Chamoli and Almora, Uttarakhand: Newlywed, she was asked to trek for an hour to the forest to worship the village spring. Now 60 years old, Kamala Devi has been digging trenches and percolation pits for the past couple of weeks to save that spring.

"I had to carry a ghagar (copper vessel) to the spring, fill it and get it back to distribute to the village elders," Kamala Devi, dressed in saree with a long-sleeved blouse and adorned in a multi-colour paranda or scarf, reminisced.

Over 200 people, spread across 35 families from her village Bajwad, in Chamoli district, depend on that one natural spring, especially during summer. But since the last few decades, springs from the village have been drying up, both because of mismanagement and the changing climate, experts say and research shows. And as a result, the once-fertile Garhwal region of Uttarakhand is increasingly gripped by water shortage.

Though the region is home to glaciers and major river flows, these flows are several hundred metres below populated regions. A 2018 Niti Aayog report noted that nearly half of the perennial springs in the region have dried up or have become seasonal because of unplanned urbanisation and climate change. This adds to the burden of women, who are forced to wait in line for hours and manually carry water from springs during the lean season.

With water scarcity increasing, the villagers of Bajwad teamed up, earlier this year, with People's Science Institute (PSI), a non-profit organisation based in Uttarakhand, to revive the springs.

In the neighbouring Almora district, a similar initiative has yielded benefits to the locals. In the village Chanoli, over the last five years the residents, along with a local organisation called Laxmi Ashram, have revived five springs--one used by the upper castes, three by other backward classes and one by the Dalit community.

Maya Verma, a resident of the village and field staff of Laxmi Ashram, who was pivotal in the rejuvenation programme, explained that each caste would revive their own springs, and the organisation would guide in the process. However, she said, they could "never get the upper castes or the general caste (a term she used to refer to OBCs) to get involved in reviving springs that are used by Dalit community."

In several of the villages we visited in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand, women have been taking charge of reviving and managing springs. However, in villages that have people from different castes, spring rejuvenation and management, although led by women, is separated by caste.

Kamala Devi, 60, from Bajwad village in Chamoli digging trenches that will percolate water in the monsoon and recharge the natural spring of her village.

The Himalayan water problem

Uttarakhand's Chamoli district is crisscrossed by several important rivers, prominent among them being Kalpaganga, Rishiganga, Dhauliganga, Alaknanda, Nandakini and Saraswati. But Bauni Devi's village Salna, in Joshimath block of Chamoli, is perched a few hundred metres above where these rivers flow.

"The nearest river is Kalpaganga, which requires at least three hours of walking" to reach the river and come back, Barun Devi said. As a 13-year-old bride, she had to do the trek every day, and on some days twice.

In mountain villages that are distant from rivers, natural springs are often the only source of water. Studies, such as the report by International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, have found that climate change has impacted the availability, quality and accessibility of such potable water resources.

In 2020, a series of 10 studies across 13 towns located in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region was published by international peer-reviewed journal Water Policy. The study noted that several of these towns, including famed mountain retreats like Mussoorie, Darjeeling and Kathmandu, face a demand-supply gap which is already as vast as 70%.

Laxman Singh Negi, a resident of Salna village who runs a local organisation--Jandesh--detailed the climate breakdown and mismanagement in his block, Joshimath in Chamoli. "Until a few years ago, we would receive at least four feet of snow, now it is barely one foot." And rains have also become irregular. "It used to rain every January and February, but not this year."

"Salna was one of the villages where the Chipko Andolan (a tree-hugging movement led by village women to prevent trees from being cut) took place in the 1980s." But deforestation, especially of oak trees whose roots have a high water retention capacity, has been rampant in the last couple of decades, he says.

The region is also heavily dammed, as a result of which the area's villages were greatly affected during the 2013 Kedarnath floods as well as the 2021 Chamoli disaster. The dams and consequent recurrent flooding has impacted the delicate geology of the region, such as the sub-surface arrangement of rocks (watch our video story) through which the springs are recharged. So there is high water run-off, little percolation into aquifers and little recharge, Negi explained.

Years of community neglect and mismanagement has also contributed to the problem. Diksha Upadhayay, a civil engineer with People's Science Institute, who oversees the implementation of spring revival projects, said that in many villages people have cemented or built on these springs. At other places, they have sold these recharge lands for commercial purposes, and as a result their access has been cut off.

While the government has provided water supply systems under the Har Ghar Jal Scheme, the water has either not reached the villages or, where provided, the supply is unreliable, the infrastructure is poorly maintained, and/or considered inappropriate for the multiple water needs of a household, villagers had told IndiaSpend in a report published in June 2022.

Spring rejuvenation programmes

Bajwad's spring is a dhara, which are aquifers that have water flowing out of them perennially, like a fountain. In Salna, Haskoti or Chanoli village, one will find naulas, which are small structures with narrow openings, tiny little roofs and flights of steps that allow women to reach the water source housed below.

Springs can be in the form of a Dhara (pictured left) or a Naula (pictured right) in Himalayan villages. Dharas have water flowing out of them continuously, whereas Naulas have a well structure that harvests water.

PSI has been working to revive 10 springs in nine villages in the Garhwal region. In the past, they have undertaken revival work of over 400 springs across the Himalayan region. Multiple other organisations are working with communities in different parts of the Himalayas to revive these traditional springs. We reached out to the Uttarakhand Jal Sansthan, which is a body constitute by the government to look after water supply across the state, on their support for these projects on July 29th. We will update the story when we receive a response.

Spring discharge depends on both an area's rainfall pattern and the characteristics of the recharge zone. In mountainous terrain, less than 15% of the rainwater percolates down and that is not enough to recharge springs. Hence, these organisations help villagers with digging trenches to stop the run-off and increase percolation.

"The spring rejuvenation work involves, firstly, identifying a recharge area, which is a place where water is able to seep into ground," said Upadhay. "These are usually on hill slopes, but the gradient of the slope should not be very steep."

Once the recharge area is identified, the work involves digging trenches which are seven feet long, 1.5 feet wide and 1.5 feet deep, and growing plants and laying grass on the bunds to prevent soil run-off into the structures.

PSI works as the technical partner to study the spring and the recharge area. For implementation, it collaborates with local organisations who work with communities to ensure involvement and ownership of those who use the springs. In Salna, Jandesh is the local organisation made-up of the villagers themselves.

"Ours is a participatory programme," Upadhyay explained. "Through funding, we are able to pay a minimum daily wage to those who undertake the work. But once the spring is revived, we ensure that villagers take ownership and are involved in its management."

Women in spring revival and management

Bauni Devi got her name from the Gharwali word "baun", which means forest. When she was a new-born, her mother would carry her on her waist when she went to the forest to gather firewood. Her name was given as acknowledgment to her mother for never abandoning her responsibilities--of looking after her child and after the household.

Bauni Devi, 67, led the Chipko Andolan in her village Salna in Chamoli district in the 1980s. Her name Bauni is derived from the Gharwali word for forest; so protection of the forest is her primary purpose, she sums up.

The socially-assigned responsibilities of a woman, such as collecting water, fodder and firewood, cultivating the fields, depositing animal dung everyday in the fields, cooking, washing, cleaning the house, and looking after the cattle, the children, the old and the sick, are often cemented by marriage in hill villages. Unlike men who migrate, women carry the brunt of the struggle for survival.

For Bauni Devi, her name sums up her purpose well. Most of her responsibilities relate to forest, land and water, which is central to her survival and the survival of her household.

Nalini Devi, 31, is the gram sabha president of the all-woman panchayat of Haskoti village in Chamoli. She said the first time most men see a spring, or know where the household water comes from, is during the marriage ritual when they have to visit the spring with their wife. Ambi Devi, 50, sitting next to Nalini, laughed. There would be times, she said, when women have to compromise on hygiene because water is needed to be prioritised for cooking and drinking. "We had to take baths once a week."

Kamala Devi from Bajwad village explained the significance behind the marriage ritual. She said that the bride is the Laxmi of the house, the goddess of abundance. "The ritual signifies her asking god for abundance of water, the most precious resource for her to run the household."

"In all the projects that we have conducted so far, we have only seen women coming forward since water is linked to their traditional roles," said Upadhayay.

During the revival work in Salna, it was the women who dug the trenches and percolation pits. Narayani Devi, 60, and her two daughters-in-law, trekked every day in the months of April and May to the van panchayat land to dig trenches. "My hand still hurts," she says, displaying her callouses to underline the amount of work they had to do each day. They were part of a group of 27 people, mostly women between the ages of 20-70 years, and about three or four men.

Similarly in Bajwad village, where the work is still ongoing, a group of 45 women and around five men gather each day. In total, they have to dig over 500-600 trenches within a period of two-three weeks.

In the villages where springs have been revived, women have come forward to manage them. In Salna and Haskoti, women have formed Mahila Mangal Dals whose primary responsibility is to protect natural resources. They meet once a month to clean the trenches and pits and plant near the recharge area so that water percolates and the mud does not run off. Apart from these responsibilities, Mahila Mangal Dal is also like a self- help group for women of the village.

Women have been anchoring spring revival and management programmes in several of the villages. Pictured left, Mahila Mangal Dal or the women's committee from Salna village and on the right, women and few men from Bajwad village gathered to dig trenches to revive springs.

In Almora's Chanoli village, women have set up nurseries near the natural springs, and they also give plants to the forest department for plantation purposes in the forest area. "The 30th of each month is a set date for women to gather, come hail or storm," Verma, from Chanoli, said about the Mahila Mangal Dal meetings in her village.

While the rejuvenation of springs has turned around the fortunes of women who used to spend hours fetching water for household chores, it has done very little to reduce the inequality of socially allocated roles for water, Deepa Joshi noted in a study on gender in water. Women still bear responsibility for ensuring the household has water.

Caste and segregated springs in the villages

Salna, Haskoti and Bajwad are predominantly upper caste villages. Unlike these, Chanoli village in the Someshwar block of Almora district has been home to different caste groups and religions.

Behind Maya Verma's house are a few Muslim families. "There is one Christain family," she adds. And on the periphery of the village, there is a cluster of Dalit families.

The age-old social hierarchy in Hindu society has historically positioned Dalits as eternally polluted, and therefore likely to pollute sacred water sources. The caste hierarchy closely parallels the relative access to preferred sources of water and the adequacy of those sources. Many upper caste families have their own springs in their backyard, while the other backward classes have access to three springs, but the Dalits have just one spring located at a very squalid location.

Verma, who oversaw the work, said that considering the deep-rooted caste hierarchy, they started work on springs differently. They began with the "the samanya jati (OBCs) as opposed to the badi jati (the upper caste)", she added. When it came to the spring belonging to the Dalit communities, "It was a struggle," she said. "Their spring was located near the toilet, because of which the water came out filthy and non-potable for a very long time." With extra digging, they, however, managed to bring out clean water from the ground.

Many Himalayan villages are overwhelmingly upper caste. In villages with communities belonging to different castes, springs are separated for use. The spring in green colour belongs to those from the Dalit community, the one in white to those from the upper castes, whereas the one in yellow belongs to those from the Other Backward Classes, all located in Chanoli village of Almora.

The rejuvenation of all five springs took place in 2017 and, five years later, the springs in Chanoli have become a successful example of the project. Management of these springs is also undertaken differently. Several of these springs have gates, and fixed timings for when water can be drawn.

Deepa Joshi writes in her paper on gender, caste and water that there is a "resounding silence" when it comes to reproduction of caste and gender inequities when it comes to implementing any project.

A few kilometres from Chanoli is the Utraura Ghurdoura village, where Dalits number over 80% of the population. The region does not have access to any water aquifer in the village, as a result of which they have to depend on the neighbouring Lodh village, which is predominantly upper caste, for access to water from springs, our reporting found. Lodh's springs have been revived recently, and the women of the village have set different timings for them and for the villagers from Utraura Ghurdoura to access the springs.

Addressing caste, gender and exclusion issues involves targeting unequal social relations, and the beliefs and cultures that justify them, writes Joshi, yet all too often gender is misunderstood and practised simply as 'women's increased participation' in water programmes and the most vulnerable in communities are left behind.

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