The population of Mundaghat village in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh has come down to half of what it was a decade ago. There were nearly 500 people living in the village in 2010, now the number is reduced to 250, claimed Sita Ram, a retired water board employee. The cause: springs dying.

Across Himachal Pradesh, people have started migrating from villages towards cities. Even the elderly do not want their children to stay back. Gopi Devi, a resident of Bhalech village in Shimla district, has sent her grandchildren for higher education to Delhi and wants them to settle there.

Devi says that agriculture, which is their main source of income, is dwindling due to springs dying and the resultant unavailability of water. “Forget water for agriculture, we have to bring drinking water by walking 5 km-7 km sometimes,” she explained. “All our springs have dried up. Decrease in rainfall and snowfall has led to water scarcity. There is no future for our children here.”

Nearly 90% of people in Himachal Pradesh live in villages and rely on agriculture. According to a survey by the Indian Institute of Technology, Mandi, 95% of farmers in the Kullu district reported insufficient water to irrigate crops.

Disappearing water sources

Manshi Asher, co-founder, Himdhara Collective, said, “Springs are one of the major sources of water in mountainous regions.”

“The people, especially in rural areas, rely on these traditional water sources for drinking and irrigation,” Asher said. “But now, more than 70% of springs are dead and others have become seasonal, which has resulted in an acute water shortage in Himachal villages.”

According to the government think tank NITI Aayog, there is increasing evidence that springs are drying up or their discharge is reducing throughout the Indian Himalayan region. It is estimated that half of the springs in the region have dried up.

A directory of water resources claims that there are nearly 10,512 traditional water sources in Himachal villages. But the State Council for Science, Technology and Environment found only 30.41% of water sources recharging properly while 69.59% of sources are nearly going to dry in near future, added the directory.

Renu Lata, a scientist at the GB Pant National Research Institute of Himalayan Environment and Sustainable Development believes that climate change and massive human interference like big infrastructure projects and deforestation are responsible for springs dying in the state.

According to the Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme report of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, mountain springs play an important hydrological role in generating streamflow for non-glaciated catchments and in maintaining winter and dry-season flows across numerous Hindu Kush Himalaya basins.

One of the many springs that have dried up in Himachal Pradesh. Photo credit: Kapil Kajal

“Springs are the primary water source for rural households in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. In the Indian Himalayas, 64% of irrigated areas are fed by springs. Due to factors related to anthropogenic impacts such as deforestation, grazing, exploitative land use resulting in soil erosion and climate change, springs fed during the monsoon by groundwater or underground aquifers are reported to be drying up and threatening whole ways of life for local communities in most parts of the mid-hills of the region,” the report added.

AK Mahajan, the Dean of the School of Life Sciences, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, said, “Water streams and springs are decreasing at a rapid pace in Himachal.”

“This is less due to climate change and more due to anthropogenic activities,” Mahajan said. “Whenever you occupy the bed of a stream, the stream dies.”

“We are making buildings, roads and dams, which are taking over the stream bed,” he added. “Most of the land in Himachal Pradesh is considered shamlat (common land owned by villages) land. Whenever you consider land as shamlat land, it gets occupied.” Numerous cases of illegal land encroachment support his contention.

Climate change impact

Bhoop Singh, a farmer in Shilon Bagh village of Shimla district, said that earlier gentle rainfall used to continue for weeks and kept water in springs recharged. Now, the intensity of rainfall has increased, so that in just hours the village is flooded, and the water moves downstream rapidly. The other result: springs dying quickly.

“Now there is either flood in the monsoon or drought in the entire year,” Singh added. “My apple and cauliflower crops get damaged every year. The snowfall has also decreased from 5 feet to 2 feet. Snowfall days are also reduced.”

According to the India Meteorological Department, in the past 30 years (1989–2018), the average annual rainfall in Himachal has not changed significantly but the average frequency of rainy and snowfall days has significantly decreased and the frequency of dry days has increased due to climate change.

Partik Kumar, Coordinator of Revitalising Rainfed Agriculture Network in Himachal Pradesh, said, “The rainwater finds its way to underground caves called aquifers in which water gets stored.”

“An aquifer has a recharge area where water can seep into the ground and refill it,” Kumar said. “Springs are created when holes are created in the aquifer and water comes out which forms the spring run.”

Prolonged dry spells, due to climate change, gave only a limited time for water to percolate into the aquifers, he explained. This has led to high runoff, little recharge and springs dying.

Infrastructure projects

Not everything is due to climate change, though. Kumar explained that Himachal Pradesh is experiencing a huge infrastructure boom. Until 2014, the length of National Highways in the state was 2,196 km. This increased to 2,642 km by 2018, and another 4,312 km of new national highways have been approved.

A report by the Himdhara Collective found that Himachal has 813 large, medium and small hydroelectric power plants, with 53 more planned. This large-scale construction, whether of highways or dams, involves a great deal of blasting, impacting the delicate geology of the region. The impact on the subsurface arrangement of rocks, through which springs are both recharged and flow, is immense.

Asher adds that hydropower plants are diverting water from stream beds, depriving the soil of means of water recharge, and debris from construction is often dumped into streams, inhibiting water flow.

Construction of a four-lane highway between Shimla and Solan in Himachal Pradesh. The method ruins water channels underground and springs go dry. Photo credit: Kapil Kajal

Deforestation and huge pine plantations are also contributing to the groundwater problem, said Kulbhushan Upmanyu, a veteran environmentalist. The Himachal Pradesh forest department aims to have at least 50% of its area under forest cover, but the forest cover is only 27.72% out of which pine plantation is more than 17%.

“Over the years, trees have been cut in the name of development and single varieties like pine given preference,” said Upmanyu. “Pine is highly water-intensive, and its fallen leaves create hindrance to the survival and regeneration of vegetable land cover.” This stops water from percolating into the ground, he explained, and “helps high-intensity rainfall to flow heavily downwards resulting in landslides and flash floods”. Yet another cause of springs dying.

SS Samant, the director of the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education, Himalayan Forest Research Institute, Shimla, said, “Forests are gateways to water recharge and maintaining a good water flow in streams and springs of Himachal Pradesh. But the people are rapidly cutting down the forests in the state.”

“Due to deforestation, the perennial water sources like streams and springs, which are indigenous to Himachal, most are either dead or the water recharge is very less,” Samant said. Again, a reason for springs dying.

A pine plantation in Himachal Pradesh. Photo credit: Kapil Kajal

The People’s Science Institute is currently reviving 45 springs in Himachal Pradesh, said, Debashish Sen, its director. He added, “The situation in Himachal Pradesh is bad. It is as bad in Uttarakhand, but in Uttarakhand, there are many NGOs like ours, Chirag, CEDAR and Himmotthan, which are working on the revival of springs.”

Kumar said, “There are two main reasons why the spring revival work in Himachal is not as active as Uttarakhand.”

“The first is the funding issue,” Kumar said. “Himachal is considered a developed state. It scores well in self-development goals as well. In Uttarakhand, there are many NGOs getting funds under corporate social responsibility from philanthropists. These philanthropists do not donate to Himachal Pradesh.”

However, the government of Himachal Pradesh claims to have started many schemes to rejuvenate water sources in the state. Suresh C Attri, Principal Scientific Officer, Department of Environment, Himachal Pradesh, blamed everything on climate change.

He said, “Due to climate change, the water we used to get throughout the year has now been limited to a few months. This changed the crop harvesting period in the state. We are training farmers on how to live with this change. We have also initiated a Rs 3,000-crore project to provide water for irrigation. In Parvat Dhara project, we have been specifically focussing on rejuvenation of water sources.”

Attri, however, refused to accept that the state is going through a drought and flood situation and denied anything happening to water sources because of development activities. He maintained that everything is happening because of “climate change which is a global phenomenon” and termed development necessary for the state which he said they have been “developing sustainably”.

Kumar, on the other hand, said that the government is overlooking hydrology and just making surface interventions without any consultation with residents. The focus is on providing surface water through lifts or pipes with complete exclusion of springs being used as water sources, he added.

“The current investment is going into the renovation of the source instead of rejuvenation,” added Kumar. “NITI Aayog released an inventory on spring revival in 2018. In 2019, a spring framework had been released by the Ministry of Jal Shakti. Even after this, all things are largely on paper.”

Asher said, “Springs and rivers enjoy a very close relationship. Any change in spring hydrology has clear ramifications on river hydrology.”

“Depleting the springs means depleting the water downstream as well,” Asher said. “The water needs of North India including the capital Delhi and further of Pakistan is met by rivers that originate from Himachal Pradesh such as Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Yamuna and Chenab. If the status quo continues, there will be a huge water shortage not only in Himachal Pradesh but also in entire North India.”

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.