Women from Raha village, using stream water that is nearly drying up.

Water sources dry up with warmer winters in the Himalayas

In the remote highland of Dolpo, in Nepal’s Himalayas, Darke Gurung scouts the pastures and finds the only spring water he has been using for the last 15 years. As he digs the earth, slowly droplets of water collect from the iced earth. After an hour, Darke manages to fill two 200 ml bottles of water. 

He and other herders keep their yaks —ox-like domesticated mammals— in this pasture, around 3000 m above sea level. Every November they inspect spring water that feeds more than 200 yaks in the mountain. 

But this November, the water has already dried up. “The snow is melting quicker than before, I am worried that the water here might dry up quickly,” says Darke. 

If the water dries up, the yaks can still eat snow, he explains. But this too has been scarce lately, as snow arrived later than usual this year. The herders are left with no other option than to search for water and snow in other pastures.

The Himalayas are the “abode of snow” with an estimated 54,000 glaciers and 6,000 rivers in Nepal. Yet Despite its water abundance and huge water potential, Nepal is still facing scarcity, as climate change dries up sources.

Warmer winters and less snowfall are the main drivers for the drying of spring water in the Himalayas, a recent 2021 paper by Nepal’s Tribhuvan University shows.

  • Read more from Sonam: Traditional yak herding declines as climate change warms up the Himalayas
  • The effects are already starting to show, as springs are drying up in 74 % of the 300 municipalities and rural municipalities in Nepal, a 2020 paper highlighted.

    Springwater is one of the main sources of water for drinking, cooking, agricultural purposes, and livestock. 80% of the 13 million hill and mountain people in Nepal rely on springs as their primary source of water, according to a 2017 report by ICIMOD

    Scientists say that Himalayan mountains are warming between 0.3-0.7°C faster than the global average. This means, there is rapid snowmelt, causing glaciers to shrink, increasing the danger of floods when glacial lakes burst.

    The situation is so critical that in certain areas, shortage of water has even forced villagers to relocate from their permanent settlement in Mustang, the neighboring region of Dolpo.

    But the cases here in Dolpo might be slightly different, says Madhukar Upadhya, a watershed expert from Utah State University, Logan. The herders have to constantly migrate to different pastures once the source of water is shortened down like Darke and his fellow herders.

    As Covid-19 spreads across the globe, the importance of access to clean water and hygiene is even more clear. Washing hands is one of the first defenses to control the spread of the virus, according to the World Health Organization.

    However, the grim reality in Dolpo is that almost every villager suffered from symptoms like covid- fever, cold and headache, with no health services at all. 

    One of Nepal’s largest regions with no road connectivity, and the nearest health service is a week walk.This Reports  52% of people don’t have handwashing facilities with soap and water at home. 

    Dr. Gyaltsen Dolpo responded, “washing hands and drinking boiled water was the only health precaution in remote areas. However,simple things such as washing hands in Dolpo are poorly practiced as access to water is poor.”

    Traditional water storage in Upper Dolpo called Chink is used for irrigation.

    Why are the sources drying up

    The locals have experienced a change in the temperature pattern in the last years in Dolpo. Typically, July and August were the warmest months, but now those temperatures are occurring in May and June. Winters appeared to be getting warmer as well according to the locals.

    Precipitation has decreased. While rain in this watershed usually occurs only in the four months of summer, the intensity of downpour has increased, causing flash floods along with steep areas of streams.

    “In higher mountains, their hydrology is guided by snow, which is less today. And the majority of the spring water is fed by snow—glacier melt,” said Madhukar Upadhya, a watershed expert from Utah State University, Logan, in an interview with the local media outlet Kantipur TV.

    Snowfall has decreased in the Phoksundo, Dolpo watershed, a 2019 USAID report says. Residents were accustomed to 1.5 m of snow during the winter months, but now snowfall reaches only 0.5 m. 

    Furthermore, the report states that snowfall typically occurs 6-7 months per year, but now is limited to only 2 months. Last year, the locals experienced no snowfall at all.

    Madhav Dhakal, hydrological analyst, water and air at ICIMOD, explains that the primary source of discharge spring water is snow and glaciers, which are now melting faster. The water, in turn, lasts less.

    On the other hand, seepage spring water that pours through small holes in the soil lasts longer, according to the Dhakal water expert. 

    On the other hand, Dhakal further explained that rocky terrain in high mountains has fewer chances of absorbing the rainfall. This aggravates the problem, as the only available water seeps through the rocks.  

    “While the issue of drying springs here is not clearly understood, locals attribute the disappearance to landslides, forest fires, soil erosion, and lack of groundwater recharge,” says Ang Bahadur Lama, PAANI project field coordinator.

    Experts suspect the drying up of springs is attributed to three major factors: human activities, climate change, and seismic events. But Madhav Dhakal thinks there might be additional factors since there is not enough data on the region’s soils.

    In these arid regions, the soil is already weak, which results in landslides and floods during monsoon time. These events also contribute to destroying spring water, says Madhav Dhakal, ICIMOD, water, and climate change expert.

    Bijer, Upper Dolpo where the access to the river is down streamlined.

    A daily challenge

    According to a JMP report, about 2.44 million people do not have access to an improved water source, especially in rural areas in Nepal. 

    They include piped water, boreholes or tube wells, protected dug wells, protected springs, rainwater, and packaged or delivered water.

    But here in Dolpo, the possibility of an improved water source is a luxury. For example, Phurba Sangmo, a local herder, has to travel an hour to the nearest river to fetch water from her house.

    Although there are seepage springs that feed the locals and the livestock, Wangchen says that the community suffers especially in the harvesting time. When there is not enough snow in the mountains, the springs dry up quicker than they used to last. 

    “Either we have to wait for the rain, or depend on the spring water or walk an hour to get the water down below,” says Wangchen.

    According to Wangchen most of the villagers have left agriculture, because of water scarcity. And for the last few months, there has been less snowfall. 

    The situation is so dire that Wangchen reports the livestock owners in his village have begun moving further upstream in search of more grassland. Pastures in the downstream area have decreased due to fires and drying water sources.

    Women in Raha village wait to use the communal tap, that is the only tap.

    Water, Distance, and Women 

    Drying up water sources disproportionately affects women and children, who are responsible for household chores. Distance to water sources is critical for them.

    Like Phurba, other women had to walk hours to get to the nearest river and collect water. They return carrying 20 liters of gallons on their back. Phurba performs this activity three times a day when spring water dries up. As a result, back pains become constant.

    “In terms of distances, accessibility, it is impacting children’s education. Women could be doing productive things, without being exposed to physical injuries,” says Jennifer DeFrance, who works with the Water, Sanitation, Hygiene, and Health unit at WHO.

    New studies show that women bearing the physical burden of carrying water results in muscular disorder and psychosocial well-being.

    “Majority of the women who come to our health camp complain about back pain and this is mostly due to the physical work of collecting firewood, collecting water,” says Karma Sangmo, a nurse in Dolpo. 

    Jennifer further adds the health impacts of having not enough water, water-borne disease, not having enough hygiene, hand hygiene which is very prominent right now and covid has reminded us all.

    In a report by the USAID PANNI program In 86% of households, girls and women are responsible for water collection in Dolpa.  This adds extra burdens to an already- workload in the absence of male household members. 

    “Unless there is equitable management access to water, women, and children will always carry the burden,” says Jeniffer, WHO.

    Springwater conservation and adaptation 

    In response to the decline of precipitation and the drying up of springs, local communities in the Upper Dolpo have built a traditional pond called Chink to store water for irrigation.

    This is an old and traditional method of storing water from the spring when there is less rainfall.  But as the snowfall declines, the spring remains only for a few months, and collecting the water in the pond itself is a problem when water is shorted down.

    Pema Wangchen, village ward chair, Namdo, thinks getting the water from the rivers to the village will solve the water accessibility for a longer time. 

    “Spring water might disappear someday, but we need a sustainable connection with the rivers,” says Wangchen. An improved water source such as piped water system.

    Adaptation strategies to address challenges of Traditional agricultural Water management in Afghanistan, ICIMOD pilot project on snow framing crop techniques had been successful. Madhav Dhakal thinks that similar techniques can be applied in arid regions like Dolpo, to restore and manage water for irrigation in the high-altitude agricultural fields. 

    Madhuri also thinks that snow farming is a great example for herders who rely on spring water for their summer pastures. Farming snow can regulate the melting of the snow slowly. 

    Wangyal, on his part, added that community capacity building for water sustainability and climate change adaptation is necessary. 

    Dolpo, however, has been institutionally ignored for years. The region is cut from the rest of the country for six months in winter, making it more challenging logistically, financially to reach adaptation. 

    “If there are no appropriate water conservation and adaptation measures, the water sources will become a crisis, these mountain communities will suffer the most,” says Upadya.