Locals Dig Deep to Save Himalayan Springs From Drying Out
Bundles of bright reddish-pink radishes lie neatly along the side of the road as we drive to an unmarked path. It’s foggy, but on a clear day we’d be able to see across the border to the snowy cap of Kanchenjunga, the second-highest peak in Nepal, after Mount Everest. We stop at what seems to be a random place in the middle of a small village, step out of the car, and begin slowly ascending a hill. We are in south Sikkim, a small thumb-print of land that juts out into Tibet. Sikkim has only belonged to India since 1975 and it’s nestled between Nepal and Bhutan in the cradle of the Himalayan Mountains.
When he asks villagers if they feel the climate has become hotter, they say yes.
“I look fatty, but I am fit,” Pem Norbu Sherpa tells me. He’s dressed in a striped polo shirt, jeans, and sneakers. He skillfully climbs the steps to the top of the hill, or what he calls the watershed catchment area. I amble slowly behind, regretting my choice of cheap shoes with no grip. He tells me that in some places it takes an hour to reach the area above the springs.
“If you are like you—it takes two hours,” he says. In other places, depending on the terrain, it can take nearly four hours to reach the recharge area. I stop momentarily to take in the beautiful rural countryside and various shades of green. We walk past grazing cows and a sign that says “Save the Forest.”
In 2003 the state government of Sikkim established the state as a “Total Organic State” meaning that the use of chemical fertilizers will be gradually phased out. All photos by Lakshmi Sarah.
The site we are climbing toward is one of hundreds of springs where Sherpa has helped communities use local labor and basic technology to improve increasingly depleted flow. He believes if enough people work to preserve the springs, the water crisis won’t be dire.
For the past several years, water has become scarcer in Sikkim as rain patterns have shifted off their normal course. Climate change, in addition to other factors, has forced locals to travel extra miles to collect water to sustain daily activities.
Before I met Sherpa, I met Deepak Dhakal, a Ph.D. student at Sikkim University. We sat in a simple cafe with bright blue walls, ate momos (a dumpling-style staple food of the Himalayan region), and drank Temi tea (the local, organic stuff). I wish I could have captured on video Dhakal’s enthusiasm for studying isotopes, hydrology, and spring water. These were all words I did not fully understand before our meeting, but Dhakal’s enthusiasm for water research was contagious. He said when he spoke to elders in the field, they told him that in the past the springs flowed at a rate of more than five gallons per minute.
“I cannot rely on people’s stories,” Dhakal says. “I need purely scientific evidence.” From his research Dhakal says the springs have decreased by 95 percent, and he doesn’t know why—nobody does. He’s also noticed fewer rainy days, yet the overall amount of rainfall is the same. When he asks villagers if they feel the climate has become hotter, they say yes. He has many anecdotes and stories, but he is still searching for the science behind the root causes.
Dams have been a source of contention in Sikkim and northeast India. Many projects displace people without providing adequate resources for nearby communities.
After our meeting, I researched water issues in Sikkim and neighboring areas along the Himalayas. Many nearby regions, such as Bhutan and Nepal, share the same water-related challenges as Sikkim. New hydropower projects, intended to generate power for industrial centers, have displaced both people and water. Compounding the problem, climate change has brought intense rains over shorter periods of time. These changes cause rain to wash down the sides of the hills without sinking deep into the mountains as it once did. After a rainy season, it can be months before the next rainfall.
To understand more about the challenges and history of Sikkim’s water supply I spoke with Gyatso Lepcha. He is a member of the indigenous group called Lepchas, and fought against hydropower dams in 2007. The fight against dams was partially successful—many projects pulled out of northern Sikkim. But a number of hydropower projects continue along the river toward the south of the state. After earning a law degree in Delhi, Lepcha returned home to continue his activism against hydropower dams. “I couldn’t stay,” he said. “Something big was going on back home.” For the Lepcha people, mountains and rivers are gods. Water is powerful here, both rain water and river water.
Walking up to the top of the hill Pem Sherpa told me he plans to plant hundreds of rhododendrons in his village.
Sherpa is determined to help communities adjust and work to recharge the dying springs.
Sherpa is determined to help communities adjust and work to recharge the dying springs. As we walk, he tells me how mountains and glaciers feed lower-lying areas, while villages above have relied on springs for as long as people can remember. The Sikkim government is supporting a program known as Dhara Vikas, or “Springshed Development.” The program is a community-based effort to preserve the springs in Sikkim. It’s Sherpa’s job to help communities implement the program and show out-of-towners like me how it all works.
Springshed Development began with a pilot program in 2007. Since then, word has slowly spread that it can help with drought. Communities request a facilitator, like Sherpa, who comes to advise on where and how deep to to dig. Then people in the communities carry out the work.
Sikkim might seem like it has a plethora of water resources. It’s a state with glaciers, high altitude lakes, and more than a hundred rivers. But areas of southern Sikkim have suffered drought in recent years. Agriculture is the livelihood for 64 percent of the population, and, as a result, water is essential to economic subsistence. According to the Sikkim State Action Plan on Climate Change, the minimum temperature in Sikkim increased by 2.5 degrees Celsius between 1957 and 1990. This means that families like Sherpa’s, who used to experience snow at the top of the mountains, no longer remember when it last snowed. Also, rainfall in the area decreased by about 10 inches between 1982 and 2009. “Rainfall patterns have become erratic, monsoons are usually late, and, in general, torrential rainfall has replaced the monsoon drizzle,” reads the Sikkim Action Plan. “This has increased the surface runoff and dry periods during winters, resulting in a higher incidence of forest fires and drying up of springs.”
As we continue walking up, Sherpa explains how the tilt of a rock can affect the success of his spring recharge program. He also stops to show me each tree and shrub that helps soak water into the soil. Sherpa tells me he plans to plant 200 rhododendrons each year in his native village. He hopes that will bring tourists and help locals appreciate the beauty of where they live. Now I see why Sarika Pradhan, joint secretary for the Rural Management and Development Department of the government of Sikkim, told me, “Pem Sherpa is one of the best that we have.”
Sherpa points out one of the many examples of water preservation on our hike up the hill.
We pass a small water catchment area—a rectangular pond about 5 by 6 feet. This is one example of the program. As we trudge upward, I regret not only my choice of shoes, but also my lack of socks. On my ankle I feel a stinging, like a mosquito that won’t stop biting me. When I look down I internally scream at the leech attached to my skin and quickly flick it off. Sherpa looks back occasionally, only to make sure I am keeping up.
When Sherpa and I reach the top of the hill, I’m disappointed there isn’t a large congratulatory statue. There are a few more water catchment areas and a row of colorful prayer flags quivering in the wind. The spring preservation program is subtle and unobtrusive. So subtle that if I wasn’t looking for it, I would barely know it’s there.