Collective action is needed to revive dying "lifeline" springs in Nepal

by Alina Paul-Bossuet | Water, Land and Ecosystems, CGIAR
Monday, 27 March 2017 13:49 GMT

A woman fills her pot with water after pulling it out from an almost dried well in Bhaktapur April 4, 2013. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

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The Dailekh community shows how drying springs might be protected in water-short Nepal

Ganga Sarki, from Padukasthan village located in the Dailekh district in Nepal's mid-hills, fills her 'gagri' (water pot) from the low discharge spring in Badrukh Mool. She is worried about water access for her community.

“It takes longer to fill up our gagris and some springs have dried up. Our lives here depend on springs and I don’t know how we could carry on if water stops flowing from our hills,” she said. Ganga’s concerns reflect what researchers have observed over the last decade.

Nepal’s mid-hills are like natural water towers for the local population, storing water during the monsoon from April to August, and releasing it through numerous springs during the 7-8 month dry season. It is estimated that 4 to 5 million springs in the Hindu Kush Himalayas are the primary water source 40-50 million people in the region. But these springs are drying up because of climate change as well as other socio-economic, demographic and land use changes.

Water, Land and Ecosystems research into action project “Multiple approaches to solving water problems in mid hills and Terai in Nepal and India” led by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), has been working with women and men in Dailekh in western Nepal and Sindhupalchowk in eastern Nepal, to understand the underground spring water dynamics and find ways to revive these life-saving springs.

Dailekh’s water scarcity situation is dire and affects local development and the community’s social fabric. Data suggest that 78 percent of households collect far less than 40 litres per capita per day (which is Nepal’s minimum requirement stated by the government), even dropping down to 11 litres in the dry season. Women are at the forefront of this water crisis as 8 out of 10 who come to fetch water are women. Water needs include drinking, household uses like washing clothes and dishes, sanitation, religious rituals, and for livestock and homestead irrigation. 

Rapid social and economic changes speed up the spring drying process

The change of rainfall patterns due to climate change has affected spring recharge dynamics, yet spring drying up is also explained by change of land use and water use practices and community organisation. The people of Dailekh used to dig storage ponds for buffalo upkeep but such practices have died out leaving many ponds filled up with silt. Seeing that less water can now be harvested during monsoon time, people are beginning to realize their role in recharging the mountain aquifers.

In some places like Sindhupalchowk, more water is withdrawn by a minority of wealthier families as hand collection is gradually being replaced by the use of PVC pipes and motor pumps, but in places like Dailekh, there is no piped infrastructure and people still come to the spring source to collect water.  Natural disasters have also had an impact on springs drying up. The 2015 earthquake disturbed the water recharge of some springs like Birta-ko-Dhara  in Sindhupalchowlk, which used to flow all year round but now runs dry shortly after the end of rainy season.

However, things can be put right. The Dailekh two year spring revival experience will show how the situation can be reversed through local capacity development and by mobilizing the villagers to revive traditional water harvesting and collection schemes.

 A participatory and integrated approach to revive springs

 WLE has developed an 8 step methodology combining advanced hydrology science with community engagement and social engineering. After mapping existing springs with the local population, experts have trained local volunteers to be ‘para- hydrologists’ and ‘springshed implementers’, to monitor rainfall with low cost rain gauges, and spring discharge throughout the year so that particularly vulnerable springs can be revived. This helps identify recharge areas and ensure that recharge activities are done in the designated recharge areas for maximum impact.  This information is now available on a spring portal developed by ICIMOD.

In Dailekh, researchers worked together with the villagers to design local plans for spring revival at micro spring shed level for five springs. Potential water conservation areas (between 1 and 8 hectares depending on sites) were mapped and a set of spring recharge measures were planned with the villagers. For example, they were advised to build earth bunds planted with soil binding and forage providing Napier grass, along the margins of terraced gardens. Levelling terraces inwards also helps improve underground water recharge.

This participatory and integrated approach successfully engaged the Dailekh community and a tangible and visible impact is expected by the middle of this year. The project is continuously monitoring discharge of these springs and it is expected that impacts will be evident after the 2017 monsoon season.

The spring revival methodology has the potential to be scaled up throughout the Hindu Kush Himalayas, from Afghanistan all the way to Myanmar where springs have also been drying out. This methodology is now deployed by ICIMOD and its partners in various locations of India and Nepal like the HI-AWARE initiative and Kailash Sacred Landscape Initiative of ICIMOD.