Vanishing WATERS of Uttarakhand

Published: September 2, 2009 - 13:09 Updated: September 2, 2009 - 13:12

Locals say there were thousands of brooks flowing in this Himalayan region. Not anymore. What flows is often not fit for drinking

Uttarakhand, with its lush green hills, gurgling streams and brooks, seems an idyllic land, where human beings live in harmony with nature. Locals say there were thousands of brooks and streams flowing in this Himalayan region. Not anymore. Rivers across this pristine land are not the full-flowing, life-giving waters rushing down from the Himalayas but showing signs of heaviness, stagnation and slowness. There's scanty rainfall, hill streams and brooks are drying up and ancient water sources are getting depleted.

Construction of mega dams in Tanakpur on the India-Nepal border, and in Tehri, and submergence of vast areas of water bodies, forests, mountains and villages have contributed to pollution, and ecological degradation, including landslides. In Tehri, the great Bhagirathi has been trapped in tunnels, the Bhilangana which merges with Bhagirathi at Tehri has disappeared, and both the flowing rivers have been turned into stagnant reservoirs.

Even last year, while the discharge in Tauns River (a local name for Ganga) was 392 cubic metre per second (cu m/s), this year it has shrunk to 129 cu m/s. At Manerbhali, Garwhal, in August 2008, the discharge in Yamuna was 539 cu m/s which has gone down to 306 cu m/s. What does this persistent drying up of rivers portend for a land and its people for whom water is the basis of life?

The sluggishness of the Ganga and the Sharada is symptomatic of a deeper change. This involves taking water from a given water source through pipelines laid across the region connecting villages. Also, the installation of hand pumps along roads. It seems of little consequence to the authorities that the water in pipelines now comes in spurts and sometimes does not come at all. Or, that hand pumps which were once a lifeline are now drawing up polluted water.

Lok Kalyan Samiti, an NGO in Bageshwar district, ran tests on drinking water in various panchayats; it threw up hard-hitting facts. The water from about 90 sources across the region was found unfit for drinking. Though the hand pumps were fitted with filters, the water was not safe for human consumption. Interestingly, in most cases, the source of pollution were hand pumps! And, this is happening in the mountains where once pure naturally filtered, drinking mineral water would flow endlessly.

Says Bhaguli Devi, village 'pradhan' of Baijnath Dham, "There is no scheme for Swajal in our village nor any initiative by the government to provide water." Villagers are occupied the whole day collecting water from the river and neighbouring villages.

Waterborne diseases like jaundice and typhoid are spreading. The primary health centre (PHC) in Garud block, Baijnath district, registered 1,500 patients in the last three months reportedly suffering from effects of water pollution. There are reports of abject degradation of main rivers in the country, which are unfit for even agricultural purposes. Is Uttarakhand then only a small part of this larger problem? Does the hilly region require specific attention based on its unique topography, ecology and needs of the communities?

The paddy crop all over the country has been hit by drought. In Uttarakhand, the sowing has been delayed by two months. Vegetables are not being grown due to the absence of rain. In Bageshwar district, water in the rivers has diminished. This has led to panic among farmers who are now competing to draw out water for diverting it to their paddy fields. In this race, poor farmers lose out.

An age-old custom followed in villages in Uttarakhand is a poignant reminder. As part of marriage ceremonies, when a new bride comes to her husband's home, she is taken to the village stream to be 'introduced' to it. A conch is sounded and the stream is worshipped. This signifies the value of a relationship with the village stream that the bride would have to develop (something she has inherited originally in her childhood). It may be because of such traditions, handed down over centuries, that water sources in the hilly terrain of Uttarakhand have been protected and nourished. It is this innate and cultural wisdom that, perhaps, needs to be preserved to save this precious resource, rapidly vanishing away. But the political class cares two hoots.


Locals say there were thousands of brooks flowing in this Himalayan region. Not anymore. What flows is often not fit for drinking

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This story is from print issue of HardNews