While speaking of the challenges, Sarita Bhandari, the head of the water user group, shared her account of struggle in undertaking the work in the catchment area which fell under private land owned by people belonging to Singoli village. As a result, acquiring an NOC for carrying out recharge activities was getting difficult as inhabitants of Singoli (most of them had migrated to Haldwani) feared that their land might get confiscated. The women of the samiti gradually took lead and convinced the owners of the land and made them understand the importance of these activities in spring revival. Moving past these challenges and having acquired lessons on local hydrogeology, today, these women conduct training sessions for other samitis and present their case in multiple occasions at the local as well as state level.

The existence of civilizations around water is a testament to its indispensability for the mankind and other living beings. And Himalayan settlements where reverence for water is deeply embedded in the psyche and practices of its people, are no exception to this. Therefore, it becomes relevant to understand the relationship between watersheds, aquifers and springs in designing and planning of conserving spring water with the community at every step. In the present context of Himalayan water crisis, the demand for spring-shed is only growing and organisations like CHIRAG are demonstrating an effective emulative community based model to combat the existential threat to springs, the lifeline of these mountains.

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