Climate Change

Desertification in India: Where are Himalayan springs?

Rapidly disappearing springs will eventually impact rivers and cause desertification in the plains

By Bhagirath
Published: Thursday 12 September 2019
Photo: iStock

Only 29 per cent of the water in the Ganga is from glaciers till the river reaches Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh; the rest comes from the springs, says SK Bartaria, member of the drafting committee that prepared NITI Aayog’s 2018 report on the revival of Himalayan springs.

This shows the centrality of Himalayan springs in maintaining the flow of the mountain’s rivers, he explains. The mountain range is home to 3 million of India’s 5 million springs. Things, however, have changed quite rapidly in the past few decades.

About 50 per cent of the springs have dried up or turned seasonal, says the “Report of Working Group I Inventory and Revival of Springs in the Himalayas for Water Security”.

Drying up of springs is intricately linked to desertification because nearly every river in India has its origins in springs. “Any change in spring hydrology has clear ramifications on river hydrology, whether in the headwater regions, where springs manifest themselves as sources of rivers, or in the lower-reach plains of river systems where they contribute almost invisibly as base flows to river channels,” says the report.

In fact, the ramifications of disappearing springs have already become visible on rivers. “A decade ago, the flow of Binsar river was so strong that it would wash away bridges. Now sometimes its water level goes as low as 15 cm,” says Santosh Singh Nagarkoti of Basauli village in Uttarakhand’s Almora district.

The number of streams in Almora has gone down to just 60 from 360 in the past 150 years, as per the report. Dharmanand Mishra of Kharak village in the same district vouches for the decline in the number of Himalaya's springs.

“When we went to the Vaishno Devi temple in Jammu in 1985, there was spring water gushing out from pipes near the temple. In 2005, we visited the temple again and found that there was barely any stream water available,” he says.

Source: Report of Working Group I Inventory and Revival of Springs in the Himalayas for Water Security
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The drying up of springs is a major worry because they were the only source of water to 50 million people in 60,000 villages of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, Assam and West Bengal.

About 60 per cent of people in rural regions of the Himalayas still use stream water for drinking. With nearly a fifth of the Himalayan population involved in agriculture and 64 per cent of the cultivable land irrigated by streams, the death of streams will have a substantial impact on farmers too.

“The Himalayan springs are drying up primarily due to changes in land use, ecological degradation and the so-called developmental activities. These have depleted aquifers in the mountains,” says Himanshu Kulkarni, a lead author of the report and convenor of Pune-based non-profit Advanced Center for Water Resources Development and Management.

He also links it to climate change and says that the total rainfall in the Himalayas has decreased in the past century while winter rain has almost disappeared.

The drying up of springs has also impacted forests and wildlife. “Many natural watering holes for wildlife are in the form of springs and seeps. Depletion has led to water insecurity inside forests and national parks and on their fringes as well,” it says.

“These springs ensure widespread water availability in rivers and provide moisture to the soil. Their disappearance will eventually be felt in the plains,” warns Debashish Sen, director of Dehradun-based People’s Science Institute.

(This article was first published in Down To Earth's print edition dated September 1-15, 2019)

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