Despite being endowed with adequate rainfall, most parts of the Himalayas are considered water-stressed for both agricultural and domestic purposes. This is mainly due to the seasonality of precipitation, which is concentrated to the monsoon months. It remains dry for rest of the year. The water crisis in the hills can be attributed to human interventions in the natural springs’ recharge zones.
If the drinking water requirements of the people living in the remote rural hilly terrain are to be met in a cost effective, eco-friendly way which is also independent of external inputs, a strategy to conserve existing water sources and revive the drying springs and small streams has to be made.
Till now, no serious attempt has been made in a planned way to regenerate these vital natural sources. Instead, mammoth schemes of centralised piped water supply systems have been launched, which failed to meet the requirement of the local people. Their failure is primarily due to faulty planning, poor maintenance, and lack of people’s participation in management. The following initiatives have been undertaken by the Himalayan Consortium for Himalayan Conservation (HIMCON) for conservation, development, and management of sustainable water resources in the Pauri Garhwal region of Uttarakhand.
1. Spring Rejuvenation Programme
A combination of traditional knowledge and advanced technologies, such as planting saplings and grasses and building of Chaals (small pits that are dug to hold spring water for recharging of groundwater), can help save the springs. Chaals represent the understanding of the groundwater regime and response of the local populations to rejuvenating spring discharge. These measures have significantly improved the water yields in the region.
A decentralised system of water management, developed under various programmes, allows people to be in charge of their own water resources. At the same time, local people were given adequate training and information to manage their own sources effectively. Therefore, if the village level water governance is not doing its job properly, the whole system does not function. This programme requires a long gestation period to settle associated issues.
2. Harvesting of seepage water
There is a lot of natural seepage in the hills, which allowed many habitations to thrive on the discharge of these springs. Although inhabitants are facing an acute shortage of water, the discharge from these seepages is not being optimally tapped. Most of the discharge is wasted since the number of storage structures is not adequate. Alternatively, this water can be collected and stored for household and irrigation purposes. Construction of appropriate low-cost water storage tanks at the site of the seepage has helped fulfill the domestic needs of the people and the successful growth of vegetation.
3. Low cost sand filters for the community
At present a large number of water filters developed in India and abroad have been developed for the community water supply. However, the technological aspects of many of these filters are not only highly complex but they also often require electricity and experienced manpower to operate, leading to their failure in the hilly region. HIMCON and National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) jointly designed a community water filter suitable for the Himalayan region first of which was installed at Chhati village serving more than 50 families.
With constant trial and error, the model was improved and a slow sand filter was developed as a drinking water solution for villages of 10 to 20 families. HIMCON installed 12 such community drinking water filters in the villages of Henwal River Valley and Been River Valley of Uttarakhand. For proper maintenance and handling of the filter, villagers were given technical training.
4. Ensuring people’s participation
All the project activities have been successful due to the participation of the local communities. The essentials of all the programmes and projected benefits were discussed in an open forum. These forums also acted as platforms for sharing of information about government welfare schemes. Any intervention cannot be sustained with outside support alone. The communities were imparted the vital technical knowledge regarding management of introduced interventions, so that they could sustain the operations on their own.
All these initiatives combined local knowledge, low cost technology, community participation and maximum conservation of available water from natural sources.
Ram Bhushan Singh and Rakesh Bahuguna work with HIMCON. This post was based on a paper submitted for the Sustainable Mountain Development Summit held at Kohima, Nagaland, on September 25-27. The original submission can be downloaded from below.