Anushiya Shrestha, Gyanu Maskey and Salu Basnet
Natural spring water remains a prime source of water in the Himalayas. The formation of springs occurs generally in the impermeable and sloping ground at the intersection of the groundwater table. A spring, usually, yields water during both rainy and non-rainy seasons, the amount is contingent on the rainfall and the catchment area characteristics. Springs act as a source of fresh water for many communities enabling them to meet domestic, agricultural and livestock-based needs.
Providing water to nearly 80 per cent of the hill and mountain people of Nepal for their consumption and livelihoods, springs contribute to the river systems in the country, making them a backbone of the water supply system in mid-hills. However, recent studies have reported that 23 per cent of springs on average have either dried or are on the verge of drying in the mid-hills and the situation continues to aggravate due to the changing climate.
On one hand, global demand for freshwater for drinking, agriculture, sanitation, energy, and environmental protection continues to increase with the growing population and urbanisation. On the other, shifting patterns in monsoon rainfall, and more intense rainfall have resulted in the decline of water flows in the springs. More worrisome is that the spring water sources as a viable option for sustainable livelihoods remain a largely neglected issue. While many municipal governments have increasingly invested in deep borewells invoking these as a “reliable” means of water supply, the local communities with whom we interacted during our recent research are highly skeptical about the sustainability of this quick-fix alternative amid ongoing haphazard urbanisation.
One of the most significant causes of this situation has been an overt emphasis on infrastructure-centric development. Be it the case of rampant hill-road construction triggering landslides or the use of excavators for roads, all these development initiatives have become detrimental to maintaining the sanctity of this water source. Nevertheless, our study in two mid-hill districts of Nepal indicates that no uniform trends and patterns of spring water decline exist. While Diktel in Khotang has witnessed a decline in the water flows in the aftermath of a devastating 2015 earthquake, the Kavrebhanjyang area of Kavrepalanchowk district had little impact from the earthquake on spring water flows.
The communities at Kavrebhanjyang attributed the drying of the traditional hill-top ponds, plantation of pine trees in the hilly terrain, and indiscriminate development activities as the major drivers of this situation. In Khotang, declining springs have adversely affected agricultural productivity with the irrigation system crippled by a reduction in water flow. During an interaction in Khotang, one of the respondents shared that the Lamidanda source dried after mere two years of the completion of the irrigation project. This is an example of how the absence of adequate spring discharge might render severe implications on the success of the projects fed by natural springs.
The impacts of such drying spring water sources are disproportionate along the lines of caste, class, gender and ethnicity. A recent study conducted by ICIMOD reveals that the acute water stress resulting from the depletion of mountain springs has put tremendous pressure on women, who still bear the primary responsibility of fetching water. Socially and economically marginalised and geographically isolated areas also reported cases of entrenched caste-based discrimination while fetching water. A young woman from a socio-culturally marginalised Dalit community of Kavrebhanjyang expressed her plight stating that women from higher caste groups do not allow them to be near the spring sources and even shout for stepping on the stone where the latter place their pots.
Improving the management of springs and spring-shed is pivotal for sustainable water management. Mapping local spring sources and collecting the baseline information on the spring yield as well as the associated social issues through the involvement of local communities can be the first step to effective spring management. Pokharis, the ponds traditionally constructed on the hilltops for multi-functional services, including the recharge and revival of springs need to be accorded due priority.
Consultation and collaboration with academic and research institutes will be instrumental to identify other appropriate means and locations to construct more recharge ponds, trenches, and percolation pits to promote the recharge of the spring sources. Apart from these measures, the protection and management of the vegetation and water sources must be ensured prior to road construction and other infrastructure development so that our invaluable spring sources do not become a trade-off for development.
Thus, it is imperative to consult, co-learn, and co-work with the communities about the importance of spring catchment management for equitable and resilient water management. Such practices can help the local government to expand their contributions and recognition to “development” and gain the much-needed active participation of the communities in spring management and the trust, including those of the customary rights holders to share their traditional water sources for the benefit of larger communities.
(The article is based on the research under the PolCaps and JustClime projects at Southasia Institute of Advanced Studies-SIAS. The authors are researchers at SIAS.)