Chhimi Dema 

Fencing water sources, increasing the size of reservoir tanks, and planting trees around water sources are seen as ways to protect water resources. However, these simple solutions are not enough to address water shortages that are becoming a recurring problem.

A recent study found that, out of the 6,555 water sources in the country, 2,317 (35 percent) are drying up while 147 sources have dried up indicating the ineffectiveness of securing water sources.

To maintain healthy water sources, the study, “Springshed: Identifying Recharge Areas of Drying Springs and Lakes with Water Quality in Southwestern Bhutan,”  recommended protecting the recharge areas. It also recommended demarcating important water sources based on hydrogeological studies and studying lithology in the area.

Springshed is a set of watersheds and groundwater that integrate into a system and supply water to a group of springs.

Recharge area – the point at which water is absorbed and flows through the unsaturated zone and enters the groundwater system – is the natural unit for revival and management of springsheds.

The author and a lecturer at the College of Natural Resources, Jambay, said that to revive dying water sources, it is imperative to identify recharge areas of springs where water replenishes local groundwater.

“Discharge outlets are often protected with fencing but this may not safeguard water sources from drying up in the future,” he said.

Since the recharge areas are unidentified at present, the study stated that developmental activities could be destroying or compromising the possibility for water to enter the ground, thereby reducing natural groundwater recharge.

The report mapped recharge areas in Chukha, Dagana, Haa, Paro, Thimphu, Tsirang, and Zhemgang. It identified 24 recharge zones,  22 springs and two lakes in the dzongkhags.

From the 24 recharge zones, the report found that only three water sources were flowing steadily.

The study also states that to ensure water security and resilience within springshed, recharge-area mapping is essential. “It is impossible to understand the complete water cycle and how water balance changes without identifying the recharge area.”

Jambay said that in the past, it was assumed that water source protection meant physically fencing off or protecting the point where springs discharged. “While it is crucial to keep the water collection point clean and free from pathogens, that is not where the problem of water quantity is best addressed,” he said.

The study also pointed out that in some communities in the country, groundwater is exploited as an alternative source of drinking water which could lower the regional water table and dry up the neighbouring springs.

“The abstraction of groundwater has begun without a detailed evaluation of the quantity and quality of water available, the transmissivity of particular aquifers, and the specific yield of groundwater,” it stated.

The study was published on May 5 by the Tarayana Foundation with support from the German Federal Ministry for the Environment through WWF Bhutan, the Watershed Management Division under the Department of Forest and Park Services, and the College of Natural Resources.