A 1000 springs replenish water bodies of Odisha’s indigenous communities

Water gushing out of a natural spring in Odisha. Photo Credit: UNDP India

It’s easy to take it for granted when the elixir of life comes pouring out of your taps every morning. Water the most important element that sustains all life, is still hard to find for many of the indigenous people living in hard-to-reach hilly terrains and forests of India.

The Right to Water is protected as a fundamental human right as described in India’s Constitution. But 27% of indigenous people in India lack access to safe and clean drinking water or even meet their basic needs as reported by the Ministry of Jal Shakti (Water Resources). 

Hilly terrains in the remote areas of Odisha. Photo Credit: UNDP India

Due to complex geographical challenges, conventional methods for ground water development using wells, tubes, boreholes are limited in hills and forests. Lack of access to clean water affects their food security, health & well-being & poses a challenge in their development progress.

According to WHO, globally 827,000 people die as a result of inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene every year. The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the importance of hygiene, which can’t be achieved if there is no water.

Piscu Majhi from Tentulipada village in Adri Gram panchayat. Photo Credit: UNDP India

 “It’s all dry. Just dry. There were four springs in my village. They are all gone. Every spring counts for us but all of them have dried up and hence there is no agriculture in our village”, says Piscu Majhi from Odisha’s Tentulipada village who has an agricultural land.

Springs - a natural source of groundwater in the hilly areas - could address water needs of remote rural areas in mountainous regions. However, in central and eastern India, which houses more than 75% of India’s tribal population, this source remains largely unrecognized and under-utilized.

The 1000 Springs Initiative by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), implemented in Odisha with a Community-based organization Gram Vikas, aims to ensure better access to clean water to the indigenous communities.

This initiative works to identify and rejuvenate natural springs which can support communities to improve sanitation, nutrition and livelihoods. It also empowers the local communities by entrusting them with the stewardship of the natural springs (locally called as Jharana or Chuan).

This in turn enhances their agriculture production, livelihood potential and helps maintain the ecological balance. All of this helps in achieving the Sustainable Development Goal 06 of ensuring clean water and sanitation for all.

For many years, natural spring water has been used by indigenous communities to meet the basic needs of the households, livestock and irrigation. However, lately, water discharge from these springs is drastically reducing due to the threats of climate change. This has led to a reduction in the vegetation cover, severe drinking water shortages and restricting of livelihood-related activities. Women and girls need to walk long distances to fetch water for drinking and domestic consumption, leaving them little time to pursue education or another occupation.

As part of the 1000 springs initiative, youths from indigenous tribal communities are trained as barefoot hydrologists by leveraging traditional and scientific knowledge. These trained para-hydrologists identify and map potential springs in their own and nearby habitations using a mobile application.

The data is then added to a Geographic Information System based Spring Atlas, which is an online inventory of springs. It helps in locating springs, analysing their health status, quality of water, discharge capacity and other physical, chemical, and biological properties. It also fills the crucial information gap to develop a national map of springs in the state.

Hydrogeologist Rajkumar Naik of Tukuguda village. Photo Credit: UNDP India

“Inventorization of springs helps in understanding the location of springs, their health status, quality of water and discharge capacity. We applied the traditional hydrogeological principles and have successfully rejuvenated 3 springs in our habitat with the support of my community,” says Rajkumar Naik, a hydrogeologist from Piscu Majhi’s Tukuguda village.

Trained Para-hydrologists of Kalahandi district, Odisha. Photo Credit: UNDP India

Training tribal youth for identification and stabilization of potential natural springs, training at Gajapati district, Odisha. Photo Credit: UNDP India

Field level training to tribal para-hydrologists. Photo Credit: UNDP India

Hydrogeologist mapping and identifying spring water resource. Photo Credit: UNDP India

The trained hydrogeologists further train communities and help them form Spring Shed committees to protect, rejuvenate and manage the springs.

“I regularly take measurements of water discharge and test water for quality parameters and upload the same to a website using a mobile app. Besides learning about spring rejuvenation, we also learned about technology and usefulness. I am happy with the work as I am helping my community,” adds Rajkumar.

The project has also encouraged the community to practice contour- trenching, which is digging of ditches to hold overland runoff rainwater so that it can percolate slowly into the soil. The community is also involved in plantation and land development works in the catchment area to protect the springs from soil erosion.

More than 1500 staggered contour trenches were dug out in convergence with MGNREGS – a rural employment guarantee scheme of the Government of India.

Tribal woman from Paraja Kond tribe of Kalahandi district of Odisha involved in plantation to protect the springs. Photo Credit: UNDP India/Aravind AR

Tribal woman from Paraja Kond tribe of Kalahandi district of Odisha involved in plantation to protect the springs. Photo Credit: UNDP India/Aravind AR

To protect the fractured basement of springs about 20,000 saplings of indigenous species were planted in catchment areas under the social forest programme with the support of the Forest Department, Government of Odisha. With such recharge interventions, discharge of water through springs has gradually increased.

Distribution process of community-led spring piped water supply. Photo Credit: UNDP India

As water supply from springs became assured villagers constructed a community-led spring piped water supply tank for drinking and livelihood needs in these habitations. Now, many habitations in the Kalahandi and Kandhamal districts of Odisha have 24 X 7 supply of freshwater from natural springs at their doorstep which has reduced the burden of women and girls and enabled them to use their time for other activities.

“​​Initially, we practiced traditional shifting cultivation to meet food requirements. However, over the years, the villagers observed a reduced discharge from the springs. We came to know about spring rejuvenation under 1000 springs initiatives. We dugout more than 1000 staggered trenches and planted 9000 saplings to strengthen them,” says Santhilata Majhi Santhilala Majhi, Secretary of the Village Development Committee of Tukuguda, a village in the Kalahandi region.

“Now we have water 24x7 at our doorstep. We now grow vegetables in winter and grow a second crop every year.  As the Secretary of Village Development Committee, I will ensure the springs will be protected forever by the community” adds Santhilata.

Water from springs available at home. Photo Credit: UNDP India

So far, the 1000 Springs initiative has helped identify 554 springs covering 116 habitations in 11 districts of Odisha. Now 25 tribal habitations have 24 x 7 access to clean and adequate drinking water in their houses through community-led spring-based gravity supply system.

More than 150,000 indigenous species of trees have been planted in the springs’ catchment areas to reduce the rain water runoff and increase moisture content of soil for sustainable recharge of the aquifers.

About 1,250 acres of land in the catchment area has been positively impacted in the region, encouraging 25 hamlets to increase tree cover from 115 acres (current) to 750 acres which will result in sequestration of 95,200 tons of CO2 over the next 40 years.

This 1000 Springs initiative enhance the livelihoods & empowers tribal community, increase the incomes of farmers and supporting India’s climate action efforts towards achieving the sustainable development goals.