In parched Northeast, a spring of hope

Over 50 million people in the Indian Himalayan region are dependent on springs for their water and food security. The Indian government has proposed a national programme on springshed management to protect these water sources. The northeast region has already taken a lead.

Nidhi JamwalNidhi Jamwal   15 July 2019 5:31 PM GMT

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Often when we think of the sources of water in the country, we refer to rivers, ponds, dugwells, handpumps, large water reservoirs, etc. Rarely do we take a note of springs, which are spread over 30 per cent of India's landscape and meet the water needs of 200 million people (15 per cent of the country's total population) living in such 'springscapes'.

Springs are the main source of water for 50 million people and their livestock in 10 states and four hill districts of the Indian Himalaya Region. Both rural and urban communities in this vast region depend on springs for their livestock and for the drinking, domestic, and agricultural water needs, notes an August 2018 'Report of Working Group 1: Inventory and Revival of Springs in the Himalayas for Water Security' of the NITI Aayog.

"For about six months a year, rains provide us with water. But, for the remaining six months, it is the springs that support our state's population. Not only our water security, but even our food security [farming] is dependent on these springs," said Alemtemshi Jamir, former chief secretary of Nagaland, and working president of the ruling Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party. Jamir was speaking during a state-level workshop on springshed management, jointly organised by the Land Resources Department of the Nagaland government and Pune-based think-tank Advanced Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (ACWADAM).

In Nagaland, almost 45 per cent villages have reported having springs. In Sikkim and Meghalaya, it is 94.2 per cent and 55.7 per cent, respectively (see map: Percentage of villages dependent on springs in the eastern Himalayan states).

In spite of such a heavy dependence on springs to meet water needs, there is no inventory of the total number of springs in the Indian Himalayan Region.

"Estimates point out there are at least three million springs in the Indian Himalayan Region. If we take into account the annual tourist population that visits this region, these springs support over 100 million people every year," informed Himanshu Kulkarni, convener of ACWADAM.

But, all is not well in the Himalayan paradise. The 2018 NITI Aayog report notes that "half of the more than three million perennial springs in IHR [Indian Himalayan Region] states have either already dried up or become seasonal, resulting in acute water shortages across thousands of Himalayan villages. There are also concerns about the quality of spring water."

The Indian Himalayan Region reportedly has over 60,000 villages. And, nearly 60 per cent of low-discharge springs providing water to small habitations in the Himalayan region have shown a clear decline in discharge in the last couple of decades.

"A couple of years back, the Meghalaya Institute of Natural Resources sampled 714 springs in the state and found 54 per cent of these had reduced discharge by up to 50 per cent," Vivek Lyngdoh, junior research fellow with Meghalaya Climate Change Centre at Shillong told Gaon Connection.

Children collecting spring water at Moktei spring in Lingtek village, Longleng district of Nagaland. Photo credit: ACWADAM

The impacts of drying of springs is not limited to the local communities alone. Springs contribute to the base flow of large Himalayan rivers. A large number of rivers have their origin in springs, thus, any change in spring hydrology will impact the river hydrology.

"The Indian government is aware of the importance of springs for water security in the Indian Himalayan Region. That is why it working on a national programme on springshed management," Pratul Saxena, senior hydrologist with the department of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation under the Union Ministry of Jal Shakti told Gaon Connection.

"At present, we are working on a draft national programme, which should be ready in two months for circulation and public comments," he added.

But, sector experts point out it is almost a year that NITI Aayog proposed such a national programme on springshed management, along with short-term (first four years), medium-term (five to eight years), and long-term (beyond eight years) actions. But, the draft programme hasn't moved beyond discussion stage.

Meanwhile, the northeastern states have launched their own springshed management programmes to revive springs and the preliminary results are encouraging.

Factors for drying of springs

There are various factors — natural and anthropogenic — responsible for drying up of springs in the Indian Himalayan Region. Some of these include erratic rainfall, climate change, seismic activity, infrastructure projects, destruction of forests, land use changes, etc.

"People of Nagaland are largely dependent on natural springs to meet their water needs. And, springs are drying up fast due to developmental activities and climate change, leading to an acute water shortage during the winter season," said Albert Ngullie, joint director, land resources department of the Nagaland government.

The discharges from springs depend on the aquifer and local geology. Any disturbance of the aquifer can affect flows in the spring. For instance, infrastructure projects may lead to fracturing of springsheds, which, in turn, can affect spring discharges.

Similarly, groundwater recharge is affected due to erratic rainfall, which is being recorded across the country due to climate change. This has direct implications on springs and water security.

Children carrying spring water in Tamlu village, Longleng district of Nagaland. Photo Credit: ACWADAM

Nagaland's spring rejuvenation programme

Since October 2015, the land resources department of the Nagaland government is implementing springshed management programme, informed Ngullie.

To begin with, springshed works were carried out on pilot basis in one village each of its 11 districts. ACWADAM and Dehradoon-based People's Science Institute provided technical support for this programme.

Typically, springshed works include a series of activities such as geological survey, hydro-geological mapping, contour measurement, digging trenches, capacity building, training, etc. The basic idea is to capture rainwater/run-off in trenches, based on scientific mapping of the area, and recharge the aquifer.

"For pilot project, we selected one spring each in one village each of the 11 districts in the state. This pilot went for a year from April 2016 to March 2017. By the end of the pilot, all the 11 springs had enhanced water availability and reduced incidence of water-borne diseases," said Ngullie.

Take the case of a spring at Kinunger village in Mojokchung district, which was one of the springs selected as part of the pilot project. Before springshed treatment, in June 2016, it used to discharge 3 litre per minute water. A year post treatment, in June 2017, it was discharging 7.2 litres per minute water, which further increased to 14.8 litres per minute in June 2018.

The land resources department is also working with the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) to implement springshed management works in nine villages of the state.

Last July, the department, along with some partner organisations, launched another multi-stakeholder initiative based on springshed management to provide drinking water security to 100 villages in the state. In the first phase of this initiative, 36 villages in nine districts have been selected for spring rejuvenation works.

"Detailed technical reports of 36 villages in phase-I have been submitted to the department of rural development and an agreement has been signed with the respective village councils to undertake recharge activities under the MGNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act]," informed Khrolhiwei Tsuhah, project associate, North East Initiative Development Agency, one of the partner agencies in the multi-stakeholder initiative.

Meanwhile, the Nagaland state has also prepared an inventory of 2,361 springs in 1,025 settlements of 11 districts in Nagaland. The land resources department is also in the process of publishing a 'Springshed Atlas of Nagaland'.

Digging trenches for spring recharge in Tuensang, Nagaland. Photo Credit: NEIDA-Tata Trusts

Springshed movement in the northeast region

Nagaland isn't the only state implementing a springshed programme to rejuvenate the springs. Meghalaya, Mizoram, Sikkim have their own programmes to rejuvenate the springs.

Sikkim, whose 80 per cent rural population depends on springs to meet its water needs, has one of the oldest spring rejuvenation programme known as Dhara Vikas. It was launched in 2008-09 by the rural development department and uses central funds provided under the MGNREGA to pay daily wages to the villagers it has involved in the rejuvenation works.

Springshed works are being carried out in West Sikkim and South Sikkim districts which are rain-shadow districts are often face droughts. The results are encouraging (see table: Increased discharge of springs due to Dhara Vikas in Sikkim).

Table: Increased discharge of springs due to Dhara Vikas in Sikkim

Source: Paper presented during state-level workshop on springshed management in the northeastern states of the Indian Himalayan Region, May 2019

In September 2016, Meghalaya launched its own springshed management programme after receiving funds under the National Adaptation Fund for Climate Change. "There are around 60,000 springs in Meghalaya and about 68 per cent of the population depends on these springs for basic household activities and irrigation. Thus, springs are vital for the state's people," said Lyngdoh.

The aim of Meghalaya's programme is to map all the springs in the 11 districts. So far, an inventory of 1,400 springs has been prepared. Over 460 springs have benefitted from springshed management works, which has benefitted 4,500 households in 80 villages of the state.

In Mizoram, 20 springshed development plans are under preparation. Spring recharge activities on pilot basis have been undertaken in five critical springs in Aizwal district.

In Manipur, revival of nine springs is underway with the support of NABARD. "We do not have a dedicated spring rejuvenation programme in the state. Spring rejuvenation works could be a subset under the river rejuvenation programme, which the state government plans to launch soon," said Braja Kumar Singh, deputy director, Directorate of Environment, Manipur government.

Similarly, Arunachal Pradesh also doesn't have a separate programme on springshed management. "We have vast lands and less population, hence water scarcity hasn't hit the state's people, except in Itanagar. We are working on rejuvenation of Phoma river and could include springshed works within it," said Dohu Robin, deputy director, Directorate of Environment, Arunachal Pradesh government.

Because of these various initiatives, an inventory of more than 3,700 springs has been prepared in the northeastern region.

"In the last few years, more than 541 springs in the region have been treated and have reported an increased spring discharge by three to five times," said Debashish Sen, executive director of People's Science Institute, Dehradun. In addition, a cadre of 563 trained para hydro-geologists has also been created in the northeast region to implement springshed works.

Women and children collecting water from Yunyang spring in Tamlu village, Longleng district of Nagaland. Photo Credit: ACWADAM

Water quality of springs a concern

While initiatives are underway to rejuvenate the springs, the quality of spring water also remains a concern. For instance, a water quality study conducted in Nagaland found high chloride and high iron in water samples of some springs. Also, four out of 12 springs reported bacteriological contamination (see graphs: Water quality of springs in Nagaland).

Similarly, water quality data of four springs in Sihphir village in Mizoram were found to contain faecal coliform, which should be absent from drinking water. Other water quality parameters — harness, total dissolved solids, chlorides, iron, etc — were found to be within the permissible levels.

"While doing our springshed works, we realised it is not just the amount of water, but also the quality of water that matters. With a basic laboratory that we have set up with the help of PSI [People's Science Institute], we are able to test spring water samples and inform the villages about the quality of water," said T. Renben Lotha, director of the land resources department, Nagaland government.

Sanitation, thus, needs to be an important component of springshed development works.

Sanitation protocol at drinking water spring source in Longleng district of Nagaland. Photo credit: ACWADAM

According to Sen, there is also a need for continuous monitoring of rainfall, spring discharge and water quality in project areas. For this purpose, village level institutions need to be strengthened for continuous monitoring of springs. This will also build sustainability in the springshed programmes. There is also a need for documentation of scientific database and hydrological modelling for springshed development.

The water discharges from springs can be increased only to some extent depending on the type of aquifer and local geology. Thus, it is important to estimate water requirements for crops and prepare village level water budgets. This will ensure equitable access to rejuvenated spring water.


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