Freshwater in India; A Looming Catastrophe?

At the time of writing in 2009 people in over 200 of Uttarakhand's villages went to their regular perennial springs and water collection points and found that through June and July these had either dwindled massively or stopped altogether. Northern India is blessed with great freshwater resources.


The Ganges-Indus-Brahmaputra alluvial flood-basins make up one of the largest groundwater reservoirs in the entire world. Whilst it is the annual monsoon rainfall that provides the bulk of the input to this hydrological cycle, the vast unmatched mountain glaciers in the Himalayas, ‘the water towers of Asia’, ensure the continuous flow of the mighty life-giving rivers.

The glaciers of Uttarakhand, such as the Gangotri, Milam and Pidari, feed a huge part of the Ganga river basin, which acts as unique reservoir supporting the mighty perennial rivers such as the Ganga and Yamuna during the dry seasons, which in turn are the lifelines of hundreds of millions of people.


Runoff from these glaciers, along with snowmelt and the water-basins maintained by forest cover provide communities downstream with year-round water for drinking, irrigation, industry, and are extremely important for maintaining river and riparian habitats.


However the estimate by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 1996) predicts that half of all mountain glaciers will have vanished by the turn of the next century.


The evidence that Himalayan glaciers are shrinking at an unprecedented rate, almost certainly due to climate change, has catastrophic implications for the inhabitants of South and East Asia, by far the most densely populated area in the world. The impacts are expected to hit the poorest of people first and hardest, but will undoubtedly the effects will be far-ranging, also threatening agriculture, hydro-electricity generation and the economy.


Against this alarming backdrop of glacier shrinkage and climate change, it highlights how important it is to protect clean, healthy river systems from other man-made threats and pollution.


Rapidly developing activities cause ever increasing environmental pressure on such vital river systems, and India now suffers more from chronic river pollution than most places of the world already.


Organic and inorganic pollution of river water such as from, industrial, agricultural, sewage and garbage is known to have dire consequences for point and downstream sources including the contamination of water until it cannot be used for drinking, watering crops or anything else, and that any ecosystem within a river can vanish entirely and permanently.


Extremely harmful pollutants such as PCB’s and heavy metals are now starting to be traced from rivers and lakes to fruit and vegetables, and to human mother’s milk. A comprehensive investigation would without doubt find the current health impact of freshwater pollution on the health of India’s population is already enormous.


That these pollutants are extremely harmful is evident from their effectiveness at wiping out natural freshwater ecosystems.

Freshwater eco-systems are also massively damaged by hydro-electric dams, deforestation in catchment areas and irrigation canals reducing the water levels and hindering fish movement to breeding and spawning grounds. Infrastructure projects and agricultural practises can also have extremely negative impacts on fish populations, contributing silt particles and destroying spawning grounds and habitats for fish and invertebrates.


This premium on freshwater resources means that all rivers should be considered assets of utmost importance and that conservation, monitoring and management strategies are more important now than ever.


The Future of Forests in Uttarakhand

Forests are massively important areas for so many reasons. Perhaps there most crucial role is in capturing and storing the ever increasing amount of CO2 emitted by human activities that now threatens to lead the world into hard-to-predict catastrophic climatic events.


Forests also regulate existing climates in many ways, being essential for maintaining water-tables, preventing erosion and increasing fertility of soil. Likewise they harbour the areas of highest animal diversity, and provide habitats for some of the world’s rarest and most iconic species.


In the rural parts of Indian Sub-continent and Asia, dead and green firewood is used as the primary, and often only, source of energy for cooking and heating. In Uttarakhand and other parts of the Himalayan states this will account for 80% of households.

In Uttarakhand’s great forests firewood collection may be the prime cause of forest degradation. Excessive lopping of green branches and harvesting of smaller living trees weakens the forest canopy, limits tree growth and harms the ability of forests to regenerate themselves.


The assessment of forest cover is often from aerial satellite images so this degradation often goes unnoticed, with many hardwood and coniferous tree species taking 80 years to 130 years to reach maturity. Forests being intensively used for firewood collection in this way can pass the minimum threshold for recovery before showing any apparent warnings.


Forest degradation damage is very damaging and often irreversible, with soil erosion washing away exposed fertile topsoil, affects river basins and water tables, contributes silt to river systems and exaggerates the effect of landslides and earthquakes in the mountains and the size of floods and flash floods.


Although firewood collection is a traditional activity, it also has a social cost. As forests become more degraded and the population increases over time, the amount of time needed to collect firewood also increases. In the last 25 years it is estimated that firewood collection now takes 60% longer in Himalayan India. More time collecting firewood leads to lower levels of schooling and child health, or time pursuing other farm activities or employment. Villages with higher poverty levels have been shown to be more dependent on firewood collection due to current unavailability of modern fuel substitutes.


It is then imperative that solution to this increasingly unsustainable practise must be found. Forests in Uttarakhand are therefore in great need of conservation and as they are also an integral source of livelihood for the vast majority of rural residents, determining how they are appropriately managed is both complex and urgent.


The Importance of Saving Our Wildlife

The Himalayan mountains are home to some of the most fragile and rich biodiversity spots in the world. The world’s highest mountain chain encompasses an unparalleled range of habitats consequently species its species composition is equally rich.


From the semi-tropical species such as the majestic Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) and dominating Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) in the jungles of the foothills to high altitude species such as the beautiful Himalayan Monal and mysterious Snow Leopard, the biodiversity in Uttarakhand and the Himalayas is as spectacular as its mountain scenery.


Conserving biodiversity has many direct benefits for people. However it is now clear that as a direct result of human civilization, the world’s plants and animals now face a never before seen threat of unnatural extinction. It is estimated that in the region of 50% of India’s mammals and reptiles are threatened by extinction, and the figure may be up to 70% for freshwater fish.


The threat in most cases is due to habitat destruction and degradation, chiefly through the conversion of natural areas to agricultural, industrial or residential areas, and for many species direct elimination via hunting, poaching or pesticides and poisoning.

Reduction in biodiversity has the potential to be harmful to agriculture (through pest control and pollination rates), in medicine research and development, to disease control and other ecological services, and for tourism and leisure.


Uttarakhand is a state that is still overwhelmingly rural and under-developed compared to many places, partly due to the inaccessibility of its mountainous terrain. Its variety of pristine habitats and the extraordinary diversity and rare species it harbours are part of extremely fragile eco-systems. As a general rule an often-quoted phrase with respect to biodiversity is that ‘if it pays, it stays’. With the colossal global human pressure that is perhaps most acute in India, conservation of our biodiversity can only take place if a natural areas and biodiversity can be used to benefit both wildlife and support the local human residents.


Non-extractive measures such as sustainable eco-tourism are now the last role of the dice for so many endangered species in Uttarakhand and elsewhere. In turn the great wild, untamed forests and grasslands of parks like Corbett, and the mythical beasts that roam them, can unwillingly provide livelihoods for their human neighbours.


Additionally biodiversity undoubtedly has immeasurable value in cultural and aesthetic terms, animal and plant life providing humans with perhaps more spiritual well-being than any other thing on earth. This value is obviously very high if the preferences of future generations are taken into account. So many of us find life-changing experiences when glimpsing the timeless spectacle of nature. Yet we must now all act in some small way or our generations to come will never get the chance.