As mountain springs dry up, Uttarkashi women bring traditional chal-khals to life

Water gushes out in small amounts in these mountain villages and runs out quickly as the villagers use it for daily chores and to provide for their livestock. These natural sources were not enough for the 300 families of the village of Patara who have around 275 animals.

Pooja Rana, 27, a farmer who is also the head of the Patara panchayat, said water taps from springs in their hamlet worked for just an hour or two in the morning. In summer, the taps are completely dry.

It is ironic that the Bhagirathi River flows from its glacial origin to the foothills of Patara – only 2-3 km away. It later meets the Alaknanda River and forms the Ganges. Despite being so close to India’s most extensive river system, Patara has struggled.

“Over the decades, people have migrated, leaving their farms behind. Many have settled on the Delhi-Dehradun road, ”Devi said.

This is exactly why this population of Uttarkashi is bringing the chal-khals back to life. These percolation pits save women the time and effort required to find and transport water long distances.

In 2019, Patara ushered in the change when Sartama Devi formed the Him Patara Self Group to conserve water and revive water sources closer to the village.

As the men were mostly absent, having migrated in search of better opportunities, the women became largely responsible for the management of the village. In their interactions with the local administration, they constantly brought up the problems they encountered with water.

It was then that the village development manager, Sunil Agnihotri, motivated them to create a self-help group and establish contacts with NGOs working on water conservation in the region.

Women began to learn more about the chal-khals; these percolation pits were once built and maintained by mountain communities, but this traditional knowledge had been lost over the years. In Pauri, Garhwal, Kumaun and other parts of Uttarakhand, several NGOs have worked in recent decades to revive the chal-khals.

However, the work often takes place in isolation, with a few villages benefiting and some hearing about it through word of mouth while many others have yet to remove the means to access and implement this traditional knowledge.

A few years ago there had been attempts to build chal-khals in Patara under MGNREGA but Sartama Devi said they were done without much thought (e.g. they were built in non-ideal locations or even , once, cemented at the bottom of the rendering is useless) and the community did not know how to maintain them.

This time, the hundred or so women who had joined the initiative relied on hereditary knowledge to locate and revive ancient chal-khals that had fallen into disuse as well as scientifically assess ideal locations for the new ones.

These percolation pits – typically eight meters in diameter and one meter deep, although the size varies – are dug on sloping grounds. They collect rainwater which infiltrates the soil, improving the quality of the soil and recharging the water tables. On the surface, it meets the daily needs of the villages. A single body of water can store up to 64,000 liters of water.

“For three years, the women of Patara worked tirelessly for water conservation. Initially, all of our five chal-khals became sterile because we did not know how to maintain them.” They have to be regularly cleared of the silt, mud and rocks that accumulate in the pits, but due to the lack of collectivism, people stopped doing these traditional tasks and depended on the administration, he said. she lamented. “But we’ve relaunched them and added some new ones to the bundle,” said Devi. In Patara, there are now 11 chal-khals who have collected and stored around seven lakh liters of water over the past three years, aided by the unusual rains.

Between the monsoons from June to September, the pre-monsoon rains in March, and the occasional winter rains, the chal-khals are able to ensure a steady supply of water for much of the year. “We have built the majority of the chal-khals near the cattle pens to meet the needs of the animals. You cannot survive rural life without the animals,” said Devi.

The conservation effort has resonated with other villages in the district, in at least eight neighboring villages people have started digging their own chal-khals. Devi received the Women’s Water Champion award from the United Nations Development Program in India earlier this year.

Relief from hard work

Rana reflected on how the chal-khals brought about a drastic change in women’s routines. “It saved the women from working all day,” she said.

Previously, the quest for water consumed all day. The women started their days looking in the forest for fodder for the cattle, while trying to find a source of water. On their return, they took the animals to the water source. “Some even took water home in their cans,” Rana said.

Ram Pyari, a resident who worked with the women on the chal-khals, remembered carrying two twenty-liter containers every day on her shoulders for her cattle. “Now we don’t have to work unnecessarily. The water in the percolation pits will last us for the next few months. It has also benefited the vegetables and herbs that many of us have planted in our fields,” a- she declared.

These “nutritious gardens” were also part of efforts to improve nutrition for women, many of whom were anemic and easily depleted from their daily water chores.

The chal-khals have also brought some relief to farmers like Vijay Rana (35), who grows black lentils, toor dal and paddy. “The land has become soft due to moisture retention. However, this is all the help the chal-khals can give us. We still have to rely on rain for most of the water as our fields are in the lower reaches so the percolation pits are on higher ground, ”he said.

In Uttarakhand, 594 of 16,793 villages depend entirely on natural sources, and about 90 percent of the population of the Himalayan region depends on sources for drinking water. A report from NITI Aayog highlighted the problem of the drying up of water resources in the Himalayan region. In 2018, the National Water Office acknowledged that over the previous three years, each of the 500 water supply projects had experienced a decrease of at least 50% in water discharges, 93 of between them experiencing a decrease of more than 90%.

Uttarkashi’s development director Gaurav Kumar confirmed that many sources in the district have indeed dried up, while a few others have been encroached upon. “New construction blocked the springs. Freezing or solidification of the soil due to construction and blocks moved due to landslides altered the flow of mountain streams,” he said.

In light of this, the government of Uttarakhand is working to revive water sources as part of their Swajal, a World Bank-supported initiative to promote the long-term sustainability of the water supply in the middle. rural. “We are working to restore the water sources to their old forms,” Kumar said.

And the chal-khals can play a crucial role in this regard. According to Vishal Singh, executive director of the Center for Ecology Development and Research (CEDAR), “We can improve the mountain water supply system by reviving the springs. It can also improve forest health, as forests and water are both linked. This requires mapping the recharge areas of these sources and carrying out water conservation works. Covering 2 to 3 hectares or more, these recharge areas can benefit from the construction of chal-khals and planting. of leafy plants like oak. It is an effective solution to solve the water problem in the Himalayan region. “

(The author is a freelance journalist based in Debradun and a member of, a pan-Indian network of local journalists.)



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