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Paddy farmers in Panchkhal Valley east of Kathmandu were seen last monsoon  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 in July. Jhiku Khola, the lifeblood of this valley, did not have a normal flow  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 were still dry. 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 many places across the country rice plantation has been affected by delayed monsoon. In Dhankuta in eastern Nepal, only about half the paddy has been planted last monsoon. Hill farmers wait till the first week of August, and if still does not rain adequately, the drop in harvest doesn’t make it worthwhile.

The riddle for us was why the Jhiku Khola in Kavre was dry even in the middle of the monsoon. 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 ground water 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 representing High Himal and middle hills of Nepal even had to shift to lowlands because their springs had dried out. The village of Dhe in Upper Mustang in the trans Himalayan region lost its spring and the entire village relocated across the Kali Gandaki River. 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, and this means Panchkhal will suffer yet another winter, sixth year in a row, of acute water shortage. All this is indication that Panchkal, Ramechap, Taplejung are facing rainfall variability, most probably due to climate change.

Some other factors may also have contributed to low discharge in mountain springs. The expansion  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 ground water not only within Nepal but also across the border in India. But the case in the hills is different: water flows down due to gravity.

The springs  have ceased to flow in many places 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.

The Himalayan Mountains have been described as a ‘water tower’ that stores water as snow and ice and its melting in the dry season brings water to downstream areas. But it now seems like the Himalayan highlands are more like a gigantic sponge that stores ground water, and erratic rains can affect groundwater supply and affect a lot more people.

Until next time

Madhukar

This article has also been published in The Nepali Times, a national weekly.

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