Springing back to life

Jal Jeevan Mission can go a long way to promote springshed management and ensure source sustainability of spring based piped water supply.
Image: Flickr Commons Image: Flickr Commons

Springs are the key source of water for rural households in Uttarakhand, yet they have seen an overall neglect over the decades with discharge from many springs declining bit by bit. The depletion of aquifers, changes in land use and ecological degradation have led to several initiatives to address springshed management in the state. We speak to Dr. Sunesh Sharma of Himmotthan Society, Dehradun on the emerging crises around springs, community-centric initiatives on springshed management and the manner in which Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) plans to incorporate the concept of springshed management to ensure source sustainability for spring based piped water supply to households.

Uttarakhand has been considered a trend setter of the decentralization program in the rural water supply sector. The Swajal project is known for the decentralized institutional arrangements designed and implemented successfully as well as the improvements in coverage of rural water supply schemes. What are the learnings from Swajal that can be used by Jal Jeevan Mission?

Swajal empowered the communities and women stakeholders by enabling them to become the decision makers and operators of the rural water supply schemes. They chose affordable and appropriate technological options that were better suited to the needs of the villages, led to reduction of drudgery, and increase in the villagers' ownership and motivation to perform operation and maintenance (O&M) of the schemes. JJM is a step forward and aims to ensure access to piped water for every household in the country. The programme based on a community approach to water aims to implement source sustainability measures as mandatory elements, such as recharge, water conservation, and rainwater harvesting.

The mission includes information, education and communication as key components and is meant to create a people's movement for water. In implementing this, gram panchayats (GPs) will be the key implementing agencies and will be supported by implementation support agencies. The continued involvement and empowerment of the village communities is being emphasised to achieve the outcomes. The focus is not just on creation of technical infrastructure but on service provisioning and effective O&M of the piped water supply systems.

Himmotthan Society has been working on development of model projects on community-based, scientific approach to springshed management to restore springs and increase water supply. Please share some of your experiences.

Himmotthan Society, an associate organization of the Tata Trusts, was set up in 2001 to oversee, manage and implement the Himmothan Pariyojana programme. The Pariyojana aimed to target the root causes of underdevelopment in the central Himalayan region of Uttarakhand. Himmotthan Society at present works in the state of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Leh region of Ladakh and is focused on working among the rural mountain communities by developing sustainable enterprises linked to livestock, agriculture, non-timber forest produce, and intervenes for better education, access to safe water, sanitation and energy. In the year 2018-19, Himmotthan Pariyojana has reached over 68,000 rural households across 1100 villages in these three states.

Under the JJM, we plan to work on ensuring drinking water security in the mountain regions of Uttarakhand through science based participatory springshed management approach. Our focus is on science based planning, designing, implementation as well as monitoring and evaluation. We will work to strengthen the capacity of communities, on sensitisation and awareness of different stakeholders and sustain water security through community participation. 

Himmotthan Society uses a seven-step methodology customized through a variety of processes, e.g. the protocol of springshed management in different parts of the Uttarakhand. Churedhar in Chamba block of Tehri Garhwal district is a model village on springshed management. We have noticed an increase of up to five-fold in the discharge of the springs where recharge activities were carried. A cadre of para-hydrogeologists is being created in 125 villages through training and capacity building programme.

Recharge areas need to be taken up for watershed works such as forestation, soil and water conservation techniques like bunds, trenches and ponds (Image: Himmotthan Society)

In hilly areas, especially at higher altitudes, it is often not economical to pump water from the valley and hence the need to tap gravity based gadheras and spring-based sources. In terms of coverage, what percentage of drinking water systems are spring based in the state of Uttarakhand and what has been the trend like over the years (as in increase or decrease)?

True, mountain springs are the primary source of water for rural households in the Himalayan region. A major proportion of drinking water supply in the mountainous parts of Uttarakhand is spring based and constitutes the sole source of water supply for 94% of the villages. Springshed management assumes crucial importance in the context of Uttarakhand and the demand for spring restoration has been put forth by the communities, which depend on it for drinking, irrigation and for livestock.

In your opinion, what are the steps that need to be taken for careful identification and delineation of springsheds and locating of aquifers contributing water to springs?

We use a number of steps for springshed management. Precise selection and identification of recharge area or springshed and systematic designing of recharge structures is an effective way of managing spring-fed systems.The steps for preparation of the hydrogeological technical report comprise of geotagging of springs, spring inventory development, hydrogeological survey, hydrogeological mapping of springshed, delineation of the mountain aquifer, conceptual layout of the spring and classification of the spring. This is followed by secondary data collection and interpretation. Thereafter, the identification of recharge area is done based on local geology and structure. Aspects like land use and slope are considered and we avoid working in areas with slope over 50o as these are unstable and prone to landslides.

A monitoring system is also set up for tracking the periodic spring discharge, rainfall and water quality data. The technical report (in local language) so developed is then shared with the User Water and Sanitation Committee (UWSC). The planning and implementation of treatment measures in the recharge area is undertaken with the help of the community.

What are the types of springs? Is it easier to work on some types of springs?

There are five types of springs as per the hydrogeological classification: Depression spring, Contact spring, Fracture spring, Fault spring and Karst spring. Fracture springs occur as a result of permeable fracture zones appearing in low permeability rocks. Movement of groundwater is mainly through the fractures, at times they have high transmissivity and behave like seasonal springs. Contact springs emerge at places where relatively permeable rocks overlie impermeable rocks; such springs are usually associated with perched aquifers in mountains. Depression springs are formed at topographic lows when water table reaches the surface due to topographic undulations. Fault springs are caused due to faulting which may also give rise to conditions favourable for spring formation. Karst springs are common in limestone terrains.

In Himmotthan Society’s project areas, most springs are fracture, depression followed by contact type. There are hardly any fault springs in the project area. Treatment plan for springs are based on their typology and hydrograph characteristics.

What steps can be taken to ensure source sustainability under a programme like Jal Jeevan Mission? What all needs to be done for protection of the spring in the catchment zone to maintain the water quality and to avoid contamination?

There are limited hydrogeology experts in our institutions at large who can demystify the science and train communities to manage water resources and this is a huge drawback in planning and implementation of spring based water supply systems. It is yet to be a part of curriculum in technical and academic institutions. There are a number of challenges to sustain spring discharge and as a result there is continuous extinction of springs and spring fed sources. There is a reduction in stream flow and water quality and the growing water demand too poses an increased threat to water security.

Recharge areas need to be taken up for watershed works such as forestation, soil and water conservation techniques like bunds, trenches and ponds. Improving the recharge regime through such measures leads to improvement in spring discharge and quality.

Guidelines for springs under JJM were released on February 25, 2020 by the government, which is meant for the 126 districts of the country with spring sources. The village action plans (VAPs) to be developed under JJM will not be effective unless source sustainability is ensured. In Uttarakhand, the minimum discharge required for a source to be sustainable is 9 litres per minute (lpm) in lean season (summer) for water supply schemes construction. Training sessions have been conducted for hydrogeologists but that is just the starting point. Converting knowledge into implementable VAPs will be crucial to success of the program. For training communities, a lot of content has to be region and context-specific. And technicalities have to be explained to the communities in local languages using simpler terms without which they might not be able to ensure proper O&M.

What are the challenges related to operation and maintenance in case of a spring based rural water scheme?

As per Niti Aayog data, 200 million people depend on springs in India and about 60 percent of springs are dying. In this backdrop, it is important to focus on the resource and prevent encroachment into recharge areas of springs, pumping of water and dumping of debris on the surface of this critical recharge zone as these can lead to decreased infiltration. This in turn can lead to reduced discharge of springs such as in Churedhar in Chamba block (Tehri Garhwal) where the discharge got reduced from 22 lpm in 2009 to 12 lpm in 2018, thus necessitating desiltation work. Thus, there is a need to assess the hydrogeological controls on the springs, improve the recharge potential through springshed development measures and involved the community to protect the spring discharge/ quality and well manage the operation & maintenance. The planning for springshed management needs to be done for the project’s design life of 30 years.

Does Jal Jeevan Mission guidelines have sufficient information to revive and harness springs for sustainable drinking water? If not, what components can be incorporated to make it work well in areas with springs?

Yes, it has. Also, the Niti Aayog report ‘Inventory and Revival of Springs in the Himalayas for Water Security’ highlights the need for mainstreaming of springshed management with other developmental programmes at national and in particular at the state level to facilitate more convergence with government schemes (e.g. MGNREGA, CAMPA, IWMP, SRLM). It is likely that some of the programmes may require some tweaking of guidelines in order to accommodate provisions for convergence with springshed management activities.

However, much of the systematic springshed management activities can be seamlessly integrated into programmes like MGNREGA, CAMPA and watershed management.

What challenges do you think might hinder the effective implementation of Jal Jeevan Mission in Uttarakhand? Can additional preparations help overcome those challenges? 

There are a couple of challenges such as – dearth of database related to springs, loss of time in executing work due to the Covid-19 crisis, challenges in developing content related to capacity building in springshed management. Yes, additional preparations need to be done under Jal Jeevan Mission to overcome these challenges. Convergence funds need to be leveraged and streamlined for this programme based on community’s demand.

Who are the actors at village level whose role is vital in Jal Jeevan Mission in the context of springs? What kind of training and handholding will they need?  And in villages where NGOs are not present as Implementation Support Agencies, how can this support be provided?

Building capacities at scale is necessary considering that the programme on spring revival is being rolled out in hundreds of districts. Improved capacity and knowledge about springs at the grassroots and integration of springshed management plans with the DPRs would require development of content and training. The knowledge base so developed could facilitate communities to take up groundwater resource augmentation and protection of springs. For this, training material will need to be developed in several languages, to train thousands of people from across institutions.

For effective planning and implementation of the Village Action Plan (VAP) the role of the Gram Panchayat and/ or its sub-committees i.e. User Water Sanitation Committee (UWSC) at village level; the District Water and Sanitation Mission (DWSM) at the district level; and the Implementation Support Agencies (ISA) are crucial. Capacity building at the community level, including for the UWSC on springshed management is essential to improve groundwater literacy, and help in long term management of springs and sustainability of interventions.

There is a need to demystify the detailed project report and explain it to the community in local language using simpler terms. Where ISAs are not present, it is going to a challenge to handhold community members across the program lifecycle but training and mentoring by experts can fill some of the gaps.

Have you been able to work in partnership with the Uttarakhand government to scale up the work on spring protection?

Apart from monitoring, evaluating and handholding for the programs, Himmotthan’s mandate includes idea incubation by implementing pilots, up-scaling strategies for successful pilots, database management, linking to government schemes and programmes, liaison and fund raising. The results of these interventions are successful community managed initiatives which contribute directly to increment in rural income, resource management and conservation.

In the case of spring protection, Himmotthan has had to work with the state Forest Department as over 71% of the spring recharge areas lay in reserved forest areas, where permission of the Forest Department (up to MoEF level) is a must to carry out any work. Developing a partnership with the Forest Department became easy after the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF) of Uttarakhand was involved as the Chairman of Springshed Consortium in Uttarakhand since 2018. The partnership has helped execute a lot of work on water in the forest area. The Niti Aayog report ‘Inventory and revival of springs in the Himalayas for water security’ also highlighted the need for better GO-NGO partnership for mainstreaming of springshed management in Uttarakhand as well in other Himalayan states.

Please tell us about your work in dealing with the Covid-19 situation in the state of Uttarakhand.

Himmotthan is working as a part of the Tata Trusts in reaching out to rural households across the project areas through a twelve-day campaign to spread awareness on Covid-19.This mostly involves dissemination through audio, video, text messages and push notifications on social media.

As summers are setting in, water supply from springs is likely to reduce and water is crucial for maintaining personal hygiene. How do you see all this playing out in immediate aftermath of Covid? What are likely long-term impacts on health, agriculture, livelihoods, water access in hills? What kind of interventions/programs/preparations can help reduce these impacts?

The global pandemic Covid-19 has disrupted the sector and providing clean water and ensuring livelihoods of the poor will continue to be a challenge. The project implementation will get affected by the Covid-19 crisis, with a pause on operations during lockdown and later as people practice social distancing. The impact today is more likely to be delayed timetables as funders postpone projects and focus on keeping people safe. As more people are returning back to villages, we expect a rise in pressure on the local resources, including water. People continue to crowd in public stand posts for collecting water, which might become points of contagion. Some northeast states have displayed good practices at water ATMs by following social distancing and sanitizing norms. Effective BCC is a crucial aspect right now and we are working to ensure that communities are aware more aware on the issue.

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