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Restoring springs combats water scarcity in India's Himalayas

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 4 Nov 2013 11:15 GMT
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A man stands beside a stone dam constructed to hold mountain runoff water to recharge springs near Katora Khaal, in India's Uttarakhand state. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Sujit Chakraborty
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DEHRADUN, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Nagarasu is a tiny village in the lap of the Himalayas. Located in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, it depends on two sources of water – streams which originate from mountain glaciers and underground springs.

Both sources of water are now declining, with streams dwindling as glaciers retreat and deforestation contributing to the drying of springs.

But an innovative effort to help villages in the semi-arid region overcome growing water scarcity, by identifying the recharge area of springs and then replanting them and constructing water-harvesting facilities, is now paying off.

Springs that had once died out have reappeared and the flow in remaining springs has increased, leaving the 2,000-some villagers living in the area with gurgling water year-round.

“Earlier it was difficult to carry out agriculture and a lot of our produce would be regularly spoiled due to uncertain supply of water. Now I regularly grow okra, bottle gourd, cabbage, tomato and chili,” said Vikrum Singh, a resident of Nagarasu.

For Shanti Devi, improvements to the area’s springs – including one very near her home - have spared her long walks every day to fetch water. She now uses the time saved, and the extra water available, to maintain a milk cow and sell some of the milk to supplement her income.

The spring recharging technology, worked out by the Himalayan Environmental  Studies and Conservation Organisation (HESCO) along with the Mumbai-based Bhaba Atomic Research Centre (BARC), has so far been applied in only one catchment area. This has recharged 16 springs supplying water to five villages, all of them in Chamoli district in Uttarakhand.

But HESCO is now applying the technology in six more catchment areas— four of them in Uttarakhand and two in Himachal Pradesh. The programme is expected to recharge 68 springs, benefitting a population of about 50,000 in 100 villages.

PROTECTING CATCHMENTS

The effort to recharge springs relies on ‘environmental isotope technology’, in which water from drying springs is tested by the Bhaba Atomic Research Centre – which now has a local office - to determine its content of isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen. This isotope content gives an indication of the geology and altitude at the source of this water, and thus helps identify the catchment area.

Once the catchment is identified, water conservation and recharge structures are constructed at key points.

After the successful identification of recharge areas, we involved the local people to undertake social, engineering and vegetative measures for water conservation and recharging,” said Vinod Khati, an engineer with HESCO.

Usually trenches about 15 to 30 cm deep and one to 20 metres long are dug alongside the mountain slopes to channel runoff into newly dug water retention ponds, where it can slowly percolate into the ground.

Catchment areas also are replanted with trees or other vegetation, and the area is protecting from grazing and tree harvesting. The vegetation helps hold rainwater, allowing it so slowly seep into the ground rather than running off.

Because the springs are located above homes and villages, “no pumping is needed, so there are no additional costs and no maintenance is required. Consequently the technology when applied on a wider scale can go a long way to provide a sustainable and low-cost solution to water scarcity in these areas,” said Pankaj, a consultant who has worked with HESCO.

The problem of drying springs is an increasingly widespread one in the region. According to an earlier survey by HESCO, 30 percent of the springs in the region had almost dried up and an additional 45 percent were on the verge of going drying. The problem has affected 60 percent of the population of the region’s mountain villages.

In Uttarakhand alone 10,000 out of 16,000 villages are burdened with water scarcity and only about 15 percent can use water for irrigation.

Deforestation of recharge areas has been a major reason that springs in the region are drying, experts said.

Sujit Chakraborty is a science and environmental journalist based in New Delhi.

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