Ways to a better tomorrow
Paromita Ghosh examines the ecological and socio-economic impact of water scarcity in the Hindu Kush Himalaya, and the multipronged approach needed to address it
The Himalayas give rise to ten major rivers, making them a crucial ecological buffer. Apart from the Arctic and Antarctic, this is the region where maximum water is stored in the form of ice and snow; hence it is popularly known as the Third Pole. The Himalayan river basin is home to approximately 1.3 billion people, supplying them with water, food and energy. It is therefore also known as the ‘water tower of Asia’.
The Indian Himalayan region is governed by the monsoon pattern of rainfall, which creates a distinct rainy season from July to September, when there is plenty, often surplus, water in the region. But during the summer and winter seasons there is an acute scarcity, meaning the region faces a ‘too much and too little’ water syndrome.
Producing 8.6 million cubic metres of water annually, the Himalayas provide the world’s largest renewable supplies of fresh water for drinking, irrigation, the generation of hydroelectric power and other uses. They also give rise to a unique mix of subtropical, tropical and alpine vegetation, forming a biodiversity hotspot with a huge range of flora and fauna exclusive to the region. In addition, Himalayan waters have given birth to a distinct cultural, religious and social way of life. They have cradled ancient civilisations and, to date, support some of the most densely populated regions on the earth, such as the Indo-Gangetic plains.
Role of forests and vegetation
Himalayan forests and vegetation play a major role in water availability. The forests cause rain and in some areas they account for most of the annual rainfall. The vegetation acts like a sponge, soaking up and storing rainwater and releasing it gradually through springs and aquifers. This ‘sponging’ effect is largely due to organic matter generated by above- and below-ground litter, pores, tunnels and slits, created by dead roots and soil fauna. Forests decrease soil erosion and filter pollutants from water, consequently improving turbine function and helping to generate more hydropower.
In a study carried out in New York during the 1990s, it was observed that protecting forests to improve water quality is better than installing water purification plants. The people of New York decided to spend $1.4 billion to protect the 32km2 Catskill watershed, which helped save $4-6 billion on the cost of constructing new water treatment plants, and $300 million on annual operational costs. Unfortunately, studies in the Himalayan region comparing such natural ecosystem services versus man-made ones are lacking. But they badly need to be done, the sooner the better.
Scientific studies from the Indian Himalayan region have reported that forest types also play a major role in hydrology. Broad-leafed forests are considered more efficient at water infiltration and controlling soil erosion, compared to conifers. In the western Himalaya, oak and pine forests dominate and oak forests are considered more valuable than pine by local people. This has been validated scientifically.
Natural and anthropogenic causes of water crisis
Climate change is affecting the region’s hydrology, with seasonal extremes of increased evapo-transpiration, changes in glacier volume and increase in run-off. It is altering rainfall patterns, soil moisture, humidity, glacier mass balance and river flow, and also causes changes in underground water sources. Floods and droughts are occurring with higher frequency and intensity.
Deforestation is also leading to cloud bursts, flash floods and massive landslides. Thus the interconnectedness of water and forest cover has a huge impact on water sustainability for mountain cities and towns. The water crisis arising out of decreasing forest cover is also decreasing the survival rate of the plethora of land and water flora and fauna, thus shrinking the region’s natural biodiversity. Extensive forests can cycle moisture between land and atmosphere, so a decrease in forest cover has a negative impact on the regional hydrological cycle. In addition, the decline in forest cover is preventing the formation of glaciers and snow, thus decreasing water flow in rivers.
The Himalayan mountains are young fold mountains and highly susceptible to landslides and erosion. The Ganga-Brahmaputra carry heavy sediment loads downstream; this is increasing due to deforestation choking dam turbines and water pumps. Massive ecological disturbances have been brought about by various hydropower projects, many of which are poorly constructed.Building road networks, concrete structures and forest fires are also contributing towards the water crisis.
Causes of water scarcity
Water scarcity is an outcome of physical and economic mechanisms. Economic measures involve anthropogenic contributions towards water shortages, including poor water resource management, land use change or landscape alterations, sedimentation, water pollution and urbanisation.
The erosion of water’s social, cultural and religious values and a changing human personality are also contributing to the crisis. Unprecedented population growth, rapid urbanisation, expansion of infrastructures, migrations and land conversion all cause changes in flux, pathways and storage of water in the Himalayas.
Himalayan towns and cities often face water crises due to poor management of spring shed, distribution lines, lack of rainwater harvesting and over-exploitation of ground water. Concrete structures have reduced water infiltration in towns where water supply is mostly from springs, which are drying up due to concrete load and resulting in low river water levels, as these springs also contribute to the base flow of Himalayan rivers. A lowering rate of ground infiltration has resulted in overflowing riverbanks and urban drains. According to a UNDP report, there are approximately 2.6 lakhs springs in Uttarakhand, on which 90% of the population are dependent. The magnitude of water scarcity can be estimated by the fact that Almora town had 300 active springs three decades ago and now it is left with only 50. The spring discharge in the Garhwal Himalaya has also reduced by 75%. During the lean period, potable water is sold at 20-25 rupees per 20-litre container. A rural woman has to trek an average distance of 4-5 km, spending 2-4 hours to fetch a pail of water for the household. The availability of per capita potable water reduces to 25-30 litres per day, which is almost half of World Health Organisation standards. Water-borne diseases and conflicts are also on the rise.
Effects of water scarcity
Mountain agriculture has always been rainfed. Due to persistent water crises, it is on the verge of extinction and people are migrating to the plains in search of better livelihoods. This is leading to food insecurity and human conflicts over food and water. Therefore, protecting Himalayan water resources and sustainable use should be given utmost importance. Scientific reports have verified that there is a decrease in apple yield in the Himalayas due to inadequate winter chilling. Subsidence of agricultural land is also taking place due to road-building and dynamite blasting during hydropower projects, and the debris is dumped in the rivers, choking them, creating lakes and causing flash floods.
Severe water crises in hill towns happen during the peak summer tourist season, when people from the plains rush to the hills to seek respite from the summer heat. But the water crisis is now negatively impacting tourist flows to the hills, as well as tourism itself and the livelihoods it generates. Apart from consumption, poor water quality and quantity is affecting livelihoods and recreational pursuits like fishing, boating and rafting.
The way forward
Lack of knowledge and awareness in understanding the glaciers, springs and aquifers are leading to incorrect water budgeting. Therefore, there is a need to create curricula in simple language, and bring in local change leaders who have knowledge of hydrological cycling in their region, and can motivate people to engage in participatory conservation and management of Himalayan waters. A huge campaign for spring rejuvenation has already been started for alleviating rural water scarcity. Work has also been initiated by various sectors on creating spring inventories and development and implementation of spring revival models through participatory action. A separate local watershed action plan has been floated to counter drought, intense rainfall and other water-related natural calamities, and develop climate smart villages and towns. Capacity building in water resource management has been intensified.
Our honourable Prime Minister launched a new initiative ‘Mission Amrit Sarovar’ in April 2022, which is aimed at reviving and rejuvenating 75 water bodies in each district of India, as part of celebrations of 75 years of independence. Other government initiatives are Jal Jeevan Mission, whereby every rural household will get tap water by 2024 (Har Ghar jal). Namami Gange is a project dedicated to saving the river Ganges.
Development of low-cost water purification systems with added minerals – with the help of nanotechnology that uses waste plastic to generate graphene, used to purify water – is underway through a project supported by the National Mission on Himalayan Studies (NMHS). This has been commercialised to protect the Himalayan rivers and water bodies from plastic pollution, and purify water. Runoff water conservation through digging trenches, infiltration holes, building check dams with pine needles and afforestation is also being done across the Himalayas.
Himalayan rivers also fall within transboundary jurisdiction. Therefore, understanding the geography, political relationships (including power relationships), economics and cultural histories of nation states sharing these waters is crucial in creating management strategies and collaborative transboundary governance of water.
Thus, the Himalayan water crisis needs a multipronged approach, wherein blending socio-political, cultural and ecological aspects with hydrology will yield a better tomorrow.
Dr Paromita Ghosh is a scientist at G. B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment