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Groundwater: Making the invisible visible

Pema Gyamtsho

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A woman collects water from a spring in Bajhang, Nepal. Springs, which are essentially naturally flowing groundwater, are a major source of water for mountain communities. (Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD)
When we talk about the abundant freshwater resources of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH), we normally think of snow- and glacier-fed rivers systems and rarely of another perhaps equally important but often neglected water resource: groundwater. This hidden treasure plays a crucial role in sustaining ecosystems, maintaining river baseflow, and preventing land subsidence and sea water intrusion. In the HKH, groundwater plays a significant role in nourishment, agriculture (contributing 60% of irrigation water), sanitation, industry, cultural practices, hydrological balance, and climate change adaptation – and yet we have largely neglected this water resource in our research and water management practices and policies. Fittingly, this year’s World Water Day theme is “Groundwater: Making the invisible visible”, which turns the spotlight on preserving aquifers, promoting groundwater recharge, and ensuring sustainable water use.

 

Multiple benefits, multiple threats

The importance of mountain groundwater is not confined to the mountains; it helps maintain baseflow downstream during dry periods by recharging the lowland groundwater system and feeding the basin aquifer. Springs, which are essentially naturally flowing groundwater, allow communities to access the water stored in aquifers for consumption and dry-season agriculture. Mountain springs generate streamflow for non-glaciated catchments and maintain the winter and dry-season flows, in addition to contributing to the baseflow of many rivers in the region. But groundwater is depleting, and this leads to a host of problems.

With climate change, water resources in the HKH region are likely to face acute stress in the future. Further, rapid and unplanned urbanization, changes in land use, growing climate variability, and changes in precipitation are resulting in decreased groundwater recharge. The resulting river flow reduction and drying up of springs and wetlands means water scarcity both upstream and downstream. This poses grave challenges to food security, economic activity, and ecosystem balance.

To make matters worse, we are witnessing the dismantling of natural safeguards: the encroachment into and degradation of natural water bodies (springs, ponds, lakes, canals, and rivers) and the growing disappearance of traditional water systems (stone spouts, wells, and local water tanks). This degradation and reclamation of water bodies affect wetland ecosystems and reduce retention capacities that prevent flooding and land subsidence.

As all these changes happen out of our sight, the issue of groundwater depletion perhaps goes under the radar. But the wellbeing of millions of people in the HKH is at stake.

 

Sustainable, community-first approaches

At ICIMOD, we emphasize approaches to ensure sustainable use and management of water resources, with strong participation of women and poor and marginalized groups in decision making. We believe that the sustainable management of groundwater can help adaptation to changing water availability. Our experience has shown that small-scale interventions to store water during wet periods and discharging it during the dry period can help communities cope with water scarcity. We have developed a protocol for reviving springs to help identify recharge areas through hydrogeological investigations and small-scale community-based interventions in springsheds to increase groundwater recharge. Such small-scale interventions are a sustainable and cost-effective way to ensure water availability.

ICIMOD’s six-step protocol for reviving springs
ICIMOD’s six-step protocol for reviving springs in the HKH combines hydrogeology with social sciences and community action. It can be used both as a research tool and to prepare detailed local implementation plans for spring revival – and by extension, groundwater recharge. See the poster here.

 

A lot still needs to be done in the area of groundwater in the HKH. Mountain aquifers and groundwater hydrology are still scarcely studied, and integrated water management approaches are largely sidelined. Significant gaps exist in our understanding of high mountain groundwater because of limited data and quantitative assessment. This makes it difficult to assess how river hydrology and water supply would respond to the changing climatic conditions and other anthropogenic changes. The region needs to prioritize research on groundwater resources, for which we need to raise awareness about their importance beyond water utilities and attract investments in science-based groundwater management.

 

Holistic policy focus

We need to ensure that our water use is sustainable and our water sources diversified, lifting the pressures on groundwater. Equitable access, sustainability, and ecosystem restoration need to be at the heart of water governance. We need holistic water management approaches – which would include groundwater conservation, springshed management, efficient water storage and use, and planned adaptation – that consider the broader interlinkages of mountain water, environment, and energy needs.

Springs across the mountains are drying up or becoming seasonal – leading to acute water stress, agricultural land abandonment, and outmigration – and overextraction of groundwater in urban areas is a concern. These issues need an explicit policy focus along with support for community-based springshed conservation. This support can be part of national and local climate adaptation plans.

The theme for this year’s World Water Day reminds us about the importance of groundwater and the need to conserve this out-of-sight, under-our-feet hidden treasure to secure sustainable water supply for mountain communities and people downstream in the HKH region and beyond. Let us all work to make this invaluable resource – and its importance, sustainable use, and preservation – very visible and prominent in public awareness and in our actions going forward.

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