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Water expert Aditi Mukherji: India’s drying Himalayan springs is a severe crisis

  • The Indian Himalaya has between 2-4 million Himalayan springs, and they are drying up
  • Mukherji is a coordinating lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report

The drying up of Himalayan springs is a severe crisis.
The drying up of Himalayan springs is a severe crisis.

In February, a landmark report on the effect of climate change on the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region, an area comprising 4.2 million sq. km and eight countries, sent shock waves through the world. The first comprehensive assessment of high Asia’s mountains and rivers, the report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (Icimod), an intergovernmental organization, made for grim reading. The part of the report that made headlines around the world was the finding that Himalayan glaciers were indeed in retreat, and, given the present levels of carbon emissions, the region could lose as much as 90% of its snow and ice by 2100. This would imperil mountain communities and the millions more downstream who depend on glacial-fed rivers like the Ganga for sustenance. Aditi Mukherji, 42, principal researcher at the International Water Management Institute, was a co-editor of the report, as well as the coordinating lead author of the water chapter. This looked at the state of freshwater and groundwater in the wake of climate change impacts on the HKH. The chapter also took a critical look at the disappearance of mountain springs, a situation that the report held was as serious as glacial retreat. She is currently the coordinating lead author of the water chapter of the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is due in 2021. In the wake of the annual UN World Water Day on 22 March, Lounge spoke to Mukherji on the challenges facing India’s Himalayan springs, the state of the country’s freshwater and groundwater and the urgent need for water-related policies that involve a bottom-up approach involving local communities. Edited excerpts:

Aditi Mukherji.
Aditi Mukherji.

What were your main learnings from working on the Icimod report?

I think my work for that report and also my cumulative experience so far is that while it is comparatively easy to understand what the problems are, the solutions are not easy; they have to be very context-specific. Secondly, solutions are rarely technical in nature. Yes, technology does play a role but that is only one side of the story. The other side of the story is really the right policy and institutional environment. The third thing is that successful solutions almost always derive through community participation and stakeholder engagement. Very rarely do top-down solutions work. For instance, proposals like the interlinking of rivers bring in more problems in their wake than they solve. On the other hand, 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, works.

You have researched India’s irrigation economy. How important is groundwater from this perspective?

Every Five-Year Plan, we put up more money for either building new canal infrastructure, or for rehabilitating the old ones. But if you look at the statistics, the majority, almost 60% of India’s irrigated area, is through private investments in the form of groundwater wells. We have 20 million such wells in our country. Compared to that, very negligible public investments are made regarding groundwater.

When I started working 20 years ago, the statistics were clear that the Green Revolution happened because farmers could access groundwater easily because of electricity policies, food procurement policies, etc. In the meantime, there has been a groundwater crisis. The fortunate part is that the intensive use of groundwater has made us food self-sufficient. The unfortunate part is that the use of groundwater isn’t sustainable everywhere.

How severe is the crisis of Himalayan springs drying up? Why are they important?

I think it is very severe and very under-reported. In each of the eight HKH countries that Icimod went for internal consultations, one of the topmost agendas was, how can we revive our drying springs? And it is important because very much like the glaciers, springs also provide baseflow to the rivers. So even in the context of glaciers melting and changes in the overall flow of the rivers, what might still sustain Himalayan rivers is groundwater. Springs are basically groundwater. Degradation of forests actually has been one of the main reasons for springs drying up, along with schemes like hydropower and construction of roads. These activities disturb the underlying geology. If you have a small aquifer and blasting work is going on, then the aquifer can get compacted and all the water can rush out at one go and the spring would dry.

There have been calls for an inventory of springs, including in the HKH report. How important is this?

Drying springs are a problem, but it’s impossible to quantify because there’s no inventory. I could not over-emphasize how important this would be. There are purely guess-based estimates by experts going around that we have between two-four million springs in the Indian Himalaya alone. While making a complete inventory of these is not an easy task, what I want to underline is that it is possible. Yes, they are in more inaccessible terrain in the mountains. Everything is harder in the mountains because of the terrain. For making such an inventory, you would require a lot of local knowledge. So I would imagine that involving local communities and institutions and NGOs and delegating some of the responsibilities to them would help make the creation of this inventory easier.

The Central Ground Water Board, which does a reasonably good assessment of India’s groundwater, never looked at the mountains because their definition said land with a slope of over 20 degrees is not considered suitable for groundwater. This definition has just been revised, so there will actually be assessment of groundwater in the Himalaya.

How do you rejuvenate springs that have dried out?

Springs can be rejuvenated by understanding local hydrogeology—in other words, by identifying where the recharge is taking place, and then undertaking water conservation and recharge work in those sites.

Traditionally, most water conservation work has taken a “watershed" approach, also called a “ridge to valley" approach. This is appropriate for surface water flow, as the surface water does indeed flow from ridge tops to rivers in valley bottoms. But when it comes to groundwater, this approach is not enough, as due to folds and faults in mountain geology, particularly in the Himalayas, water that falls on one side of the mountain can easily penetrate through the rock layers and emerge on the other side of the mountain as springs, if the underlying water-bearing rocks dip that way. So, very often, the recharge area of a spring on one side of the mountain can be on another side of the same mountain—and this calls for a valley-to-valley approach where water conservation work may need to be undertaken from one valley to the next and treat both sides of the hill/mountain. This calls for a paradigm shift away from a watershed to a springshed approach.

How will you be contributing to the IPCC AR6?

I’m the coordinating lead author for the water chapter in working group II, which is a working group on adaptation and vulnerability. The chapter has to look at the human impacts of climate change as it gets mediated through water—we would be looking at changes in temperature, rainfall and extreme events like floods and droughts. The overall consensus that human anthropogenic climate change is a reality, I think 99.99% of the scientist community and policymakers believe that. Now I think the main question is, what can we do about it?

Our water chapter will be more solution-focused. We are an interdisciplinary team and I think we would be focusing on, among other things, equity and access. Because we realize that climate change impacts are exacerbated due to existing inequality. How climate change impacts the global hydrological cycle and one of the parts of the storyline is also that while the impacts are global and regional, the solutions have to be local.

When one is looking at a broader view of freshwater in India, what kind of steps need to be taken?

We are still talking about quantity: whether we will have enough water for the future, etc. But we also need to focus on the water quality, which is just as important but does not get as much focus and attention as it needs. We also need to take a look at the toll climate change will take on natural resources. And we would have to ensure that everyone has access to water and no one is left behind.

These concerns have to be taken on board. Very often, we get a bit of a tunnel vision and look for water solutions only within the water sector. Look at it from a water-energy-food-nexus perspective. Nexus thinking is a very powerful way of thinking because, for one, it helps us do a better problem description and also helps us find solutions which are not necessarily confined to one sector. And, for solutions, involve local communities. Look at citizens, civil society, scientists and government as partners. Because we are all in it together.

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