The serious water shortages in the Himalayas in recent times, brought on due to population pressures, deforestation and erratic rainfall, can be partly countered by reviving mountain springs
At a time when receding glaciers, erratic rainfall and deforestation in the Himalayas is leading to severe water shortages in the uplands, people’s initiatives to revive mountain springs have helped to partly adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change in this sensitive mountain range.
This was revealed in the documentation carried out by researchers of Cambridge University that was published in Forest and Water in a Changing Planet: Vulnerability, Adaptation and Governance Opportunities. Known as the IPCC of forests, the bi-annual global assessment report was compiled by the Global Forest Expert Panel (GFEP) on Forests and Water and was released at the UN High-Level Political Forum in New York on July 10.
This year’s report It draws on work, among many others, in the Himalayas by Bhaskar Vira, who was the lead author in two and contributor to three out of eight chapters, and his colleagues at Cambridge University.
More than 50 forest and water experts from around the world contributed to the report. It states that water shortages are becoming commonplace worldwide and deforestation is making the problem worse. It points to the intricate links among forests, water, people and the climate and argues that ensuring the continued flow of green water — the water moving through trees, plants and soils — is the only way to maintain a healthy global water system.
More than seven billion humans on this planet share it with approximately three trillion trees, the report says. Both humans and trees need water. Forests’ role in the water cycle is at least as important as their role in the carbon cycle in the face of climate change. In addition to being the lungs of the planet, they also act as kidneys. Thus, addressing forests-water-people-climate links wisely, comprehensively and expeditiously is crucial to our long-term wellbeing, if not survival.
Asked how climate figures in a study on the connection between forests and water, Vira told indiaclimatedialogue.net: ““The climate angle is subtle, and not yet visible in the data. But, our point is that the human pressures are already adding to the challenges of water management, which will almost inevitably be exacerbated by climate change.”
On behalf of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations, under the aegis of which the GFEP report was compiled, Susan Tonassi said: “Deforestation releases carbon stored in trees, but it also disrupts the world’s hydrological cycle. The authors of this report argue that the changes in rain and wind due to deforestation provide tangible evidence of the link between deforestation and climate change. They argue that with water and forests, instead of just thinking in terms of upstream and downstream, we now need to think in terms of upwind and downwind. So deforestation upwind can lead to changes in rainfall downwind.”
Importance of springs
The report cites how springs are the main source of water for millions of people in the mid-hills of the Hindu Kush-Himalayas, a region that extends 3,500 km over eight countries from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east. It is the source of 10 large Asian river systems, including the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra.
A number of studies based on people’s perceptions have attributed to the drying up of springs to deforestation as well as change in land use — conversion of forests of agricultural land. “Our knowledge (or lack thereof) about spring-supported habitats become even more important in the current scenario of drying up of springs,” the report says.
It notes that it is possible to restore drying springs and cites how this has been successfully done in Sikkim, where more than 60 springs have been revived do far. The Rural Management and Development Department of the state government has taken up artificial recharge of springs and watershed development. Pilot activities have been launched to replenish underground reservoirs. Hilltop lakes are being revived to help recharge groundwater too. Streams are being supplemented in the lean season by harvesting rainfall during the monsoon.
Forest land-use and management
“In recent years, across India, there has been a reduction in the availability of sufficient quantities of clean water due to a number of factors — changes in rainfall patterns; pressure on land-use; depleting groundwater reserves; and growing consumption demands — as migration and settlement patterns change across the Himalayas,” Vira told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “Our work has tried to understand the connections between changes in forest land-use and management, which impact on the water bearing capacity of catchments in these mountainous regions, and the availability of water for a variety of users, including those living in the growing numbers of small towns, as well as more established uses for rural agrarian communities.”
“We worked in four towns — Palampur and Rajgarh in Himachal Pradesh, and the hill stations of Mussoorie and Nainital in Uttarakhand,” he said. “An exhibition based on our work, entitled Pani, Pahar: Waters of the Himalayas, has been on show in Delhi recently.”
The Cambridge study lasted for four years, ending in 2017, and was jointly funded by the UK Department for International Development and two other agencies.
On Nainital, Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation, a global development research programme, supported a study on the impact of human activities on water levels in the popular hill station. At a height of 1,928 metres, Nainital depends on its lake as well as a secondary lake, Sukhatal, which harvests monsoon rainfall and provides nearly half the subsurface supply to Nainital. Last summer (2017), water levels in Nainital fell 5.5 metres below maximum capacity.
The Cambridge University researchers and the Centre for Ecology Development & Research (CEDAR) in Dehradun concluded that uncontrolled construction in the hill station had affected the town’s critical recharge zones. This led to public interest litigation to protect these aquifers, and in April, the court issued an interim order to halt further construction in these zones and immediate orders to the irrigation department to prepare a detailed project report to rejuvenate the recharge zone.
“It is possible to restore drying springs by correct identification of recharge zones using knowledge of hydrogeology and then implementing recharge measures in those zones,” Vira said. “This has been successfully attempted in Sikkim. The NITI Aayog constituted a working group of experts to design a concrete plan for revival of drying springs in Indian Himalayan states.”
Flow of rivers
The working group submitted its report in December. Of 5 million springs in India, as many as 3 million are in the Himalayas, which is home for 50 million people. “With climate change manifested in the form of rising temperatures, rise in rainfall intensity, reduction in its temporal spread and a marked decline in winter rain, the problem of dying springs is being increasingly felt across the region,” says the report. “It becomes clear, therefore that any significant depletion in such spring flows at river origins will surely impact the flow of rivers.”
It notes that the first initiative to arrest this process was undertaken through the DharaVikas Programme by Sikkim, while smaller pilot schemes using the same concept were being implemented in states like Himachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Uttarakhand as part of Forest Panchayats constituted under the Forest Act. The concept of springshed management, it asserts, is best summarised through a step-wise methodology.
In the short term, the report recommends the systematic mapping of springs across the Himalayas, the creation of a web-enabled database, capacity-building activities between states and organising a national level workshop for policymakers and decision-makers. The medium term action includes mainstreaming springshed management with other developmental programmes. In the long term, it suggests proposing a project to cover springshed management across the Himalayas to the global Green Climate Fund.
“There is no doubt that climate change is having impact on springs,” Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People in Delhi told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “This is by way of increasing water losses due to increasing temperatures, changing rainfall, snowfall and snow melt patterns, which in turn also have impact on erosion and landslide patterns when rainfall comes in more frequent sudden spurts. There is also the factor of increasing demand both for evapo-transpiration and human and other living form’s needs.”
“But I feel the manmade interventions in the name of development is having even greater impact on the springs and that also needs to be assessed, avoided, mitigated and reversed where possible,” he said. “It’s these collective efforts, along with attempts at revival, that will help.”
According to Ravi Chopra of the People’s Science Institute in Dehradun, “The drying-up has been going on for 20 years. A PhD thesis in 1980 showed that in the previous 30 years, deforestation in the Gaula river watershed in Nainital district had increased by 20%, while springs had declined by 25-75%. The impact of climate change is evident from the decline in winter rain and snowfall. There is greater snow melt in winter and less water seeps into the aquifers and recharges them in summer.”
“It has become essential to ensure the revival of springs because rural areas are threatened,” he told indiaclimatedialogue.net. It is neither expensive or time-consuming to revive them.”