It’s not a trek meant for unfit, city-bred people, especially if they are not nimble-footed. From Suyalbari, the last point till which a car can travel, the only way to get to Bhadyun village in the Nathukhan district of Uttrakhand is on foot. The 3km walk to the hamlet involves a steep incline, an uneven rocky path and narrow pagdandis (tracks) that run through the forest and are usually less than half a foot wide. Bhadayun has around 12 families, living in three clusters.
Yet this is one of the villages that the Central Himalayan Rural Action Group (Chirag), a non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Nathuakhan has chosen to work with for their “Kumaon Spring Recharge Initiative” that started in 2009. Chirag started working in Kumaon in the field of curative healthcare and community forestry in 1987. Besides these, the group now also undertakes soil and water conservation work in the area as well as works in the field of empowering women and primary education.
Spring of life: The revival of this water source at Bhadyun has stopped families from migrating. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
With the growing water shortage in the hills, water conservation has become a pressing concern. According to Chirag, irregular rain and changing land use patterns are the principal factors contributing towards the mountain springs drying up.
“We knew springs were drying up in the hills and (we) believe that if you want to address the issue of water in the mountains, and even in the plains (because springs do end up feeding the rivers), then you have to look for ways to recharge mountain springs,” says V.K. Madhavan, executive director, Chirag. Put simply, it means creating conditions which allow more water to seep into the soil and hence add to aquifers (a wet underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock).
“We knew very little about water that goes into the soil. We always thought of ground water in context of the plains; we never wondered what it means in the mountains,” says Madhavan. “When we started to think that mountains also have aquifers, we wondered how does water from rainfall get fed into these?”
It was questions such as these and the realization that water shortage in the hills could not be dealt with by forcing the government to install water pipelines that motivated Chirag. “The water in these pipelines also comes from the springs. So if we have to address the problem of shortage, then we must look at ways to keep the springs alive and not just transport water from one place to the other,” he says, adding, “at a conservative estimate, about 15% of the water in rivers such as the Ganga comes from the springs. If they dry up, there will be water shortage all around.”
Bhadyun was chosen because four years ago, a spring that had been dry for a few decades, came alive following a good rainfall. Dhanawati Devi, around 70, recollects that when she came to Bhadyun as a bride, one of the best things about the village was the spring. It meant no walking around the hills for miles just to get two pots of water. In fact, there was enough water, she says, to even take care of the livestock. But two decades ago, the spring dried up. Families started migrating because of acute water shortage. Her son, Ramesh Singh, a mason by profession and a part-time farmer, was also contemplating moving to the plains near Haldwani. “We had been asking the government to give our village a water pipeline connection, but that was taking a long time. I had almost decided to move out of Bhadyun when the saroot (mouth of the spring) came alive in 2007-08,” says Singh.
“Two years ago, the Chirag people approached us and talked about recharging the spring. The plan included creating taals (pits) in certain areas in our farms, planting certain kinds of shrubs and fodder plants, and changing the slope of our farms. They said this may help our spring never to dry up,” he says. Creating percolation pits at certain points near a spring helps accumulate rainwater and gives it a longer time to seep into the soil rather than gushing over the surface. Strategically planted vegetation and correct sloping of farmlands also does the same job.
Vikram Kaushal, in-charge, Kumaon Spring Recharge Initiative, Chirag, who has been trained at the Pune-based Advanced Center for Water Resources Development and Management, says it was not easy initially to convince the villagers to work on these initiatives. “It was tough to make them understand that we were not after their land. Sometimes they were not convinced about changing the slope of their farms because they felt it would damage their land. Also, they felt percolation pits on their land would mean less area for planting crops.” Sometimes these pits had to be made in another village on the other side of the mountain. Those villages has no access to the spring and hence were not interested in helping out. “We had to explain to them that by giving a small piece of their land they were really helping the whole region.”
Everywhere Chirag works, the onus of ensuring that the project goes ahead lies with the villagers. Chirag moved ahead only when the residents of Bhadyun were convinced. The villagers agreed not just to get their land surveyed by geologists, but also worked at digging the pits, etc. “Our belief has always been that whatever work we do for the community, it must be in partnership,” says Madhavan. The Bhadyun project cost Rs 53,300 out of which Rs 16,600 was collected by the villagers and the rest was given by Chirag. At present Chirag has worked on recharging 30 springs in Uttarakhand and 14 more are being looked at. After that they will stop for a while to assess the results. Kaushal and Madhavan both say it is too early to say if their efforts have be successful. “We need to assess the data for at least another year,” says Madhavan.
Central Himalayan Rural Action Group (Chirag): www.chirag.org