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Springs are drying up across the Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH). This is a cause for serious concern for mountain communities whose lives and livelihoods depend on spring water.
In 2018, half of the estimated three million springs in the Indian Himalayan region had either dried up or had reduced flows, as reported by the country’s apex policy-making body, NITI Aayog. About 35 per cent of 6,555 water sources in Bhutan were drying up, a recent assessment found.
This is also the case in Nepal, where over the past 10 years, approximately 20 per cent of springs have dried and 50 per cent of springs have experienced a decrease in spring flow. This is particularly acute, as an estimated 10 million people in Nepal depend on spring water for drinking, household use and minor irrigation.
Governments must invest in promoting science-based and socially inclusive management of springs in the hills and mountains of the HKH. This public investment in anticipatory adaptation is necessary to build resilience against climate change and other evolving threats to water security in these areas.
Hard engineering and hubris
The standard approach to addressing water insecurity in hill and mountain settlements is to tap a nearby source and deliver it to users. This hard-engineering approach, which, although well intentioned, is unsustainable in a context where water sources are drying up everywhere.
Water projects centred on only delivering engineering solutions are concerned about the source, not the resource. Typically, as a project becomes inadequate or begins to fail, the scale of the response, both in terms of cost and engineering, is raised.
As a result, growing urban centres in the hills and mountains are laying disproportionate claims on water resources from their hinterland, creating what has been described as “rings of dryness” around them. This is typical of a hard-engineering approach, where tapping water from distant sources is justified by demand and the disproportionate heft of urban power centres.
In contrast, the springshed management approach focuses on resource sustainability and community stewardship, keeping in mind growing water needs and even anticipating disputes around future water needs.
Springshed management involves not just the management of the sources (springs) but also the recharge area, through which water infiltrates and reaches the aquifers, where groundwater is stored and emerges at the surface as a spring.
However, not all big hill and mountain towns can be supported through nature-based solutions like spring revival. For instance, a large city like Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, which sits in a bowl-shaped valley, would continue to be dependent on inter-basin transfers to meet its needs.
However, several areas along the valley rim could be self-sufficient with water from springs in the adjoining hills and decouple from the main supply systems, reducing overall demand.
Such large investments must also be viewed against the backdrop of demographic change in the hills and mountains across the region. As mountain settlements become increasingly depopulated due to outmigration to larger urban centres within the same countries or to other countries across the region and globally, we need to revisit the scale and viability of engineering projects.
In this context, an appropriately scaled nature-based solution like spring revival is a better investment of public resources, with a clear restoration plan and the necessary infrastructure to deliver sufficient safe water for household use and minor irrigation, in a way that reduces the time and effort needed for the communities to collect and use it.
Investing for multiple benefits
Investing in spring revival as a nature-based solution not only improves local water security, but it also delivers important co-benefits. Landscape restoration, conservation of aquatic and riverine biodiversity, contributions to streamflow in non-glaciated catchments, (that is, areas of land where runoff, or water flow, doesn’t come from glacier meltwater) and sustaining winter and dry season flows across numerous river basins of the HKH are some of them.
Combining spring revival with already-built infrastructure could potentially restore the value of dead investments in cases where the source has been degraded. This could prevent putting good money after bad investment and cut government spending, enabling investment in other critical infrastructure.
Community-based spring revival could also guard against maladaptation, since it involves groundwork and community mobilisation, blending science with local knowledge and building inclusive community institutions rather than a one-off project that only focuses on an engineering solution and distorts local understanding of resource availability.
For instance, maladaptation here could refer to an increase in cultivating water-intensive crops just because a project is delivering water. At the landscape level, investments in spring revival can bring communities together in complex geographies, such as when one community’s spring recharge area is located within another community’s land or forest.
Such collective action can forge landscape-level conservation partnerships and yield important conservation outcomes.
Investing in community agency
To address the issue of water stress due to the drying up of springs across the mid hills and mountains of the HKH, we have collaborated with partners to revive springs and advance springshed management based on a six-step protocol that combines hydrogeology (geology that deals with underground or surface waters) with social science methods and community-empowering participatory action research.
There are three aspects of this work aimed at building autonomous water security in hill and mountain settlements. The first is knowledge co-creation, which involves communities working with interdisciplinary teams of hydrogeologists, social scientists and foresters. They also work with experts in watersheds — the area of land that drains water into a specific waterbody.
Village Water Security Plans are co-designed using participatory tools, combining traditional knowledge with hydrogeology, identifying recharge areas for restoration and facilitating cooperation among communities inhabiting the springshed area.
The second aspect is the creation of a cadre of ‘para-hydrologists’ from within the communities who, although not formally trained in hydrology, receive training in monitoring and collecting data on spring flows and on mobilising communities to take part in activities designed to revive groundwater or springs.
Such activities include springshed restoration, including physical works like digging trenches or afforestation or developing measures or structures that store and buffer rainwater.
The third focuses on building water user groups, village water security plans and embedding springshed management within local institutions and plans that is inclusive — ensuring that women and socially marginalised groups participate in and have a say in spring revival and water use.
The results of our work with partners in Bhutan, India and Nepal show improved spring flow, demonstrating an inclusive and sustainable model that can be upscaled to enhance water security across the HKH.
Alternative hard engineering solutions are often made and influenced by narrow interests and political considerations; as such, they undermine the agency and decisions of local communities.
A community-based approach to springshed management reduces the chances of ‘elite capture’, that is, where public resources are biased for the benefit of a few individuals of superior social status in detriment to the welfare of the larger population and socially marginalised groups are excluded from benefits.
By supporting collective action, spring revival as a nature-based solution can improve local resource conditions, resilience and social cohesion within the community.
Investing in anticipatory adaptation
Our research shows that spring revival enhances water access, improves livelihoods and contributes to countries achieving several Sustainable Development Goals.
While dry springs and water stress receive attention and investment, our focus needs to quickly shift from source management to resource management with simple, low-cost, nature-based solutions instead of unsustainable and high-cost engineering solutions.
Many springs are drying up or becoming seasonal, indicating widespread water stress in the not-so-distant future if we do not act now. This is an impending crisis, so instead of resorting to quick technical fixes, we must invest in nature for long-term water security.