Springing back to life

CHIRAG in Uttarakhand works with communities to revive local springs to achieve water security.
Image source: Water Practitioners Network Image source: Water Practitioners Network

In popular imagination, steeped in consumer culture, the hills are exotic and aesthetically sublime places to find solace away from busy urban life. This kind of imagination conveniently ignores and de-contextualizes the hills and the problems they face today. The Himalayas, often known as the Water Tower of Asia, are revered because many of the world's important rivers originate from them. However, Himalayan states are not untouched by 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 likely to lose 90% of its snow and ice by the year 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 disappearing springs is quite severe and is very much a part of the groundwater crisis that India is grappling with.

Simply put, a 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 degrees is not considered suitable for groundwater. However, thanks to the concerted efforts of many organizations, things are changing for the better and these definitions are also being revised. One such organization is Central Himalayan Rural Action Group (CHIRAG), a 33 year old organization based in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand that works with rural communities on livelihoods, education and water.

"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 a 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 Uttarakhand. Many perennial springs have become seasonal, others have dried up and many now have a decreased rate of discharge, all of which are causing drinking water shortages. Surendra Negi attributes land use changes (ecological degradation) along with changes in rainfall patterns (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 a 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, a local resident 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.

Kumati Dhara. Image source: Water Practitioners NetworkExpressing the significance of springs to the lives of the local community, Joshi told us how usually every hamlet had a particular dhaara (spring) and normally 10 to 15 families depended on that spring. Speaking of his village, Anand told us that about 40 families used to depend on the Kumati dhara, but in the wake of a mass exodus from the hills, only 8 families are left in the hamlet. With declining discharge from the springs, it became a tedious task to collect water in banthas (copper pots) and tin canistersevery day. Prior to the springshed work, in 2014, the discharge was 4 litres per minute. 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. Image source: Water Practitioners Network

In the next village, we met the flamboyant Prema Bhandari, member of the Saraswati Swam Sahayata Samuh who explained the geology of the mountains by breaking down every concept to us effortlessly. 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 naula, perform certain rituals and remove the mukut (crown) that is worn by the bride on the wedding day.

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

While speaking of the challenges, Sarita Bhandari, the head of the local 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 became 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 the lead and convinced the owners of the land, making 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 cases in multiple occasions at the local as well as state level.

Image credit: Water Practitioners Network

The existence of civilizations around water is a testament to its indispensability for all life on Earth. Himalayan settlements such as these, 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 spring rejuvenation and recharge with the community at every step. In the present context of the Himalayan water crisis, the demand for springshed management 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.

This article has been republished with permission from The Water Practitioners Network. View the original here.

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