The Himalaya harbor a wealth of springs and shallow wells used for drinking water and other household purposes. However, discharge from these sources has declined in recent decades—some springs have even dried up—making water a crucial development issue in the region. This article describes a field experiment to increase spring discharge with simple ecotechnology (spring sanctuary development) in the recharge zone of a nearly extinct spring in a Himalayan microwatershed in Uttaranchal. In the years after the experiment, water discharge increased from 1055 to 2153 L/d (1995–2000). Though much of this increase was probably because of above-average rainfall in the dry season of 2000, the results are very encouraging. In addition, the discharge of all springs in the watershed was pooled and more rational use of water was promoted.
Drinking water: A major problem
The Himalaya provide water to millions of people in the highlands and lowlands. In many mountain and hill areas, water for drinking and household consumption is taken mainly from shallow wells (naula) and springs (dhara). Discharge from these sources has decreased dramatically. Long queues at water points and women and children carrying water from increasingly distant sources are common sights in many regions of the Himalaya today (Figure 1). Some people resort to collecting water during the night. Others collect unclean water, inviting water-borne diseases.
Management issues aggravate the water problem. In 1994, of the 5804 government drinking water schemes in the Central Himalayan region of India, only 64% were functional. The rest were either partially (21%) or completely (15%) defunct. Water taxes were too low and did not cover operation and maintenance costs. Attempts to introduce progressive increases met with resentment. Moreover, water schemes face a “tragedy of the commons” syndrome because community participation is often lacking. The involvement of private contractors has frequently resulted in low-quality construction, leakage, and damage to sources.
Changing land use and land cover is another issue in water management. Studies indicate that deforestation, grazing and trampling by livestock, soil erosion, forest fires, and development activities (roads, mining, construction, etc) reduce infiltration capacity. Water is lost to runoff; it does not percolate into the soil to recharge groundwater. River flow during the rainy season is often more than 1000 times higher than during the dry season, resulting in a “too little and too much water” syndrome. The problem is how to increase water retention in fragile, erosion-prone mountain watersheds in order to obtain sustained discharge during the dry season (April–June). As information on spring types and on spring discharge in relation to rainfall, geology, topography, vegetation, and land use is meager, there is a need for site-specific experiments on approaches and technologies that could increase water retention.
Water resources and household water consumption in the Dugar Gad Watershed
Studies have shown that infiltration of rainwater into the spring recharge zone is increased through engineering and vegetative measures, which augment discharge in downslope springs. Our aim was to verify these results under central Himalayan conditions. We selected a nearly extinct spring in the Dugar Gad Microwatershed—a typical watershed in the Pauri-Garhwal district in the central Himalaya. Two-thirds of the 1876 mm annual rainfall accrues in the rainy season. About 37% of the rainfall runs off as stream flow. Discharge of water resources is drastically reduced during the dry season. Ironically, discharge from some springs is not used because of the absence of intake structures or neglect of minor water yield. Total water consumed per capita for household activities is 27 L/d, used for washing clothes (25%), cleaning utensils (20%), drinking and cooking meals (13%), toilets (17%), bathing (14%), and cleaning the house (11%). This is less than the WHO per capita standard of 60 L/d.
Erratic rainfall, undulating topography, geology, land use, and land tenure create a great variety of spring recharge zones in mountains. All these factors have an effect on water yield and seasonality of springs. Our studies of the 5 springs in the Dugar Gad Watershed, carried out at the same time as the recharge zone treatment of 1 of the springs, indicate that discharge is mainly a function of rainfall. Mean annual discharge ranges between 0.5 and 2.9% of the annual rainfall or 5.3 and 29.4 L per 1000 L of rainfall. This indicates that most rainwater is lost through runoff, evapotranspiration, or deep percolation. Discharge declines sharply where recharge zones have steep slopes. Concave topography, abandoned terraces, thick bush growth, and occasional grazing had a positive effect on spring discharge. A definite pattern between spring discharge and recharge zone characteristics has not yet been elaborated, but it can be stated that spring yield is influenced by a complex set of factors and that land use change in the recharge zone has a direct bearing on discharge.
Ecotechnology to recharge springs
In order to test the effectiveness of ecotechnology in increasing spring discharge, a near-extinct spring in Dugar Gad was selected for “spring sanctuary development” in 1994. In June 1995, the recharge zone of this spring, about 18.5 ha in size, was treated with engineering, vegetative, and social measures (Figure 2; Table 1). In the 1994–1995 hydrological year (1 July–30 June), which was the control year, annual discharge amounted to 7.0% of the rainfall. This figure increased to 12.5% in the 1999–2000 hydrological year. In the years in between, discharge varied between 3.8 and 12.3% (Table 2). Spring discharge doubled during the dry season, from 1055 L/d in 1995 to 2153 L/d in 2000. However, much of this increase was because of greater rainfall in 1999 and 2000, compared with the control year. Decline in spring discharge during 1998–1999 may be attributed to loss of water caused by the increased demand of the revived vegetative cover of the recharge zone, siltation of trenches, and other engineering measures. In the control year, the vegetative cover (89%) consisted of a few scattered pine trees, bushes, and intensively grazed forage. By 1998–1999, the vegetative cover had increased to 96%.
Drinking water management: A complex task
In addition to recharge zone treatment, pooling is an option for meeting normal household water demand, especially if the water is distributed through piped gravity schemes to minimize losses. Surplus water can also be stored in the rainy season for dry season use. Today people collect water when there is demand, whereas springs overflow the rest of the time. Pooling may be socially difficult, because springs in specific villages are restricted to the village community; villagers resort to them in times of dry weather or when government drinking water schemes fail. Solutions must thus be site-specific and consider such diverse features as rainfall, recharge zone characteristics, water-use patterns, and local traditions.
Increased water availability during the dry season (April–June) would be a great help to many mountain communities, including Dugar Gad. Spring sanctuary development could help achieve this aim. But investigations must be conducted for a longer term before conclusive results are possible. Moreover, the state government should enable inhabitants to assume greater responsibility for local water management, because this can curb mismanagement and waste. Hence, water management and spring recharge require multi dimensional approaches, including engineering and biological as well as social and managerial measures.
The authors gratefully acknowledge the scientific inputs and facilities provided by K. Kumar and by the Director of the G. B. Pant Institute, Kosi–Almora.