Noora walks past the Astan Nag, a local spring located in Burzhama area of Srinagar in Kashmir. She pauses for a while and starts walking towards the spring. Visiting it is a daily routine. “Its name is enough to define the sacredness of this spring,” she says while drinking a handful of water. Astan means shrine, and Nag refers to spring. Noora is among many in this area who still prefer spring water for drinking, over the water supplied to their homes.
Astan Nag is one of the 258 springs in the Kashmir valley that have been sampled by scientists at the Department of Environmental Science, the University of Kashmir, in a new study. According to their 2022 study, 87% of the springs have excellent to good water quality and can be used for drinking without any treatment, besides other domestic use.
It also revealed that the springs have reasonably large potential to meet the rising demands of the growing population in the region. However, the study also points out that human-induced activities such as “large-scale land use changes, massive deforestation in catchment areas, and infrastructural development besides climate change” threaten the springs in the valley.
The authors recommend that spring water sources in the Kashmir valley should be monitored and assessed continuously for “proper management of these indispensable natural resources in the context of climate change.”
The scientists tested the water quality of 258 springs from the Kashmir valley. The results show that 39.5% of the springs have excellent water quality, 47.7% have good water, 5% have poor water, 1.6% have very-poor water, and 6.2% of the springs have water totally unfit for drinking purposes.
The water quality in the majority (87%) of the springs “range from excellent to good and can be used for drinking without any treatment”. However, due to the valley’s limestone-rich lithology, worries about the springs along the middle and southern portions of Kashmir being alkaline have also been raised in the study.
Due to the mixing of inorganic fertilisers and residential sewage from nearby catchment regions, some springs in Kupwara and Baramulla districts were found to be acidic. According to the analysis, high levels of sulphates and nitrates in the spring waters pointed to soil and agricultural field runoff, septic tank leaks, surface drain leaks, and domestic sewage polluting the water.
Furthermore, the study also revealed that rising sodium and potassium levels in the springs in Kupwara region are a sign of increasing human activity. The potential secondary causes of higher potassium concentrations along the central and southern coasts are soil modifications brought on by horticultural and agricultural practices.
According to Sami Ullah Bhat, who co-authored this study, the parameters they used to define water quality are based on the World Health Organization’s standards. Based on the guidelines, they determined whether water quality was excellent, good, poor or bad. Various physical, chemical, and biological (coliform) characteristics of spring waters were related to the standards of drinking water quality set by the World Health Organization.
The potential resources
Kashmir is home to numerous springs and spring-fed streams. A large part of the society, particularly those living in rural and backward areas, depends on spring water. Among many springs, Pal Bagh Nag, is one such spring located in Batpora area of Srinagar, where locals still use the spring water in different activities.
Pal Bagh was also sampled by the University of Kashmir scientists in their study. Locals use its water for washing clothes to drinking. Although the stagnant water of this spring is dotted with chinar leaves and insects, the running water outlet still looks clear.
Mohd Amin Bhat, a local living within walking distance from the spring, is very disturbed by its current state. “When I was young, the whole locality would use this spring water for drinking purposes. The water was so clear that one could see their mirror image in it. The state of this spring is very disturbing. If you look around, people dump garbage and polythene into it. I don’t drink its water now, but sometimes I come here to wash my hands and face,” Bhat says.
Study co-author Sami Ullah Bhat says many springs have vanished or become seasonal.
“Many examples are available throughout the length and breadth of Kashmir. I have examples from my village (Kokergund Yaripora Kulgam) where I could see five-six springs that used to be there 30 years ago, but they have completely vanished now,” said Sami Ullah.
Climate change has impacted the Kashmir valley. According to a 2019 study, the Kashmir valley has seen an increase in average temperatures by 0.8 degrees Celsius from 1980 to 2016, while the precipitation has significantly decreased. Due to less rainfall, the valley’s water table has decreased considerably.
“The water level in springs is directly proportional to the precipitation level,” says Summaira Shafi, an associate professor at Government College for Women, Srinagar.
Although human activities directly affect the quality of spring water in Kashmir, in a 2018 study, it was found that 30 sampled springs of Hazratbal tehsil have excellent to very good water quality. The results were based on the water quality index.
Astan Nag and Pal Bagh Nag, are both part of the sampled springs in the 2018 study, also co-authored by Sami Ullah Bhat.
“The water in this spring is still suitable for drinking. If the authorities give proper attention towards conserving this spring, we don’t need to rely on any other water source,” said a shopkeeper residing opposite the Pal Bagh Nag.
Beliefs help in water conservation
After Noora drank water from the spring, she went towards the shrine behind the spring. Most people of the valley believe spring water is the purest form of water due to a spiritual connection with the shrines.
Noora believes that the shrine and spring are interconnected. “It is called Astan Nag because it is very sacred, just like the shrine,” she says while looking towards the shrine’s dome.
The sacred springs and people enjoy a symbiotic relationship. While the springs provide people with drinking water and water for other activities, and in return, they keep the springs clean and help in their conservation.
In Bumbrath village of Kulgam district, people depend solely on a local spring. “We have tap connections in our village, but most of the time, we are facing a shortage. So, the spring becomes our last option to get water,” said Peer Faisal, an undergraduate student.
According to Faisal, Bumbrath’s residents use spring water for drinking, washing clothes and utensils and sometimes even bathing. He further added that to reduce the impact of human activities on the spring, the local communities have constructed a concrete structure around the spring, and no one is allowed to go inside the point of origin of the spring.
In the same district, there is another spring known as Kheh Nag. According to the local communities of Kheh area, the spring has various medicinal values. “This is a very sacred spring. This is the place which has connections to Sufi saints,” said a resident. The water of this spring is only used for drinking purposes.
“People believing spring water is a divine blessing is a good sign. It is essential for the conservation of these springs. A large section of people in this area is illiterate. It also includes the women, who are the major beneficiaries of spring water. They use it for drinking and other domestic purposes. It isn’t easy to make them understand what conservation and management of springs mean. But due to this belief, they not only keep the springs clean but also teach others the same,” said Bashir Ahmad, who resides near the spring in Bumbrath.
Springs and their distribution
The springs of the valley are located in rural, urban and forest areas. In the Srinagar district, some springs come under the Public Health Engineering department, and some are looked after by the forest department while others by the Jammu and Kashmir Lakes Conservation and Management Authority.
According to a high-ranking official at the Lakes Conservation and Management Authority, the authority has restored around 50 springs around the peripheries of Dal lake. “We don’t have control over all the springs. However, those falling under our jurisdiction, we have cleaned some of them,” the official said, requesting anonymity.
Another official from the same department said that they have only renovated some of the springs. The renovation included fencing and building closed structures around them. “We only clean the springs if local communities ask us to do so. That’s all we are doing for spring conservation as of now.” the official said. “The PHE department takes over some springs, and they also do the same,” the official added.
According to the Deputy Commissioner of Srinagar, Mohammad Aijaz Asad, 75 springs/ponds have been rejuvenated under the Mission Amrit Sarovar.
In the changing global scenario, where water scarcity is increasing daily, springs can prove to be an alternative source of water. “If we can keep a check on carbon emissions and indulge in more afforestation, we can receive a good amount of rainfall, which will eventually result in a high water table,” said Summaira Shafi. “Spring water is the purest form of water, and by conserving them and with proper management, we can tackle the problem of water scarcity due to climate change,” she added.
This article was first published on Mongabay.