Crisis in the Himalayas: Nearly 50% perennial springs in the region have dried up

Known as the Earth's water tower, drying up of springs at such scale will not only affect 60% of Himalayan population but also the major water systems of North India

By Kiran Pandey
Published: Thursday 30 August 2018
Credit: Wikimedia Commons__

Nearly 50 per cent of the springs in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) are drying up, according to a report released by NITI Aayog early this month. This has affected thousands of villages that depend on natural spring water for domestic and livelihood needs like drinking water and irrigation. In fact, the water crisis in Shimla and other hill towns in India are a direct result of drying up of springs, the report observes.

Three million springs in Indian Himalayan region

There are 5 million springs across India, of which nearly 3 million are in the IHR alone. Over 200 million people in India depend on springs, out of which 50 million people are in the 12 states of the region. But despite this, these springs have not received due attention and continue to dry up due to increasing demand for water, ecological degradation of the mountain areas and unsustainable land use.

More than 83% of the springs have dried up in Almora

Almost all mountainous regions of India have reported decline in the number of functional springs. For example, the number of functional springs in Almora region of Uttarakhand has gone down from 360 to 60 over the last 150 years, which is a huge concern for locals.

Sikkim, too, has reported decline in water production in half of all the springs in the state. This is a sign of depleting aquifers in a state that is almost entirely dependent on springs for drinking water.

Dying springs will affect flow of rivers 

The Himalayas are a major source of fresh water for India’s perennial rivers such as the Ganga and the Brahmaputra. The drying up of springs will affect the flow of these rivers, fear experts. According to P C Tiwari, professor of Geography at Kumaun University, the springs and streams contribute up to 90 per cent of water to the Ganga. Going by the NITI Aayog report, tens of thousands of villages are facing acute shortage of water for drinking and other domestic purposes.

The IHR is already water-stressed due to the drying up of or blockages in several water sources and natural springs. With changing climatic conditions and rainfall pattern, a large number of villages, hamlets and settlements are facing potential drinking water shortages. In fact, thousands of villages reported acute drinking water shortage about 8-10 years ago, a figure that may be higher and even more relevant today.

“Nearly 60 per cent of low-discharge springs that provided water to small habitations in the Himalayan region have reported clear decline during the last couple of decades. If this is not addressed, the crisis will consequently affect lives of millions of people in the mountains,” warns the report.

Women suffer, and so do the wildlife

The drying springs will further add to the work burden of women since they are forced to manually carry water from springs below their village during the lean season, says the report. As natural watering holes for wildlife are mainly in the form of springs and seeps, the drying up of springs has also affected water security inside forests and national parks and their fringe areas as well.

NITI Aayog proposes National Spring Water Management Programme

In 2014, the National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Eco-System, under India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change, had suggested state-wide programme for rejuvenation of Himalayan springs and protection of high-altitude lakes. It had also suggested creating an inventory of mountain springs—active and dormant—along with detailed geological mapping to identify the spring recharge zone.

Four years later, the NITI Aayog report, too, lays down the road map for revival of springs in the region. Stating that there is a misunderstanding on what constitutes springs and how they are recharged and an overall policy neglect of springs in India’s groundwater policy, the report has proposed the launch of National Spring Water Management Programme for the Himalayan Region and has detailed several short-(first four years), medium- (4-8 years) and long-term actions (8 years).

Very often, the recharge area of a spring in one watershed is located in another watershed. In such a situation, springshed management will help in looking beyond a single watershed and identifying recharge areas correctly through field-based hydrogeology and community knowledge. The report recommends systematic mapping of springs across the Himalayas, mainstreaming of springshed management, launching of a spring revival programme in one vulnerable block in each of the mountain states and regular long-term monitoring of springs. It also called for establishment of a national registry for springs in the form of a Spring Health Card to periodically evaluate the health of the springs.

Springshed revival will contribute to improving water security in mountain towns and cities and will also help in providing safe water thus contributing toward meeting commitments under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) especially SDG 6. Thus, link to SDGs could facilitate multi-stakeholder collaborations required for effective implementation of springshed management says the report.

Envisaging National Spring Water Management Programme

  • Launch of a spring revival programme in one vulnerable block in each of the mountain States.
  • Systematic mapping of springs across the IHR states
  • Mainstreaming and convergence of springshed management with other developmental programmes such as MGNREGA and Ujjwala
  • Developing a digital atlas of springsheds

The report was prepared by NITI Aayog’s working group on ‘Inventory and Revival of Springs of Himalaya for Water Security’, which was formed in June 2017 to take stock of the magnitude of drying of mountain springs across the Himalayas. It was entrusted with the task of reviewing the quality of water from springs, related policies across IHR to ascertain their adequacy and gaps.

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