Fill and flow

An ambitious water security initiative in the Western Himalayas is working to recharge and rejuvenate groundwater sources in danger of drying up

Before any auspicious occasion, Anuj Rana and his family pay obeisance to their local bawdi (stepwell). “We hill folk consider water to be our god,” says the 45-year-old Mr Rana, who lives in Ghoda village in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh. “That’s why we seek the blessings of our bawdi during weddings and other special events.”

For as long as Mr Rana can remember, the stepwell has been his family’s only source of water. Till recently it was an everyday ritual for him, his brother and sister-in-law — the able-bodied members of this joint family of six — to draw water from the stepwell several times a day. The bawdi is only 200 metres from their home but in the hills it takes twice as much effort to carry utensils filled with water than it does in the plains.

The Ranas now get water piped into their homes through the Indian government’s Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM). There are days, though, when the pipes break or freeze over and the family finds itself back at the bawdi. “Finding appropriate water sources is especially important for us in the Himalayan region because they are so few here,” adds Mr Rana.

That’s the irony. “Even though there is still enough glacier melts in the Himalayan region to fuel river systems, people here face an acute shortage because excess water runs off into the plains,” says Divyang Waghela, who heads the Tata water mission of the Tata Trusts. “The hills don't have their own water though they provide water to the world.”

Spring dependency

In the plains it is also possible to build large dams and reservoirs to store water. This is difficult to do in mountainous country, which leads to local communities having to depend on decades-old springs for their everyday water needs.

A 2017 report published by NITI Aayog, the central government think tank, estimated that the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) once had 15 million springs. In the last decade, 50% of these have disappeared because of changes in land-use pattern, the climate crisis and population increase.

In 2018 the Tata Trusts and their associate organisation, Himmotthan Society, launched an ‘integrated springshed management’ in IHR to revive or recharge more than 600 springs, including many that had dried out. In January 2023 the Eicher Group Foundation, the CSR and sustainability arm of Royal Enfield, joined the effort as a resource partner.

The intent was to address the issue of water availability in the wider region through ‘one water’ principles. IHR covers 11 states, from Jammu and Kashmir all the way to the Northeast, and Eicher has partnered the Trusts in Uttarakhand (Almora and Tehri districts), Himachal Pradesh (Kangra and Sirmaur districts) and Leh in Ladakh.

The first order of the programme was to foster water security by fortifying traditional sources. The programme combined scientific and technical knowledge provided by the Trusts and Himmotthan with community knowhow to solve the water shortage problems. Alongside, it created awareness about conservation while pinpointing how water was being used — for drinking, irrigation, livelihoods or other purposes — so as to build sustainable solutions.

The Tata Trusts-Eicher Foundation initiative is currently being implemented in 210 villages across Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh. Covering a cumulative catchment area of roughly 600 hectares, it aims to benefit more than 15,000 households (about 75,000 people).

“Our priority was to implement the programme in villages already brought under the JJM,” says Vinod Kothari, a manager with the Tata Trusts. “We plan to cover at least 300 villages eventually.” JJM mandates that each person residing in the Himalayan region should be able to access up to 55LCPD (litres per capita per day), up from the previously designated 40LCPD. That’s another target that needs to be met.

Work begins with the hydro-geological mapping of an area that has been identified as a ‘recharge zone’ for a spring or outlet. “We plan exactly what kind of solution is required in a particular place depending on its topography and other factors,” says Nikhilesh Pant, a geologist with the Himmotthan team. “These include the gradient, type of rocks and their placement, forest cover, the amount of rainfall received and its subsequent run-off area, the nature of nearby farm-use land, soil conditions and whether it is prone to erosion, and such.”

Based on these conditions, the team creates an appropriate ‘bolster’ for the existing water source, which is typically uphill from it. This could vary from recharge ponds and trenches to scaled-down options like dugouts and percolation pits.

“It all depends on the gradient of the land,” adds Mr Pant. “If there is a sharp slope we suggest small dugouts of around 1cmv [cubic metre volume] to prevent soil erosion. If the slope is gentle we can make a larger recharge pond.”

A bawdi (stepwell) in a project area in Himachal Pradesh

Water all the time

Various kinds and sizes of trenches can also be built. The idea is that water, collected here either during the monsoon or by digging deep enough to reach the groundwater, will feed the spring, aquifer or stepwell perennially. Or at least during the months from March to July, when springs typically run dry in this region.

“Sometimes when we have to excavate on a hilltop or slope for a recharge pond, we plant trees or grass so that the soil that has been loosened by digging is made compact again and erosion is prevented,” explains Mr Pant. This grass plantation also helps local communities, primarily farmers and cattle rearers, by providing manure and fodder.

While Himmotthan delivers the scientific input, the actual work is carried out entirely by local people. Before the project begins in an area, water user groups (WUGs) are formed in each village in collaboration with the gram panchayat (village council). There are roughly 200 WUGs as of now — about one per village — and they dig the trench or pond and also maintain it.

There is an agreement with WUGs about the work they will undertake. That includes acquiring land for the recharge zone, from either individual landowners or groups of villagers who must sign a no-objection certificate. Once the work is complete, the local WUG must monitor the outlet, periodically clean and de-silt it, and make repairs when necessary.

“To make this project sustainable in the long term, we must involve the gram panchayats and village communities right from the start,” Mr Kothari adds. “We just provide the handholding and technical support. The project is really owned by the local people.”

Vimla Devi Rana, a resident of Chumau village in Uttarakhand’s Almora district, has taken ownership of the project in her area. “The Damthariya spring is a major source of water for about 50 households in my village,” says the 37-year-old Ms Rana. “Although it doesn’t quite dry out in the lean season, the water pressure is low almost all year around. When we heard about Himmothan’s work in the nearby villages, we invited them to come and do something about our naula [spring] as well. And they did.”

Ms Rana got the women in her village together and explained to them the reasons for, and benefits of, recharging the Damthariya. The women then went to work, digging a trench uphill from the spring. They even put in a check dam to prevent siltation, taking turns to clean the entire system.

“The families here are mainly farmers who also own livestock,” says Ms Rana. “Earlier the water in the spring was a trickle, so my family had to depend entirely on the monsoon for agriculture. Now our recharged naula gives us enough water to grow our own vegetables at home. It has done wonders for my household budget and every woman in my village will tell you the same.”

Although primarily a funder, the Eicher Group Foundation has been a part of the discussions related to the programme, and it has been involved on other fronts as well. “If we need to work on some new technology, they are part of the ideation and deliberation process, even though the design of the initiative is ours,” says Mr Waghela. “We look to them to go beyond funding and become co-creators in our springshed management programme, and eventually become an equal stakeholder in the implementation process.”

More people such as Anuj Rana, president of the Ghoda WUG, stand to gain when that comes to be. “Our bawdi serves 83 families, or about 300-350 people,” he says. “Today, after it has been recharged, if we take out 10 or even 15 buckets the water level is restored within 30 minutes. It’s almost like a never-ending source of water.”

Vimla Devi Rana has taken ownership of the springshed project in her village of Chumau in Uttarakhand’s Almora district