World Environment Day 2023: Springs need urgent revival for water security in the Indian Himalayas

The neglect of springs and aquifers in the context of rivers and watersheds has led to large gaps in developing a national response to spring water management in India

By Kripa Shrestha, Karishma Khadka
Published: Monday 05 June 2023

Photo: iStockThe springs in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) provide water for nearly 240 million people and are hotspots for biological and cultural diversity. The Indian Himalayan Region (IHR), part of the HKH region, provides water to 50 million people in the Indian subcontinent.

There are about five million springs across India, of which nearly three million are in the IHR alone. Almost every river in India has at least part of its origins in springs.

Springs also supply piped water such as Jal Jeevan Mission, a state-run programme to provide safe and adequate drinking water to all households in rural India.

However, nearly half of the perennial springs in the IHR have already dried up or become seasonal. Thousands of villages currently face acute water shortages.

In Sikkim, northeast India, which is completely dependent on springs for drinking water, spring flow (discharge) of all springs has decreased by half. Climate change impacts, coupled with anthropogenic activities, have depleted water resources and deteriorated the water quality in the IHR.

Over the last century, the average temperature in the IHR has already exceeded the global average, which impacts spring water availability. If the current depletion of springs persists, achieving the Sustainable Development Goals for water security, gender equality, and poverty reduction will be a major challenge.

An effective solution is to implement springshed management, which involves not just the management of the sources (springs) but also the surface land (recharge area) from where water infiltrates and reaches the aquifers, where groundwater is stored and supplied to the spring. This Nature-based Solution for water security and climate adaptation, focuses on access to safe, affordable, and sufficient drinking water.

Despite the importance of springs in the region, and the urgent and severe challenges this crucial water source is facing, a gap in research on springs has led to significant gaps in practice and policy in developing any strategic national response to spring water management in India. Urgent funding for research and practice on springshed management should be considered a priority.

While there is significant traction on the impacts of climate change and variability on water resources, there is a serious gap in research and data on evidence-based impact monitoring with a high level of detail, and on the interlinkages between climate parameters and spring discharge.

Although springs contribute to the baseflow of many rivers in the HKH region, there are limited scientific studies and evidence for the exact extent of this contribution. Knowledge of the contribution of glacier melt and rainfall to springs and groundwater is also limited. Invasive species are causing springs to dry, which has not been studied significantly.

Currently, springs are often omitted from water resource management frameworks, with much of the focus being on surface water management. The neglect of springs and aquifers in the context of rivers and watersheds has led to large gaps in developing a national response to spring water management in India.

There is an urgent need to include springshed management in all water management and conservation programmes. Although springshed management has gained some recognition in plans and policies, it is still limited.

Moreover, springs require not just an understanding of geology but also an incisive understanding of traditional practices and culture around springs, which have significant socioeconomic and governance dimensions. Gender and social inclusion must also be incorporated when designing and implementing water-related policies and frameworks.

Multiple initiatives focus on providing drinking water supply, such as Jal Jeevan Mission, which through its mission Har-Ghar-Jal (‘Every House Water’), provides tap water connections to every household, the source of water being springs and streams.

However, with the growing challenges of spring depletion, these schemes may not be sustainable if the conservation and management of the sources is not considered.

One way to ensure conservation of the source is to provide incentive-based mechanisms (not always monetary) to people who own or manage the resource in exchange for managing actions for the sustainable management of ecosystem services.

A more community-based approach is the concept of Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES). By incentivising options for spring rejuvenation by communities in both the upstream and downstream areas of a springshed, PES can add to the sustainability of springshed management.

Likewise, active participation of local communities is essential in making springshed management sustainable.

Nature-based Solutions such as springshed management require time for results and impact monitoring. More research and data will help researchers devise effective and impactful solutions to springshed management and ensure it is included in water resource management frameworks.

Along with sufficient budget to address water security challenges, governments must also place greater focus on the larger financial investment and longer project period to sustain the activities.

To conserve and manage springs and sustain government water supply schemes such as Jal Jeevan Mission, it is important the government take the lead in setting up appropriate incentive mechanisms and partnering with local communities and the private sector to ensure sustainability.

Ultimately, springshed management, including spring revival, is essential to ensure the sustainability of water from these sources — the main source of water for mountain communities. Action should be taken now.

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The authors thank Madhav Dhakal, Sanjeev Bhuchar, Nand Kishor Agrawal, Saurav Pradhananga, and Sabina Uprety from ICIMOD for their valuable contributions

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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