What is the Future of Water Governance in the Himalayas?

Through a case study of water governance currently operational in one of the spring sheds in the Dhauladhar range in Himachal Pradesh, this article analyses issues related to water governance along with implications for policy and practice.

Water is increasingly becoming a scarce resource resulting in sociopolitical conflicts in many parts of the world (Kundzewicz et al 2007). Chronic stress on the environment due to water scarcity, hydrological disruptions, and extreme weather events (floods and droughts) are some of the biggest threats to global prosperity and stability. Hence, sustainable water security has been recognised as one of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) (Griggs et al 2013). This calls for better policy frameworks at the national and regional levels with effective and integrated water conservation, governance, and management. One of the initiatives in this direction has been the Global Water Partnership created in 1996 to develop policies for a water secure world (Bernex 2016). 

Although the Himalayan region is considered as the third pole and as the water tower of Asia (Xu et al 2009), it faces a peculiar situation of either too little or too much water. The critical ecosystem services provided by this region both for upstream and downstream communities, especially in the form of fresh water, have rarely been integrated with overall conservation and development planning (Regmi and Shrestha 2018). Water security does figure as one of the major strategies for mountain development in the Indian Himalayan region (MOEFCC 2017); but there are very few working models of water governance. This article presents a case study of water governance currently operational in one of the spring sheds[1] in the Dhauladhar range, Himachal Pradesh (north-west Himalaya). The article also analyses issues related to water governance in this watershed and implications for policy and practice.

The Case Study

A quid pro quo agreement was signed between Palampur municipal council (PMC) and villagers of Bohal in 2010 to conserve the forests that formed the recharge zone of the Bohal spring. Efforts of the villagers not only transformed the ecology of once degraded land, but also led to a renewed flow of the spring water. 

A view of Palampur town from the Bohal village.

In the lap of the picturesque Dhauladhar range in Himachal Pradesh, there lies a small hill station called Palampur. It is a municipal council under Kangra district. The town derives its name from the local word palum, meaning “lots of water.”  It is reported that the area had many springs and rivulets till mid-20th century (The Imperial Gazetteer of India nd). Considering the year-round availability of water and good rains, several tea gardens were established in the mid-19th century by the British. However, during the recent decades, with the changing climate, increasing urbanisation and sprawling tourism, most of the tea gardens and forests have deteriorated and several natural streams have dried up (Department of Environment, Science & Technology nd). Natural springs (locally known as baowris in Himachal Pradesh) have been the lifeline of the local people. With the increasing demand for water, a number of irrigation and public health (IPH) pipelines were laid to tap these streams. Despite the availability of the pipeline, many people still prefer to collect drinking water in cans, bottles, and buckets directly from the baowris. In the summer, when there is a shortage of tap water, people rely on these baowris.  One such baowri is located in a small village called Bohal, about 15 km upstream of Palampur town. Today, the baowri at Bohal village provides drinking water to approximately 5,000 local residents and a floating population of 10,000 in the downstream Palampur town.  

Bohal spring source
Pipeline line and water tank built at Bohal village by the PMC

The total catchment of the Bohal spring shed is about 286 hectares. The upper catchment of Bohal (recharge zone) is dominated by oak-rhododendron forest (159 ha) covering nearly 55% of the total catchment area. These forests not only support local livelihoods, but also contribute to soil enrichment, aquifer recharge, climate regulation, while serving as habitat for a variety of faunal assemblages. 

In the lower recharge zone of the Bohal spring, there are three hamlets, namely Bohal, Mandai and Odi which are part of Bandla panchayat inhabited by the Gaddis or the shepherd community (Census of India 2011). Gaddis are agro-pastoralists, heavily dependent on forests for fodder and fuel wood.   

Past records reveal that PMC purchased the rights to use spring water from the villagers in 1952 (Agarwal et al 2007). The forests in the upper recharge zone fall under the jurisdiction of the state forest department (Baniyal 2010). In the 1990s, the flow of spring discharge reduced and this resulted in a shortage of drinking water in Palampur town downstream. Spring discharge was approximately eight litres/second in the early 1950s and decreased to about one–two litres /second in 1990s (Agarwal et al 2007; Joshi and Dev 2016). This became a cause of concern for all those benefiting from spring (Agarwal et al 2007). It was found that excessive lopping for fuel wood and fodder by the villagers upstream had led to the degradation of forests around Bohal. This also affected the aquifer recharge which was the root cause of reduced water supply. 

The solution came in the form of a reciprocal water access system or payment for ecosystem services (PES) (Department of Forests 2013). 

Memorandum of Agreement signed between VFDS and PMC

With the initial funding support from Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), a stakeholders forum comprising of the representatives of the state forest department, the IPH department, village panchayat, and a village forest development society (VFDS) was established. Subsequently a memorandum of agreement was signed between the PMC and the VFDS in 2010 for a period of 20 years (GIZ 2011).  The aim of the agreement was to manage and conserve the upstream forests through VFDS, so that the spring recharge could be maintained. A hydrogeological study of the spring shed done by the Pune based agency Advanced Center for Water Resources Development and Management revealed that in order to maintain a continuous flow of spring discharge, it is essential to conserve the upstream forests. It was agreed that the PMC would support the VFDS financially by paying a sum of Rs 10,000 per year with a 10% increase every five years and that it would conduct capacity building programmes for the villagers. The PMC constructed a water tank in the village to collect spring water and installed pipelines from Bohal to Palampur. At the same time, the VFDS was given the freedom to develop a management plan with inputs from the forest department and GIZ. Out of 66 families, 60 agreed to be members of the VFDS and confirmed their active participation in forest conservation activities. 

Meeting of the villagers with Head of the VFDS regarding forest management

The inhabitants of Bohal area framed their own rules which formed a part of VFDS’ 20-year management plan. These included a complete ban on livestock grazing and cutting of green wood in the conserved forests and a ban on cutting and lopping the green branches. Only the collection of dead and fallen wood was allowed. The collection of leaf fodder and grasses was restricted to 15 and six days in a year respectively and that too on a rotational basis. Only one person per family was allowed to collect fodder and fuel wood. A fine was imposed on anyone found guilty of not following the rules. The villagers followed these self-imposed rules strictly and also engaged one forest guard to make sure that these rules were followed. 

It is not surprising that the voluntary action and effective governance paid dividends and within a few years, nature bounced back. The degraded scrub turned into lush green forest within seven to eight years (Joshi and Dev 2016). Rejuvenation of forests has resulted in improved spring recharge, and flow of resources like fuel wood, fodder, and non-timber forest produce sustaining the livelihood of the rural communities (Uniyal and Rawat 2018). Reportedly, both the villagers as well as downstream authorities were quite satisfied with the improved situation. Without any extra pumping and filtration cost they received uninterrupted supply of fresh drinking water to their homes. 

Forest conserved by the villagers in the upper recharge zone of the Bohal spring

Current Scenario

Despite an impressive beginning, the VFDS of Bohal is currently struggling to maintain the institutional mechanism. Other than annual payment of Rs 10,000 from the PMC, it has no other source of income and this money is inadequate to pay the salary of the forest guard. For a few years, the VFDS did earn some extra income from imposing fines on the defaulters. However, it has proven extremely difficult to keep all stakeholders and interest groups together. It is seen that not all VFDS members take full responsibility and at times there are serious conflicts over resource use in the spring shed. The PMC and other line agencies responsible for forest and watershed development are rather unconcerned about the emerging problems. In the meantime, the forest fringe areas and pastures have been infested by invasive species like Ageratina eupatorium. Heavy infestation by such species can be harmful to the ecology. It is feared that the mechanism of PES and the model of water governance implemented in Bohal spring shed will soon fall apart unless urgent corrective measures are taken.      

Policy Implications and the Way Forward

It is sad to see that the working model of PES set up by the water warriors of Bohal is now in a state of neglect. This would certainly reflect incompetence of our governance in terms of meeting the SDG of ensuring the conservation, restoration, and sustainable use of terrestrial and inland freshwater ecosystems. The National Policy for Conservation, Management and Sustainable Development of Mountain Resources and Livelihoods recognises the dwindling condition of water resources, especially springs, in the Himalayan region and highlights that issues related to soil and water conservation, management of river basins, streams and springs have an important role in sustainable mountain development (MoEFCC 2017). Why, then, are the initiatives taken up in the past losing sheen? What is the missing link between implementation and long-term sustenance of a project? 

The missing link is the post implementation monitoring of such initiatives and the lack of a well-framed exit policy. It is high time that the policy gaps identified in the post implementation phase of PES in Bohal are rectified. This can be done by defining a proactive role for the PMC and other line agencies in handholding of community-based institution like the VFDS. These agencies must help the VFDS in generating the income and revise the PES for water services. Overall, there is a need to restore the degraded forests and monitor the programme consistently.

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