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4 Jan 2023 | Water

Adapting to water scarcity through watershed conservation

Kripa Shrestha, Nabin Bhattarai & Madhav Prasad Dhakal

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Nibuwa-Tankhuwa Watershed, Dhankuta, Eastern Nepal (Photo credit: Kabir Uddin, ICIMOD)
Nibuwa-Tankhuwa Watershed, Dhankuta
Nibuwa-Tankhuwa Watershed, Dhankuta, Eastern Nepal (Photo credit: Kabir Uddin, ICIMOD)


A watershed is an area of land that drains rainwater or snow into one location such as a stream, lake, or wetland. We all live in watersheds, and our health and surrounding ecosystems rely on the water that they provide. However, watershed areas are also fragile given their steep topography and geology. Given this, watershed management can be a holistic approach to ensure sustainable management of natural resources. This approach considers bio-physical, socio-economic, and political features in the planning and management process. However, this approach does not incorporate ground water accumulation and movement and only focus on surface water flowing from the ridge to the valley, which might hinder the sustainability of watershed management plans.


Enhancing watershed management with springshed management

Springs are a significant source of water, making its inclusion in spring management within or beyond the watershed management area crucial. Springs are the primary source of water for many mountain communities across the HKH, but due to natural calamities, climate change, and its impacts, the springs are drying in the region, leading to acute water stress and increased vulnerabilities. While watersheds contribute to surface water, springsheds are areas of land that contribute groundwater to a spring. The watershed concept accounts for surface water movement over slopes, while the movement of spring water is determined by underlying geology and the nature of the rocks underneath the surface. The concept of springshed is different than that of watershed, as a springshed may cover one or multiple micro- or meso- watersheds depending on the underlying hydrogeological set up.

Cross section of a springshed
Cross section of a springshed (Source: ICIMOD)


Issues with implementation and sustainably

Several watershed management plans for watershed conservation and management have been prepared in Nepal. In many cases, the plans lack proper implementation, due to inadequate funds and lack of technical capacity, especially at the local level, hindering their sustainability. The recently developed Nibuwa-Tankhuwa Watershed Management Plan serves as a government-owned model that balances water conservation and development and ensures focus on water security and nature-based solutions, including gender and social inclusions within the watersheds.


The case of Nibuwa-Tankhuwa Watershed in Dhankuta

Dhankuta, a district in the mountain area of Eastern Nepal, faces severe water scarcity. The local government has taken several initiatives to ensure water security and revive dried or drying springs. In 2015, the Dhankuta Municipality and our Koshi Basin Initiative conducted a joint action research on the application of the incentives for ecosystem services (IES) approach to identify the ‘willingness to pay’ of the downstream communities to upstream communities to receive drinking water. In tandem with the study, the municipality recognised the need for planned investment in watershed management to sustain the ecosystem services and improve the well-being of the people living in the basin. This led to the development of the Nibuwa-Tankhuwa Watershed Plan with financial and technical assistance from ICIMOD.

Nibuwa-Tankhuwa Watershed (NTW), 73 km2 in area, is a small watershed fulfilling the water needs of more than 33,000 people. The watershed is rich in natural resources, is home to more than 80 species of flora and fauna, and provides essential ecosystem services to people in the watershed and downstream areas, including water for drinking and irrigation, fuelwood, and ecosystem services while also contributing to local development. However, the watershed services face several challenges due to climatic and socio-economic drivers.

In Dhankuta, the NTW Management Plan formulation process began with the creation of the Watershed and Springshed Management Committee, which included the mayor, chairperson and deputy mayor, vice chairpersons of municipalities, ward chairpersons, and local community representatives. ICIMOD provided financial and technical support to the local government for the preparation of the plan. The plan is based on research and participatory consultation between the communities and key stakeholders of the NTW from 2018–2020, supported by scientific data and methodologies. The plan builds on the sub-watershed management guidelines (2016) of the Department of Forest and Soil Conservation (DoFSC) with the addition of critical components such as springshed management and institutional mechanisms.

Removing plastics from the ponds
Removing plastics from the ponds for ground water recharge in Suke Pokhari, Dhankuta (Photo credit: Madhav Dhakal, ICIMOD)


Ensuring proper implementation

ICIMOD provided technical expertise in developing the watershed management plan document as well as facilitating the process. To ensure the long-term sustainability of the plan, however, it was important that we step away from a leadership role and to mark this important step in local ownership, the stakeholders engaged in a hand-over event in 2021.

Hands on training on implementing recharge interventions
Hands-on training on implementing recharge interventions. (Photo credit Kripa Shrestha, ICIMOD)


The Watershed Management Committee also identified a demonstration and learning site in the watershed where spring revival activities (using a six-step protocol we had developed and are promoting) and field implementation will take place targeting few critical springs. Further, we organised a plantation campaign in collaboration with the Dhankuta Municipality, Chhathar Jorpati Rural Municipality, Divisional Forest Office, Soil Conservation and Watershed Management Office, Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal, Community Forest User Groups, local community members, and security officials of Dhankuta. Several planned activities within the watershed will be jointly implemented by stakeholders according to their budget and annual plans.

The Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer of Dhankuta
The Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer of Dhankuta inaugurating the one-week plantation campaign in Dhankuta.


Community ownership and engagement is key

Convergence among diverse stakeholders and different line agencies is crucial to have a common understanding of the water issues, to seek solutions, and to leverage funds for implementing any water management plan. Most importantly, community and stakeholder ownership will ensure water management is more sustainable. In Dhankuta, the local government, has taken ownership of the Nibuwa-Tankhuwa Watershed Management Plan and has committed to integrating watershed management activities into their annual plan and allocated budget for its implementation. In addition, the relevant line agencies and local stakeholders have committed to working together to minimise duplication in implementing similar activities.

In the face of water scarcity, collaboration among different stakeholders is key to effectively conserving the watersheds in which we live and protecting their ecosystems.


KRIPA SHRESTHAKRIPA SHRESTHAResearch Associate – Ecosystems
NABIN BHATTARAINABIN BHATTARAIForest Land Restoration & REDD Research Associate
MADHAV PRASAD DHAKALHydrological Analyst

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