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Springs-the hidden sources of mountain water security in Pakistan

by Salar Saeed, Zeeshan Tahir, Naveed Mustafa, Bashir Ahmad

Springs are a major water resource in the hilly and mountainous regions of Pakistan and are considered as lifelines for many inhabitant communities. They serve as main sources of drinking water for humans and livestock, and are used for irrigation as well, especially during the dry months from December through February.

Figure 1: An open perennial spring in Bansra Gali – Many springs in the area remain uncovered due to lack of resources. This causes loss of precious fresh water and increases water stress for communities.
In the Indus Basin, springs are unexplored territory. Their sustainable development is not given due importance in policy and in practice, even though they play a critical role in the water security of large populations.

Springs are a part of the groundwater system. The science of hydrogeology that governs the occurrence and movement of water in underground aquifers is often difficult to comprehend. This results in misconceptions regarding spring systems; this, in turn, has created misaligned policies that exacerbate the problem. Moreover, rapid changes in climate, socio-economics, demographics, and infrastructure of hilly and mountainous areas are affecting springs negatively. To develop effective solutions that address changes in these traditional sources of water, large knowledge and data gaps must be filled first.

Murree Kahuta and Kotli Satian Teshils in Rawalpindi District, near the capital Islamabad, are part of a Sub-Himalayan hill range called the Pir-Panjal Foot Hills. Springs are the main water source for a large number of communities resident there in both rural and urban areas. They depend on springs to meet their drinking, domestic, livestock, and agricultural water needs.

In this context, PARC under the HI-AWARE project had taken an initiative to investigate the current status and hydrogeology of springs as well as existing local governance and institutional structures and impacts of climate change on springs in collaboration with ICIMOD consortium partners. A discussion with local people in a recent visit to the Murree hills revealed that the discharge from various springs in this region has changed over time, most noticeably after the 2005 earthquake. This is perhaps because of the disturbed lithology of the area, which caused the complete drying out of some springs, a decline in the discharge of other as well as the emergence of new springs. Locals reported an interesting fact that, after the earthquake, the water discharge from some of the active springs actually had increased compared to previous discharge rates.

A covered seasonal spring in the vicinity of Ghora Gali. Local communities cover springs using their own resources to store water.

 In the study ‘Springshed Management in the HKH Region’, being executed under HI-AWARE in Pakistan, India, and Nepal, the research team had initially identified almost 140 springs in Murree Tehsil by remote sensing. To verify the existence of these springs and collect background information, a reconnaissance visit to the Ghora Gali Union Council of Tehsil Murree was organized. In this Council, five major springs were initially identified. The recon revealed that out of these five one had dried out, and capping structures had been constructed by locals over three springs for storage, while only one spring was found open.

An important objective of the research was to classify the spring sources in this area. They were classified on the basis of water usage (drinking, domestic, agriculture, etc.), open or covered, dried or active, perennial or seasonal, and old or newly emergent.

Figure 3: A school boy is filling a water container from a covered seasonal spring in Ghora Gali.

The recon visit also revealed that on average 70-100 households in the community rely on water from one spring. Water usage may vary from drinking to domestic use including livestock and agriculture.

Although, most of these springs are perennial and operate throughout the year, seasonal fluctuations in discharge rates are common. For example, one elder reported that discharge from their community spring decreases in summer. This causes difficulties for the community, because water usage from the spring is restricted to drinking purposes only. So they have to purchase water tankers for domestic usage during the low spring-yield period.

Figure 4: Inside view of a covered seasonal spring in the vicinity of Bansara Gali.

The recon confirmed the teams’ presumption of people’s vulnerability to changes in these spring systems. To fill knowledge gaps, a detailed survey has been planned for Tehsil Murree. It will collect all the relevant data on springs in the area including geographical locations, spring types, discharge rates, water quality, hydrogeology, and impacts of climate change. The study aims to develop an inventory of the Murree springshed. It will also look for viable development and management options, which will provide a useful impetus to policy-making government institutions and decision-makers. The team is hopeful that the results of this study will contribute to the sustainable development of spring water resources and the livelihoods of communities in the area by improving their water security.