Springs spring hope in Kashmir, Himalayas

Verinag spring in Anantanag district of Kashmir (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Verinag spring in Anantanag district of Kashmir (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Freshwater is a rare and critical resource and its availability is declining worldover with urbanisation, industrialisation, climate change and rising temperatures, and a marked decrease in rainfall.

Provision of safe drinking water is increasingly becoming a challenge in water stressed countries such as India. Besides this, the available water resources are increasingly getting polluted and unusable due to the impacts of urbanisation, unscientific and improper use and pollution.

Springs, valuable sources of freshwater

Springs are a valuable source of water and can greatly help alleviate this situation. Springs are formed when groundwater emerges and flows on the surface. Natural springs have a unique ecosystem of their own, are rich sources of drinking water and are known to support a wide range of plants and animals in their waters and in the surrounding areas.

Perennial springs provide water to other water bodies such as lakes, wetlands, rivers and coastal ecosystems in India. All major rivers in India such as the Ganga, Krishna, Godavari, Narmada etc have their origin in springs.

Springs are  known by various names in different parts of India. They are referred to as dhara or naula in Uttarakhand, chasma in Jammu and Kashmir, chumiks in Tibet and Ladakh, mul in Nepal, jhoda in Bengal, or jhara in Maharashtra. Springs have been revered since times immemorial in India and a number of temples, kunds were built around such springs.

Many communities have also assigned sacred spaces to springs and the surrounding forests. These are referred to as sacred groves and have been assigned local names in different parts of the country such as ‘devrai’ in Maharashtra, ‘kavu’ in Kerala, ‘sarana’ in Jharkhand and ‘devara kadu in Karnataka.

India has approximately 5 million springs, including nearly 3 million in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) alone. These springs are a source of freshwater for over 200 million people. An estimated 80–90 percent of the population in the Himalayas depends on springs for their daily use.

Water quality of freshwater springs varies both in time and space based on rock formations, source of aquifers, mineral dissolution, ion exchange and due to exposure to pollutants. The water quality of springs in India is declining rapidly in recent years due to over exploitation, neglect, mixing of pollutants, land use and land cover changes, and mining activities. However, despite their critical importance, management and conservation of springs has received very little attention in India.

Springs in the Kashmir, Himalayas

This paper titled 'A critical appraisal of the status and hydrogeochemical characteristics of freshwater springs in Kashmir Valley' from Nature Scientific Reports informs that In Kashmir, Himalayas, springs play an important role in supplying drinking water, especially in rural settings besides supporting agriculture, fisheries and other ecosystem services.

However, many springs in the Kashmir valley continue to be threatened because of human induced anthropogenic activities such as large scale land use changes, massive deforestation in catchment areas, and infrastructural development.

These human induced changes have disrupted the hill slope hydrology in the Kashmir valley, affecting springs in the region while climate change too continues to affect the survival of springs and led to flow reduction, and drying up of springs. Despite the important role that springs play in meeting the drinking water needs of populations in Kashmir, information on springs in Kashmir is scanty and little attention has been paid to their management and conservation.

The paper discusses the findings of a study that aims at:

  • Assessing the water quality of springs in Kashmir valley
  • Evaluating the chemical relationships governing water
  • Identifying the underlying processes governing the quality of spring water

The study finds that:

  • Water quality evaluation of 258 springs from the Kashmir valley shows that 39.5 percent of the springs have excellent water quality, 47.7 percent have good water, 5 percent have poor water, 1.6 percent have very-poor water, and 6.2 percent of the springs have water that is totally unfit for drinking purposes. Majority (~ 87 percent) of the springs show excellent to good quality and can be used for drinking purposes without any treatment. Thus the springs have a large potential to meet the rising demands of the growing population in the region.
  • Most of the springs along the central and south Kashmir are alkaline due to the limestone-rich lithology of the valley. The springs in Kupwara and Baramulla districts are acidic mainly due to mixing of inorganic fertilisers and domestic sewage from adjoining catchment areas.
  • High levels of sulfates and nitrates in the spring waters indicates leaching and surface runoff from soils and agricultural fields, leakages from septic tanks, surface drains and domestic sewage that pollute the water. The increasing concentration of sodium and potassium along the Kupwara is an indication of increasing human activities. Changes in soil due to horticultural and agricultural practices are the possible secondary sources of increased potassium concentration compared to normal levels along the central and south Kashmir.
  • The presence of coliform bacteria in some springs of Ganderbal and Budgam district indicates the contamination of aquifers by septic tanks. This is further supported by the fact that Budgam and Ganderbal districts do not have sewage treatment plants and all of the fecal matter is buried underground.
  • While the springs in the valley have good quality drinking water, the deteriorating condition of some of the springs in the region is an indication of the growing influence of anthropogenic factors such as urbanisation, agricultural activities and land use changes on the water quality and needs to be tackled in time to prevent future contamination of springs in the region.

Threats to springs are many. Rising temperatures in valley have increased evaporation over land surfaces thereby limiting the amount of water to replenish underground aquifers. Springs are drying at a rapid rate in the region due to glacier retreat, pollution, blocking of feeding channels, and forest denudation.

Studies also indicate that climate change may not only decrease precipitation, it may also increase the rates of evapotranspiration, and reduce the stream flows. Under warming scenarios, the decrease in both snowmelt and infiltration can decrease recharge of groundwater, leading to deeper water table and declined spring flows. due to decline in snowfall over the Kashmir valley during the past few decades, which decreases the snowmelt, hence infiltration and recharge of groundwater.

Changes upsetting the recharge of spring water in the Kashmir valley are already happening. For example, while groundwater in most of the plains does not seem to have been adversely affected,  groundwater in Karewas and upper areas has decreased by one-third. Changes in magnitude and timing of snowmelt have been reported from Kashmir valley and likely to influence the recharge of spring water.

The paper warns that while springs in Kashmir have still retained their good quality and have a great potential to be used for drinking water, the survival of springs is under threat due to rapid urbanisation, industrialisation, human interventions, population growth and climate change. Thus while springs which are in thousands in Kashmir landscape have the potential to offer viable solutions to the rising drinking water demand in the area, their protection and sustainable management is crucial.