A Silent Battle:
Water Scarcity in a Glacial Valley
Uncovering the adverse effects of water scarcity in Spiti and conservation efforts by community leaders
The Spiti Valley is a land of immense natural beauty, but within these barren, undulating valleys, a silent battle for survival rages. In this battle, there are no victors, only those who are resilient enough to survive.
This is the story of a glacial land facing challenges in water supply for irrigation, recharge of glacial dams and shortage of basic necessities, in a land that is one of the prime sources of water for the rest of the country.
The Impact Society
In Association with:
Rakesh Rao & Ishita Khanna
Pinkie Makhijani, Tenzin Tsering
From a cold arid desert
to an oasis
Located high above sea level, the valley receives scanty, unreliable rainfall. In this arid climate, snow is the only source of moisture. The summer months are dry, and the winter snow evaporates quickly under the unforgiving gaze of the sun.
Most villages draw fresh water from glaciers, or from springs that emerge naturally from the ground – often the only lifeline for the highland villages and communities that have little or no access to the rivers flowing through the valley below. These springs are fed by aquifers - a system of rocks and rocky material which store and feed water into the springs with the melting of the winter snow.
Agriculture is the main source of livelihood in the Spiti Valley, but is typically restricted to one crop a year, and is solely dependent on the winter snowmelt for irrigation. The main crop in the region is green peas, a water-intensive crop that accounts for much of the agricultural income of the region.
Picture Credits: Pinkie Makhijani
Winter lasts for half the year and brings frigid winds and temperatures that drop to below -30 C. In these temperatures, these rivers, glaciers and springs freeze over, leaving the little over 12,000 inhabitants of the Valley limited time and resources within which to earn the year’s livelihood.
Water is a scarce resource in the Valley, and so is agricultural land. A delicate balance of humanity working in tandem with - and sometimes in direct opposition to - the forces of nature, survival in the Spiti Valley is a test of human resilience. However, as climate change worsens globally, and freak weather conditions increasingly become the norm, this delicate balance is disrupted, leading to crop failures. This is further accentuated by the limited availability of alternative cash-based incomes to supplement agricultural incomes, leaving the community as a whole impoverished.
An Unstoppable Enemy:
The Trans-Himalayan region is spectacular in its beauty but has a fragile disposition. As global communities pump toxins into the air and pollute their waters, raising global temperatures and shifting weather conditions, it is these middle lands of natural splendour that must bear the burden.
At the frontlines of climate change, Spiti has recorded decreasing snowfall with every passing season, leading to a scarcity of water not just in the summer, but over the cold winter season too.
Picture Credits: Priyanshi Reshma
Depleting Ground Water &
Most villages in the Spiti Valley are directly dependent on springs for their drinking water, as well as for domestic and agricultural use. However, recent times have seen these springs recede, following changes in the rate and pattern of snowfall which would have once replenished and reinvigorated the springs. The change is so rapid that springs that once gushed with life-reinforcing water now lay barren, devoid of harvestable water.
The house itself was an unassuming brown structure, not dissimilar to the others in the area. However, this modest home housed many secrets, and just as many tales of ancestral knowledge hidden within its walls.
It is also a common occurrence for spring discharge levels to drop drastically before the end of the agricultural season, leading to crop failures and leaving the community with limited to no sources of income.
"Back in those days people used to help each other make homes and live in harmony as a community, with no money involved whatsoever. Once the home was made, everyone used to come along for a feast, while today that spirit is lost"
Picture Credits: Pinkie Makhijani
Walk for Water
Due to the widespread unavailability of drinking water, villagers are faced with the daunting, and sometimes life-threatening challenge of having to walk for kilometres every day to access water for cooking, household activities, livestock and for personal hygiene.
Often, this means embarking on an arduous journey down to the river bed, where a single person must collect 20 litres of water, which must be carried back to the village strung upon their backs. The water collected will only last about a day and will serve only one family. The lucky few who own livestock can carry water on donkey-back. However, most families cannot afford this luxury and must endure a treacherous walk down to the river and back up to the village, carrying heavy cans of water on their backs.
In the winters, villagers often have to resort to melting snow – a workaround that is only possible in the years when the region received adequate snowfall.
On the Frontlines:
Spiti Ecosphere Impact Interventions
While the predicament is indeed dire, the locals are not alone in this battle against the elements. The Impact Society is proud to have partnered with Spiti Ecosphere, a social enterprise and collaborative effort by the local community and professionals from diverse backgrounds towards conserving the natural and cultural integrity of the region.
With a commitment not only to the development of the region, its people and resources but also to the outside world, Ecosphere endeavours to provide an opportunity to all, to become active participants in giving back to the region through a range of activities and interventions to enhance local economies, connect with nature and promote cultural conservation and overall development of the region.
As part of their efforts, Ecosphere has introduced a number of interventions to mitigate the effects of water scarcity.
Picture Credits: Pooja Naik
Understanding the hydro-geology of a region is key to managing and preserving groundwater resources. Ecosphere has conducted hydrogeological assessments in 6 villages in collaboration with ACWADAM (the leading institute in the country working on groundwater management).
In these villages, aquifer recharge areas have been identified that feed the springs and handpumps in the villages. Once recharge areas are identified, structures like trenches, percolation pits, and more can be dug out or built to trap surface run-off and snow to induce recharge.
Members of the team have been trained as barefoot hydro-geologists, enabling them to take on ground implementation easily at even the most remote locations in Spiti.
Picture Credits: Priyanshi Thakkar, Pooja Naik & Payal Kumar
Artificial Glaciers, Contour Trenches, Percolation Pits
In 2017, Spiti Ecosphere began a pilot intervention in the worst affected village of Demul. Building a series of check-dams along a stream lying in the spring-shed of a number of springs, the objective was to build an artificial glacier in the village of Demul. The project saw the building of a series of 13 check-dams to form an artificial glacier, and over 15 trenches dug in Demul.
The subsequent winter season came with no snowfall. The artificial glacier, however, came to the rescue during the summer of 2018, leaving the springs in the spring-shed of the glacier unaffected. Just 2 years prior in 2016, they had shown signs of reduced flow due to the limited snowfall experienced in the previous winter.
In 2018, this was taken a step further, and contour trenches were dug in the village of Demul along one of the spring recharge zones. In more recent times, a percolation pit was installed in Chicham in 2020.
Wherever you looked, the house demonstrated its unique connection with sustainability and ancestral knowledge.
Solar Water Pumps
The collection of water is one of the most repetitive, physically demanding and time-consuming tasks of village life. In a place like Spiti, characterized by harsh weather conditions and low oxygen levels, this back-breaking task is compounded a thousand times over.
Sources of drinking water are at a significant distance from most villages in Spiti - especially in the winters when most water sources freeze over. Spiti Ecosphere to achieve universal and equitable access to drinking water via the installation of solar water pumps.
Once pumped, the water is stored in large tanks within a solar-passive building, which ensures that water does not freeze over in the winter months. These water storage facilities have been built at a central location with easy access for the whole village.
Bringing water closer to homes reduces the time and energy spent on collecting water- especially in the bitter cold of the winter, and has significantly reduced drudgery and improved quality of life for the locals. Moreover, the additional time available enables communities to invest in other productive activities throughout the year, such as childcare, education, and opportunities for supplemented income. Easier access to clean water also enables enhanced personal hygiene, reduction in water-related diseases, and overall improvement in community health and village sanitation.
Through these interventions, Ecosphere has successfully installed and built 4 solar water pumps and water storage facilities, and has provided 4 villages access to drinking water throughout the year.
Join the Fight Against
Water is life, and our partners at Spiti Ecosphere endeavour to provide drinking water access to each village in Spiti valley. However, sustainability does not occur in a silo.
The world needs more conservationists, naturalists, artists, thinkers and scientific minds to come together to solve the issues plaguing these fragile ecosystems, and every helping hand is worth a thousand lives saved.
Join us on this journey to uplift and preserve the lives and cultures of these fragile ecosystems.