Catchment Management in the Indian Himalaya

Catchment Management in the Indian Himalaya

In 2000 I worked with a local NGO (The Rural Centre for Human Interests) on catchment management in the state of Himachal Pradesh in the Indian Himalaya. I found the water management issues and challenges were numerous and complex. Some were unique to the setting and circumstances of rural Indian people, while others shared common threads with issues faced in New Zealand. This article offers some observations from my visit in 2000 and sets the scene for a follow up article I plan to write after returning to North India in late 2014. 
The foothills of the Himalaya are remote. The country is steep, with poorly structured soils, and high erosion. Severe deforestation has occurred over centuries to provide wood for fuel, livestock fodder and for traditional Hindu funeral pyres. The region is accessible by a marginal road network often impassable by landslips during the monsoon. The hilltop villages are accessed by mule and walking tracks through ravines and along ridge lines. Located far above the fertile floodplains, these villages do not benefit from readily available water and fertile soil to grow crops such as tomatoes, onions, peppers and apples. 

Those villages fortunate to benefit from local groundwater springs (bawdis) can prosper. A bawdi is a traditional stepwell where the water may be reached by descending a set of brick laid steps. Where there are no local bawdis, villagers are forced to walk long distances and carry water back up from the lower valley to maintain their crops and provide a safe drinking supply for themselves and their livestock. The stark contrast at the village level between poverty and relative wealth is often a direct reflection of water availability. If you are born into one village you cannot simply move to another; there are cultural hurdles to overcome to try to improve your lifestyle and prospects. In the Hindu religion you must accept to a large extent the living situation to which you are born into. This is especially so in traditional rural areas.  

Careful management of freshwater is crucial to protect the spring sources. Water yield can be patchy in this tectonically active region. While the annual rainfall is quite good (~2800mm to 3800mm), it falls mostly during the 2-3 months of the monsoon season from July through to September. The rest of the year the region is extremely dry. There are numerous intermittent streams that transport huge volumes of sediment and rise rapidly during the wet season. Spring sources can come and go over the course of a season or disappear altogether for no apparent reason after many good productive years. 

Managing stormwater runoff during the monsoon season is critical to the livelihood and indeed survival of rural communities. Catchment management is undertaken at the local grass roots level. Rural technologies such as contour trenching, infiltration trenches, spring protections, check dams, rain tanks and attenuation tanks are all employed to control and store stormwater as close to source as possible. The results are successful if the local people take ownership by constructing and maintaining the technology. Soil erosion is reduced, water is held within the upper catchment, check dams and contour trenches encourage recharge to sustain bawdis and stream base flow. 

Water is closely linked to the Hindu religion. The fickle nature of spring supply reinforces the Hindu belief that you should not alter water from its natural state. To alter a spring source, to manipulate natural water systems, is seen as interfering with God’s will. Local people are reluctant to engineer the bawdi to help secure the supply and protect its purity from contamination. This reluctance is understandable; some of the traditional open water bawdis in the lower valleys that are used for ceremony and religious festivals are hundreds of years old and have maintained a good sustainable supply with minimal intervention or engineering. Nevertheless, security of supply remains a problem in many places and sensitive solutions are required. Respecting the cultural and religious value of freshwater is equally if not more important than providing good quality supply. Water supply solutions in North India cannot be implemented unless the religious component is respected and not compromised.

Rural technology NGO’s encourage new integrated systems whereby water from the spring source is sealed firstly and then directed to tank storage for domestic supply and also to new Bawdi springs which are built in the traditional stepwell style. 

What struck me was the common thread with what we are trying to achieve in New Zealand with our catchment management. Many of the techniques that are used by communities in North India are aligned with the principles of what we call ‘water sensitive design’. The concepts are embedded within the Hindu way of life, they make sense and they are crucial for survival. The difficulty is striking the right balance between security of supply and cultural sensitivity.  

Catchment management in the Himalayan foothills is complex with the physical challenges intimately woven with religious and cultural values. In the follow up article to this I hope to be able to share with you some insights about progess made since my visit in 2000 and how well communities have integrated technologies for improving water supplies with their culture and religion.  

This thought leadership article is by Mike Chapman, a Senior Hydrologist at Harrison Grierson.

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