Avoiding maladaptationDigging boreholes will not only exhaust groundwater but also upset the local hydrology.
The recently published sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations (IPCC) calls for the promotion of climate resilient development to address climate adaptation and categorically warns against maladaptation, which, according to the report, has increased across sectors and regions since its fifth iteration in 2014. It's important to avoid maladaptation as it can exacerbate vulnerability, risks and exposure that aren't just difficult to change but also expensive.
Conventional approaches to responding to the impacts of climate change are often limited to designing largely short-term, tactical and reactive solutions. When such an approach fails to recognise inter-linkages among various aspects of natural resources, and the complex processes involved, it could inadvertently lead to maladaptation. Maladaptation is the least discussed issue because we often fail to recognise it in the first place; when we do recognise it, instead of reviewing our approach to responding to climate impacts, we try to justify the approach and, instead, search for other reasons for the undesirable consequences. The IPCC emphasises that actions that focus on sectors and risks in isolation and based on short-term gains often lead to maladaptation—especially if long-term impacts of the adaptation option are not taken into account.
Adverse impacts of adaptation actions that focus on short-term gains are only seen after a period when, in some cases, it's too late to correct the course. For instance, a phenomenon we need to be wary of is using water boreholes in the hills to provide water to households and communities in areas where surface water sources have dried up.
Expansion of water boreholes
Water in springs and small streams started to dry out in some districts in Nepal a few decades ago. It was gradually seen across several other districts; in the last two decades, it's become endemic. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, water sources have either completely dried up or are dwindling across the country. We don’t know for sure why these springs and streams are slowly drying. The suspects are many: Changes in land use, altered rainfall pattern, or even earthquakes squeezing aquifers, or some combination of all of them.
When water shortages became acute, the government was pressured to make alternative arrangements to provide drinking water. Initially, water was brought from faraway places by laying long lines of pipes across mountains and valleys. However, the pipes were frequently damaged by landslides and floods and weren't reliable. Meanwhile, water sources continued to deplete even in areas that were once considered comparatively water rich. The second option available to decision makers was pumping water from rivers and wells dug near river banks. This was an expensive enterprise for communities because they had to pay for the electricity used to pump water. In many places, communities couldn't pay the bill and the system couldn't function. In recent years, solar-powered pumps have been used to reduce operation costs. In some cases, communities transport water in tractors to their villages.
Where pumping or transporting water from rivers wasn't feasible due to distance, communities with support from state/non-state agencies started installing water boreholes to access groundwater. With boreholes, water became available immediately making communities and the supporting agencies happy. By their logic, it made perfect sense to draw groundwater when the surface water was gone.
Furthermore, what is noteworthy here is that groundwater in the hills and mountains is not the same as it is in the plains and valleys. Groundwater in the hills and mountains is short lived and more limited than in the valleys and plains, where groundwater covers a large area and is generally fed by rivers during the drier days. Barring the snow-fed areas of high mountains, groundwater in the lower hills and mountains is fed by rainwater during the monsoon and only to a nominal extent by winter rains.
Monsoon-fed groundwater begins to decline as soon as the monsoon ends. Though it’s limited and fluctuates with the season, groundwater plays a significant role in feeding the springs, small streams and vegetation around the stream channels that give rise to unique habitats for both aquatic as well as terrestrial animals, making the hills and mountains rich in biodiversity.
The drying of springs indicates that groundwater resources are vanishing. Changes in the rainfall pattern have further reduced the chance of adequate replenishment. Tapping this shrinking water source by digging boreholes will not only exhaust groundwater rapidly but also upset the existing local hydrology, impacting the local ecological processes. In that sense, depleting groundwater is not only a problem for local communities, but also a far-reaching one. We may not be able to comprehend it fully with the limited information about groundwater sources in the hills and mountains. People promoting water boreholes in the hills need to understand this limitation. Sadly, we are promoting this practice in the name of helping communities—a noble pursuit certainly but one that fails to take environmental consequences into account. A good adaptation plan to address our diminishing water sources would be to explore the possibility of reviving springs.
In 2011, the National Planning Commission published its climate resilient planning tool for long-term climate adaptation, which emphasised using a climate lens to screen development projects against potential risks. The tool suggested considering the water sector as the “point of entry” from which to establish linkages and the sequence of risk outcomes. Unfortunately, it never saw the light of day.
Even though water sources in the hills are shrinking like never before, no substantial attempt has been made to examine whether local sources could be revitalised as it entails uncertainties and several years of sustained, planned efforts before it would yield meaningful results. Lamentably, state policies are often politically biased as leaders need immediate results to lure voters, and therefore, reviving the springs wouldn't fit the mould of government programmes designed to make water available immediately.
The government's recently prepared National Adaptation Plan (2021-50) mentions the need to manage spring sources and water recharge to address water issues; whether this convinces local authorities to reconsider their decision to dig boreholes as a quick fix-it remains to be seen.
The IPCC report only serves as a timely reminder that climate impacts are happening faster than expected. We cannot remain oblivious to this fact. We must push ourselves to put our own efforts into action to avoid maladaptation. Considering the sensitivity of water sources in the hills and mountains, we must be particularly prudent should our actions result in increased vulnerability in the end. After all, who would better understand our landscape and its vulnerabilities to climate impacts than ourselves?