Drying up of the important water sources will have a profound impact on people and the ecosystem
This article is part of a special edition on the Himalayas, published in February 1-15, 2023, issue of Down To Earth magazine
Some three million springs flow across the Indian Himalayan region. About half of these have either dried up or are in various stages of disappearing, according to a 2018 report published by the government think tank NITI Aayog. Springs dry up due to four main reasons. One, a reduction in the long-term rainfall in the region. This has happened in several parts of the Himalayan states. While some places see excessive rain that leads to landslides and floods, the average annual rainfall in the region has decreased. This deficit is irregular across districts.
The second reason is a change in land cover and land use. Some places in the Himalayan states have seen a reduction in forest cover and natural farming, due to both infrastructural development and land-use changes at the local level.
The third reason is landslides, due to which the earth moves from one place to another and destroys springs, while the fourth cause is rain-related drought. Apart from these four reasons, floods can also result in destruction of springs. Moreover, it is important to note that all these processes are taking place in a fragile and ecologically sensitive region.
Springs get water from aquifers deep in the ground. Even though the Himalayan mountains do not have large aquifers, there are some rocks and systems that have porosity and permeability that can retain water. This is the source of groundwater, which erupts in the form of springs. The area from which the water seeps into the ground and emerges elsewhere through springs is called a natural recharge area. Several such areas in Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and northeastern states have been affected by the causes that lead to drying up of springs. Apart from India, this problem is also seen in Nepal and Bhutan.
The disappearance of the springs can have far-reaching consequences. The NITI Aayog report says that in the Himalayas, there are two tourists per resident. In other words, though the region is home to some 50 million people, the springs cater to the needs of 150 million people. Already, access to water in the Himalayan system is difficult as channelling water from the rivers is expensive and not feasible for the local communities. Springs and streams are the traditional sources of water, and ensuring that they do not disappear is imperative. Fortunately, all the state governments in the Himalayan region have approved springshed management.
Further, water from the springs form the base flows of rivers such as the Ganga, Yamuna and Brahmaputra. If the springs are lost, naturally the base flow of the river channels will drop, especially during summer. Hence, saving the Himalayan springs is of great importance for the survival of the entire mountain ecosystem. The good thing is that all the state governments have approved springshed management. Stream management is also undeniably easier than groundwater management.
(As told to Bhagirath)
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