Indian Villages Revive Ancient Water Practices
At first glance it looks like a decaying playhouse, its tiny walls and square roof made of stone. Looking closer, I see intricate carvings on the stones and a small opening with a few mossy steps that lead down to a spring from which water slowly flows. Naulas, as these water-harvesting structures are locally called, are present throughout the Himalayan region.
The Himalayan region is often called “the water tower of Asia” or “the third pole.” Glaciers, along with approximately 3 million springs and 10 major rivers that flow from these peaks, have historically been the main sources of water in India’s Himalayan states, including Uttarakhand and Sikkim. But many of these water sources have disappeared in the past decade.
More than half of the perennial springs in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand have dried up or become seasonal, according to a 2017 survey by the Indian government’s think tank, the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog). The potential reasons are many: road development, hydroelectric projects, earthquakes in the region, large-scale deforestation, and changes in rainfall patterns and other climate shifts.
The loss of springs affects the flow of rivers as well as the availability of water for community use. Baran Devi, 34, wakes up every day at 4 a.m. in her village in Nainital district, Uttarakhand, India, to make the daily 5-mile trip to a spring to get drinking water for her household. Though this trudge is laborious, her real worry is the summer months, when the spring dries up and she has to look for another source of water. In Uttarakhand, the Himalayan state where she lives, 90% of the drinking water supply is spring-based.
“In Uttarakhand more than 794 villages have become ghost villages thanks to nonavailability of water and migration to cities,” says Badrish Singh Mehra, executive director of the Central Himalayan Rural Action Group, a development organization based in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand.
Reviving an ancient water-management practice may be just what these communities need to move forward.
Dharas, or natural springs, can emerge from an aquifer through cracks in the Earth’s surface, or they can emerge from rocks and systems that have the porosity and permeability to retain water.
In the past, Himalayan communities held and passed on this local water knowledge. They also designed water-management systems around a deep reverence for water sources. All across the region, the temple-like naula structures were designed to collect water from underground springs.
Local rulers and elite families would dig a hole to access a spring, and then use local stone to construct walls to protect it. Usually, the naulas included a statue of a god like Vishnu and had designs carved on their facades. The tiny, covered structures were usually accessed through a narrow opening and a short flight of stairs, so that cattle could not enter and pollute the water. People were not allowed to wash clothes or dirty the water around these structures either.
In the past, naulas catered to the water needs of local communities, where worship of water was embedded in the local psyche. Many local brides visited the naulas after their weddings to offer their prayers and be blessed. Today these structures are ancient remnants of local architecture, as well as evidence of long-held ecological knowledge.
Mehra says there are an estimated 16,000 naulas in the Himalayan region of India today. But through the years, many of these once-revered water temples fell into disuse, thanks to the advent of piped water to villages and large-scale migration to cities where employment and piped water made life easier.
But climate change is revealing the limits of these modern alternatives. Frequent floods and earthquakes in the region have blocked pipelines and dried up historic water sources. The Chamoli earthquake in 1999, for example, killed more than 100 people, and the shifting ground caused changes in water flow. So, too, with the floods in 2013, which killed more than 5,700 people.
As a result of these growing uncertainties, there is a movement today to revive communities’ naulas.
Bishan Singh Baneshi realized how acute the problem was while living in a remote village in the Ranikhet district of Uttarakhand in 2017: His mother died, and he did not have enough water to perform her last rites. Along with local women, he started restoring local naulas. They formed the community-based nonprofit Naula Foundation in June 2018, and have since been involved in restoring more than 150 dhara-naula systems in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand.
The Naula Foundation is in good company when it comes to organizations rediscovering the value of these structures and knowledge ways—and a deep reverence for water. The Central Himalayan Rural Action Group, too, works to recharge dharas and restore naulas.
“Glacial contribution to water supply is only 16%, and the rest is from springs in the Himalayan region,” Mehra says. “Thanks to climate change and people migrating to cities, water bodies all over the region [have] been declining at an alarming rate.” He says the Rural Action Group was the first to look at the problem from a springshed-management perspective, going beyond a single watershed to identify recharge areas through hydrogeology and community knowledge.
The group’s work to restore water sources starts by addressing potential sources of contamination from uphill grazing, open defecation, or sewage tanks being built in the recharge area. Then they turn to the water itself. “We look at the catchment area of a particular spring, its depth and direction, the nature of the rock bed, and take steps to recharge that with community participation,” Mehra says.
Community participation is key, and the organization approaches this work with great sensitivity to make sure it meets the needs of the people and doesn’t spoil their sacred sites. “In the past, rampant use of cement in these structures has led to water sources being blocked,” Mehra says. “We also identify the leakages in the system and attempt to plug them.”
So far the Rural Action Group has revived 494 springs and 189 pipelines to villages, as well as improved community water management. Their efforts involve local people in the revival process and provide them with work. Elders and naula makers in the community are consulted for their experience. The group also transfers necessary knowledge to local workers so that the community water sources can be self-sustaining.
While donations from corporations and individuals pay for much of the project costs, villagers contribute 20% to 40% of the funds to ensure that the local community is invested in the project. Thanks to the group’s intervention, one spring, for example, now generates an additional liter of water every minute, adding some 525,000 liters to the local water supply over the course of a spring.
The Central Himalayan Rural Action Group’s intervention is multifold, starting with an assessment of the health of the spring, its volume of water, and the number of people dependent on its water. Abhishek Likam, head of springshed management for the group, says that the terrain is also important (whether it is rocky, etc.), as intervention in certain areas could lead to landslides.
The next step is to dig either trenches or percolation pits to conserve the rainwater. Finally, Likam says, the group plants indigenous trees like oak and deodar around the springs, as “certain species of trees are good for recharge of groundwater.”
Sheeba Sen of Alaap, a nonprofit organization that does reforestation work in Uttarakhand, says pine forests, which were brought in during colonial times, are the bane of their ecological development work. These introduced tree species led to a decline in the native species that allow for better water percolation and storage.
“As we work in regeneration of indigenous forests and mapping catchment areas, we also work indirectly with naulas and their regeneration,” Sen says. “In many cases, the forest departments own the lands where the naulas are located, and it becomes complex as more permissions are needed to access the naulas.”
Many organizations that work in the region, like Alaap and People’s Science Institute, a nongovernmental organization based in Dehradun that works with sustainable development and natural-resource management, have been engaging with local communities, especially women, to revive these ancient water temples and improve lives. “Any work on these springs has to include financial benefits for the local people—only then it will work in the long run,” Sen says.
Women, many of whom were spending several hours traveling many miles away to get water for their households, play a critical role. Maya Verma, a resident of Chamoli village in Uttarakhand’s Almora district, has revived the naulas in as many as 15 villages with other women from these villages. She organized community meetings and street plays, and formed water-user groups as part of her awareness-raising campaign.
Pooja Arya, 30, and her friend Kiran Joshi, 32, from Raushil village in Nainital district, have been working with the Rural Action Group in the regeneration of naulas in their village the last couple of years. The naulas now support as many as 50 families in their village, and in the summer, even families from other villages.
“We can see the area transformed thanks to working on the naulas,” Joshi says. She and Arya have been involved in the whole process, from digging trenches to working in catchment areas. Excess water is stored in tanks, which can then be used for irrigation to grow various crops like wheat and garlic. “In previous years we used to suffer water shortages in the summer,” Joshi says, “but now we have water throughout the year.”
Kalpana Sunder is an independent journalist based in Chennai, India. She has written for the Guardian, Al Jazeera, the Christian Science Monitor and the South China morning Post.