Re-Plan and Re-think Water Scarcity in Himalayas


   Image credits: Athar Parvaiz/IPS

By Sarvesh Kumar Shahi

WINTERS are at its peak in the northern region of India and the effects of climate change are being felt in the mountains too. According to an International study (Importance and vulnerability of the world’s water towers – published on December 09, 2019), 1.9 million people are at risk of water supply problems as mountain glaciers, snow-packs and alpine lakes are run down by global heating and rising demand. As a result, in northern India, falling snow levels and glacial retreat is impacting livelihoods and access to water.

As per NITI Aayog’s working group on “Inventory and Revival of Springs of Himalaya for Water Security” report of August 2018, half of the mountain springs in the Himalayan region are drying up. “Nearly 60% of low-discharge springs that provided water to small habitations in the Himalayan region have reported a clear decline during the last couple of decades,”.

Over a billion people across Asia rely on Himalayan water. There are five million springs in India, of which close to three million are in the Indian Himalayan Region – which is spread across 12 states and is home to over 50 million people. These springs are the primary source of water for rural households in the region and, for many, the only source. A number of urban communities too depend on these water bodies. The drying up of springs will affect the flow of these rivers. The drying springs will further add to the work burden of women since they are forced to manually carry water from springs below their village during the lean season. Destinations such as Shimla, Mussorie, Nainital and even Gangtok often face acute water crisis.

Indus is the most important and vulnerable “water zone” due to run-off from the Karakoram, Hindu Kush, Ladakh, and Himalayan mountain ranges, which flow downstream to a densely populated and intensively irrigated basin in Pakistan, India, China and Afghanistan.

Recently, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a membership Union composed of both government and civil society organisations, has taken an initiative to promote the significance of springs in the Indian Himalayan Region and undertook pilot to recharge and revive springs with the technical support of CHIRAG (rural development organization based in the Kumaun region of Uttarakhand in India) under the National Mission of Himalayan Studies (NMHS) supported project entitled ‘Coping with Uncertainties: Building Community Resilience and Ecosystem Based Adaptation to Climate Change in the Indian Himalayan Region’.

Recent decades have seen a drastic decline in snowfall, with glaciers across the Himalayas losing a total of 8 billion tons of ice every year. The ice on the mountain is getting smaller and summers are getting longer. There is less water.

Reduced snowfall and receding glaciers are a phenomenon impacting the whole of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region. A recent report of June 14, 2019 from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that in lower altitude mountainous regions such as Spiti, “glaciers will lose more than 80% of their current mass by 2100.” The report further predicted that even if global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as set out in the Paris Agreement, over one-third of glacial ice in the region will have disappeared by the end of the century, with the most negative scenarios in the eastern Himalaya pointing towards a near-total loss of glaciers.

In Ladakh, water shortages have already caused a few villages to migrate. The inhabitants of Kumik in Zanskar were forced to relocate in 2014 after the river which they depended on for water dried up. Agriculture is the main source of income here and If the situation continues then yes, there would be villages which would migrate out. The only temporary solution is pumping up river water and preventing run-off, however, it might not be a sustainable solution.

Shimla, the capital and the largest city in Himachal Pradesh and a tourist haven, is facing a water crisis of gigantic proportions. The crisis is especially acute in towns that bear the strength of summer tourist traffic, as well as towns that are in the path of religious pilgrimages and tourism. What used to be difficult to access locations are much easier to get to, and most of the existing infrastructure is not adequate to cope with this demand.

A new study by `Springer Nature’ on August 24, 2020, has revealed that glaciers in Kashmir have receded by 28 percent in the last four decades. The study used a series of satellite images (1980–2018) to determine the glacier health, which is critical for nurturing and sustaining the rivers that originate from the area. It has been found that glaciers have reduced from 101.73 km square in 1980 to 72.41 km square in 2018 showing a recession of about 28% during the last four decades. The findings of the study indicated that there is a strong influence on altitude, aspect, slope, and climate on glacier recession in the Kashmir Himalaya.
So, if the shrinking of glaciers continues in the future, it will adversely affect the availability of water in the valley, especially during the summers.

As far as government’s effort is concerned, in 2014, the National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Eco-System, under India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change, had suggested a state-wide programme for rejuvenation of Himalayan springs and protection of high-altitude lakes. It had also suggested creating an inventory of mountain springs—active and dormant—along with detailed geological mapping to identify the spring recharge zone.

“Pani Pahar- Waters of the Himalayas”, a collaborative research project and a curriculum has also been initiated between the University of Cambridge, The Centre for Ecology Development and Research in India (CEDAR) and South Asia Institute for Advanced Studies in Nepal (SIAS) for for students and teachers across India. This collaborative project explores the changing landscapes and escalating water crises of the Indian Himalayas.

The curriculum will help students understand water resources, sustainability, and how these are affected by climate change. The lessons have been planned in a way to help students reflect on and research the human causes of water scarcity and effects of environmental change of humans and our shared resources.

So, I personally feel that it is high time that these issues be communicated more widely. The broad objective should be to depict water through the landscape, from source to tap, and the really different communities that come into contact with it, take from it and modify it, in order to bring attention to long-term questions around the sustainability of water sources and their use in the Himalayas.

Remember, successful solutions almost always derive through community participation and stakeholder engagement. Solutions that come from a community perspective, for example, rejuvenation of springs (where communities are using some of their knowledge and coming together to do something collectively), always work.
Thus, Himalayan region has the diversity of these very productive natural landscapes. But if managed badly, they can become a curse.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

  • Sarvesh Kumar Shahi, Assistant Professor, School of Law, KIIT University, Bhubaneshwar, Odisha, India

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