cover story

Hope springs high

Community-led springshed programmes with women at the helm are restoring water security in scores of villages in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand

The women of Belwali, a mountain village in Himachal Pradesh’s Sirmaur district, dreaded the arrival of summer. The dry season meant local springs getting reduced to a trickle, borewells running dry and — as is almost always the sorry reality in India’s water-stressed regions — women having to trudge miles every day to fetch the precious liquid from whatever source is available.

Freedom from such drudgery has finally come to Belwali, in the form of a community-led springshed rejuvenation programme backed by Himmotthan Society, an associate organisation of the Tata Trusts. Himmotthan has provided technical and field support to an army of women led by local resident Dharmo Devi. These women, under the aegis of the Forest Development Committee (FDC) and in coordination with the forest department, have constructed hundreds of groundwater recharge structures — trenches, plantations, recharge ponds and check dams — in the adjoining Naurangabad reserve forest.

The effort has led to around 180 million litres of rainwater being channelled into the underground aquifers feeding local springs. With the springs coming back to life, Belwali’s women no longer have to fetch water from distant sources. “Wise water management has greatly reduced our water problems and will also benefit our coming generations,” says Ms Devi, who won an award from the Indian president recently for her work (under the theme ‘catch the rain’).

Natural springs account for over 90% of rural water supply in Himalayan states like Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. But climate change, changes in land-use patterns, rising populations, haphazard construction and other factors have caused many of these springs to dry up or turn seasonal. Himmotthan’s community-led interventions are aimed at dealing with the problem.

Watershed effort

Deficit to surplus

The springshed projects in Sirmaur in Himachal Pradesh and Tehri Garhwal in Uttarakhand have helped increase lean-season water discharge by 40-60%, and restored water security to more than 23,000 residents. “By bridging the gap between local demand and available supply of water, we are enabling villages to undertake water audits, and gradually go from water-deficit to neutral, and eventually to water-surplus,” says Vinod Kothari, theme lead for the water portfolio at Himmotthan, which implements these projects in partnership with Tata Consumer Products and Titan.

“We have learned that building trenches and planting trees stops rainwater from running off and helps the soil retain moisture,” says Bindi Pundir, a member of the all-woman team that constructed recharge structures in Majyad gaon, a village in Tehri. Himmotthan’s interventions across the Tehri Garhwal region have resulted in the recharging of 126 million litres of groundwater thus far, transforming the lives of residents in 35 villages.  

There are challenges on the ground, of course. Getting governments on board are among them and so is earning the trust and commitment of village communities. Himmotthan implements extensive behaviour-change campaigns and trains community water-user groups (variously called pani samitis, forest development committees or van samitis) to build and manage rainwater catchment structures. It also enrols proactive and progressive women such as Ms Devi and Ms Pundir to mobilise locals and drive change.

The water programmes have in their fold a swathe of livelihood and health-related activities: crop advisories, sanitation, vermicomposting, biogas plants and many more. “Our goal is to make villages better aware of their water challenges so that they can take corrective steps to store and utilise water sustainably,” says Mr Kothari. “Ultimately, it is the community that has to save its springs.”