Nearly every morning, Ratna Mangar, a young woman from Gupti village in Sumbuk block of South Sikkim district, a rain shadow in the Himalayan state, climbs up the hillsides near her home and digs trenches. “The trenches are a way of ensuring our water security during the summer months when we face acute shortage, and have to walk long distances to fetch drinking water,” Mangar explained.

Each trench is about six feet across and over two feet deep. “A series of trenches along hill slopes hold rainwater and recharge our aquifers which revive our dhara and khola,” Mangar said, using the local terms for “natural spring” and “stream”.

Sumbuk is one of many areas in Sikkim where villagers are working with the administration to rejuvenate their dhara. As part of the Sikkim government’s Dhara Vikas programme, launched in 2008-’09, the Rural Management and Development department has so far mapped 704 springs for rejuvenation in the state. “Traditionally, villages in Sikkim are dependent on springs to meet their water needs,” said Sarika Pradhan, the department’s additional secretary. “But in the last few decades, several springs have either dried up or their discharges have reduced, causing acute water scarcity in summer months.”

The state is using central funds provided under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to pay daily wages to the villagers it has involved in the rejuvenation work. “So far, we have ‘treated’ over 637 hectares of recharge area, revived 54 springs and five lakes, of which two are perennial lakes,” Sarika Pradhan said. “However, we need to incorporate the science of hydrogeology in the programme for which we are seeking guidance from experts.”

'A series of trenches along hill slopes hold rainwater and recharge our aquifers which revive our dhara and khola,' says Ratna Mangar. Photo credit: Nidhi Jamwal

Disappearing springs

In Sikkim, over 80% of the rural households depend on dhara for drinking water. Two of the state’s four districts, West Sikkim and South Sikkim, are rain shadow and, thus, drought prone. “After monsoon, there is a long queue at our spring to collect water,” said Rita Rai, a resident of Gupti. “In April and May, we have to wait for two to three hours to fill a pot of water.”

According to Tej Maya Sharma, her Melli Dara village in Sumbuk would take their drinking water entirely from a nearby dhara until about two decades ago. “But the dhara dried up and now our only source of drinking water is Khani khola,” she said, referring to a small tributary of the Teesta river. Water from the stream is piped to the village and stored in a tank, from where it is distributed to households.

Sikkim’s dhara are drying up because, according to a 2012 report released by the state government, their catchment areas have been negatively affected by growing population, topsoil erosion, erratic rainfall, deforestation, forest fires and road building.

A recent report by the NITI Aayog states that nearly 30% of the springs in the Indian Himalayan region are drying while 50% are discharging less water than a few years ago.

'Our dhara dried up and now our only source of drinking water is Khani khola,' says Tej Maya Sharma. Photo credit: Nidhi Jamwal

Climate change effect

An analysis of rainfall data gathered by Sikkim’s Tadong meteorological station shows that in the two decades until 2010, rainfall declined by an average of 17.77 mm per year. This tallies with the India Meteorological Department’s 2013 monograph, which analysed state-wise weather data from 1951 to 2010 and found Sikkim had seen a decline in both winter rainfall and monsoon rainfall.

Spring discharge depends on both an area’s rainfall pattern and the characteristics of the recharge zone. In mountainous terrain, less than 15% of the rainwater percolates down and that is not enough to recharge springs. Hence the need for trenches to stop the run-off and increase percolation.

“Before carrying out springshed development work, it is important to identify the recharge zone of the groundwater system or aquifer which feeds each spring to ensure optimum infiltration of rainwater,” said Himanshu Kulkarni, executive director of the Advanced Centre for Water Resources Development and Management, Pune.

The centre, along with the People’s Science Institute, Dehradun, has helped train officials of the rural management department to undertake springshed development work across Sikkim. The work involves identifying spring catchment areas, mapping springs, developing village-level water plans, digging trenches.

Manisha Mangar, a resident of Lower Gupti, says Dhara Vikas has increased the flow in the spring which supplies water to her village. They now get water throughout the year. Photo credit: Nidhi Jamwal

Success stories

Melli Dara is Sikkim’s largest producer of poultry and dairy products with an annual turnover of Rs 17.5 crore. “Till 2010-’11, we had to buy water to run our dairy and poultry businesses,” said Yogmaya Devi, a resident.

In 2012, as part of Dhara Vikas, Dinesh Pradhan, block development officer of Sumbuk, roped in the villagers to carry out springshed development across 30 hectares of reserve forest near Melli Dara. The work helped increase the water flow in Khani khola, the only source of water for the residents.

Springshed development has also helped the people of Mungram in Sumbuk. “Digging of trenches has increased water flow in our dhara and khola, and we now have water throughout the year,” said Suren Mangar, a villager. “Last year, I grew 17 quintal cabbage and cauliflower using khola water for irrigation.”

According to Dinesh Pradhan, springshed development work has covered over 190 hectares of forest land in Sumbuk since 2009-’10. This year, they plan to cover another 90 hectares.

While field studies conducted by the Pune centre found that Dhara Vikas has benefited many villages, a recent study of springs in West Sikkim’s Deythang and South Sikkim’s Bikmat by researcher Uden L Bhutia of the non-profit Eco-Tourism and Conservation Society of Sikkim found spring discharges have slightly gone down between April 2016 and April 2018. The conflicting findings highlight the need for developing a more scientific approach to spring rejuvenation.

Name of spring  Discharge in March 2010
(In litres per minute)
Discharge in March 2010
(In litres per minute)
Increase in

Malagiri Dhara, Lungchok Kamarey, Sumbuk

7.5 15 2 times
Aitbarey Dhara, Deythang, Kaluk 2 6 3 times

Dokung Dhara, Takuthang, Kaluk

8 30 3.5 times

Nunthaley Dhara, Deythang, Kaluk

2 10 5 times

Kharkharey Dhara, Deythang, Kaluk

1 5 5 times

Chukudum Dhara, Kewzing Bakhim, Ravangla

45 60 1.3 times
Source: Advanced Centre for Water Resources Development and Management, Pune.

Resolving conflict

Kulkarni noted that springshed development is not just digging trenches; it is a systematic process of mobilising communities and undertaking scientific investigation to help improve decision-making and action. “Demystifying [hydrogeological] science is a key step in this process,” he added. “Unless the state government sets aside resources to understand this science and carefully study each spring, exemplary work like Dhara Vikas will continue to receive flak.”

Asked about this, Sarika Pradhan said her department is already focusing on collecting real-time data on springs as well as on “scientific identification” of spring recharge zones. But a lot remains to be done.

This is not the only challenge, however, as conflicts over water have started to emerge. The state is seeking to establish village water security plan based on dhara and khola. There is a proposal to build a 50,000-litre tank supplied by a spring in Gupti. A similar plan exists for Melli Dara. But as upstream villages increasingly tap khola or dhara, protests by downstream villages have started to erupt. “A year ago, a water supply project worth Rs 1.5 crore to lift water from Hee khola had to be tweaked due to protests by downstream villagers,” said Dinesh Pradhan.

To prevent conflict, Lower Gupti village has devised an effective water distribution and management system. Once their spring goes dry around January, they use rainwater harvested in a cement tank for their drinking water needs until the southwest monsoon arrives. “Plastic pipes to carry water from the tank to home are not allowed,” said Rajendra Gurung, a villager. “Water has to be collected in pots and carried home. Each family pays Rs 120 per year towards the water cost.”

Kulkarni warns that water conflicts may increase. “That is why it’s important for the Sikkim government to revisit and strengthen Dhara Vikas by building stronger science and improve participation in and governance of springshed management activities,” he said. “Training, capacity building and developing village-level plans have to become a regular exercise.”

Trenches dug on forest land in Sumbuk capture the runoff to ensure enough water percolates down to recharge the springs. Photo credit: Nidhi Jamwal

Nidhi Jamwal is an independent journalist. This story was reported under the IHCAP-CMS Media Fellowship Program.