Small rivers, that have big significance, are dying a slow death

Locals who live in the hills say rampant deforestation has led to the “forest rivers” going dry. These small rivers and streams used to be the major source of water for people living in the hills. Now locals are forced to look at other options

Hridayesh JoshiHridayesh Joshi   20 July 2019 9:59 AM GMT

Small rivers, that have big significance, are dying a slow death

"Life of those who live on mountains is not easy. It's full of hardship. Even basic things like cultivation is a problem. But thankfully, the Gagaas river helps from here, which is a big help to us. It provides us water for drinking and for irrigation," said Bhupendra Singh Bisht, a local who lives in the Gagaas valley, located in the Himalayas.

There are many rivers in Kumaon and Garhwal that flow from the different sources in forests. "The large rivers flow downstream in the valleys so villagers are not able to use the water neither for drinking nor for irrigation. However, canals that are built on the rivers are a blessing for people living in Himachal and Uttrakhand. They make the most of these canals," said Yogesh Gokhale from the The Energy and Resources Institute, Delhi.

The Gagaas River is not a famous river like the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Yamuna, but it's impossible to imagine a life without these rivers. The GagaasRiveroriginates from Almora district in Uttrakhand. It covers about 125kms and meets Ramganga (West) in Bhikiyasen which is approximately 50kms from Ranikhet. In this whole stretch, about 70 streams joins the river as a result of which the river is able to provide water for drinking and irrigation to a lkah people in about 6 dozen villages. Unlike the Bhagirathi, the Alkanda, the Yamuna and the Mandakini, the Gagaas river and many other river in Ramganga don't originate from glaciers. Apart from these, rivers like Gomti, Garudganga, Panar, Kosi, Bino, and Goula doesn't originate from glaciers but from dense forests. Thousands of rivers like these are widely known as the forest rivers and eventually merge with the Ganga. These rivers hold a historical, mythological and religious importance to many. The widely-known forest rivers like the Gomti and theGarudganga flow through the religious city of Baijnath, which was once the capital of Kings of Katyuri. The kingdom of Katyuri is the first united dynasty of the Kumaon state.

Ramganga is one of the important rivers of Uttrakhand. The confluence of the Bino river with the Budh Kedar in Ramganga(West) near Ranikhet, Uttrakhand is also significant. Since 1980, about 45,000 hectares of forestland was taken over to buildconcrete roads. By the end of the year 2000, approximately 60% of these forests were cut down. This massive deforestation has led to rivers going dry. According to a report, the population of Uttrakhand has doubled. In 2001 it was 16.3 lacs and grew to 31 lacs in 2011. Meanwhile, the population of Haridwar and Uddham Nagar has gone up by 30.63% and 33.45%, respectively. In the same period, the population of districts in mountains like Nainital, Champavat and Uttarkashi went up by 25.13%, 15.63% and 11.89% respectively.

Widespread migration of people from cities to the hills is to be blamed. The population of large cities like Pittoragarh and small cities like Didihat and Bairinaag is increasing too. The migration seems to have increased in the past 20 years, said Komal Singh Mehta, 39, a local. "Also, no one bothered to plant trees back. Entire forests were wiped out to build roads and concrete buildings."

"Population continued to increase. In the past 50 years, the population of Almora has increased by five times. They filled up natural wells and build towers on them," said GCS Negi, scientist at GB Pant Himalayan Institute, Almora.

The underground water level gets affected because we are cutting down forest rivers. This also affects the forest rivers. Ram Singh Bhandari, 51,a local, remarks that it hasn't rained properly in the last few years which has resulted in about 100 small streams drying up. The water department whose work is to supply water has used wrong methods to replenish water bodies. Instead of building pipelines from water, they have mined underground water.

These days, many handpumps can be seen along the mountains. They are seen in big numbers in villages too. Charu Tiwari, who's been a part of many protests in Uttrakhand,said:"It was an easy way to solve problems by releasing water from hand pumps, but it resulted in drying up the small natural wells. These wells were important to revive small streams." Tiwari took us to many villages where hand pumps were installed near small streams. A majority of the streams were dried up and the hand pumps had not enough water level. He said the correct way to supply water is by spreading water pipelines and not by exploiting underground water. He showed us a dry stream. "It is called as the stream of Dosadh, during the rainy season, this river could flood so much that it was uneasy to cross it, such rivers are necessary to conserve small streams and underground water which are now been dried up by the use of hand pumps,"said Tiwari.

Shekher Pathak, an environmentalist, said these changes should not be ignored. Delay in rainfall for a long period and then heavy rainfalls over a short span are frequent now. The glaciers are melting because of climate change. "In the past 30-40 years, the weather has changed drastically. It doesn't seems natural, anywhere. Either it rains heavily or notat all. In some of the regions in the Himalayas, between September and June, it neither rains nor snows."

In the decade of 1960 and 1970, residents at mountains staged many protests to save forests. Everyone knows the Chipko Protest, which had a significant role of females of the villagers. Near Bagvalipokher, we walked and climbed 2 kms of mountain route to reach Thamad Village. To revive underground water and forests, females here have upheld responsibilities.

Hema Devi from Mahila Mangal Dal said: "We have planted around 800 trees here, which includes Banj, Buransh, Anwala and Tulsi, they help in improving water levels. The conditions are now improving steadily."

After working hard with villagers to makeover the conditions of forests, Manoj Pandey guided us to his village Panergaon to witness a revived stream. Conditions are improving at least at a steady pace, Naola foundation are bringing success. 52- year-old Manoj Pandey led us to witness planted trees at Dhankhal and Panergaon. His incessant hard work of years has succeeded in improving the water level." I started planting trees from the year 1998, the land was entirely barren by then, people asked me not to waste my time on it, it was irrelevant to plant on such a land. But I decided to revive the forest and you can see the results now,"said Manoj Pandey.

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