Feature story

Springing to life

Natural springs are the stars in a water project that has got benefits flowing to more than 1.2 million people in Uttarakhand

It’s difficult for people who take such matters for granted to grasp what water in a tap and in the house truly means. For Guddi Devi, a 38-year-old from Silkoti village, about 95km from Uttarakhand’s state capital Dehradun, it means the world. Where once she had to endure hard labour and deadening drudgery to secure the elixir from faraway sources, she now has water at her doorstep.

That also means Ms Devi gets more time for her family, as does her school-going daughter, 12-year-old Seema. “We had to walk for hours every day to collect water from springs located deep in the forest,” says Ms Devi. “My husband works in the fields and has no time to help, so I would ask my children sometimes to skip classes to fetch water.”

Easily available water has changed the lives of Ms Devi and scores of other women like her in Uttarakhand’s Tehri Garhwal region. Guiding this change has been Himmotthan, an associate organisation of the Tata Trusts. Beginning in 2001, Himmotthan has through its WATSAN (drinking water, sanitation and hygiene) programme reached more than 25,000 households and 1.2 million people living in the upper reaches of Uttarakhand.

By adopting modern water and energy technologies and engaging continuously with the community, these programmes have worked to rejuvenate and protect sustainable water sources such as natural springs and to provide piped water to villagers. There have been other efforts as well, and the common thread running through them has women as primary beneficiaries.

Water scarcity has been a long-running story in the high ranges of Uttarakhand, despite the state being the origin of many mighty rivers that flow across north India, including the Ganga and the Yamuna. That much needs to be done in dealing with the dearth of water is not in doubt (a 2018 report by the United Nations Development Programme found that hilly Uttarakhand was in the throes of an acute water crisis).

“The primary struggle of life in rural India is roti, kapda aur makaan (food, clothing and shelter). Here in Uttarakhand, paani (water) is added,” says Vinod Kothari, regional manager with the Tata Trusts. WATSAN, with its community-based orientation, was created to lend a hand in the struggle.

The water dimension

The programme has promoted 250-odd water schemes over three phases from 2002. Under these schemes, each dwelling in a project village gets a toilet and a piped water connection close to its doorstep. The water is sourced from natural springs and tapped through gravity-flow systems. In places where natural springs are absent or not a viable option, the programme incorporates rainwater harvesting structures with tanks to collect water.

WATSAN was successful in delivering mountain communities with doorstep supply, but the enterprise faced a near-unsurmountable hurdle with the region’s water table. Overexploitation of groundwater, altered land-use patterns and widespread deforestation have led to the drying up of traditional water resources like springs and ponds. A big question mark hung at this point on the sustainability of the water supply scheme.

“In the early 2010s, we noticed that perennial springs were becoming seasonal, and seasonal ones were becoming inactive,” explains Sunesh Sharma, a programme officer with Himmotthan. “Rampant development, declining green cover and increased consumption were depleting Uttarakhand’s natural water resources.”

Himmotthan was forced to recalibrate its approach. A plan was chalked out and this covered a spectrum of activities, from rainwater harvesting to recharging of the water table. The services of a specialised team of geologists and hydrologists was requisitioned and a mapping of more than 300 springs across the hill regions of Tehri Garhwal and Pithoragarh was done.

The team studied the porosity of the rocks and the gradients of inclines. It also identified sites for check dams and groundwater trenches to arrest surface water run-off. Himmotthan’s springshed management project has drawn heavily from the work that the team did.

Village communities — the centrepiece of the WATSAN programmes — were enlisted to ensure proper implementation. ‘User water and sanitation committees’ (UWSCs), comprising village elders and other influencers, were handed charge of managing water distribution facilities, including solar pumping systems, village catchment taps, piping equipment and household sanitation and rainwater harvesting units.

The committees were also entrusted with the task of other water conservation work: constructing brushwood check dams, digging trenches and monitoring the efficacy of various efforts. Since, as the maxim has it, what can’t be measured, can’t be improved, Himmotthan has designed ‘Dhara janma patris’ (water cards) to record the flow rate of the springs and help with data collection.

A notable achievement has been the formation of the ‘Springshed Management Consortium’ (SMC), an umbrella body that includes state and central government officials, nonprofits and technical experts. The consortium oversees the project, works to ensure the revival of springs in the state, and brings together different partners for effective implementation.

A win with water

Uttarakhand has more than 20,000 natural springs spread across its 10 hill districts, with about 70% originating in designated forest areas. Most of the drinking water accessed by people living in the state’s mountainous regions are from springs. It makes good sense, in the context, to protect and nourish these invaluable sources. That’s what the Tata Trusts and its associate entity, Himmotthan, have tried to do.

It became clear early in the springshed management project that to ensure sustained water supply it was essential to recharge natural springs through interventions. That meant aligning the work of multiple agencies, a huge challenge in itself.

The forest department has charge of natural springs as most of these are in reserve forests. The Jal Jeevan Mission, the Indian government’s flagship water project, is entrusted with providing tap connections to rural households. To add to the pot, the state’s district authorities and its soil and water conservation department have a stake.

The logic of having an apex body to bring different stakeholders together led to the formation of the ‘springshed management consortium’ (SMC) in 2018. SMC is a critical cog in Uttarakhand’s efforts to rejuvenate its springs. It has 20 members, among them representatives of state and central agencies, nonprofits and technology institutions. The principal chief conservator of forests, Uttarakhand, is the consortium’s chairman.

Himmotthan is member secretary to SMC, providing much-needed expertise derived from long years of experience. “Himmotthan’s scientific inputs have helped us adopt a targeted approach,” says Prasanna Kumar Patro, SMC’s principal coordinator and an Indian Forest Service officer with the state forest department. “This has provided us with economy of scale, delivered cost savings and facilitated effective monitoring.”

Established by the Tata Trusts in 2001, Himmotthan manages and implements the Himmothan Pariyojana programme, which targets the root causes of underdevelopment in Uttarakhand’s Central Himalayan region.

Besides Uttarakhand, Himmotthan currently has projects in Himachal Pradesh and Leh. It works with rural mountain communities to develop sustainable enterprises linked to livestock and agriculture, improve educational outcomes and access to energy, and most importantly, bring water and sanitation to villages.

Says STS Lepcha, the state’s former principal chief conservator of forests: “Himmotthan has helped policymakers know what they did not know.”

It’s in the results

The springshed management project is being implemented in six districts of Uttarakhand and there are plans to extend it across the 10 hill districts of the state. The reason is in the results. Data collected by Himmotthan reveals that water levels have increased in the project areas and springs have regained their natural flow. In Gangolihaat in Pithoragarah district, for instance, water discharge from springs during peak summer (May-June) has increased by 48%.

“The National Rural Drinking Water Programme considers 55lpcd [litres per person per day] as optimum for the needs of rural habitations,” says Mr Kothari. “We are confident that by 2030 most habitations in Uttarakhand will be self-sufficient in water.”

For women like Ms Devi, the project is already a success, with water shortages and the hardships they impose a thing of the past. And it’s a history 48-year-old Ramlal Dabral, a member of the UWSC in Jadipani, will remember. “When I have grandkids, I will tell them about the difficulties women here faced due to water scarcity,” he says. “I’m sure they won’t believe it.”

A hydrologist at the site of an aquifer in Chureddhar village