'Dhara Vikas:' How Sikkim is leading India's natural spring revival?

Siliguri, India: Do you recall stopping your car on a winding road in hilly terrain to taste the refreshing water from a spring?

As per the last estimate, there are five million springs in India, of which nearly three million are in the Indian Himalayan region.

This area spans ten Indian states, four hill districts and is home to over 50 million people. Local populations refer to this natural phenomenon by different names—dhara, moot, kuan, and chashmanaulbut what's in a name?

Call it what you may, the point is that free-flowing spring water is a lifeline for them. It is their fundamental source of water for domestic use, cattle-rearing, and agricultural needs. Wildlife also drinks from these natural fountains.

Over the past century, there has been a rapid decline in springs supplying mountain-fresh water.

Erratic rainfall patterns, seismic activity, deforestation, and changing land-use patterns from agricultural to infrastructural needs have significantly impacted these mountain aquifers, resulting in reduced volumes of water in the once gurgling springs.

When a nearby spring starts dying, it is the rural women who suffer the most. With their hands already full collecting firewood providing fodder for cattle and other domestic chores, they then have the additional burden of fetching water from sources farther from their homes.

Sikkim: the home to many springs

The state of Sikkim comprises the Eastern Himalayan Range.

As in other regions, the adverse effect of climate change on rainfall threatens the delicate, holistic balance that once stimulated its ecosystem.

Furthermore, as the terrain is mountainous, only about 15°0 of rainwater percolates into the soil.

The impact of this change on the lives of the Sikkimese people gained wide attention during a seminar organized by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 2008 when a group of local women spoke of the daily drudgery they have to suffer because of lack of water.

Recognizing this need, the Rural and Development Department (RDD) of the Government of Sikkim conceptualized the Dhara Vikas initiative to revive the state's dying lakes, springs, and streams.

The initiative aims to ensure water security by breaking the cycle of abundance and scarcity. It also seeks to enhance the hydrological contribution of the mountainous ecosystem as a water tower for the people, ensuring disaster risk management by reducing landslides and floods.

It is supported by the central government-sponsored Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act scheme, with technical support from other government agencies as well as organizations such as WWF-India: People's Science Institute. Dehradun: the Advanced Centre for Water Resources Development and Management, Pune; and Arghyam. Bengaluru.

Implementation of the Dhara Vikas initiative focussed on executing a scientifically robust strategy and on generating awareness. 

Awareness generation has been an important part of Dhara Vikas. Micro-level planning involves discussions with the local populace.

All work-related resolutions are taken up in the Panchayats and decided upon at the village level. Capacity-building measures include programs organized in coordination with various NGO stakeholders to develop specialized knowledge and skills in areas such as rainwater harvesting, geohydrology (the science that deals with the character, source, and mode of occurrence of underground water) and spring discharge measurement.

Global Positioning System (GPS) tagging and laying of staggered contour trenches and ponds also help. The RDD identifies the recharge areas of various springs and streams based on hydrogeological assessments, in order to control runoffs and increase permeation to enhance groundwater recharge.

According to the RDD, Dhara Vikas has significantly helped recharge lakes and revive several springs in Sikkim. As many as 70 are now revived.

Most of them are in Kaluk, Ravangla. Sumbuk, Jorethang, and Namthang. Further, three dried-up lakes Dolling, Datum, and Karthok are revived to their natural states.

Other lakes, such as Nagi and Tamle Pokhari. have been converted into recharge structures. The RDD is working on two dried-up lakes in West Sikkim, Resum and Suke Pokhari, to revive them as well.

It has also led to the reforestation of seven hilltop forests at Simkharka, Sadam, Tendong. Maenam, Gerethang, Chakung and Sudunglakha.

With the revival of lakes and springs and the increased awareness, villagers in the area have started constructing water storage tanks.

They use the day-time discharge from springs for irrigation, while the night-time discharge is used in rotation to fill personal tanks.

Another significant impact of the initiative was the creation of the village spring atlas web portal, which provides information on more than

1,500 springs and can be accessed at https://www.sikkim-springs.gov.in/. Increased irrigation has encouraged farmers to cultivate new crops such as beans, radish, cauliflower, cabbage, and chilies, along with paddy and tomatoes. Many perennial garden fruits, such as guavas, bananas, oranges, and litchis, are now cultivated.

As this initiative involved the implementation of a new concept, many lessons were learned along the way. These include the fact that Sikkim's Himalayas may not have a confined aquifer system for individual springs. It was noted that the spring-based approach did not significantly result

in improving spring discharges. Consequently. a hill-landscape approach was used. This took into consideration all the springs abutting the entire hill or the extent of the hill range.

To recharge the aquifer, it was assumed these springs were interconnected as a network of cracks and fractures developed over Sikkim's metamorphic areas.

The recharge area in the former approach, which was 2-3 hectares, has now increased to more than 20 hectares through the latter one.

Trenches for groundwater recharging were initially dug without adherence to geohydrological requirements. Some trenches were dug on terraced fields instead of on sloping land. while others were

dug without supervision, to ensure maximum trapping of surface runoffs, thus making them ineffective.

Similarly, many horticulture and forestry activities, initially undertaken to improve groundwater recharging, did not show any positive outcomes.

In time, it was realized that trenches and ponds had a more significant impact on groundwater recharging and soil moisture than plantations, which lose moisture through evaporation.

In certain locations, the lean period discharge was not recorded, making any conclusive impact assessment impossible, all these issues are being addressed.

The Dhara Vikas initiative has enabled about 900 million liters of annual groundwater recharge. It is recognized with several awards, including the Prime Minister's Award for Excellence in Public Administration (2011-2012): the Skoch Gold Award: and the National Groundwater Augmentation Award (2010-2011) to WWF-India for technical support, amongst others.

This story is published in partnership with Earth Day Network, India (doing business as EARTHDAY.ORG - India). We The World Magazine staff did not contribute reporting and obtained permission to feature Earth Day Network India's case studies.

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