The population of Mundaghat village in Himachal Pradesh has halved within a decade. In 2010 there were nearly 500 people living in the village. Now there are 250, according to Sita Ram, a retired water board employee. The cause? Water shortages due to springs dying.
Across the state in northern India, people have started migrating from villages towards cities. Even older people do not want their children to stay. Gopi Devi, a resident of Bhalech village in Shimla district, told The Third Pole she has sent her grandchildren for higher education to Delhi and wants them to settle there.
Devi says that agriculture, which is her family’s main source of income, is becoming harder due to springs drying up and the resultant unavailability of water. “Forget water for agriculture, we have to bring drinking water by walking 5-7 kilometres sometimes. All our springs have dried up. Decrease in rainfall and snowfall has led to water scarcity. There is no future for our children here,” she explained.
Nearly 90% of people in Himachal Pradesh live in villages and rely on agriculture. According to a survey by the Indian Institute of Technology in Mandi district of Himachal Pradesh, 95% of farmers in Kullu district reported not having enough water to irrigate their crops.
Springs dying, other water sources disappearing
Manshi Asher, co-founder of Himdhara, a Himachal Pradesh-based environmental research and action collective, said: “Springs are one of the major sources of water in mountainous regions. The people, especially in rural areas, rely on these traditional water sources for drinking and irrigation. But now, more than 70% of springs are dead and others have become seasonal, which has resulted in an acute water shortage in Himachal villages.”
According to NITI Aayog, an Indian government thinktank, there is increasing evidence that springs are drying up or their discharge is reducing throughout the Indian Himalayan region. It is estimated that half of the springs in the Indian Himalayas have dried up. A directory of water resources claims that there are nearly 10,512 traditional water sources in Himachal villages. But the Himachal Pradesh Council for Science, Technology and Environment found only 30.41% of water sources are recharging properly, while 69.59% of sources are “nearly going to dry in near future”, added the directory.
Renu Lata, a scientist at the GB Pant National Research Institute of Himalayan Environment and Sustainable Development, stated that climate change and massive human interference like big infrastructure projects and deforestation are responsible for springs dying in the state.
According to the HIMAP report of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), mountain springs play an important hydrological role in generating streamflow for non-glaciated catchments and in maintaining winter and dry-season flows across numerous Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) basins.
“Springs are the primary water source for rural households in the HKH. In the Indian Himalayas, 64% of irrigated areas are fed by springs. Due to factors related to anthropogenic impacts such as deforestation, grazing, exploitative land use resulting in soil erosion, and climate change, springs fed during the monsoon by groundwater or underground aquifers are reported to be drying up and threatening whole ways of life for local communities in most parts of the mid-hills of the HKH,” the report added.
A.K. Mahajan, the dean of the School of Life Sciences at Central University of Himachal Pradesh, said: “Water streams and springs are decreasing at a rapid pace in Himachal. This is less due to climate change and more due to anthropogenic activities. Whenever you occupy the bed of a stream, the stream dies.”
He added: “We are making buildings, roads and dams, which are taking over the stream bed. Most of the land in Himachal Pradesh is considered shamlat [common land owned by villages] land. Whenever you consider land as shamlat land, it gets occupied.” Numerous cases of illegal land encroachment support his contention.
Impact of climate change
Bhoop Singh, a farmer in Shilon Bagh village of Shimla district, said that previously gentle rainfall used to continue for weeks and kept water in springs recharged. Now, the intensity of rainfall has increased, so that in hours the village is flooded, and the water moves downstream rapidly. In addition to the flooding, this means springs dry quickly.
“Now there is either flood in the monsoon or drought in the entire year. My apple and cauliflower crops get damaged every year. The snowfall has also decreased from 5 feet to 2 feet. Snowfall days are also reduced,” Singh added.
According to the India Meteorological Department, in the past 30 years (1989-2018), the average annual rainfall in Himachal Pradesh has not changed significantly but the average frequency of rainy and snowfall days has significantly decreased and the frequency of dry days has increased due to climate change.
Partik Kumar, coordinator of the Revitalising Rainfed Agriculture Network in Himachal Pradesh, said: “The rainwater finds its way to underground caves called aquifers in which water gets stored. An aquifer has a recharge area where water can seep into the ground and refill it. Springs are created when holes are created in the aquifer and water comes out which forms the spring run.”
Prolonged dry spells, due to climate change, give only a limited time for water to percolate into the aquifers, he explained. This has led to high runoff, little recharge and springs dying.
Infrastructure projects have impact underground
Not everything is due to climate change, though. Kumar explained that Himachal Pradesh is experiencing a huge infrastructure boom. Until 2014, the length of national highways in the state was 2,196 kilometres; this increased to 2,642 kilometres by 2018, and another 4,312 kilometres of new national highways have been approved. A report by Himdhara found that Himachal has 813 large, medium and small hydroelectric power plants, with 53 more planned.
This large-scale construction, whether of highways or dams, involves a great deal of blasting, impacting the delicate geology of the region. The impact on the subsurface arrangement of rocks, through which springs are both recharged and flow, is immense. Asher added that hydropower plants are diverting water from stream beds, depriving the soil of a means of water recharge, and debris from construction is often dumped into streams, inhibiting water flow.
Deforestation and huge pine plantations are also contributing to the groundwater problem, said Kulbhushan Upmanyu, a veteran environmentalist. The Himachal Pradesh Forest Department aims to have at least 50% of its area under forest cover, but the forest cover is only 27.72%, out of which pine plantation is more than 17%.
“Over the years, trees have been cut in the name of development and single varieties like pine given preference. Pine is highly water-intensive, and its fallen leaves create hindrance to the survival and regeneration of vegetable land cover,” said Upmanyu. This stops water from percolating into the ground, he explained, and “helps high-intensity rainfall to flow heavily downwards resulting in landslides and flash floods”. This is yet another cause of springs dying.
S.S. Samant, director of the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education, Himalayan Forest Research Institute in Shimla, said: “Forests are gateways to water recharge and maintaining a good water flow in streams and springs of Himachal Pradesh. But the people are rapidly cutting down the forests in the state. Due to deforestation, the perennial water sources like streams and springs, which are indigenous to Himachal, most are either dead or the water recharge is very less.”
The People’s Science Institute, an NGO, is currently reviving 45 springs in Himachal Pradesh, said Debashish Sen, its director. He added: “The situation in Himachal Pradesh is bad. It is as bad in Uttarakhand, but in Uttarakhand, there are many NGOs like ours, Chirag, CEDAR, Himmotthan, which are working on the revival of springs.”
“There are two main reasons why the spring revival work in Himachal is not as active as Uttarakhand. The first is the funding issue. Himachal is considered a developed state. It scores well in self-development goals as well. In Uttarakhand, there are many NGOs getting funds under CSR from philanthropists. These philanthropists don’t donate to Himachal Pradesh,” said Kumar, from the Revitalising Rainfed Agriculture Network.
However, the government of Himachal Pradesh claims to have started many schemes to rejuvenate water sources in the state. Suresh C Attri, principal scientific officer at the Department of Environment, Himachal Pradesh, blamed everything on climate change.
He said: “Due to climate change, the water we used to get throughout the year has now been limited to a few months. This changed the crop harvesting period in the state. We are training farmers on how to live with this change. We have also initiated an INR 3,000 crore (USD 400 million) project to provide water for irrigation. In Parvat Dhara project, we have been specifically focusing on rejuvenation of water sources.”
Attri, however, refused to accept that the state is going through a drought and flood situation, and denied anything is happening to water sources because of development activities. He maintained that everything is happening because of “climate change which is a global phenomenon” and said development is necessary for the state which he said has been “developing sustainably”.
Kumar, on the other hand, said that the government is overlooking hydrology and just making surface interventions without any consultation with residents. The focus is on providing surface water through lifts or pipes with complete exclusion of springs being used as water sources, he added.
“The current investment is going into the renovation of the source instead of rejuvenation. NITI Aayog released an inventory on spring revival in 2018. In 2019, a spring framework had been released by the Ministry of Jal Shakti. Even after this, all things are largely on paper,” added Kumar.
Asher said: “Springs and rivers enjoy a very close relationship. Any change in spring hydrology has clear ramifications on river hydrology. Depleting the springs means depleting the water downstream as well. The water needs of north India including the capital Delhi and further of Pakistan is met by rivers that originate from Himachal Pradesh such as Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Yamuna and Chenab. If the status quo continues, there will be a huge water shortage not only in Himachal Pradesh but also in entire north India.”