Not only depletion, sparse data on Himalayan springs is also a big concern

Greater awareness, understanding and a national springs’ inventory can help achieve water security for the future

By Athar Parvaiz
Published: Wednesday 13 March 2019

Residents of the Himalayan Region have traditionally depended on springs and small mountain streams for their water needs as the big rivers, which flow way deep down the slopes, are not of much use to the people living on mountains. But over the past several decades, many of these springs are rapidly drying up, while many have already suffered degradation.

“It is a matter of great concern. And the fact that global warming will further push up temperatures, the matter requires urgency,” Ravi Chopra, prominent environmentalist and director of Dehradun-based People’s Science Institute, said during a session on Himalayan springs at the recent conference on water issues organised by International Water Management Institute and TATA Trusts.  

Fortunately, work to rejuvenate springs has been done in some areas in Himalayas over the past few years. But experts like Chopra opine that there is a need to generate data on all the Himalayan springs to start serious work on their rejuvenation.

Aditi Mukherji, who has contributed to the 6th Assessment report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said that very little work has been done on springs so far.

“Today our lack of knowledge about springs is akin to our lack of knowledge on glaciers a decade ago. We know a lot about Himalayan glaciers which was not the case in 2007-08, but we know almost nothing about springs,” Mukherji said.  

This, she said, is an area which needs much research as it is crucial for water security in future. Mukherji further said that springs in Himalayan forests are depleting because of a variety of reasons.

“Climate change may be one of them, but infrastructure development like road construction and hydro-power development are the major reasons behind the depletion. Seismic activities may be also contributing to it,” she said.

Official data also shows how forests have been subjected to degradation in recent decades in the name of development. For example, in Uttarakhand, over 45,000 hectares of forest land have been diverted for developmental projects since 1980; while in Himachal Pradesh, 12,005 hectares of forest land has been diverted for such projects between 1980 and 2015.

All across India, 1.51 million hectares of forest land has been diverted for developmental projects between 1980 and 2015 — which means forest land equaling 10 times the size of Delhi has been diverted for non-forest use in these four decades. 

Forests act as sponges when it comes to retaining rainwater and releasing it slowly in the form of small streams and springs.

Rejuvenating the springs

For rejuvenating the degraded springs, Mukherji said there is a need to understand the hydro-geology of Himalayan springs, so that ways of recharging these springs can be designed.

According to Himanshu Kulkarni of Advanced Center for Water Resources Development, a silent crisis is emerging in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) because of drying up of springs on which millions of people depend for their water needs.

Stressing the need for conserving the springs, he said that there are at least five springs near every spring that is accessed for anthropogenic consumption. “Hence, the actual number of springs in the IHR could be much higher than our current estimates. That is why we need a national springs’ inventory,” Kulkarni said.

He observed that springs are the greenest source of groundwater, but there is sparse data on groundwater in general and springs in particular. According to him, at least 60 per cent of the locals depend on spring water; and in lesser Himalayas, this dependency is as high as 100 per cent.

This is probably why a programme to recharge springs has been going on in north-eastern state of Sikkim. People residing in the mountainous parts of Sikkim, and those in other mountainous areas across the region, use spring water for their personal consumption, kitchen gardens, farms, cattle and poultry. 

In almost all parts of Sikkim, people directly connect plastic pipes to the small springs spread above their habitations. But in the south and western parts of Sikkim, extracting water from the springs all through the season has been impossible for more than a decade now. 

This had compelled the government to think of a scheme (about a decade ago) to revive the drying springs and lakes by artificially recharging them. The brain behind devising this innovative scheme was Sandeep Thambe, an Indian Forest Service officer with a mechanical engineering background, who has also carried out extensive research on water and environmental issues in Sikkim.

Thambe is currently a professor at the Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIMF), Bhopal. In 2009, he started the Dhara Vikas (or spring development) programme to revive and maintain the drying springs and lakes, particularly in the southern and western parts of the state. 

The scheme was later launched under the centrally sponsored Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), with technical support from other government agencies and organisations like World Wildlife Fund (India) and People's Science Institute, Dehradun. 

According to Thambe, the core thrust of Dhara Vikas is to catch the surface runoff water and use it to recharge groundwater sources, after identifying the specific recharge areas of springs through scientific methods like digging staggered contour trenches and percolation pits. 

"With increasing population, degrading health of watersheds and impacts of climate change, the lean period discharge of these springs is rapidly declining," Thambe said.

He added that less than 15 per cent of the rainwater, as has been estimated in various studies, is able to percolate down to recharge the springs, while the remaining flows down as runoff often causing floods. 

"Hence, a need was felt to enhance the contribution of that rainwater in groundwater recharge, thereby contributing to rural water security," Thambe said. 

While such examples are encouraging, despite a recent study saying that there is not enough evidence of success on Thambe’s work, springs remain off­ the radar of governments and research institutions.  

Experts say that greater awareness, understanding and generation of data about springs needs to be created for improving the management of aquifers and groundwater, which will also help in water security for future.

Athar Parvaiz is an award-winning journalist based in Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir. He writes for a number of national and international publications and has extensively written on environment and climate change in recent years 

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