Imagine Living Without Running Water. Aditi Mukherji Tells us What the Drying of Himalayan Springs Means for India.

Heart of Conservation Podcast Episode 15 Show Notes (Edited)

Introduction:

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi guys. Thanks for listening in to Heart of Conservation Podcast (Ep#15).  I’m your host Lalitha Krishnan. I hope you’re staying healthy, washing your hands regularly, and keeping sane. Talking of water, there are a lot of people in our country (India) who don’t have access to running water. I’m not going to say more. Let me introduce my guest Aditi Mukherji. She’s a Principal Researcher at the International Water Management Institute. She is a human geographer by training with a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, the United Kingdom where she was a Gates Cambridge Scholar.  She has over 20 years of experience working on policies and institutions of water resources management with a special focus on water-energy-food nexus. She is the first-ever recipient of the Borlaug Field Award (2012) endowed by the Rockefeller Foundation and given by the World Food Prize Foundation, USA.  

Aditi is the coordinating lead author of the water chapter of the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is to be published in 2021. In her previous job as the Theme Leader of the Water and Air theme at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Nepal, she co-edited a report on the effects of climate change on the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region. This report that has woken the world to the possible reality that the Hindu Kush Himalayas could lose as much as 90% of its snow and ice by 2100 due to retreating glaciers, glacier-fed rivers, and carbon emissions.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you, Aditi for speaking to Heart of Conservation Podcast.  Today you’re going to talk to us about spring water sources in the Hindu-Kush mountain range running dry. To start, could you tell us about springs?

Aditi Mukherji: Springs are, as you know, the main source of water in the mountains and even though they come out on the surface, essentially, they’re groundwater. So, what happens when rain falls, it seeps through the cracks and fissures in the mountains and the hills and then they kind of get stored inside the aquifers. There’s a bit of storage that happens and when it comes out…this coming out could be completely on another side of the hill. Basically, when the water comes out, we call it springs. But we have to remember essentially that water is rainwater and it infiltrates through the rocks and fissures in the hills and mountains, and then it comes out at one point. That is the discharge point. So, the discharge point is called the spring. While where the rainwater actually falls, it is called the recharge point and in between is the pathway…the pathway the water follows inside the hill-inside the rocks, coming from the discharge area. Springs are often the point where discharge happens.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you for clarifying that for our listeners. If we didn’t exactly know what springs are, there’s no doubt now. Aditi, when we talk about springs in the Hindu Kush, how many are we talking about and what areas are we talking about?  More importantly, how bad is the situation?

Aditi Mukherji: We don’t have the numbers. The best that we have are anecdotal numbers and we have been talking of anything between 2-4 million springs which I personally think is a bit of an underestimate too. Hindu Kush Himalaya is a wide region starting all the way from Afghanistan to Myanmar and in all these eight countries you would find the occurrence of springs. The numbers are kind of huge, we don’t really know. I will give you an example. So, in my previous job when we did some fieldwork in Nepal, in a spring-shed not so far from Kathmandu, it was a very small area, less than 10 km sq.…and we mapped more than 200 springs. So, we are talking of very large numbers. We don’t know what those actual numbers are.  And the best guesstimate we have is anywhere from 2-4 million springs. The areas we’re talking about generally the hills and the mountains of this Hindu Kush Himalayas. Having said that there are also springs in the Eastern Ghats and the Western Ghats in India. So basically, any place with an elevation and the geology, you would find springs.

So your question about how bad it is in terms of drying up…again, our numbers are anecdotal but I would think anything around 30-50% if not more of those springs are drying up and even more, at least 2/3rds of springs have shown a reduction in discharge of the springs. So the numbers are huge, the problem is huge and this is something you would get to know the moment you talk to any hill person, any pahadi. And they would tell you how their springs used to be much more productive when they were children and now, they have to walk further, the spring’s discharge is not enough. It’s a very severe problem in the hills and mountains of our region.  

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re so right. It’s one of the major issues in the hills and mountains. What are the factors that make springs and groundwater dry out?

Aditi Mukherji: I would divide the factors for springs either drying up or reducing. There are a number of things that could happen. Either spring could either dry up completely or the discharge could reduce substantially. Or the springs that used to be annual perianal—they would flow all throughout the year—they become more seasonal and flow during the rainfall. The fourth thing that can happen and often happens is the water quality in the spring deteriorates. We use all these four instances to show that the springs have been affected negatively. To sum up: springs drying up, becoming seasonal, the discharge of the spring reducing from what used to be previously and water quality becoming poorer.

The causes are primarily two broad causes. One could be changes in the rainfall regime. If your rainfall has changed, if your rainfall amount has gone down or it has become more periodic, which means you have shorter spells but more intense rainfall, or even if your total quantity of rain has not gone down, it means it can affect recharge.

As I said, springs are simply rainwater that gets captured on the hills, kind of emerges through the cracks and emerges on another side at discharge points. So, if your rainfall itself has changed that could be one cause. But primarily what we are are finding, and again, we need more evidence on this rainfall changing…changes in rainfall and how it is affecting springs. We don’t have a lot of it (evidence) but what we are finding more of is that often springs are drying for a second reason which are changes in infrastructure. Road construction, hydropower construction. All these kinds of human interventions, we find, more often…we can find immediately that if there’s a hydropower construction happening, there’s a tunnel that was done, and immediately after tunneling, there was some kind of compaction. The spring pathway—I told you the recharge area from the waterfalls and the discharge from where the water comes out—the entire pathway may have been disturbed. We found springs have also dried after earthquakes. Similar thing; there was like a ‘shaking of the inside of the hill’ so to say, in very layman’s language and that disturbs the very underlying geology of the mountains. To sum up two main things: Change in rainfall; the quantity of rainfall, as well as the periodicity of the rainfall and the second, are more human causes; building, construction of a road. You construct a road and you cut off the recharge area form the discharge area. You construct hydropower, do blasting and the underlying geology of the mountains are disturbed. And the third reason is earthquakes which kind of, has a similar effect to what hydropower would be doing in terms of blasting. It’s you know, the same shaking of the mountains and changing of the underlying geology.  

Lalitha Krishnan: Aditi, I know we can’t prevent natural disasters like earthquakes but when you’re talking of human intervention—I don’t know if this is a silly question—aren’t feasibility studies done before building and blasting…making roads or dams, etc?

Aditi Mukherji: No and unfortunately no. And that is not at all a silly question. To me, that is one of the most important questions. Why are infrastructures designed in the hills and mountains without taking into account whether springs would be disturbed? Springs are often the only source of water for these mountain people. There are rivers but the rivers are too deep down. They may be glaciers but they may be too far away from where the people are. Springs are the absolutely the only source of water that people of our hills and mountains in the Himalayas depend so it is quite surprising that most of the infrastructure projects are not designed with an understanding of what that infrastructure would do in terms of disturbing the recharge area. Very often we build roads, where previously, there used to be recharge. When recharge no longer happens springs dry up or we are cutting through the road in such a way that it will disconnect the recharge area from the discharge area. This means because the water can no longer get recharged and flow out to the designated points, the springs will dry. So, I think it’s of paramount interest that these hydro-geological considerations, a proper geological mapping with a focus on springs are undertaken before we design any of these infrastructures.

Interestingly also, you are aware for hydropower, so many communities in our region protect against hydropower. One of the reasons also why they protest is also that their drinking water sources dry up. While there is compensation for things like you know, if your house gets a crack or your assets are destroyed, then there is a system of compensation. But if your spring dries because the hydropower came up then it’s often very difficult for communities to ask for proper compensation. That’s when they really come out on the streets to protest. So I would say, this should become very very important.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you so much for that explanation. Aditi, technically speaking, how long does it take to rejuvenate a spring? First of all is it humanely possible to do that? If so, have we successfully achieved that in our country?

Aditi Mukherji: Yes, absolutely. It’s possible. How long it takes to rejuvenate a spring would depend on the nature of the spring. First, let me come to the second part of your question… Is it humanely possible to rejuvenate a spring? Yes, it is possible. It is not rocket science. It is not completed. It is not super complicated. You need people trained in field geology. You need people trained in basic hydrology, hydro-geology but it is possible to demarcate which is the recharge area of the spring. As I said it’s again, all rainwater falling into a plain that is recharging and then there is a flow path inside the hills and the mountains and then the spring comes out in the discharge point. Once you have actually identified the recharge area more less—you don’t have to do it with super accuracy—but if you know that this is the part of the hill where when the rain falls and because the rocks are sloping in a certain way, they are dipping in a certain way, the water if it falls at that point, say point ‘A’, then water will take a certain path and it will come out as a spring in a point ‘Y’. As soon as you can map that with a certain level of certainty and for that you need expertise in field geology, that’s something that is not very complicated.

We have in India, the mountain state of Sikkim. They have done tremendous work in spring rejuvenation. So, Sikkim has to date rejuvenated more than a hundred springs if not more. They did exactly this.  They trained their community workers, their panchayats, some technical people were trained in this basic understanding of geology. Basically, to know what kind of rocks there are in the hills or mountains, in which way are the rocks dipping, which is the slope of the rock and they could then identify the recharge area. Once you identify the recharge area, then you do very simple watershed activities. You dig a hole, you dig a trench…you know, it depends on the slope of the land, what activities you can do and what you cannot but then there’s a very clear guideline around this. We have been doing this watershed for ages. Now the important part is don’t do watershed activities blindly everywhere. Just identify the recharge area and do the watershed activities such as trenching which will mean that the rainwater that falls on that recharge area…and if you have done things like trenches… that water will reside a bit longer and that will flow down. That’s important to identify the recharge area. Then you can also say, this is the flow path. Let’s not construct a road here. If we do it, it will obstruct the flow.

Now coming to your question, has it been successfully achieved? Yes. We have done this when I was with ICIMOD. We have successfully done it in Nepal. Two springs were rejuvenated in the sense that they discharged more than double in just one season. We did the intervention, we identified the recharge are and did the trenches, etc., before the monsoon. And, right after the monsoon, we kept monitoring those. We saw that the spring but they also continued to have water for longer than usual.

And, how long does it take to rejuvenate a spring? That would really depend on the nature of the storage. You know, there is a bit of an aquifer that is storing that water. So, depending on how big it is or how permeable, how porous it is…that kind of determines. If it’s a fairly large one, that requires recharge coming from various sources, maybe you’re talking of maybe one full year or more…but if it’s a smaller, very localised spring with a localised small recharge area, you can expect the spring to have to have been rejuvenated—by that I mean—if it has become seasonal, to expand its seasonality, to increase its discharge, you can do it within a season.  Since you are talking from Mussoorie, there’s also a very good NGO in Uttarakhand called Peoples Science Institute (PSI). They have also rejuvenated a lot of springs in and around Dehradun. A lot of NGOs are doing this. Springs have been rejuvenated in north-east India; Sikkim is one example. They’ve done the same in Meghalaya, in Darjeeling in West Bengal…

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s good to know. As the lead author of the water chapter of the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), could you tell what collaborative measures or sharing of information happens between countries?

Aditi Mukherji: Basically, the IPCC report is a scientific report. So, the science gets communicated to all the countries, all the signatory countries of the UNFCCC. What happens is that the scientific report itself is not subject to government negotiation and governments just accept it the way it is. There is one document called the Summary for Policy Makers. That gets vetted during the final plenary session. For example, our cycle finishes in 2021. Sometime in October, 2021there will be a summary for policymakers which will be written for this entire report and that gets presented at that plenary. And, that’s where all the 98 countries, if I am not mistaken, are the signatories. That’s when the countries, you know, negotiate and say, “OK, this wording is not suitable, you can change that wording, etc. etc”. Having said that, the main science report doesn’t get changed by governments. That’s the science behind it. So that’s not up for negotiation. What’s up for negotiation is a bit of the summary for policymakers.

Lalitha Krishnan: Talking at the grass-root level, say the community level what can people do to maintain springs in their area?

Aditi Mukherji: The important part is to identify where the recharge area is. While our field geology can help it, we have seen through experience that the majority of the villagers, somehow or the other know where the recharge is happening. They just have that local knowledge, that traditional knowledge, that understanding of how those rocks are sloping and dipping. So, communities have to identify the recharge area and make sure the recharge area is kept clean. For example, no open defecation in the recharge area, because if that happens then the water quality that flows becomes dirty. Similarly, if possible, keep that recharge area well planted, don’t construct buildings in that recharge area which will impede the actual amount of recharge. So once communities identify where the recharge area is, they need to protect that recharge area through good land management practices.  That kind of happens in many places, in many other places it doesn’t. There’s again this example of Nepal that I’m aware of. Many of the recharge areas were also wallowing ponds for buffalos. At some point, in the 70s, it was thought that those were also breeding ground for mosquitoes. Malaria eradication was big in those days. So many of these ponds were actually covered up and community health centres built on them.

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh no.

Aditi Mukherji: That’s when people started releasing that many of their springs were drying up because those ponds were actually the recharge ponds for those springs. So, the measure the communities can take is just protecting the recharge area. Protect it like your life depends on it.

Lalitha Krishnan: What do you think of the measures our government is taking to rejuvenate springs?

Aditi Mukherji: I think it’s very encouraging. The NITI Aayog commission has set up a task force on the Himalayas and Spring Revival is one of those topics of that task force. And now that the report has been finalised and has been shared with all the eleven mountain states…all the elevens states have been doing tremendous activities. So I would say that India is showing very innovative leadership when it comes to spring rejuvenation. Something perhaps, our neighbouring countries can take inspiration from. Sikkim is a great example. There has been a great co-learning between Sikkim and Bhutan. Bhutan has now taken up spring rejuvenation in quite a significant way. India is doing that as well. So, I think, the measures the government is talking is they are now trying to map springs. I recently read that there is some plan to engage drones in spring mapping. I wasn’t quite sure if that was the best approach. What Sikkim did was…they really used their panchayat mechanism and got the panchayat officials trained in identifying theses recharge areas and they used the funds from the NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) to do those recharge activities like digging of trenches etc. To support that the government has taken this very seriously, perhaps, there has to be a bigger role for the local elected bodies. That might be something that needs a bit more mainstreaming so that it’s the elected panchayats that do more of the work because they are best placed to map springs, identify recharge areas, etc.

Lalitha Krishnan: I have two more questions for you Aditi. We’re living in such unusual times. I wanted to know if the COVID 19 disease or the Coronavirus is impacting people…everyone from having access to running water?

Aditi Mukherji: Yes, it looks like in spite of all our progress, what seems to be the best precaution that everybody is recommending – WHO and the government and the one that’s proven is washing your hands frequently with soap and in running water. Now imagine living in a house where you don’t have running water. Imagine the only spring in your village has dried up and there isn’t any running water. This COVID19 has brought up the importance of having access to water near where you live. That’s again why we have to do something about all these springs drying up. This needs to be done on an emergency basis.

Lalitha Krishnan: when we open our taps to wash our hands we barely think about where the water is coming from. We’re sitting comfortably in our houses, stocking up…we may be quarantined but we are comfortable. So thanks for reminding us that there are people out there who don’t even have access to running water.

Aditi Mukherji: Absolutely. In a relatively well-managed village where springs are in good condition, they would usually have one stand post shared by 8-10 families. So that’s a good case. In villages where the springs have dried up or where there isn’t any infrastructure – where everybody would have to walk to the source of the spring… then there are springs where the waters being rationed…we have come across many springs where the village committee would literally lock up the spring. They would open it for one hour every morning and every evening simply because there isn’t enough water for everyone for 24 hours. In those circumstances, it would be really hard for people to follow this very basic advice of handwashing.

Lalitha Krishnan: Most of us have a lot to be grateful for. Aditi, I do have to ask you. Do you have hope?

Aditi Mukherji: Yes, it would be hard without it right?

Lalitha Krishnan: Of course, you’re right. When our researchers and scientists are optimistic, it gives us hope too. Ok Aditi, this is my last question to you and a request. I ask all my guests to share a new word to help us improve our vocabulary. So, is there a word that you’d like to share with us?

Aditi Mukherji: Yes, I’d like to talk about ‘aquifers. An aquifer is basically the water-bearing layer. We can’t see it because either if you’re living in the plains then it’s under the ground; in the mountains, it’s basically inside the rocks. It’s super important because the aquifer is where all your groundwater storage is. India completely depends on groundwater. 60% of our irrigated area gets irrigated from groundwater. 80% of our drinking water comes from groundwater. If we don’t take care of our aquifers, don’t ensure that our aquifers are not overexploited, our aquifers don’t get dirty, we would never have water security. That’s the word I would like your audience to know: ‘Aquifer’ which is the water baring layer from which our life-saving water comes from.

Lalitha Krishnan: Aditi thank you so much for everything you’re doing. It’s been a real honour talking to you.

Aditi Mukherji: Thanks so much.

Lalitha Krishnan: I hope you enjoyed this episode of Heart of Conservation. You can listen to it on many platforms -Spotify, SoundCloud, Apple podcast and many, many more. If you know somebody who’s doing interesting work or whose story should be shared, do write to me earthymatters013@gmail.com. Stay safe. Stay healthy and keep listening.

Photo courtesy Aditi Mukherji.

Podcast interview and Artwork: Lalitha Krishnan

Birdsong by hillside residents


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