Water wise in Uttarakhand

Scientific implementation of developmental programmes is needed for the optimal utilisation of water resources

By V C Goyal
Published: Tuesday 15 April 1997

-- the hilly regions of the central Himalaya are facing problems in the storage of sufficient water, especially during summers, for drinking and irrigation purposes. The eight hill districts of Uttar Pradesh (up), spread over 51,000 sq km, have a population of approximately five million, for whom the water resources have not been systematically explored and developed, except partly for the districts of Nainital and Dehra Dun.

Great concern has been expressed about backwardness of the Uttarakhand region. It is true that the environment of the region has degraded, forests have disappeared, many small streams and springs have dried up, agricultural holdings are hardly able to sustain the local population, traditional occupations have sharply diminished and new jobs are almost non-existent leading to migration to the plains. At the same time, it is also true that the region has never had a shortage of resources. Uttarakhand is not as backward as some other hilly areas of the country such as Purvanchal and Bundelkhand. The shortage of water and other essential items of livelihood, like fuelwood and fodder, has been a consequence of extensive deforestation, land use change and forest fire. Himalyan springs on which people depend, have dried up due to interference in their natural recharge caused mainly by deforestation.

If the inhabitants of the Uttarakhand region really want to make the best use of their vast natural resources, they should make sure that their planners prepare and implement developmental programmes systematically and on scientific lines. This is especially important for the region, where basic development has been lacking to a great extent.

Experiences in similar hilly regions of developed countries and, to some extent, also in the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh, has shown that systematic hydrological studies can provide solutions to the problems of this region too. However, in the hills of the Uttarakhand region the required data is available from only few scattered sites and hardly any effort was made so far to initiate systematic data collection in this region.
Hydrological studies The presently exploited source of water for drinking and irrigation in the hilly regions of up is surface water (streams and rainwater). In the absence of proper rainwater harvesting structures in the region, rainwater is hardly available and stream water is available only for the people living close to river-banks. Due to largely varied population density in the region, the majority of the people do not have access to these supplies and are generally dependent on the local sources of water supply (springs) and dug wells (only in the valleys). Groundwater can be an important alter-native source for meeting the water needs of this region. Groundwater is considered to be a sustainable source of water supply in a region because, if properly developed, it can provide year-round supply of reasonably good quality water. The effects of various developmental activities - construction of roads, tunnels, quarrying - on the groundwater storage and flow need to be studied and measures need to be taken for proper development of hill aquifers, particularly the aquifers from which springs emerge.

As hardly any systematic groundwater study has been attempted in the region, it would be necessary to initiate basic groundwater monitoring, including water level monitoring through installation of shallow piezometers coupled with test drilling at few selected sites and conducting tests of soil infiltration characteristics for assessment of utilisable groundwater resources. Based on the information obtained from these studies, exploratory wells could be drilled at selected hydrogeologically feasible locations. This exercise would provide an estimate of the groundwater availability and insight for further groundwater development.
The strategy Since integrated development of various agro-ecological regions in the country is gaining importance, a scientific and systematic line of action would go a long way in preparing operational plans for the sustainable development of the Uttarakhand region.

As in other parts of the Himalaya, the terrain in the area is rugged and steep. Geologically, the mountains are young with many fault zones and are subject to seismicity, denudation, landslide hazards and soil erosion. The soils are generally shallow and not well developed, varying in texture and depth. Since the topography of the region is the most significant factor for any developmental work, it is imperative that topographic maps should be prepared for local use. The geology of the area is another significant factor for estimation of groundwater resources, for construction of engineering structures, or for abatement of landslides. Climatology is another important field and holds the key for planning and implementation of various developmental schemes in this hilly region.

In order to design and implement methodologies to ensure sustainable supply of water at micro-watershed scales in the Uttarakhand region, the following basic studies need to undertaken:

Exploration of localised aquifers (including springs) in the hilly regions, and the enhancement of the recharge of these through rainwater

Ensuring safe quality of water from these aquifers and springs

Revival of indigenous technology for rainwater harvesting and aquifer recharge

Design and construction of appropriate hydrological structures for conservation of soil and water and identification of suitable sites for location of these structures

Transfer of technology development and knowledge about hydrological conditions of the study area to local ngos for implementation with people's participation

Water supply project
The World Bank has recently initiated a five-year project for improving rural water supply and sanitation in 13 districts of up, including eight hill districts (Dehra Dun, Tehri, Chamoli, Pauri, Pithoragarh, Uttarkashi, Nainital and Almora). The project aims at developing and implementing a long-term strategy to improve overall water resources management in the state along with other aspects like sustainable health and hygiene benefits and improvement in rural income.

As the objectives of the project are demand-driven and community-based, active participation of rural communities and support organisations is envisaged in pre-planning, planning and implementation phases. Under the water management component in the project, various technical and administrative setups are proposed at political, administrative, working and technical levels. In this setup, a water resources control and review council and a parliamentary water committee are planned at the political level; a water resources committee at the administrative level; a water resources planning unit at the working level and a state water resources board (swrb) at the technical level. Besides having the responsibility of surface and groundwater assessment (in terms of both quantity and quality) and other hydrological and hydro-meteorological aspects (including measurements), an important element of the swrb would be to set up a state water resources data centre.

Going by the project objectives, it appears that a lot can be achieved in strengthening and improving the management and planning of water and related natural resources in the hill districts of up. However, tangible results are possible only if there is no siphoning of funds and the work is designed scientifically with a long-term view and implemented sincerely.

Operational plan
For effective monitoring in the region, demarcation of small watersheds within this agro-ecological region and evolution of a system of monitoring and assessment of water, soil and land degradation in these watersheds needs to be undertaken. This should be based on intelligent instrumentation, remote sensing and simulation modelling. The following activities should be taken up on a scientific basis after ensuring effective coordination amongst various governmental and non-governmental agencies and local community networks having expertise in their respective areas:

preparation of maps

installation of appropriate hydrometeorological instruments and data transmission/reception and networking facilities

regular data collection, storage, processing and dissemination facilities

conducting systematic exploration for mapping of aquifers, identification of their recharge zones and establishment of groundwater sanctuaries near these recharge zones

identification of suitable soil and water conservation structures

hydrological modelling at microwatershed scales

It is hoped that the strategy and plan presented in this article would provide an insight into the ways through which a sustainable development of water resources in the Uttarakhand region can be achieved. Due to the abundance of natural resources in the region, with proper planning and efforts, the future can be made brighter.

V C Goyal is a scientist working at the National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee, Uttar Pradesh

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