Feature story

No more dry days

The restoration of a once-parched Himalayan lake has been a blessing for the community and the ecosystem

Indra Verma cannot forget the time when Dayarani Lake, the water body that used to sustain life in her community, dried up. “We lived on this water from the hills for generations, and then it disappeared,” says the 70-year-old from Basai Talli, a remote village in Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district. “We women had to bear the brunt of the loss, because we were the ones forced to walk long distances to fetch water for our homes.”

That painful memory may linger but Ms Verma has plenty to feel happy about following the return to good health of Dayarani Lake, an invaluable source of water that sits pretty at about 1,800mt above sea level close to Uparara village. Dayarani, which means ‘puddle in the middle of a deodar [Himalayan cedar] forest’ in the Kumaoni dialect, is more than puddle, of course, given that it feeds the mountain springs that are the primary source of water for rural households in the surrounding areas.

The galvanising force behind Dayarani’s revival is the Himmotthan Society, an associate organisation of the Tata Trusts, which brought together government departments, geo-hydrologists and local communities in a collaborative project to recharge the lake and the natural water bodies around it. The outcome of the effort has been remarkable. “There is no shortage of water here now even during the summer months,” says 25-year-old Deena Devi from Basai Malli village.

Despite their critical role in supporting human habitations, Uttarakhand’s mountain springs — the source for more than 90% of the state’s rural water supply — are in grave danger. A 2018 report by NITI Aayog, the Indian government think tank, states that up to 60% of the Himalayan region’s springs have dried up or are drying up. The root problems are change in land-use patterns, the increasing demand for water, monsoon variations and deforestation.

The denuding of forests has had a calamitous effect on Uttarakhand’s rural economy and its ecological well-being. Forest watersheds provide 75% of freshwater for human consumption in the state. They act as sponges that hold rainwater before releasing it slowly. In addition, the trees and ground vegetation in forest ecosystems help stabilise the soil and prevent erosion, which in turn helps reduce the pollution caused by sedimentation in streams, rivers and lakes.

“Rampant development, declining green cover and increased land use are depleting Uttarakhand’s natural water resources,” explains Vinod Kothari, a manager at the Tata Trusts and theme lead for the water portfolio with Himmotthan. “Perennial springs are becoming seasonal and seasonal ones are becoming inactive. This has serious repercussions for people.”

Springtide story

Uttarakhand has more than 20,000 natural springs spread across its 10 hill districts. Many mighty rivers that flow across North India, including the Ganga and the Yamuna, originate here, yet the mountainous regions of the state face an acute scarcity of water.

“Roti, kapda aur makaan (food, clothing and shelter) are the primary struggles of life across rural India. Here in Uttarakhand, paani (water) has been added to the list,” says Vinod Kothari, a manager at the Tata Trusts and theme lead for the water portfolio with Himmotthan. The Himmotthan Society has since its setting up in 2001 been working overtime to ease this water burden.

Himmotthan’s projects and programmes aim to address the root causes of underdevelopment and enhance the quality of life of rural communities in Uttarakhand through self-sustained community institutions and livelihood interventions. Water supply, sanitation and hygiene form an important thematic area in the blend of social development initiatives the organisation has fostered.  

Springshed management projects by Himmotthan are being implemented in six districts of Uttarakhand and there are plans to extend these across the state. A spectrum of projects, from rainwater harvesting to recharging water tables, is being undertaken and about 300 springs in the hill regions of Tehri Garhwal and Pithoragarh are part of the effort.

The resulting benefits are clear to see. Data collected by Himmotthan reveals that water levels have increased in its project areas and springs have regained their natural flow. In Gangolihat in Pithoragarh district, for instance, water discharge from springs during the peak of summer has increased by 48%. In all, Himmotthan has promoted some 270 water schemes over three phases from 2002, reaching more than 30,000 households and 150,000-plus people.

The drying up of Dayarani Lake is an example of the fallout and it led to the district administration seeking the services of Himmotthan for a remedy. Science and technology were crucial tools as the Himmotthan team took up the lake revitalisation programme in 2017. A survey was conducted and a report prepared. Alongside, a committee comprising representatives from the government, Himmotthan and village communities was formed to supervise activities.

Scientific springshed management practices were adopted to improve a catchment area spread over 6 hectares. Artificial recharge techniques were used; staggered contoured trenches (SCT), percolation ponds and recharge pits were constructed to reduce runoff and increase infiltration; the drainage system was channelised; artificial drainage lines were developed to divert the precious liquid (or use overflow) to the lake; and Napier grass, fodder and fuelwood trees were planted to reduce soil erosion.

Springs fed by Dayarani lake are in better health thanks to improved springshed management practices

Complications aplenty

The implementation team had to find solutions beyond the hydrogeological. Springshed management was new to the region’s villagers and they had apprehensions. There were bureaucratic hurdles to be overcome as well. The catchment area was spread across two village councils, Jajoli and Uprada, and both had to work in sync. Another complication was the lack of data on springs and spring-fed systems.

A year of concerted endeavour, commitment to the cause and the experience of implementing similar projects in other parts of Uttarakhand helped the Himmotthan team make a success of the Dayarani Lake project. The average discharge during the lean season (April-June) in Basai Talli and Basai Malli, the villages nearest the lake, rose to 6 lpm (litres per minute) from 1.5 lpm before the intervention. Also, there has been a significant increase in water discharge from springs in downstream villages.

Besides easing water shortage, the lake revival project has had other benefits. The spring recharge areas are now free of open defecation and this has not only improved water quality, but also had a positive impact on community hygiene habits. The team has, additionally, trained a cadre of village-based workers to manage post-recharge activities and build capacity in the community.

The lake project has provided a template for springshed management initiatives across Uttarakhand and the state government has stepped on the gas to back similar efforts. It has established a spring management consortium that has taken the lead in reviving more than 150 springs. Meanwhile, Himmotthan has expanded its springshed management programme in different parts of Uttarakhand.

As for Dayarani Lake itself, the land encircling it has turned into a green oasis. The biggest benefits have, naturally enough, accrued to the women in the project villages. “Earlier, much of our work at home used to remain unfinished because we had to spend hours every day fetching water,” says Ms Verma. “Now it takes just 10-15 minutes.” Aside from the drudgery of finding and getting water, there have been other positives. “Our health has improved and our children are studying better,” adds Shobhit Kumar of Basai Malli.