Water, water everywhere. But lesser of it to drink!

The Himalayas are known as the water basin of Asia, generating up to 42 percent of water in the region. The irony is the average hill family is unable to harness more than 2 per cent of this water!

This statistic is a reality for mountain communities. Out of 16,000 villages in Uttarakhand, more than half have been declared water scarce. Districts like Almora, Pithoragarh and Chamoli are facing serious water crisis.

That is fast becoming the situation in the hills where we are now noticing that villagers have to walk long distances to make sure there is water for everyone’s needs. In the hills where we work, the underground water springs are getting depleted. Many sources of water are now permanently contaminated because the microbial life that survives in the root syms of native trees is not there to absorb the toxins.

Rainfall patterns have changed; the seasonality of rain has been altered. As a result, agriculture suffers as communities here practice rain-fed agriculture and heavy rains at one end or no rains at the other end play havoc with crop cycles.

There are multiple reasons for this dire water crisis in the mountains. For me, however, one of the major causes of the water crisis in the Himalayas today are the forests we have. In Uttarakhand, where I work, nearly 80 per cent of the forest land has mono-cultured pine forests (Pinus Roxburghii). Pine trees are invasive by nature and make the soil very dry and acidic, resulting in no undergrowth. As a result the soil is very loose and erodes quickly. Pine forests have a shallow root system and thus when it rains heavily there is copious amounts of surface run off. In contrast native broad-leaved forests, like oak, have deep root systems and absorb rainwater in their roots in turn repleting the underground water sources. Oak forests also have dense undergrowth, preserve the biodiversity and enhance soil quality through preserving moisture.

We’ve lost our native forests and if we bring them back- it will be nature’s way to restore the balance in these beautiful mountains- ecological and social. It is also the most sustainable way to create economic opportunities.

At Alaap, we are trying to bring back native forests, by creating them. We have so far created 400 square metres of native forests. In the mountain, the mortality rate for plantations of saplings can be as high as 90 per cent. We did our first pilot of native forests in August using the Japanese scientist Dr. Miyawaki’s method. This method has proven successful in many different climatic conditions and is completely different from the conventional method of growing trees. This method can restrict the mortality to 2-10 per cent.

Now we are designing two programmes so that we can help bring about the change. The Village Leadership Development Programme seeks to build community forestry leaders at the village level. This will help in legal awareness, raising awareness about water conservation methods, creating native forests and other skills.

The Himalayan Youth Leadership Programme is planned as a two-year residential fellowship for aspiring young eco-entrepreneurs working with communities to facilitate social change through bringing back our native forests. . We are hoping to start that from April 2018.

We think the germ of a big idea begins with a simple thought. We may already be running behind time.

(Sheeba Sen is Founder and Executive Head at Alaap. Alaap is a social change organisation working in forest conservation and community development in the Central Himalayas. She is based in village Satkhol, Uttarakhand. Views expressed on this article are personal.)