The Water Hunger

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With modest rains and snow emerging a routine as glaciers disappear, Kashmir is already facing a serious groundwater crisis, reports Muhammad Younis

Making river water fit for drinking is not so easy. First, the womenfolk collect the water with least muck content, then they give their pitchers some rest to speed-up sedimentation, then they filter it out and finally boil it. Finally, it becomes suitable for drinking, cooking and other purposes now.

Hajira is one such woman who has all this as part of her routine. Living in Kadlibal, near Awantipora, the village survives on the discharge of Aarpal, a rivulet, on the banks of which her home is. Fed by the glacial-melt on mountains of Tral, this stream fulfils the water requirements of many villages.

Coming a long way from Tral, as the rivulet meanders through places, inhabited by people, it brings along a lot of dirt and the sewage. Making this dirty water fit for use has now become a routine in Kadlabal that lacks an alternative.

“There is no arrangement for pure water supply in our village, so we have been using the river water,” Hajira said.

Aware of the problem the residents were facing, the Public Health Engineering (PHE) department drilled three automatic artesian wells in Kadlibal.

“These wells rid us from using the dirty water of the rivulet, and on the contrary, it made possible our access to crystal clear water… it was like a new lease of life,” said Khursheed Ahmad.

Draining out millions of gallons of water, the wells used to be functional round the clock. Unfortunately, the source of the villager’s glee couldn’t last long. Some four years ago, all of a sudden, all the three wells, dried up, one after the other.

“When the wells dried up, we again had to use the flowing. And given the surge of population situated upstream, it has naturally become more polluted now than it was a decade or so ago. And on the other hand, the stream has also started flowing close to the bed,” Khursheed added.

Jammu and Kashmir has three sources of water: springs, river and underground water. And precipitation, rainfall and snow, take care of all three of them.

A few decades back, surface water was the prime source in Kashmir to meet the daily requirements of people and groundwater was reserved as a valuable treasure for odd days. Given the pollution of water bodies nowadays, it is the latter that is bearing the brunt for some period now. A matter of misfortune is that it has also started depleting now. The “drying up” of wells and thousands of springs is the proof of receding down of water table in Kashmir.

Surface percolation is the only way through which the level of groundwater is replenished: the more there is precipitation, the better would be the level of groundwater. But for a few decades now, Kashmir is witnessing inadequate rainfall and snow, experts say.

Analysing the available records since 1886, experts believe that a significant amount of rainfalls have now reduced. “In the last season, 93% of the deficit was recorded in the rainfall. And 85% deficit, taking into the account the rainfall of last week, was witnessed in the current one,” earth scientist Shakeel Romshoo, said.

Kashmir is witnessing a significant reduction in the required 200 mm autumn rainfall since 2010. “Since 2010, it is continually running below the normal,” Ramshoo said. In the quarter ending December 2017, Kashmir witnessed dry weather due to which the water level in the river Jhelum touched the lowest in the last nearly two decades. “It was the lowest water level in last 15 years, which is a very worrying trend,” Chief Engineer, I&FC Abdul Wahid said.

During winter, it used to snow abundantly in Kashmir. Accumulating into glaciers, the snowmelt would gradually percolate underneath the earth and refill the groundwater. But for some period now, it doesn’t snow with adequate quantity now. The glaciers, which receive no addition, have started to shrink because of the soaring temperature.

Except for last year, when it snowed 50% above the normal, the valley is witnessing a downward trend. “The normal snowfall that we should receive every year is 325mm, we are seeing a very small quantity of it,” Romshoo said.

“And the matter of concern is that when the glaciers don’t see new layers of snow accumulating on them every year, the old ones start to melt… and according to our studies, we have lost 20 to 23% of glacier cover by now,” Ramshoo said.

In Ladakh region, according to Wahid, a resident of Drass, where glaciers used to be 10 km long, now have reduced to mere 2 km or less. “The glaciers come into being after a gradual snow accumulation of 100 years, and the trend of seeing them depleting so quickly is a matter of great concern,” Wahid said.

In India, Ramshoo said, “by 2030 half of demand for water in India will not be fulfilled.” It has already started disturbing the life and occupations of people in Punjab, where the water table has gone too deep.

Kashmir is facing the water table crisis but is still far better. Ramshoo says slumber is not the answer. “People and government should take some precautionary measures. Otherwise, we might also have to see a big problem in the near future,” he insisted. Some of Kashmir’s Kandi areas like Handwara, Kupwara, Rajouri and Poonch, the people have already started finding a great difficulty to get adequate water supplies for their crops and kitchens.

J&K doesn’t have any significant dearth of groundwater but there is lack of infrastructure. “First there must be a sustainable use of water, and then techniques like rainwater harvesting could be introduced to replenish the water table. But these techniques, unfortunately, aren’t being made available,” Ramshoo said.

The increase in temperature triggering shrinkage of glaciers is a global process, and it has to be dealt on an international scale. But, Ramshoo says, that doesn’t exclude local contributions at individual levels. “We could plant more and more trees, which would first help in retaining the moisture in the soil, and second it reduces the amount of carbon dioxide, the main agent that helps in increasing the temperature of the earth.”

On the governance level, he said the government could demark eco-fragile zones for the construction of buildings, and this, in turn, would lessen people going to upper reaches for the same purpose. In Bandipora, Kupwara, Qazigund, and Pahalgam, he said that people have started inhabiting the upper reaches. “By constructing houses at such places results into increase in the temperature… and also encourages deforestation.”

The second method on a government level is a mass transit of vehicles. “The laying of metros could reduce a great number of vehicles from roads, which in turn would reduce the temperature-increasing gases. The consequences would be less runoff and more percolation.”

 

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