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“In 82 years of my life, I have seen a lot happening here, but nothing compares to what has happened this winter. Since November, we have received just 7–8 days of snow, whereas any other year, this would be around 30–40 days. The summer months are going to be tough. From where will we get water to drink?” asks Shanno Devi, a resident of Kangra valley in Himachal Pradesh.
Devi’s concerns are valid. According to the Indian Meteorological Department, this year, Himachal Pradesh has received only 100.1 millimetres of precipitation this winter (January to March) — 70% less than normal. They were also voiced in HP’s recent state assembly session, with the state minister for Jal Shakti Mahender Thakur announcing the likelihood of the state going through an unprecedented water crisis this summer on account of deficient rain.
Deficient rain is expected to not just cause a water crisis in the state but also lead to the state’s natural water sources drying up faster. The government of Himachal has attributed these changes to climate change and urged parties across political lines to unite together in tackling it.
According to experts, climate change in Himachal Pradesh is having a particularly worrying effect on the area’s springs — the localised water sources of Himalayan areas. Springs used to be a widely used source of water in the Indian Himalayan region. But over the years, the availability of tap water connectors and systemic ignorance from the government’s line departments has meant that they have been phased out of daily use/practice.
As per a NITI Aayog report, there are five million springs across India, out of which nearly three million are in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) alone. It is reported that half of them have already dried up or have undergone a significant reduction in their discharge.
“Himalayan springs are drying up mainly because of climate change and this is getting further exacerbated by anthropogenic activities like mega-infrastructure construction and deforestation,” Dr Debashish Sen, an expert on natural resources management associated with the People’s Science Institute, told Youth Ki Awaaz.
To understand just how climate change is causing springs to dry up, it’s important to understand how springs work. Technically, a spring is a point at which water flows from an aquifer to the earth’s surface, particularly in slope topographies like mountains. An aquifer could be an underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock, a fractured rock or even unconsolidated materials (gravel, sand, or silt).
It has an associated surface — called its recharge area — from where water percolates to the subsurface. Water moves from the recharge area to the subsurface, where it gets stored in the aquifer and is subsequently discharged at a point on the earth’s surface called the spring.
This quantity of water released from a spring is largely influenced by alterations either in geology or the spring’s recharge area. Experts say that the geological composition of rocks undergoes changes either due to natural events like earthquakes or anthropogenic activities like, say, the construction of mega infrastructure projects.
Changes in precipitation levels and land use of recharge area can also greatly influence the amount and rate of percolation of water in a spring. Five vital trends have been observed with relation to precipitation levels in Himachal Pradesh according to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) in the past 30 years (1989–2018).
In short, Himachal Pradesh is witnessing the same amount of precipitation it was experiencing earlier, but it’s now happening in a shorter time, and the timing of it is very unpredictable.
Apart from this, it’s also important to note that in most cases, the recharge areas of springs lie either in the forest and/or common land. Over the years, these areas have seen high deforestation and degradation of vegetative cover.
Additionally, over the years, forests in the elevation zone of 700m to 2500m have also witnessed a change in the type of plant species that grow there due to faulty government policies — with some species directly hindering recharge areas for springs and blocking the way for percolation of water through them.
Take Chir (Chil) Pine, for example. At present, this species covers an area of approximately 1.25 lakh in the state. However, according to experts, the species has no use for humans, animals, or even the forest.
According to Mr Kulbhushan Upmanyu, a Chipko Andolan veteran and environmentalist, the Chil Pine, an invasive species, was introduced by the forest department in Himachal Pradesh due to its high survival rate to achieve the geographical coverage targets.
“It is of no use to humans, animals or even the forest. When it sheds its leaves (needles) in summer, it creates a thick layer under the forest canopy. These needles are acidic in nature as well as highly inflammable. They also prevent any kind of undergrowth or ground vegetation,” he said. So, the intended recharge areas (surface) are left with negligible potential to provide the condition for water percolation.
This combination of high-intensity rainfall, coupled with relatively poor water percolation condition of recharge areas, therefore, translates to comparatively less water getting into aquifers, resulting in, at first, in discharge from the spring decreasing and eventually the spring drying up.
Therefore, while climate change has led to the drying up of springs in the Himalayan region, anthropogenic activities have served as catalysts in the process.
Climate change doesn’t just lead to springs drying up. Once the process begins, it also accelerates, worsening the impact of climate change. For example, in Himachal Pradesh, as greener sources of water like springs have dried up, residents have become increasingly dependent on mechanised sources of water as well as water derived from mega projects like the multi village domestic water supply scheme — activities that have their own carbon footprint and subsequent impacts.
Springs don’t just occur in habitation areas but are also equally present in forests. Therefore, the drying up of springs has also led to a reduction in the moisture level in forest areas, contributing to an increasing rise in incidents like forest fire.
Over the past decade, some government policies and guidelines have focussed on concerns related to the revival of springs, but the same has failed to have any bearing on the ground. In Himachal Pradesh, the state government is still prioritising the development of multi-village, big infrastructure grids and lift water schemes over the revival of springs.
According to experts, this will only impact precipitation levels further and cause unprecedented damage in the region.
“Springs are the green source of water. They are widely spread and localised too. Thus their operation has a negligible carbon footprint. At a time when we are facing climate change as well as water crisis simultaneously, promotion and adoption of such means of water are a must to mitigate both,” says Dr Himanshu Kulkarni, who is a member of India’s new national water policy committee.
The government needs to conduct a hydro-geological mapping of springs to facilitate the recharge of the same and earmark financial and administrative resources to achieve this objective. The importance of focussing on the regeneration of springs in a country battling the twin menace of climate change and water distress hardly needs to be stated.