Oct 30, 2023
Water Scarcity in the Mountains
Sikkim, the Indian state nestled in the Himalayan foothills, is increasingly at threat of chronic water shortages. In a small village in the southern Sumbuk region, an older couple shared about their lives with us. The couple told us that although the land is fertile and transportation is good, the water is scarce. The couple uses just 100 liters of water per day for their household of three (plus a cow) which is far below the minimum amount of 300 liters recommended by the WHO for a household of their size. Unfortunately, their situation is not uncommon, and it is instead emblematic of a larger problem gripping Sikkim.
Prem Bahadur Mangar, husband of Lakpa Sherpa, sitting for an interview about his life in the region.
Lakpa Doma Sherpa, wife of Prem Mangrag, standing next to the barrels she uses to store and transport water.
Sikkim is one of India’s smallest and least populous states known for its natural beauty and high peaks. It shares a border with Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan, and the State contains the third tallest mountain in the world, Kangchenjunga. The indigenous people of Sikkim are known as the Lepcha, and they still inhabit the land. Beginning in the 17th century, Sikkim became an independent kingdom ruled by a Buddhist monarchy that achieved some of the highest literacy rates and per capita incomes among the Himalayas nations. In 1975, Sikkim became part of India and boasts of being India’s sustainable state having achieved complete organic farming and banning most single-use plastic water bottles. In the Lepcha peoples’ native tongue, the name for Sikkim is “Nye-mae-el” which translates to “paradise”.
Map of Sikkim (Wikimedia Foundation)
Despite its proud history, Sikkim is now facing inadequate supplies of suitable drinking water. It is at first perplexing to imagine how a state known for its Himalayan glaciers and monsoon rains has issues with water. The answer lies with the springs. In Sikkim, rainfed springs are the main source of drinking water for the majority of people, yet they are now drying up.
New Challenges Facing Sikkim’s Springs
We spent an evening speaking with Dr. Nishchal Wanjari and Dr. Rakesh Kumar Ranjan of Sikkim University to help us understand the situation. Dr. Wanjari explained that a “spring is really just an intersection in the water table” where a sharp change in topography leaves an opening for water to flow out of the ground.
Diagram depicting Dr. Wanjari’s explanation of a rainfed spring.
Springs are very common in Sikkim because of the State’s hilly topography. There are over 8,000 meters of elevation change within just 100 kilometers, explained Dr. Ranjan. Additionally, the State is covered in low-grade metamorphic rocks filled with fractures which allows water to easily pass through. These two factors, a hilly topography and a readily rechargeable water table, mean that springs are found throughout much of Sikkim.
Dr. Wanjari continued that “people construct little reservoir tanks [which are connected to the spring] and then put pipes to their homes using steel, plastic, or rubber”. A few days before we visited Sikkim University, we roamed around Gangtok, the capital city of Sikkim, visiting the springs and reservoir tanks that the residents of the city use as their primary source of drinking water.
Reservoir tanks used to store water collected from the springs before distribution.
The people of Sikkim have relied on the springs for generations. Now, the springs are running dry. An elderly man named Mr. Sharma from the Sumbuk region recounted how he would go daily to collect water from a nearby spring as a child but that the spring was now barren for most of the year. During his youth, winter rains would replenish the local spring after the monsoon season and ensure an annual supply of water. He told us that winter showers are now becoming more infrequent and that the lean period without any rainfall is becoming longer. In addition to less rainfall, there is also a growing population in the region and an expanding pharmaceutical industry which both require more water. Mr. Sharma now relies on a spring that is several kilometers away from his home.
Dry water source located in the Sumbuk district.
There are a variety of reasons why the rainfed springs in Sikkim are running dry. The primary culprits, according to Dr. Wanjari, are climate change and an urbanizing population. He explained that climate records show that precipitation in Sikkim used to be characterized by low-intensity but long-duration rain events that “allowed for a lot of time for water to percolate into the ground and flow”. However, climate change has caused a reversal in the participation pattern, as there are now higher intensities of precipitation with lower durations. This reversal doesn’t allow adequate time for water to percolate into the ground and for the springs to recharge.
Dr. Wanjari of Sikkim University explains the importance of springs in Sikkim.
The situation is further exacerbated by urbanization. Areas that were previously vital for spring recharge are now being covered by impermeable concrete. As a result, the springs in urban areas can no longer be replenished and the risk of severe flooding has increased. Dr. Wanjari continued that springs also face risks from chronic disruptions caused by landslides and from pollution since much of Sikkim lacks safely managed sanitation.
Resilience, Rejuvenation, and Remaining Hope
Despite the confluence of upheavals, the people of Sikkim remain resilient and are harnessing traditional knowledge in an attempt to rejuvenate their springs. In a village located in the Pakyong district, we spoke with a community that had recently launched a spring rejuvenation project based on the construction of trenches. Santosh Rai, the president of the project, explained that the trenches were built to retain water after rainfall which would decrease runoff and increase water percolation into the ground thus feeding the springs.
Santosh Rai sitting for an interview about spring rejuvenation in Pakyong.
The construction of trenches leverages both local knowledge of the land to determine the location for trench construction and contemporary scientific knowledge to validate the success of the project. Santosh told us that there had already been a 15% increase in spring water flow because of the trenches. He added that the long-term benefits of the trenches may take up to 45 years to materialize.
Two trenches constructed as part of the spring rejuvenation project in Pakyong.
Although quite promising, the trenches are unlikely to solve the crisis of Sikkim’s drying springs. Dr. Rakesh Ranjan explained that the trenches would not be sufficient to counteract the pressures of climate change and an urbanizing population. Yet, many of the people that we spoke to in Sikkim remained hopeful. Our time in the region ended with us meeting two women in Gangtok who were visiting their local spring to gather water. The women were joyful and spoke about the centrality of the spring to their lives. The spring still provides water year-round and was a place of pride for the two women and their community.
Rekha Pradhan (right) and her friend (left) standing in front of their local spring.