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FEATURE: Himalayan land rush and climate change affect local people’s access to water

Once-idyllic Himalayan beauty spots are now experiencing changes in rainfall patterns, adding pressure to rapidly urbanising areas and leaving local residents in need of urgent measures to secure their freshwater supplies. Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group (GEAG) reports from Mukteshwar on how climate change is worsening the urbansation-induced problems and in turn impacting water security in Uttarakhand, India.

Hills are a dream for many urban property buyers, who imagine their holiday home there. Mukteshwar is a pleasing destination situated at an elevation of 2,285 metres above sea level in the Nainital district of Uttarakhand. This cluster of villages around the Mukteshwar temple in the Kumaon hills is a tourist’s paradise and presents a breathtaking view of the lofty, snow-capped Himalayan mountain range. Tourists prefer it over nearby areas such as Nainital, Almora and Ranikhet because of its unblemished, pristine splendour.

However, the place whose name is derived from the sacred Shiva temple is fast losing its long-known charms to unplanned urbanisation. The area has seen an increasing influx of people who are seeking hillside properties. One of the main reasons that the area is set for a tough ride ahead is the rapid land use changes that began in the 1980s and have been fast-tracked since 2000. There has been a rapid proliferation of tourist complexes, resorts, hotels, and private cottages into which urbanites from faraway places such as Delhi and Mumbai throng for weekend breaks and short vacations.

Some are not satisfied with experiencing nature’s beauty from a hotel and want to own a property in the area. For this escape from the humdrum of everyday mega-city life, they are even ready to deal with a maze of local by-laws if need be.

Hill stations are no longer a dream for such buyers. The shifting flow of people between Mukteshwar and urban centres carried by the idea of the ‘great hill station getaway’ has affected the health of the hills unfavourably. The local residents know the mountains’ torment all too well and are particularly perturbed by the implications of land use changes on water availability. The rapid conversion of land, driven by amenity-led migration, wherein the migration is led by aesthetic rather than economic reasons has had its perils (Chipeniuk, 2004: Moss, 2008; Perlik 2011).

The highest land prices are increasingly attached to parcels of land served by spring water, followed by those with a good view of the snow clad Himalayas. New tourist resorts and complexes are sprouting and the up-market resorts are perched in the upper reaches of the area. The lower reaches are seeing a lot of construction in progress. The fragile ecosystem of the area with its pine, deodar, rhododendron, oak and even fruit orchards is being destroyed due to indiscriminate construction.

Communities across mountain regions of India, including in Mukteshwar in the Himalayas, source their drinking and domestic water supply from springs. The springs are formed where the groundwater table intersects with the land’s surface. In this area, such springs generally have a catchment area of about 2-3 hectares.

Communities act as custodians of springs, which not only supply safe drinking water round the year but also feed rivers and maintain the ecosystems. The sources are managed collectively and people’s access is institutionalised on the basis of customary laws.

However, environmental degradation, land use changes and the resultant increase in water demand, together with climate change, pose a threat to this resource. Buyers are more and more inclined to buy plots which have a spring source and are shelling out higher amounts for that. Once the plots are sold off, the local residents lose access to the springs.

CHIRAG, a local NGO, had been taking effective steps to enhance the spring discharge, address deteriorating water quality, deal with water scarcity and protect the area’s biodiversity and ecosystems. CHIRAG supported communities to identify the catchment areas of springs, conduct hydro-geological surveys and monitor the springs’ discharge. The efforts at monitoring and recharging the springs were, however, discontinued in the area when locals continued to sell lands to settlers.

Appropriation of water

The discharge in the springs downstream has been affected by increased withdrawals of groundwater upstream by big cottages, tourist resorts and hotels.

“The big houses located in Mukteshwar [belong to] the outsiders, the small houses are of the locals”, says a resident of Letey Bhunga, one of the villages in the area. They bribe the lineman – who is in charge of water delivery from the piped network to release water to serve them. The lineman therefore deliberately holds back the supply of water and waits to be bribed. Local residents, unable to match the outsiders in their capacity to bribe, once again lose out in their access to water.

This redistribution of water from local residents to settlers is explained by Vishal Narain as follows: “We need to see issues of peri-urban water security not only in terms of the physical flows of water from the peri-urban or rural areas to the urban areas; but also as represented by the physical movement of urban residents into the peri-urban spaces, giving rise to land use change and a re-appropriation of water.”

Many locals are increasingly reliant on water brought in from the adjoining areas, particularly during summers from Kosi river or from perennial streams via water tankers. Water is sold at prices varying from Rs. 3-5 a litre.

Climate change compounds pressure on water supplies

Together, climate change is compounding the problems of urbanisation to affect the water security of the residents of Mukteshwar. Local accounts suggest that the intensity of winters is declining, snowfall and rainfall are reduced and the seasonal distribution of rainfall has changed – all pointers to climate change and variability. This also helps to explain the poor recharge of springs. While the demand side has shown an upward trend with higher demand for spring water, on the supply side there has been a reduction: as reduced precipitation decreased the recharge of the springs. This has also led to a shift in the cropping pattern away from grains to fruits and vegetables.

The locals here are on the frontlines of climate change. Their water security is adversely affected by rural-urban links and the influx of urbanites, which brings about land use change. They can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines. “Protection and maintenance of remaining spring sources and catchments needs to be prioritised. We are in the meanwhile continuing our work in this area on community-based, scientific approach to spring-shed management to restore springs and increase water supply. There is an urgent need to prepare a revised and comprehensive master plan to stop the alarming nature of violations of land use in the fragile mountain region,” says Bhupal Bisht of CHIRAG.



This blog has been produced by Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group (GEAG) based on a case study on “Changing land use and growing water insecurity in Mukteshwar” by Dr Vishal Narain, as part of the Knowledge Brokering Project on Peri-Urban Ecosystems for Urban Climate Change Resilience: Addressing Knowledge and Capacity Gaps, supported by CDKN. Images of Mukteshwar, courtesy GEAG.

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