Groundwater · Mountains

Himalaya-friendly groundwater governance

Guest Blog by Chicu Lokgariwar

In January 2019, the NGT rejected the Centre Groundwater Guidelines for a variety of reasons. It cited several shortcomings, several of which had already been pointed out on this blog, such as the fact that the water conservation fee would give those who had paid it carte blanche to withdraw excessive amounts of water and the lack of monitoring of pollution of groundwater. In addition to the shortcomings cited by the NGT, do the guidelines take into account the special needs of the Himalayan states? SANDRP spoke with people who have been working on groundwater in the Indian Himalayas to understand what the region’s needs are.

Groundwater use in the Himalayan states differs from that in the plains, largely because we do not have the luxury of large and contiguous aquifers to tap into. Rather, the residents of the mountains depend on small ‘perched’ aquifers. These are small pockets where water that percolates into the soil (depending on the orientation of the rocks, this can be either from the surrounding area, or from far away). When there is water in this small aquifer, sometimes it overflows of its own volition and emerges onto the surface. This point of emergence is of course, a spring, which is the lifeblood of Himalayan communities and ecosystems.

Dr. Vishal Singh of CEDAR, an organisation working on natural resource management in the Himalayas says, “Both rural and urban communities across IHR (Indian Himalayan Region) depend on approximately 3 million springs studded across IHR for their day to day needs. There is increasing evidence that springs are drying up or their discharge is reducing.  Erratic rainfall, seismic activity and ecological degradation associated with land use change for infrastructural development are impacting mountain aquifer systems.”

The drying up of springs is now an incontestable fact.  A report dated Aug 2018 published by Niti Aayog titled ‘Inventory and revival of springs in the Himalayas for water security’[i] states, “There is increasing evidence that springs are drying up or their discharge is reducing throughout the IHR, and indeed, throughout the entire Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region stretching from Afghanistan all the way to Myanmar”, with nearly half of the springs already either dried up or becoming seasonal.

The ICIMOD assessment of the Hindu Kush Himalayas[ii] acknowledges the important contribution of springs to river flows, but points out that so far, we have not been able to quantify the extent and the nature of this contribution. The report states, “We urgently need better scientific knowledge of groundwater in the HKH—especially because millions of mountain people depend directly on springs.” This is a strong argument for carrying on the vital work begun by the National Aquifer Management Program which lays stress on the mapping of the country’s aquifers.

Construction impacts The complex fold geology of the Himalayas means that it is difficult to decide, without a basic geological survey, which springs may be impacted by a given action. In several cases, springs may receive their water from land on the other side of the mountain where the spring emerges, or from a distant part of the land. The spring may also receive its water through a fracture in the rocks which may form a conduit between two otherwise unconnected rock formations[iii].

This means that any disturbance even if not in the immediate vicinity of a spring can have devastating impacts on the spring, and on the communities that are dependent on the water from that spring. Sadly, this is often ignored while planning for construction work, especially linear infrastructure like roads. Roads, with the cutting of slopes, act as a catalyst for slope failures[iv] and resultant disruption of the faults and fractures which function as underground passages for water[v].

Construction of dams destablises slopes and dries up water sources such as here at the Renuka dam site. Photo: Chicu Lokgariwar

Far more damaging is the blasting and tunneling for the construction of diversion dams. The rash of hydroelectric projects that has appeared in the state has had grevious impacts on community water sources. The Maneri Bhali Phase II HEP (304 MW)  in Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand is, residents allege, the reason for water sources in the Niri village panchayat drying up. A report by the Peoples’ Science Institute states, “Their natural water sources, gharats, irrigation canals have all dried up, so much so that the village does not even have enough water to immerse cremated remains in. Adding to their woes, cracks have started appearing on the walls of homes and other buildings. Villagers believe that the blasting done during the construction of 4 underground tunnels has led to the drying up of their water sources and cracks in their houses.”[vi].

Given the complex interaction of groundwater and surface water, the impacts of the neglect and abuse of water bodies such as rivers, lakes and wetlands by unauthorised construction is severe. The ignoring of this issue by the groundwater guidelines is criminal, given that the impact of landuse and ‘geologically-blind’ infrastructure development is as deleterious as that of excessive withdrawal in the plains areas.

Dr. Anil Gautam of the Peoples’ Science Institute has been working on groundwater issues, springs, and water quality for several decades. He says, “In the mountain areas, groundwater is accessed through springs. Here, it is not over-extraction but the changes in landuse that threaten springs. Spring mapping across the Himalayas will help identify recharge areas. Monitoring of landuse changes at least in the recharge areas will help conserve these springs.”

Agriculture In the plains areas along the Himalayan foothills, we face the same issues that are faced across the country. Rampant drilling of borewells for agriculture use is a common, especially since several farmers in the area are now taking to the cultivation of mints as a cash crop[vii]. Mints, grown on a large scale for their essential oils that are used for therapeutic and cosmetic purposes, are thirsty crops and happiest when grown near a source of water. Failing this, farmers rely on extraction of groundwater to keep their fields moist.

At present, farmers are exempt from needing to obtain an NOC for groundwater extraction. Dr. Gautam argues against this saying that there be a check on agricultural use of groundwater, “At present, there is no limit to water withdrawal by agriculture. This has led to wasteful use of groundwater which is illustrated by ever-deeper borewells and the cultivation of water-intensive crops. Some means for limiting this excessive use needs to be worked out.” One option is community driven regulation of groundwater use, which can then help achieve appropriate cropping pattern and limits to the depth of borewells. Cropping methods like System of Rice Intensification can also help reduce groundwater use.

Industrial Water footprint Industrial areas pose a different problem. There are no credible figures of how much water gets used by industries, nor is there confidence inspiring monitoring and  treatment of waste water. A recent survey led by Dr. Gautam in the Baddi industrial area found discrepancies between industry claims of wastewater treatment and anecdotal evidence suggesting contamination of groundwater and surface water. All the residents use ground water, obtained from personal and public tube wells, for domestic purposes; of these, half claimed that their water has an objectionable smell. Nisha Ram, a small farmer in the area stopped using the water in his open well a decade ago. He testified, “Water from the industries is let out into the stream. From there, it mixes with groundwater and comes into the baori. Therefore, the baori is not used any longer.”

Dr. Gautam says, “Industries pay low taxes on water, which is part of the reason the government is not able to invest in water recharge. It should be mandatory for all industries, across all blocks, to recharge rainwater. This can be a proportion of the water for which they have a license to withdraw; but the responsibility for recharge should lie with the industry.” Making 100% treatment and recycle of wastewater mandatory is another option. In either case, transparent, accountable governance will be key.

River Sirsa near Baddi (Himachal Pradesh) is acidic with a ph of 3. Photo: Chicu Lokgariwar

Urban Water management Urban areas in the Himalayas are also dependent on springs, or on spring fed lakes and rivers. These water sources too are now threatened by rampant construction as in the case of Nainital, where illegal construction severely reduced inflow into the lakes as well as reduced their storage capacity[viii]. The ICIMOD assessment points out that almost no major city in the Himalayas is self-sufficient in water supply, a problem compounded with crumbling colonial-era infrastructure, haphazard construction, and neglect of traditional water sources.

The state of urban areas in the Himalayas is well-illustrated by Shimla which exhibits all the symptoms discussed above. According to Dr. Singh, “A factor that the groundwater guidelines have missed is Climate Change – Ground water needs to be looked at keeping in mind the variations due to changing climatic conditions.”

He recommends that urban areas need to develop climate adaptive ground water management systems, which include:

  1. Nature based solutions such as rain water harvesting and recharge systems to be made mandatory in urban area. This will reduce the pressure on groundwater especially in the plains areas where ground water is rapidly depleting.
  2. There are no incentives for water saving. This needs to be introduced to encourage people to conserve water. Differential pricing systems depending on the amount of water used and the installation of digital meters in commercial and domestic buildings will be helpful steps in that context.
  3. Strong cultural links and the peri urban nature of many mountain towns’ helps citizens maintain stronger links with their natural environment then can be seen in larger cities in plain areas. Citizen Science could play a key role in inclusive decision making. Citizens involvement and traditional knowledge needs to be taken into account in mountain urban areas. Such efforts can sustain for long periods. An aware and interested citizenry also lends itself well to Citizen Science efforts for long term monitoring
  4. Institutional capacities and urban governance mechanisms to manage water, which are generally low and poorly developed across cities and towns in the Himalayan region, need to be strengthened.

Water Governance

Kulkarni, Shah and Shankar (2015) point out that an effective groundwater governance framework needs to incorporate the three aspects of science, participation and regulation[ix]. The aquifer based approach is the only scientifically defensible means of groundwater management. Till recently, groundwater monitoring has been undertaken by the Central Ground Water Board, whose almost-exclusive reliance on monitoring wells means that till very recently, the Himalayan region has been an afterthought in its reports and a blank area in its maps.

The National Aquifer Management Programme is an ambitious attempt to redress this gap. However, some of the most detailed assessment and documentation of Himalayan aquifers and springs is now happening through civil society and community based organisations that are working on spring renewal. This change in the studying of groundwater also brings about a shift in focus from the exploration of harvestable sources of groundwater to natural resource management.

These attempts to map, evaluate and protect springs also very frequently follow a participatory approach with heartening results. Ramesh Vaidya (2015) points out that not only do participatory methods of water management can help achieve community resilience to drought, but the process also strengthens the social fabric of the community[x].

Groundwater in India is now ‘owned’ by the landowner, but he or she enjoys the right to use the water below the land. With each landowner free to pump out water, this has led to a great density of wells in the plains areas. In the mountains, with several households often sharing a single spring, the onus of the maintenance of the spring as well as its recharge area also needs to be shared among the several users. This complexity makes it difficult to implement uniform legislation over the use of groundwater.

According to Kulkarni, Shah and Shankar (2015), “A command and control type of legislation is not only difficult to implement and scale-up, but also the conflict between decentralized and complex patterns of groundwater use and the centralized forms of groundwater legislation that States in India are empowered to develop and execute, makes any such legislation ineffective.” Instead, they point out that social pressure has proved effective in restricting over-exploitation of groundwater resources.

This is best illustrated by Randullabad in Maharashtra, where the village has established water budgeting and practices control over water extraction. Such socially established rules, though very effective, are not backed by law and are so limited in the punitive measures that the community can apply. Kulkarni et al therefore recommend legislation that will protect participatory-social processes, giving them the backing of the law. This approach also allows for a decentralised approach to groundwater management, since the mechanics of governance are left to the community.

The draft ground water guidelines recently rejected by NGT follow the traditional top-down and centralised approach to groundwater management that focuses on the large groundwater using regions in the plains of India. However, the needs of a fragile ecological zone and of more than 39 million citizens[xi]i on the Indian Himalayas cannot be ignored. As Dr. Vishal Singh says, “The proposed ground water guidelines completely neglect mountain areas which provide water through rivers to the downstream population of India. Also a one-size-fit-for-all guidelines will have little meaning as mountain characteristics would require different set of rules all together. Each mountain state need to develop a groundwater policy keeping in mind the hydrogeological characteristics of the state.”

Chicu Lokgariwar (  

NOTE: The Cover photo on Top: Springs such as this at sutra have traditionally been used for domestic water source. Photo: CHIRAG.

Post Script:

1. The Rice Bowl of Uttarakhand is grappling with rapid depletion of groundwater.



[ii] Wester, Philippus, Arabinda Mishra, Aditi Mukherji, and Arun Bhakta Shrestha. The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment. Berlin: Springer, 2018.

[iii] Mahamuni, Kaustubh, and Himanshu Kulkarni. “Groundwater resources and spring hydrogeology in South Sikkim, with special reference to climate change.” Climate change in Sikkim-Patterns, impacts and initiatives (2012): 261-274.

[iv] Pande, A., Joshi, R. & Jalal, D. 2002. Selected landslide types in the Central Himalaya: their relation to geological structure and anthropogenic activities. The Environmentalist (2002) 22: 269.

[v] Pant C.C., Rawat P.K. (2015) Declining Changes in Spring Hydrology of Non-glacial River Basins in Himalaya: A Case Study of Dabka Catchment. In: Joshi R., Kumar K., Palni L. (eds) Dynamics of Climate Change and Water Resources of Northwestern Himalaya. Society of Earth Scientists Series. Springer, Cham

[vi] Peoples’ Science Institute (2009). Situation Analysis Report on Hydropower Development in Uttarakhand. World Wildlife Fund (India).

[vii] Pal, Ajeet & Devarani, Loukham. (2016). Perceived consequences of adoption of mentha cultivation in central Uttar Pradesh.


[ix] Kulkarni, Himanshu, Mihir Shah, and PS Vijay Shankar. “Shaping the contours of groundwater governance in India.” Journal of Hydrology: Regional Studies 4 (2015): 172-192.

[x] Ramesh Ananda Vaidya (2015) Governance and management of local water storage in the Hindu Kush Himalayas, International Journal of Water Resources Development, 31:2, 253-268, DOI: 10.1080/07900627.2015.1020998

[xi] Apollo, Michal. (2017). The population of Himalayan regions – by the numbers: Past, present and future.

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