As you ease yourself into the steaming hot, slightly cloudy water at the Gasa Tshachu or hot springs, in Gasa in western Bhutan, you can feel the stress and tiredness lift almost instantly. All the miles you walked, along streams, through forests and up steep gradients to the high mountains seem to melt away with the soothing properties of the water. This natural hot spring, close to the banks of the Mochhu, is one example of how springs, a pristine form of natural water, are an integral part of Bhutanese culture and livelihood. Hot springs like those at Gasa are believed to have healing properties with therapeutic benefits. Many people worship springs throughout the country and many monasteries are located near to spring sources, highlighting their significance for religious rituals.

Crucially, springs are the major source of drinking water in Bhutan, where approximately 67.5% of the country’s population rely on them for daily water consumption, with many communities also depending on spring resources for their domestic and agriculture water needs.

Drying springs and lost lifelines

However, springs in Bhutan are drying and depleting rapidly. About 25.1% of spring resources are in a degraded state, while 0.9% have completely dried up. This is posing serious challenges for sustainable water management in the country, including equitable access to water resources. The country also experiences frequent flooding and a growing risk of localised drought, attributed to local water scarcity.

Rural communities, which rely predominantly on spring resources for their daily consumption, are at greater risk of water shortages, prompting many residents to migrate from their villages. For example, villagers from Lholing in Paro have migrated downstream along the Pachhu valley due to the drying up of springs. As a farmer from the village reflected:

“I have witnessed my people’s plight due to the drying of springs. Once, we had abundant spring water that served as our lifeline – for drinking, domestic use and irrigation. Over the last 10–15 years, almost all the springs in Lholing dried up, leaving us with no means to sustain our living. This forced us to move to Pacchu.”

Current state of policy on managing springs – and springsheds

Bhutan has several water-related policies, and strategies for the conservation of water resources. These policies usually target integrated water resource management at the river-basin level or at the watershed level – the area of land that drains or sheds water into a specific water body.

Bhutan has also focused on spring management in its policy and strategy. In 2018, the 12th Five-year plan guideline (2018–2023) integrated springshed management as one of the priority interventions to overcome local water scarcity (NSB, 2018). Springshed management is a holistic approach to rejuvenate spring resources aiding in landscape restoration and enhancing climate resilience. Crucially, springshed management involves not just the management of the sources (springs) but also the recharge area, through which water infiltrates and reaches the aquifers, where groundwater is stored and emerges at the surface as a spring.

The 2020 National Environment Strategy also mentioned spring revival and springshed conservation activities. Recently, the 2023 National Adaptation Plan has highlighted short-term and long-term adaptation guidance to conserve water resources, including spring sources.

Challenges and ways forward – in six steps

There is currently no specific guideline on mapping and management of springs in the country, and specific springs-focused policy documents and interventions are lacking. Many institutions are mandated to carry out water resources management but there is no specific institution responsible for springs management. A dedicated institution responsible for overseeing spring resources with direct engagement of local communities is yet to be established.

The science of springs is also at an early stage with few pilot projects available to gather evidence on and manage drying springs. The six-step spring revival protocol, developed by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and partners in 2018, includes comprehensive mapping of springs, establishment of a data monitoring system, understanding of social and governance aspects, developing springshed management and governance protocol and measuring impacts of spring revival activities.

A springshed management pilot site

Bhutan’s Water Management Division and the Advanced Center for Water Resources Development and Management (ACWADAM) and ICIMOD have collaborated on a pilot project, developing spring revival activities in Lholing village. Initial data show that, out of 18 springs in the village, only 2 springs (Zana and Omchhu) have discharged water, while the others have dried up, causing 21 households to migrate downstream.

ICIMOD implemented the six-step spring revival protocol in the village – this involves in-depth research and implementation methodologies, including a citizen science approach involving locals to take an inventory of springs, understanding social, gender and governance aspects, hydrogeological studies, and assessing socio-economic impacts to generate evidence for decision makers to scale up springshed management work.

Spring revival activities include reshaping abandoned terraces, planting trees, constructing pits and shallow ponds of different sizes inside the forest area, and tapping water runoff from the road and diverting it to recharge areas. This implementation work has led to sustaining water flow and increased the water level in the collection tank, which, according to locals and decision makers, is crucial for sustaining communities.

Collaborative pathways to water security and resilience

Managing and preserving springs is key to addressing Bhutan’s water security issues, and to mitigate local water scarcity. To achieve this, it is vital to conduct community awareness campaigns and engage community, stakeholders, and the private sector in each step of revival activities, ensuring their voices are heard.

To help close the data gap, it is necessary to gather ground-level data on spring types, households reliant on springs, geological characteristics, discharge rate and rainfall pattern. There is a need to enhance national capacity to implement springshed management initiatives across different levels of government. Developing dedicated spring policies and guidelines is essential to facilitate the scaling up of springshed management activities at the landscape level.

Such development plans require integrating local knowledge, rigorous hydro-geological investigations, long-term data monitoring, wider knowledge dissemination from pilot studies and finance generation for scaling up and scaling out the initiative.

Springshed management exemplifies Nature-based Solutions for water security and climate adaptation, bringing together communities, local stakeholders, policy advocates, government, and private institutions to restore springs, develop healthy ecosystems and enhance climate resilience pathways.

Today is World Environment Day, whose theme this year – ‘Land restoration, desertification and drought resilience’ – is starkly appropriate to highlight the state of springs in Bhutan, and to advocate for this generation to revive water sources, grow forests and bring back soils.


Contributed by

Sunita Chaudhary and Ms Nabina Lamichhane

Sunita Chaudhary, PhD – Dr Sunita Chaudhary is an Ecosystem Services Specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

Nabina Lamichhane – Ms Nabina Lamichhane is a Consultant, Springshed management at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).