Sikkim: In the upper reaches of Sikkim, there can’t be too many government servants who can actually keep up with and even outrun the sturdy Lepchas, also known as the Rong. Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer Sandeep Tambe is one such rarity. But his recent contribution to the region has been much more vital in nature.

Preserving nature: Sandeep Tambe (centre) addressing villagers in Sikkim.

The solution that Tambe hit upon was spring-shed development, which is based on the principles of rainwater harvesting.

“The scientific principle of spring-shed development is to conserve every drop of rainwater where it falls, the ‘running’ water needs to be trained to ‘walk’, and the ‘walking’ water needs to be trained to ‘rest’ for a while," explained Tambe.

The novelty lies in sustainably developing the spring-shed to increase the percolation of rainwater and thus recharging the ground water. The concept of water harvesting was a completely alien one to the people of the region as scarcity was new to them.

Today, the mountain springs once again gurgle with water—testimony to the success of an initiative that has won the Ground Water Augmentation Award from the ministry of water resources. Tambe credits teamwork for the success of the water conservation effort.

Locals work on a groundwater recharge scheme in west Sikkim

“Happiness lies in the forests and the secrets that it shares with me," he said. “If I can do anything to protect natural history, that would be my ultimate satisfaction in life."

After a PhD from the Wildlife Institute of India, he joined the IFS. Hailing from Mandla district in Madhya Pradesh— home to the Kanha National Park and Tiger Reserve, which inspired Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book—the young Tambe always thought of himself as Mowgli. Some of that spirit is still in him—as evident by him being able to hold his own on the steep mountain slopes of Sikkim.

To help reverse the scarcity, Tanbe sought the expertise of WWF-India, the People’s Science Institute (PSI) in Dehradun and the State Institute of Rural Development in Jorethang, Sikkim, to start the spring-shed conservation programme, better known as Dhara Vikas, to rejuvenate the dying springs.

The once well-forested spaces that used to act as water catchment areas had been reduced to a few trees, limiting the percolation of rainwater and creating the hydrological imbalance.

It was estimated that less than 15% of the rainwater was percolating down to recharge the underground springs, while the rest was flowing down as run-off, often causing floods. Global warming and erratic weather patterns had also hurt the spring water resources of Sikkim. The situation was worsened by rain falling in short bursts and extreme weather events becoming more frequent.

“Water supply programmes have traditionally received priority in public financing, but with the drying up of spring water sources, water supply schemes have taken a beating," said Tambe.

It was found that the farming practice most amenable to spring recharge was paddy cultivation and in locations where farmers had discontinued agriculture, water sources located downstream had started drying up.

Civil structures such as check dams were unstable and not sustainable on such steep terrain, given the weak geology prone to frequent cloud bursts and heavy rainfall. The non-governmental organizations involved put together a number of engineering measures to harvest rainwater such as conserving soil and moisture with contour trenches and pits, gully plugs and bunds on terraces.

The desilting of dried-up ponds and lakes was among the many interventions that were central to the success of Dhara Vikas.

Further greening measures included brushwood check dams, the planting of shallow-rooted grass that doesn’t need much water, shrubs, hedgerows and trees.

Restrictions were imposed on livestock grazing, fuel-wood gathering and fodder cutting. The recharge area was fenced off.

Work is now under way to revive five springs in the south, east and west districts. Information on nearly 200 springs has been collected and a “web atlas" application that shows village springs being developed to make the information accessible to all users. Weather stations are being set up to record atmospheric changes. The next step is to artificially recharge the Nagi Lake in Namthang by harvesting spring water.

“The existing national rural drinking water programmes need to explore spring-shed development as a means to ensure sustainability of the spring water sources, especially in the mountains," said Tambe. “A positive step in this direction is a nationwide aquifer-mapping exercise that is being planned along with mountain spring conservation for effective groundwater management."