“There is a water shortage in our district, what can we do?” asked Sri Chandi Prasad Bhatt, a pioneering and award winning environmental activist from the Himalayas, when meeting a delegation from IUCN in Gopeshwar, India
Gopeshwar is in the Balkila watershed, in the hills below the towering peaks of the Himalayas, where the mighty Ganges river takes birth. The watershed descends from 4000mts and is home to small farming communities where the way of life is changing fast. The economic engine of the north Indian plains is pulling people away just as the effects of decades of overuse of natural resources are becoming apparent. Added to this is the unfolding impact of climate change. People are becoming aware of shifts in the climate – and maybe it is the wakeup call everyone needs.
Ganesh Pangare, IUCN Asia Water and Wetlands Coordinator, explained “across the Himalayan region in India, people are noticing drying springs. For hillside communities, this is a silent catastrophe. Where will people find the water they need? Women and girls end up walking long distances to fetch water, up and down steep slopes, with heavy loads, taking hours out of every day.”
Just why the springs are drying up is not a simple matter. Changes in precipitation patterns may be one factor, but locals also point a finger at the decline of the watershed’s forests. The Forest Department of the Uttarakhand State has responded by promoting soil and water conservation with local farmers, and communities have organized to replant local broad-leaved species, like the deodar (cedar) and oak lost in decades past.
There is growing recognition that these responses are not enough. Chandi Prasad, Chair of Dasholi Gram Swarajaya Mandal (DGSM), an NGO based in Gopeshwar, is a prominent advocate of community-led development and protection of the environment. “We are worried about what will happen here in the coming years,” he says, “because climate change is going to make our water problems worse.”
All this is happening while communities are facing social and economic change too. “Coping with change will mean that communities in the Balkila, as in all high mountain regions around the world, will have to ensure they organize themselves to adapt,” says Mark Smith, Head of the IUCN Water Programme. “New kinds of cooperation are needed, to manage watersheds and solve local water problems, but also to make sure people have livelihoods that are resilient, and can cope with new social, economic and environmental realities.”
To find out what it will take to do this, the IUCN Water and Nature Initiative is joining a coalition in the Balkila alongside the Uttarakhand Forest Department, DGSM and others. The aim is to help communities in the Balkila learn how water management can be used to build climate resilience and to use these lessons to help other mountain regions do the same.