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Replenishing Himalayan Springs, a lesson from Sikkim

Natural spring water emerges in a small steady stream from a pile of rocks and foliage by the roadside, somewhere along the long and winding stretch that connects Gangtok and Namchey in Sikkim. The Kaila Bhaji Dhara is one of the many perennial springs that have been revived through the Government of Sikkim’s Dhara Vikas springshed management initiative.

A small network of pipes carries water from the spring to adjoining homes, supplying water to 12 households in the area. Pem Norbu Sherpa, coordinator of the Dhara Vikas Initiative in South Sikkim, fills his bottle with the spring water as he speaks to a group visiting from Bhutan. “Scientists tested water from this spring a few months ago and confirmed that the quality is better than that of bottled mineral water.”

Sherpa has been working with Dhara Vikas for the past 10 years. He is well acquainted with the programme and its success story that other states in India and many neighbouring countries facing water shortages are looking to emulate. The Bhutanese visitors are a group of 15 officials working in various sectors related to water management visiting Sikkim to learn about the popular initiative.

Addressing the issue

Bhutan is currently facing the same problem Sikkim faced a decade ago. This is especially true in the East where hilltop lakes, usually located above villages, are steadily drying up. This is taking a toll on communities for whom collecting water has become an arduous task.

Springs are the only water source for mid-hill communities in Sikkim to whom glaciers and rivers are both inaccessible. “Close to 90% of the population in Sikkim depends only on spring water. We started the Dhara Vikas Initiative in 2008 and see its impact on the ground today. Through the initiative, we have revived several springs and given communities easy access to water,” says Sarika Pradhan, Additional Secretary of the Rural Management and Development Department (RM&DD), the nodal department for implementation of the Dhara Vikas Initiative.

Drying up of water sources is a serious concern in Bhutan. “We are getting increasing reports from communities across the country that their water sources are drying up,” says Nidup Tshering, with the Watershed Management Division (WMD) and group leader of the Bhutanese delegation to Sikkim.

Bhutan lacks data on the extent and cause of its water sources drying up, but it is taking steps to address the issue. Measures to address water shortage, for now, involve setting up water stations at high-elevation mid-hill villages where traditional water sources have dried up. Groundwater is pumped to the surface at these stations to fulfill the water needs of villagers. This is, however, not the most cost-effective measure as one water pump costs about USD 2,000 and each water station needs at least two to ensure enough water is pumped to the surface. The pumps also require frequent maintenance, which also adds to the stations’ operational costs.

This is certainly not a long-term solution. Replicating the effectiveness of the Dhara Vikas Initiative’s spring revival methods in Bhutan seems like a feasible option given the geographical similarities between Bhutan and Sikkim. Over the course of three days, the Bhutanese group visited three spring revival sites in South Sikkim. In Perbing, they learnt about hydrogeology, rock structure, and ways to identify recharge areas for constructing recharge structures. In Omchu, they saw how various recharge structures are constructed, and in Chamchey they saw the rejuvenated Dolling Lake.

Facilitator Pem Norbu Sherpa was quick to remind that working on spring revival is about spending hours in the field, studying rock structure, soil properties, and the overall landscape. Recharge areas are built only after considering these factors. The strategic focus is on controlling runoff of water and increasing its permeation to enhance groundwater recharge.

The field excursion was facilitated by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain development (ICIMOD) in collaboration with RM&DD, Sikkim. As Aditi Mukherji, Theme Leader, Water and Air, ICIMOD, points out, the objective was to share best practices related to springshed management in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. “Sikkim’s wealth of knowledge on spring management can be useful to other countries in the region facing similar problems.”

Understanding the cause 

Lakes are referred to as Devithan, the abode of Gods, in Sikkim. When lakes first started drying in the region, people saw it as a sign of Gods leaving. Villagers made fruitless efforts to appease the higher powers by planting flowers, performing religious ceremonies, and building fences around the lakes. What the people needed was a deeper understanding of the problem and its cause.

Experts identified climate change impact and demographic and infrastructural change as the main causes for the drying up of springs and water resources. Springs are mainly replenished by rainwater.  Because of changing weather patterns and erratic rainfall, the soil is unable to retain surface runoff water during the short rainy season. The Dhara Vikas Programme, in consultation with the Pune based Advanced Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (ACWADAM), conducted a series of trainings for communities where they were given information on basic hydrogeology and on mechanisms through which rainwater is absorbed by soil to replenish groundwater reservoirs.

The initiative also engaged communities. Getting schoolchildren to educate their parents on the various steps of the Dhara Vikas Action Plan proved particularly effective. Copies of the Dhara Vikas handbook were distributed in schools where children learnt about the action plan and took the information home to their parents and families. The initiative now has good community ownership.

Replicating the success story

National officials from Bhutan are keen to take up the methods employed by the Dhara Vikas Initiative and apply it at home. WMD is currently carrying out scoping studies to assess drying water sources. The country’s highest decision-making body, the National Assembly, is also discussing the issue. “There is much to be done, but the government has already initiated groundwork to revive springsheds and watersheds,” says Nidup Tshering.

Having a designated agency that focuses solely on springshed development and management seems to have worked well for Sikkim. In Bhutan, while several agencies are involved in water management, the Watershed Management Division under the Department of Agriculture and Forest has the mandate to manage watersheds, and as such, is rightly placed to implement programmes for spring revival in the country.

 

Contributed by Chimi Seldon 

Communications Officer for the cryosphere Initiative in ICIMOD.

The rejuvenated Dolling Lake is now perennial due to interventions made by the Dhara Vikas Programme

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