Himalayan Spring Water Policy Lab Forum II

Episode II – Focus on India

A Report summarizing the event proceedings and outcomes


The Himalayan Spring Water Policy Lab (HS – WPL) forum explored the possible approaches to find solutions to the devastating situation of drying springs particularly in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR). A region which is home to more than 50 million people and is the main source of water for the major river systems: Indus, Ganga, and Brahmaputra. The forum was held virtually on Thursday 4 August, 2022 with 35 people attending from Asia and Australia.

The forum was jointly organized by the Institute for Study and Development Worldwide (IFSD), Australia India Water Centre (AIWC), and Centre for Ecology Development And Research (CEDAR).

The forum aimed to foster a broader discussion and deeper understanding on drying springs by:

  • Sharing knowledge on problems and potential solutions around mountains springs specifically in the Western Himalayas (India)
  • Stimulating collaborative learning approaches to find solutions, through Water Policy Lab
Welcome and introductionsIdea and objectives of Water Policy LabPresentation of speakersDiscussionClosing remarksDr. Basundhara Bhattarai, Senior Gender and Social Inclusion, Institute for Study and Development Worldwide (IFSD)Dr. Hemant Ojha, Principal Advisor, Institute for Study and Development Worldwide (IFSD)Dr. Shive Prakash Rai, Associate Professor, Banaras Hindu UniversityDr. Vishal Singh, Senior Fellow and Director Research, CEDARProfessor Basant Maheshwari, Western Sydney University

Welcome and Introductions

Dr. Basundhara Bhattarai began the forum by talking about how people in the Himalayan region are very concerned with the problem of drying springs as it is a direct threat to their survival and the high possibility of serious future water crisis in the entire region. This was followed by a brief introduction of the speakers along with a general overview of the event agenda.

Idea and objectives of Water Policy Lab

Dr. Hemant Ojha introduced the forum’s two objectives mentioned above and further emphasized the severity of the problem of drying springs in the IHR by sharing Roshan Rathod’s informative slide on springs from the first HS – WPL meeting held on 16 March, 2022. He mentioned the utmost importance of finding solutions at the local level and delivering them to the regional and national levels for effective outcomes.

Importance of Policy Lab and how Policy Lab and Forum are connected?

The problem of drying springs requires collaborative efforts from partnerships among communities, scientists, and policy actors. IFSD have been advancing the idea of policy lab to facilitate water management related problem solving through policy lab which excellently promotes collaborative learning. A policy lab forum is a platform to share learnings and findings from a specific policy lab, which is a certain area a researcher is actively involved in carrying various ground level activities. An example provided was Dr. Singh’s active work in the water sector of Uttarakhand, India.

A policy lab forum is a platform that allows the process of learning from research, policy experiment, and local actions which is further theorised to inform concrete actions at the local level. For example, in the HS – WPL forum both speakers Dr. Rai and Dr. Singh will be sharing learnings from their research work in various localities which will help develop better strategies for spring water management.

Presentation of speakers

Presentation 1: Challenges and Possible Solutions for Himalayan Spring Water Management, India – Dr. Shive Prakash Rai

Dr. Shive Prakash Rai’s presentation provided detailed bio-physical explanation on the situation of drying springs, the factors causing its decline, the challenges faced in sustainable management of springs, and the strategies to move forward with that can support the rejuvenation of drying springs. Dr Rai mentioned that springs are the visible form of our invisible groundwater which is the main source of drinking water, support various socio-economic activities, and help maintain the river ecosystems’ health. However, springs in the Himalaya region are found to be rapidly drying due to climate change induced weather events, land use change for development projects, and population growth.

“People move wherever water moves” was stated to highlight how rapid migration has led to increased pressure on the remaining springs. Uttarakhand is one of the many states where the flow of 500 springs has decreased by 50% hampering the state’s entire drinking water supply. Lata village is one of the many villages within the state, where the majority of the community have migrated to other areas for improved livelihood due to water scarcity.

The first scientific study explaining declining spring discharge in Kumaun Himalayas was done by Prof K.S Valdiya and Prof S. K. Bartaya in 1990. After 30 years we are still discussing the same problem of declining springs because of the many existing challenges. Some of which include the lack of scientific databases on springs, limited collaborations and cooperation among administrative boundaries and inadequate efforts to strengthen the spring shed management approach. From his 30 years of experience working on rejuvenating drying springs in the Himalayan region, Dr. Rai explained how each spring ecosystem is unique to the other based on hydro-geological characteristics and geographic location. So, spring ecosystems have to be shifted from general description to detailed quantification and modeling of the system. For this, it is crucial to adopt a “transdisciplinary approach” to properly understand a specific spring and its challenges from the hydrological, socio-economic and cultural perspectives to find relevant solutions to it. This changed thorough understanding of springs will certainly help develop better strategies and policy options that will contribute to the sustainable management of springs in the region.

Presentation 2: Himalayan Spring Water Policy Lab (HS-WPL) – Experiences and Insights from Uttarakhand, India – Dr. Vishal Singh

Dr Vishal Singh re-emphasized on the catastrophic situation of drying springs and the need to foster collaborative partnerships among diverse stakeholders for better interpretation, synthesis, and communication towards developing effective strategies to solve problems. Dr. Singh’s presentation highlighted the importance of understanding and solving the problem from a socio-cultural perspective. Dr. Singh mentioned while fostering evidence-based policy advocacy, making research usable for policymakers and enhancing collaborative partnership for co-generation of knowledge seem straightforward these are very complex processes which cannot be achieved without long-term dedication and engagement.

From Dr. Singh’s active work involvement in the Urban Himalayan region from Bhutan to Afghanistan it was found that most towns are spring fed, urban population is increasing, and rapid haphazard development is taking place which is directly affecting the existing water resources. The problem of water crisis further being exacerbated by the many ongoing challenges.

“Arrogance of Ignorance” was stated to indicate the huge disconnect between policymakers and scientists which is a major challenge. While scientists are pressured to research and publish findings, there is no reward for them to intervene in the policy space. So, much of the evidence-based research is ignored by policymakers. This is further compounded by the lack of dialogue opportunities which is preventing both parties from understanding each other and working together.

Other challenges include the focus being always on technological solutions, lack of cross-departmental knowledge sharing, and poor governance.

Dr. Singh emphasized on the need to adopt translational research to solve multi-layered complex problems that require collaborative efforts. Only when scientific research is translated in a simple way which is easy for communities and policymakers to understand, partnerships can be formed to solve the problem. This was evident in the case of Nainital where CEDAR took the initiative to translate scientific research by the National Institute of Hydrology which highlighted Sukha Tal’s declining recharge capacity. The simplified information was disseminated throughout Nainital and this increased awareness which resulted thousands being involved peaceful barefoot protest. This was followed by a budget allocation of 26 crores for the rejuvenation of the lake.

Likewise, understanding diverse perspectives to a problem is crucial to avoid biases when finding solutions. For this we need “brokers of knowledge” who are people that understand different perspectives (social, cultural, economic, environmental) of a problem to effectively solve the complexities of the multi-layered problem of drying springs. This is because scientific evidence is not enough to formulate effective policies. It is crucial to include other factors that influence policy: socio-economic and cultural values. In fact, the value of evidence gets diminishes when cultural values are put forward because ultimately culture is always the priority. So, we need to have events like the HS – WPL where we bring together a diverse group of stakeholders, understand their interests, and collaboratively work to develop strategies.

Discussion moderated by Dr. Hemant Ojha

Dr. Hemant Ojha briefly mentioned how both presentations were very insightful in showing the ground reality of the problem of drying springs. Dr. Rai’s presentation provided the biophysical and hydrological side of the problem, which was complemented by Dr. Singh’s presentation, which focused more on governance and the socio-cultural side. Adding to Dr Singh’s statement on “Arrogance of Ignorance” Dr. Ojha mentioned “Arrogance of wrong knowledge” to indicate how scientific uncertainty is being mobilised to do nothing or in a very wrong way leading to a very complex situation in dealing with the problem.

Responding to the extensive knowledge shared by both presentations, Dr. Ojha introduced questions from the audience for responses from the expert panel.

On understanding the role of government in Himalayan spring water management

Manita Raut: Data accessibility and limited collaboration across administrative boundaries appear to be two issues that reinforce one another. Are there any attempts from the government to work together to comprehend and resolve this problem when it comes to transboundary spring water management, in the context of dwindling springs owing to man-made and climate change-related factors?

Dr. Rai mentioned the change in perceptions regarding the problem of drying spring observed in the past 30 years of work. While the decline in spring discharge has always been a problem faced by low-income communities it was not seriously considered by researchers and policymakers. However, in the recent decade the problem of declining spring discharge has been widely recognized by everyone and the government of India has started various spring rejuvenation projects. However, the ongoing efforts are not enough as the scale of the problem is very big. Dr. Rai is hopeful and stated that in the coming years we will see the positive impacts of the actions taken right now.

Dr. Singh talked the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar mission, a joint project between US and India. This technology has L band radar frequency which is capable of capturing things below the ground which is very useful with regards to spring sources. So, a lot of information is being generated very quickly and is properly stored. All of the data is open access ready to be used by anyone located anywhere. This means that there is a lot of knowledge widely available and further improvements are being made to use the existing knowledge as well.

On the impact made by existing collaborative efforts

Ngamindra Dahal: What are the existing collaborative efforts and have they had an impact to minimize the problem of drying spring? Is it enough?

Dr Singh emphasized the importance of spreading information and being more vocal about relevant research that has been and is being done. For collaborative efforts to be effective we need a diverse set of people working on the issue such as scientists, people working at grassroots level, people who have the capacity to influence media and even politicians. Only when these people come together, understand each other, and work collectively, can real impact be achieved.

On the importance of stimulating collaboration

Dr. Ojha ended the session by explaining rich and emerging knowledge and practice at the local level but there is a need to bring those lessons and people involved together to further stimulate collaborative learning at different scales and levels. Organizing international forums like HS – WPL virtually, IFSD hopes to stimulate action and research to generate positive impact.

Closing remarks by Prof Basant Maheshwari

Prof Basant Maheshwari summarized the forum by explaining how springs are an important part of the hydrological cycle, how it is rapidly declining, its effects, and re-emphasized the need to adopt a transdisciplinary approach towards solving it.

Springs are a vital source not only for drinking water but also water flow and for socio-economic activities. The rapid decline in springs has adversely affected communities which has resulted in migration going back to Dr Rai statement on “People move wherever water moves”.

A major factor holding us back from proper spring water management is the lack of transdisciplinary approach. It is crucial to try focusing on every factor that influences springs – biophysical, socio-economic, and cultural. For this, collaboratively working with local communities and making them fellow scientists in their own light while drawing lessons from their experience is needed.

For decades, it has been found that science is not getting into policy. Repeating Dr. Singh’s, Prof Maheshwari mentioned the importance of translational research. We have to make science accessible for everyone to have a realistic impact.

Prof Maheshwari explained that most of us have studied surface water and tend to immediately focus on watershed management. However, when it comes to springs, we have to adopt a holistic spring shed management approach because springs are part of the underground system. Three things are required to be considered when doing so:

  1. Understanding how springs interact in the biophysical and socio-cultural environment which also includes how people influence springs through human activities.
  2. Recognizing how springs impact people and how they can help minimise the problem
  3. Engaging people to own the problem to further encourage initiatives for spring rejuvenation

Prof Maheshwari shared his final thought by stating that we need social and behavioral change to solve the complex problem of drying springs.

It was announced that the next Forum will be scheduled soon, which could perhaps be designed to focus on Nepal Himalayas or North East Regions of India, or Bhutan.

How to cite this report: Gurung, P., Bhattarai, B., Ojha, H.R., Rai, S. R., Singh, V., and Maheshwari, B. (2022) Himalayan spring water policy and practice in the Indian Himalayan region: A report summarizing the event proceedings and outcomes. IFSD Policy Lab Report Series PLR-2022-01. Institute for Study and Development Worldwide (IFSD). Australia India Water Centre (AIWC), and Centre for Ecology Development and Research (CEDAR).

Download PDF version of the report.

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