Farmers in Panchkhal Valley east of Kathmandu have been seen this season carrying kerosene jerry cans to run water pumps to irrigate their paddy fields. Ordinarily that would not be surprising, but this was the middle of the monsoon.
At a time when streams here in Kavre district would be swollen, they were dry. Jhiku Khola, the lifeblood of this valley, did not have a normal flow this year even in August, behaving more like a season stream. Much of the upland rice terraces would have remained fallow if it hadn't been for the water pumps, which run on kerosene because of the electricity shortage.
Natural springs, which should have been gurgling with water are still dry this year. The monsoon has been arriving late by up to two weeks for the last few years, which is delaying rice plantation, reducing ripening time and harvests. In Dhankuta in eastern Nepal, only about half the paddy has been planted this monsoon. Hill farmers wait till the first week of August, and if it still does not rain adequately, the drop in harvest doesn't make plantation worthwhile.
The riddle for us was why the Jhiku Khola in Kavre was dry. Lakes, ponds, reservoirs, and aquifers in the hills are full in the four monsoon months even when only a fraction of the precipitation seeps underground to recharge groundwater. That groundwater seeping out of mountain slopes (mool) is what people in the hills depend on for their water needs.
Traditionally, Nepalis have names for three types of springs in the mountains: the more or less permanent sthayi mool at the foot of hills, the one that comes to life in July called asare mool and then the saune mool that bursts in August. The timing of springs indicates the extent to which the monsoon has replenished groundwater reserves in the hills.
After mid-September saune mool first begins to dwindle, whereas asare mool continues to flow for a longer period, sometimes even until November. Interestingly, the saune mool does not burst every year, and farmers know that in such a poor monsoon year bumper winter crops can never be expected as the streams too will dry out sooner.
There has been a reduction in groundwater recharge in many parts of the country in the last few years. Some villagers in the hills of Taplejung and Ramechhap even had to shift to lowlands because their springs had dried out. The village of Dhe in Upper Mustang lost its spring and the entire village is in the process of being relocated across the Kali Gandaki. Villagers can move, but when entire regions begin to suffer as is happening in Kavre, it requires serious new thinking.
Farmers in Panchkhal had to use water pumps because asare mool did not come to life even in the middle of the monsoon. It is unlikely that saune mool will appear this year, which means Panchkhal will suffer yet another winter, sixth year in a row, of acute water shortage. All this is indication that Panchkhal, Ramechhap, Taplejung are facing rainfall variability, most probably due to climate change.
Some other factors may also have contributed to low discharge in springs. The spread of road networks in the hills tends to disrupt natural drainage channels on slopes by diverting runoff elsewhere. The depletion of the groundwater table in the Tarai is being caused by over-extraction of groundwater not only within Nepal but also across the border. However, the case in the hills is different: water flows down due to gravity.
The springs have ceased to flow at a time when they are expected to be flowing in full capacity. If what is happening to springs is an indication of a fundamental shift in the timing of rainfall, its distribution, impacts of building road networks, and a lasting change in water regime, it will have major impact on hill agriculture. The crops we grow, the level of production, cropping cycle, dairy production, and overall food security will all be affected. It will take a long time before we adapt to the changed timing of the new water cycle.
Madhukar Upadhya is a watershed expert currently working as an adviser with Poverty Environment Initiative in Nepal.
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