Conserving Springs and its Significance for Water Security in Himalayas

Nawraj Pradhan,Associate Coordinator, KSLCDI, ICIMOD, Kathmandu

Water is a primary life-giving resource, and its availability is an essential component in socioeconomic development and poverty reduction (UNESCO-WWAP 2006). The Himalayas are the source of countless perennial rivers, but paradoxically a substantial number of mountain populations largely depend on spring water for their sustenance. This is partly because an overwhelmingly high proportion of rainfall occurs during the monsoon season, and natural groundwater recharge is hampered by high levels of surface runoff (Tambe et al. 2012). In many parts of the Himalayas, springs fed during the monsoon by groundwater or underground aquifers are now drying up, threatening a whole way of life for local communities. There are an estimated 2 million springs across the Himalayas, and over 90% of the population living in the region are directly dependent on these resources. Springs are a safe source of drinking water for rural and urban communities. With limited rainfall and increasing population, there is an ever increasing demand for spring water in the Himalayas. Changing land use, ecological degradation, exploitation, and climate change are adversely affecting spring flow. Efforts to protect these vital resources can help ensure water security and improve the management of land and water resources. There is, however, a significant data gap in the understanding of spring water flow dynamics, watershed related linkages, characteristics of local springs, and the factors leading to their decline in the Himalayan region. In view of the massive earthquake that struck Nepal on 25 April 2015, there have been direct observations from the field of the impacts on hydrogeology and the movement of groundwater. In some cases after the earthquake existing springs have increased water discharge, other springs have dried, and new springs have emerged in earthquake-affected areas. Springs and their significance for water security in the Himalayas remain poorly understood, as do the livelihood implications of changes, and springs are generally overlooked in matters of administration and conservation. In recent times, the concept of ‘springshed’ management is gaining significance and could add value and an important layer to conventional ‘watershed’ management approaches.
Watershed development, customary management, and traditions of water use are not new concepts; history shows that the people in the Himalayas have adapted by either living along river banks or by harvesting, storing, and managing rainfall, runoff, and stream flows. Water management in mountain regions are managed at the community level, relying upon diverse, imaginative, and effective methods for harvesting rainwater in tanks, water rationing in arid regions, and small underground storage structures in the hills. Governments in the region have supported various programs on traditional water management that focus on micro-watersheds as the basis of planning and interventions. These are usually community-based projects for micro-watershed development. However, it is evident that emphasis is given to rural development through these programmes rather than to watersheds or water resources management. Water is usually used as an entry point for rural development and then the extra water available is mostly utilized for irrigation at the cost of drinking water needs, leading to low storage. 
Conventional approaches of watershed management usually focus on building structures to reduce runoff using surface hydrology, and that usually take the ridge to valley approach, but geological parameters and understanding of groundwater flow, which is key to spring management, are usually missing. There is a lot of focus on development and less on sustainable management, and understanding springwater storage and movement (hydrogeology) which is backed by conservation programs, law and policy on springs could be applied in the larger watershed context. 
Property rights regimes play an important role in determining the extent of access that individuals and communities exercise over natural resources. By granting access to the use of a resource without any consideration for its sustainable and prudent use, existing property rights regimes can threaten the long-term sustainability of the resource. This has been well illustrated in the case of groundwater, which is treated as a privately owned resource as a result of which it has suffered overexploitation in many parts of the world (Bhatia, 1992; Dubash, 2007). Due to the lack of understanding springs and groundwater resources, private holdings and enclosing water are serious concerns related to water security and water use rights in the Himalayan context. In most customary traditions on land and water use, the right to use water has been dependent on the use or ownership of land (Hodgson, 2004). The riparian law of water rights operational in the Himalayan countries is, for instance, dependent on the ownership or use of land adjoining rivers, streams, and springs. Similarly, rights to the use of spring water are linked to the use or ownership of land under which it is located. There are a misconceptions about springwater as free source and that the supply is unlimited without having an in depth understanding of groundwater recharge processes. In the context of springs, the current perception of springwater use is linked to property rights, private property resources and land use in the sense of ‘my land my source’. A paradigm shift is needed from development to management of groundwater, and the approach should shift from private to common pool resources to have a direct link between livelihoods, water security, and sanitation. 
Springshed management looks into community level water management systems and has the potential to change the perception of springs from a ‘source’ to a ‘resource’. There is a need to look into issues of equity, demand and supply, rights of landless people, community participation, and the sustainable use of water. A number of good examples exist for managing natural resources at the local level such as ‘community forestry user groups’ in Nepal and ‘van panchayats’ in India. Similar models could be adopted to regulate springs and groundwater use through institutional provisions such as ‘springwater user groups’. In order to make local spring and groundwater management institutions more effective, there is an urgent need to define water rights. Formal as well as informal institutions need to take part in this. The establishment of tradable private property rights in springwater would be a major institutional reform. This could also empower communities to establish rights over the water they manage and address the issues of efficiency, equity, and sustainability.
Many aspects of spring hydrogeology are still poorly understood, as are social aspects related to the use of spring and groundwater. Aquifers need to be considered as an integral part of ecosystem as it helps in the maintenance of springshed in natural settings as well as human manipulated situations. A combination of advanced scientific methods and social engineering studies need to be carried out at the micro-watershed level to establish strong linkages between groundwater flows (hydrogeology), recharge areas, and springs distribution and patterns based on the rock types and geology. 
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author. 
Nawraj can be reached at 
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