Water management in the hills needs a serious rethink

02 Mar 2020
Mr Rajshekhar Pant

The available water resources in the hills should not be taken for granted and the urgency of caution with regard to the exploitation of water – a critical resource – must not be underplayed.

Water Management
The hill state of Uttarakhand, as on date, does not have a water policy and there exists a not-so holistic approach towards the management of the existing water resources.

In the ecologically fragile Central Himalayan region, the developmental activities undertaken by government institutions/departments, a large number of NGOs, and civic bodies, haven't had much impact on the lives of the inhabitants residing in the hills. Often, the development activities have involved a compromise with aesthetics or a blatant disregard to the traditional wisdom, indigenous material and skill. Enroute Nanda Devi Biosphere, Pindari, or Milam glaciers, and several other higher Himalayan destinations, one may notice iron railings and benches scattered all over, even rolling down the steep slopes. Huge funds from Asian Development Bank (ADB) have been used in hauling the heavy iron to these Himalayan heights. At a considerably low cost, better facilities could have been provided using locally available materials and skill. This misplaced model of development is generally being followed in the hills. However, on a positive note, in all these regions with extreme climatic conditions, construction techniques perfected by the local artisans and craftsmen have stood the test of time. Houses erected by the local populace using locally available material way back in the 17th century in the Milam village are still standing intact despite the settlement lying deserted since 1962 following the Chinese debacle. Indeed, by way of giving its due space to the traditional wisdom, the self-styled harbingers of development in the hills could have empowered the hill-folk – who have been the victims of the proverbial poverty in terms of cash in hand – in a rather laudable manner.

Policies for Water Management

The policies made for the exploitation of the water resources in the Central Himalayan region and the ongoing ambivalent approaches of the officials of the executing departments do underline this referred fact.

The Water Management Index 2010 issued by NITI Aayog underlines the disarray the water management system at the planning level has been in. The hill state of Uttarakhand, as on date, does not have a water policy and there exists a not-so holistic approach towards the management of the existing water resources. As per the report of the Uttarakhand Rural Development and Migration Commission – of a total of 734 villages deserted in the hills of late, 399 got abandoned because of the drudgery of fetching water from far-off areas and speedy depletion of water resources. The districts of Pauri, Bageshwar, Pithoragarh, and Tehri alone have 97, 49, 45 and 33 such villages each, respectively. Over 180 villages, as per the UNDP estimate, lack a designated source of water. The available data of the National Drinking Water Project reveal that of a total of 39,202 villages and hamlets in Uttarakhand, at least 17,839 villages have to struggle every day for potable water.

The hilly region of Uttarakhand has 8 catchments, 26 watersheds, 116 sub-watersheds, and 1120 micro watersheds. With so many glaciers, rivers, springs, and lakes, the region is quite rich in water resources.

The emphasis has shifted – both in terms of planning and demand – from 'water for irrigation' to 'water for drinking'. Natural springs, which number around 2.6 lakh, are the biggest source of drinking water in rural areas. Approximately, 12,000 springs have dried up.

In the Nainital region alone, 50% of the springs were already defunct by the early 1980s. In the 16th-century town of Almora, where the recorded number of springs was 360, over 300 have depleted in the past 150 years, and the remaining 60 have ceased to be perennial.

Reduction in the temporal rain spread, climate change, unsustainable land use, eco-degradation, marked decline in winter rains, change in precipitation pattern, etc., definitely have their share in making the Central Himalayan region water-stressed, yet, the overall policy neglect of springs in the hills, sidelining the traditional wisdom and community knowledge, a pronounced bias for big-budget supply projects, often characterized with an aggressive attitude towards fragile mountains, have their own share in shaping the present state of affairs. Despite these limitations, methods to conserve water resources in the hills are underway.

Water Management
The National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem (NMSHE) had suggested way back in 2014, a state-wide programme for rejuvenation of the Himalayan springs along with the geological mapping of the active and dormant springs so that recharge zones could be easily identified.

The Curious Case of 'Uncanny' Development

Recently, a photography exhibition in Delhi titled, ‘Pani, Pahar: Waters of the Himalayas' by Bhaskar Vira, Eszter Kovacs (University of Cambridge) and Toby Smith (photo journalist) conveyed the impact of excessive anthropogenic interference in the fragile Himalayan landscape. How centring and balancing development around an object or resource of limited dimension and expanse like a mountain lake or a hill stream is bound to be disastrous was well explained through this exhibition. The Central Himalayan hills have been worst hit by such developments. Following the liberalization in the 1990s, a boom in the real estate sector resulted in an inflow of tourists into the erstwhile pristine mountainous region. They obviously were charged with a parti pris to own a villa, a cottage, or at least a stay in a hotel facing the Himalayan Ranges, lake, or a valley. This did not only encourage a hectic pace of construction in complete disregard to the traditional and compatible norms of construction but also resulted in diverting the community assets like springs, water-channels, etc., maintained by the village council or large family groups, to the service of influential new-settlers. Hill slopes with a gradient of 60 degree or more have, over the years, witnessed land development and construction of motorable roads. It is about time that the regions' departments such as forest, environment, geological survey, and others collectively work towards reviving the subterranean water channels, springs, hill streams, and aquifers.

Preserve Traditional Knowledge

It is also of interest that for augmenting the water crisis in the hills, the government agencies always tend to think in terms of big infrastructure with a mega budget. However, the need is to conserve the available resources, ensuring inputs from traditional wisdom and involvement of multi-stakeholders. In old towns such as Bhimtal, Haldwani, Kathgodam, and several others, the old gravity-based supply lines are lying uncared for. Hydraulic rams, still the cheapest technology to ensure continual water supply to hamlets on the hilltops have been neglected and not revived. The priority of making potable water available through lift schemes, even in the centuries-old settlements has rendered the masses oblivious to their traditional sources such as naulas or stepwells. This thought needs more perspective within the paradigm of water conservation. In the old settlement of Dwarahat in Almora district, several perennial stepwells, with a recorded history of over five centuries, have been lying in utter neglect in the peripheral forest. Gorges and ravines are generally supposed to be the storehouses of groundwater in the hills. The concept of such traditional naulas or stepwells can be better understood from the fact that the 12th century Janhvi-ka-Naula at Gangolihaat and an even older one at the district headquarters of Champawat known by the name of Rani-ka-Naula still continues to quench the thirst of a large section of local population and visitors in these old hill towns where, in summers, water is supplied through mobile tankers.

If due space is given to the traditional ways of conservation and exploitation, then we do not need to resort to immediate solutions such as installing handpumps all over the hills. There are innumerable cases where pumps have been installed along the motor roads, and at times, are located miles away from the settlements. The average investment in installing a handpump in the hills is reported to be to the tune of Rs 5 lakh. In the Bageshwar region, majority of around 550 handpumps installed lately have become dysfunctional following the depletion of aquifers and the subterranean water channels. On the state highway that connects Bhimtal with Lohaghat and Pithoragarh, handpumps installed near roadside shops in the Paharpani and Matiyal regions keep spilling water round the clock across seasons. Local people have reported that springs and rills in their villages have completely exhausted following the installation of these handpumps. Corrective measures could be introduced to overcome the challenges and address the predicament of the locals.

The need of the hour is to concentrate on the natural springs, aquifers, and mountain rills whose potential hasn't yet been tapped fully. Dr J.S. Rawat of the Almora Campus College of the University of Kumaon, with extensive fieldwork to his credit, had claimed around 10 years ago, that at a per capita expenditure of Rs 500 per annum, water supply can easily be restored in rural areas of the hills, "provided traditional wisdom related to water conservation is given due weightage". It will not be out of place to mention here that organizations like Dudhatoli Vikas Sansthan under the ‘visionary leadership' of Sachidanand Bharti have already set several benchmarks in the shape of ‘water sanctuaries' with active involvement from the community.

The Way Forward

However, the situation is not all that bleak. While efforts are on, the region is steadily, albeit slowly, opening up to more and more rainwater harvesting schemes. The solution lies in watershed management and community involvement. Making springshed management an integral part of their watershed and sanitation programme (WATSAN), Himmotthan Society has been implementing spring-fed, gravity-flow community water supply in 133 villages of Uttarakhand through 200 gravity-flow water schemes. All assets created under this project are owned by the village community. Around 40,000 individuals have benefitted from this project.

Drinking water consumption in these villages has gone up from 24 litres per capita per day (lpcd) to 77 lpcd, and there has been a marked reduction in the average distance negotiated by the residents (invariably women) from 2.5 km to 10 m.

The National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem (NMSHE) had suggested way back in 2014, a state-wide programme for rejuvenation of the Himalayan springs along with the geological mapping of the active and dormant springs so that recharge zones could be easily identified. In its report, NITI Aayog also suggests the same line of action through a National Spring Water Management Programme for the Himalayan region. It is heartening that GB Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment and Sustainable Development has now been designated as the nodal institute for the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change under its National Mission on Himalayan Studies (NMHS). During the 4th Himalayan Researchers Conference at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in August 2019, it was revealed that the water resources of 600 villages of Champawat and 200 villages of Almora had already been geo-mapped. This ultimately is going to culminate in the development of water sanctuaries.

These sanctuaries are proposed to be developed on the basis of importance and usage among the villagers and not as per their scientific status. Pradeep Pant, a veteran IFS from this region with several years of work experience among the tribals of Chhattisgarh to his credit, asserts that on the lines of sacred groves in the tribal regions all over the country, if traditional belief on the sacredness for springs, aquifers and mountain rills – once inherent in the hill psyche – is rejuvenated and given due importance, it will become quite easy for the proposed water sanctuaries to have non-contaminated water through rainfall. "It has the potential of becoming an effective tool for making people water-literate," he says. It is important to mention here that the government intends to not allow cattle grazing and fodder gathering in these watersheds.

Of course, as Maude Barlow, the Canadian author and co-founder of Blue Planet Project rightly said, "Water is being depleted many, many times faster than nature can replenish it". Besides being indispensable for human health and well-being, as says UN, water is critical for sustainable development, including environmental integrity, and alleviation of poverty and hunger. Padma Bhushan Dr K.S. Valdiya, internationally renowned for his contribution in the field of geodynamics, while referring to the springs of the Himalayas, had once said that no engineering skill could restore a spring that had gone defunct. The available water resources in the hills should not be taken for granted and the urgency of caution with regard to the exploitation of water – a critical resource – must not be underplayed. It is about time the words of WC Fields, "You can't trust water. Even a straight stick turns crooked in it," are reflected upon in a rather broader context.

(The author is an amateur filmmaker, a photographer, and a writer, who has written over a thousand write-ups, reports, etc., published in the leading newspapers and magazines of the country. He can be reached at pant.rajshekhar@gmail.com; the article was first carried in the March issue of TerraGreen)

Drinking water
Environmental awareness
Ground water
Surface water
Water demand
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