New Delhi: Half the mountain springs that are a lifeline for people living in the Indian Himalayan region (IHR) are drying up, according to a new report by India’s federal think tank Niti Aayog.
The government think tank has sought comments from all stakeholders by 19 February to decide the future course of action to save the Himalayan springs and the millions who depend on them. The report says it has become important to recognise “springwater depletion as a nationally pertinent problem and begin to address it through preventive and corrective measures".
Mountain springs are the primary source of water for rural households in the Himalayan region and, for many, the sole source of water. Not just rural, but numerous urban communities too depend on springs for meeting their drinking, domestic and agricultural water needs. Most of the drinking water supply in the mountainous parts of Uttarakhand is spring-based, while in Meghalaya, all villages use springs for drinking and/or irrigation.
The report was prepared by Niti Aayog’s working group on “Inventory and Revival of Springs of Himalaya for Water Security", which was formed last year to take stock of the magnitude of drying of mountain springs across the Himalayas, the quality of water from springs, review related policies across the IHR to ascertain its adequacy and gaps, review existing initiatives, spring revival and suggest short-, medium- and long-term actions to tackle the depletion.
As per rough estimates, there are 5 million springs across India, of which nearly 3 million are in the IHR alone. IHR is spread across 12 Indian states and is home to over 50 million people. But despite playing such an important role, springs have not received their due attention and are facing the threat of drying up due to factors like increased water demand, changing land use pattern and ecological degradation.
In addition, most of northern India’s river systems originate in the Himalayas, either through glacial melt or in the form of springs. The magnitude of the problem can be understood from the fact that the Himalayas are a major source of fresh water for perennial rivers such as the Indus, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra and experts fear that any significant depletion in spring flows at the rivers’ origins will impact their flow.
The report stressed that “more than half of the perennial springs have already dried up or have become seasonal and tens of thousands of villages are currently facing acute water shortage for drinking and other domestic purposes".
“Nearly 60% of low-discharge springs that provided water to small habitations in the Himalayan region have reported clear decline during the last couple of decades. Continued crisis will consequently affect lives of millions of people in the mountains," it added.
For instance, the number of functional springs in the Almora region of Uttarakhand has gone down from 360 to 60 over the last 150 years, a reduction to one-sixth, which is a huge cause of concern for locals.
The report emphasized that “spring depletion has not only affected people, but has also had serious impact on forests and wildlife" as “many natural watering holes for wildlife are in the form of springs and seeps".
“Depletion has meant disturbances in the water security inside forests and national parks and their fringe areas as well. The problem, therefore, transcends the entire spectrum of dependents and dependencies, from rural and urban water to forests and wildlife," it added.
The report further noted that the problem of dying springs is being increasingly felt across the Indian Himalayan region, quoting a survey of Sikkim as saying “water production has declined in half of all springs in the state—a dangerous sign that aquifers are depleting in a state which is almost entirely dependent on springs for drinking water".
“Similar effects are being observed in nearly all the mountainous regions of India," it added.
The draft report recommended short-term (first four years), medium-term (4-8 years) and long-term (8 years) action plans to tackle the issue. Suggested measures include systematic mapping of springs across the Himalayas, mainstreaming of spring-shed management, launching of a spring revival programme in one vulnerable block in each of the mountain states and regular long-term monitoring of springs. It also called for establishment of a national registry for springs in the form of a Spring Health Card to periodically evaluate the health of the springs.