[HimalAndes Focused Conversation[ Kalyan Paul Case 7: Himalayas: Forests and Water: Securing a Balance in Mountain Ecosystems


Himalayas: Forests and Water: Securing a Balance in Mountain Ecosystems


Author(s)  Mrs Anita Paul and Mr Kalyan Paul

Address of Author

Anita Paul, Director (Community Initiatives)

Pan Himalayan Grassroots Development Foundation

Post Bag # 3, Ranikhet 263 645, Almora District, Uttarakhand, India. www.grassrootsindia.com     apaul@grassrootsindia.com



Pan Himalayan Grassroots Development Foundation is a non-profit voluntary organization with the primary aim of initiating peoples action at the grassroots for restoration of languishing river basins, through holistic mountain development strategies in the central and western Himalaya of India.

Environmental degradation has led to significant decline in the quality of life of mountain communities. In view of this, Grassroots has been spearheading the spread of appropriate technology applications in cross cutting sectors like drinking water, environmental sanitation, renewable energy, rainwater harvesting and catchment area treatment, which enables communities to find a fresh balance in life, here and now. On the heels of such exercises, communities are motivated to engage themselves in longer term strategies regarding restoration of fragile ecosystems.

The prevalent perspective, for over a century, of viewing forests as a natural resource of the state which could be harvested in terms of ancient trees and thereby provide an impetus to economic growth has been the single most important reason for creating the ‘tragedy of the commons’. Economic growth at the cost of ecological security has led to the impoverishment of marginal mountain farmers who have been dependent upon forests as support areas for their livelihood.

The loss or lack of title to environmental assets is viewed, by Grassroots, as an additional component of poverty, leading to the conclusion that environmental conservation is actually a necessary fundamental to poverty alleviation. The poor are often forced to over-exploit limited local natural resources in order to satisfy immediate household necessities, and in a way, the poor are actually both victims and agents of environmental destruction and that policies addressing these issues ought to consciously consider both.

Briefly, concepts like sustainable mountain development are more like a mirage in the desert unless forest ecosystems are restored for adequate hydrological and nutrient recycling functions. At the same time, it ought to be understood that farming families occupy less than ten percent of the total land in the Himalaya. The critical catchment areas adjacent to farm lands, defined locally as gadheras, would form another ten percent of the land.

Thus, it is largely upon the state governments, and specifically the forest managers, to mount effective tree, soil and moisture conservation programs to restore the ecological balance in eighty percent of the mountain landscape, which is under their direct control.

In order to address these issues in a comprehensive manner, Grassroots has been involved with the eco-restoration of Gagas River Basin in Almora district of Uttarakhand, India for the past decade.


Features of Gagas River Basin

The Gagas river originates in the sacred forests of Pandokholi in Almora district, of the Kumaon Himalaya in the state of Uttarakhand. The river evolves largely through the flow of over fourteen major streams or gadheras on both banks, and flows for about 50 kms prior to merging with Ramganga (West) river.

The headwaters are rather steep with an average slope of 50 degrees but the drainage basins with habitations range between 5 to 30 degrees. South and south-east are the major aspects and north facing slopes are less than five percent of the 500 square kms basin area.

The river basin is drained by fourteen streams, of which the Grassroots program has been extended to four major streams – Dusad, Kanari, Kaligad and Riskan – which is 135 sq.kms or a little over 25 percent of the basin area.                         
      Index map of Gagas River Basin


  • Catchment area                          500 Sq. Km
  • Length of the river                     Approx. 50 km
  • Average Annual Rainfall           1450 mm
  • Geographical location                Latitude between 29 ̊ 51’ 55” and 29 ̊35’ 49”  

         Longitude between 79 ̊ 20’ 36” and 79 ̊ 33’ 15”

  • Villages                                          373
  • Towns                                             Ranikhet and Dwarahat
  •  Number of Households                  22,824
  •  Population                                    1,10,000

(Of this, 24 percent of the population is defined as backward class)

  • Urban Population                         20,000 
  • Literacy level                               74 percent                                        



The Landuse Pattern in the Basin is as follows:


1. Village Forest (Community Controlled)                 58 sq.kms =   5,800 hectares = 12 %

2. Reserved Forest (Government Controlled)           105 sq.kms = 10,500 hectares = 21 %

3. Agriculture Land                                                   192 sq.kms = 19,200 hectares = 38%

  • Irrigated Land                         37 sq.kms =   3,700 hectares = 7 %
  • Un-Irrigated Land                 155 sq.kms = 15,500 hectares = 31%


4. Culturable Wasteland                                               87 sq.kms = 8,700 hectares = 17 %

5. Not available for cultivation                                     58 sq.kms = 5,800 hectares = 12 %


Problems in the Gagas River Basin

Communities in the river basin have been engaged over the recent years to reflect and analyse the ecological crisis which haunts them and impacts their quality of life. Based on participatory focus group discussions and workshops, the perception of the community, regarding the state of environmental degradation is as outlined in the following pages:



Time Line and Resource Availability Matrix – Community   Perception  




Farming Systems

Natural Resources Management

Water Resources

50 Years

 Mostly Irrigated Farming   systems through traditional systems

Mostly Oak & Sparse Pine Forests

Sufficient Water Availability in Primary Water Resources Within   Villages

Minor irrigation schemes implemented by communities

Rich Biodiversity

Perennial Drinking Water Availability in the Villages

Usage of Local Varieties of Seeds

Easy Access to Tree Fodder /Grasses

Functional Water Mills

Sufficient Availability of Farm Yard Manure

Community Involvement in Conservation Measures

Upland Irrigation Water Available

Disease and Pest Management not a Problem

 Reserve Forests act as   Support Areas


Sufficient Food Outputs

 Sufficient Timber &   NTFP for Villages


Vegetables/Spices as Cash Crops




Decline in Net Irrigated Area

Increase of Pine Forests

Drinking Water Programs by the Govt Based on Secondary Water   Sources

Entry of Chemical Fertilisers in    a Limited Manner

Decline in Biodiversity

Minor Irrigation Programs by the Govt Based on Secondary Water   Sources

Decline in Food Security

Afforestation Programs Undertaken By Forest Department

Water Mills Become Non-functional


Increase of Lantana   Camara spp.



Forest Fire Incidents start

 Traditional Water Systems Drying-Up


Changes in Policy for meeting the Petty Demands of Timber and   other Forest Produce



Marked Decline in Farm Outputs

Pine spp. Dominate Forests

Insufficient Water Availability Through Drinking Water Programs

Decline in the Usage of Local Seeds

Increase in Forest Fire Incidents

Communities Adopt Appropriate Technology Options

Decline in the Management of Irrigation Systems

Accessibility to Reserved Forest Areas Stopped

Closure of Irrigation Systems

Decline in Subsistence Farming Systems Based Economy

Decline in Biodiversity

Increase in Water Borne Diseases

Appearance of Abandoned Agricultural Land

Decline of Community Involvement in Conservation Measures


Dependence on Rain-fed Farming Systems Increases

Decline in self sufficiency of communities in meeting petty   demand of timber and NTFP



Forests under Complete Stress



Almost Complete Drying-up of Irrigation Systems

Forest Fire Incidents - a Common Feature

Traditional Water Sources (Naulas)   drying- up even further

Purchasing Food from local markets

Lack of Community Involvement in Conservation Measures

Water Flow in Village Streams Reduces

Search for daily wage labour and migration accelerates

Traditional Water Conservation Structures (Khals)almost non-existent

Stream Beds Start Getting Used For Mining of Sand

Increase in crop diseases, weeds & pests


Stream Beds Start Getting Used for Grazing Cattle

Forests, Water & Food Security

Mountain farming systems are dependent on the village commons or the adjoining forest areas, which act as support areas, with at least sixty percent canopy, ideally of broad leaved tree species. Broad leaved tree species along with native shrubs as an under-storey, reduces the kinetic energy of rainfall and thereby encourages natural recharge of the hydrological system and also provides abundant leaf litter - an essential component for making farmyard manure and sustaining soil fertility. Ideally one unit of cropland requires six to seven units of forest land as support area.

Across the river basin, the ratio is skewed unfavourably – 19,200 hectares of cultivated land would require 134,000 hectares of forest land. In reality, there is only 10,500 hectares of reserved forest plus another 5,800 hectares of community forests which adds up to 16,300 hectares of forest land – a ratio of less than 1:1. This clearly indicates the un-sustainability of farming systems in the river basin.

Over the last century, policies regarding natural resources have meant exploitation of forests to generating revenue for the state government. Whereby, natural broad leaved forests have been replaced with monoculture of pines and other timber species. Moreover, indiscriminate grazing by cattle on the hill slopes has worsened the situation. These factors have also adversely impacted on the renewal/recharge of the hydrology of this river system.

However, it is not simply pressure on water, it is a complex package of pressures that includes the entire fragile mountain ecosystem: biodiversity, firewood consumption, plant and soil ecology. Any change in surface characteristcs have a gigantic impact on the hydrology cycle, but little attention has been given to determine how soil compaction and vegetal changes affect water infiltration and surface run-off. Ultimately, loss of appropriate forest cover has impacted adversely on mountain farming systems in terms of food security and poor hydrological recharge.

This problem of ecological degradation leading to food in-security has been analysed rather succinctly by the communities, as the table below would reflect:

Data of these 18 villages represent the situation across the river basin: irrigated farm land has reduced from 9 percent to less than 1 percent, resulting in significant reduction in food production – down from 94 kgs to 15 kgs per unit. Which, in turn, has resulted in migration amongst 40 percent of households, who are forced to earn livelihoods through participation in the growing service sector in distant urban areas. Amongst those staying back in the villages, 25 percent of the households need to walk few miles every day in search of daily wage labour, impacting once again on health as well as dignity of traditional mountain farmers.


 A sense of socio-economic-ecological pessimism seems to permeate the lives of the young and old


The crisis regarding forest denudation and reduction in stream flows is probably best reflected in the chronic problems related to drinking water.  Communities in the river basin have not only lost the advantages of upland irrigation, but a majority of the fragile springs and traditional water sources like the naulas have also dried-up. Water-mills along gurgling stream beds are viewed as an event of the past!

In an appraisal of primary water resources of seventy five villages in the Gagas river basin, forty four percent of the water resources have dried completely and only fifty six percent are functional.  The state of hydrology in the river basin is perhaps best understood by the fact that the river flow has reduced by more than fifty percent over the last decade.


During the lean summer months people are forced to access water from dubious sources which creates severe health problems.

Alongside reductions in crop outputs and chronic water shortages, the state of livestock management is also on a downward spiral. For example, average cattle heads has reduced from ten to just three per family. Reduced food security has led to significant out-migration, in order to supplement family incomes, leading to severe strains on local societies where significant responsibilities have to be borne by women alone.

Data from just 18 villages in two drainage basins (gadheras) would perhaps explain climate induced dislocation within communities:

  • 60      of 800 households have migrated permanently from the river basin, which is      almost ten percent
  • 20      percent of adult males have migrated to urban sweatshops to supplement      family incomes.

Ecological degradation has led to socio-economic crisis in almost all villages in the basin and the basic quality of life has been affected adversely. A vital balance seems to have been lost. Accelerated development processes through large injections of government programs do not seem to be addressing the basic issues regarding adaptation and adoption of remedial measures for ecological security. The role of Forests in mountain ecosystems needs to be discussed and brought into sharper focus amongst several stakeholders, especially the forest managers who have assumed responsibilities as the custodians of natural resources.


                                                             Fourteen major drainage basins (gadheras) in Gagas


Adaptation Strategies Adopted in the River Basin

  1. Institutional Arrangements

Over the past eight years, communities in four of the fourteen major drainage basins (or gadheras as they are called locally) have been galvanized to engage themselves in sustainable restoration of the languishing Gagas river basin.


The bedrock of change and development in the river basin is intensive community organization which leads to the formation of self-help groups of women. These groups of women, ultimately, engage themselves and the rest of the community towards restoration of the ecosystem within which they reside – typically, a micro catchment area of 30 hectares inclusive of degraded village commons.

The institutional pattern at the grassroots has been established in the following manner:

  • Each and every family has participated as      members of self help groups and      typically, a village has 1-2 such groups. These groups form the bedrock of      change and development.
  • After the formation and consolidation of such      group activities, the next tier has been formed, which is the village      level gadhera bachao samiti,      wherein each family subscribes as a member with a contribution of Rs. 100      as an annual gram kosh.
  • Finally, all these village level gadhera bachao samities have led to      the formation of an apex body, called the Gadhera Bachao Manch.


This structure at the grassroots enables and empowers local community-managed institutions to take matters into their own hands, so that adaptive measures through a bottom-up approach based on local knowledge could be crystallised. Typically, action plans include eco-restoration strategies, adoption of appropriate technologies, optimising land use and livestock management strategies. Together, community aspirations regarding millennium development goals and adapting to climate change begin to take concrete shape at the grassroots.

Within the first two years, the Manch (or Federation) organized a phenomenal gathering of several hundred residents from the river basin to mark the occasion of World Water Day and several resolutions regarding the renewal of the hydrological cycle were discussed and adopted. During one such meeting to mark the World Water Day, the Manch had invited the participation of very senior government officials including forest managers. Considering the level and intensity of engagement at the grassroots, the government evinced keen interest to participate in the creation of a multi stakeholder platform.

The platform has been created with representatives of all key stakeholders from civil society, government departments, scientists and of course the residents of the river basin, who are viewed as the primary stake holder. Forest managers are viewed as a key stakeholder.

In order to bring together synergy at the grassroots, it is imperative to consolidate this multi stakeholder platform, which would enable the state government to view the problems of the entire Gagas river basin in a holistic manner. The focus of the multi stakeholder platform would be primarily to restore the hydrological cycle in the river basin and at the same time attempt to introduce livelihoods improvement programs which would enhance food security and thereby the quality of life.

The institutional structure at the grassroots has so far evolved as follows:

1. Number of SHGs formed                                            84

2. Number of SHG members                                          1,259

3.  SHG funds                                                                  Rs. 7.15 lakhs

4. Number of Gadhera Bachao Samitis formed              26

5. Gram Kosh   or Village Fund                                      Rs. 6.57 lakhs

6. Village Commons under protection                             350 hectares

7. Village Nurseries                                                         10

8. Species in village nurseries                                           35

9. Number of saplings being raised in nurseries              230,000

10. Number of mature saplings planted-out                     200,000      


2. Farming Systems

Communities have initiated the following activities in order to optimize landuse patterns and farming systems:

  • Improve      the quality of farmyard manure with the idea of impacting upon soil      fertility
  • Undertake      certification process regarding organic farming
  • Improve      the breed of livestock through training local youth as para-veterinarians
  • Plant      fruit trees along farm bunds and adjacent to dwellings
  • Grow      high value crops like strawberries, chamomile and aloe vera
  • Increase      acreage under traditional rain-fed crops
  • Promote      water neutral techniques like system of rice intensification


Efforts are underway to leverage the potential spin-off a farmers organization which would encourage such changes through establishment of marketing linkages for farm produce and thereby increase incomes right at the farm gate.


3. Community Forestry

Village groups are being provided with critical inputs for building on their capacities regarding establishment of small nurseries, to raise appropriate rootstock of native species of grasses, shrubs and trees and decide upon strategies for providing fresh vegetal cover to degraded common lands in the catchment area.                  

Within a period of two years, the production of grasses on village commons has increased significantly. The growth of young saplings of several native species has led to encouraging communities to participate and sustain the process of protection and conservation of commons.

Alongside, communities have revived the tradition of creating and maintaining shallow ponds (Khals) with the idea of improving soil infiltration and soil water storage capacity, which in turn would influence the amount of water available from groundwater, sub surface, surface water courses and water bodies.

This particular event, revival of a tradition regarding soil and moisture conservation at the grassroots, has led the government and the forest managers to turn their attention to promoting Khals on a wider scale across the river basin, especially within the reserved forest areas which define the upper ridges of the basin.

Considering that 20 percent of the critical catchment areas which crown the ridges at 6,000 feet are defined as reserved forests, such policy changes at the level of a key stakeholder are indeed significant. Over the past year, forest managers have been involved in an innovative dialogue with the communities to restore the hydrological cycle of the streams through intensive silvi-cultural operations in such catchments.


Thousands of these (khals) recharge ponds (top) need to be prepared and maintained jointly by the forest managers and the communities residing adjacent to such forests.

It is envisaged that the tragedy of the commons could be reversed over a period of a decade. The challenge is to maintain the momentum of change and encourage the pace of joint action amongst key stakeholders in the river basin.


4. Adoption of Appropriate Technologies

Communities are also motivated to adopt appropriate technologies in cross cutting sectors like drinking water, environmental sanitation, renewable energy and rainwater harvesting with the idea of fulfilling millennium development goals aimed at improving the quality of life, here and now.

Infiltration Wells are being promoted with the idea of enhancing easier access to safe drinking water – so far, over 150 villages have shared the cost of such community managed drinking water systems. As an a priori condition, communities have also been involved with installation of twin pit water seal toilets, again on a cost sharing basis.                                   

Similarly, head-loading firewood from distant forests adds to the drudgery for women and even children. Renewable energy options like a biogas stove, provides four hours of clean cooking gas. This not only improves indoor air quality but also reduces the biotic pressure on scarce forest resources, which are currently being stripped at a faster pace than the annual incremental biomass growth. At last count, over 500 households have invested in biogas units and the idea is to benefit at least fifty percent of households in the river basin.


5 Micro Enterprises

Community organization activities have led to several initiatives with the idea of securing new livelihoods options which would supplement family incomes. More than 1,500 families are members of a growing network of entrepreneurs involved with diverse business programs:

  • Farm      women are involved with the production and sale of hand-knitted woollen      jumpers
  • Fruit      growers are adding value to local soft fruits like apricots and plums      through production and marketing of natural fruit preserves and pickles
  • Bee      keepers harvest honey in different seasons through the year and market      natural honey, even to France!
  • Yet      another self help group of women are involved with production and sale of      eco-friendly roofing tiles
  • And,      almost a thousand small farmers rear free range poultry birds which      provides home nutrition through consumption of eggs and cash through sale      of mature hens at a premium.


However the most significant aspect of these local efforts in promoting the spirit of enterprise is a concern of the institutional framework at the grassroots level. Each and every business is directly controlled by the producer-groups; who own the assets and are equal shareholders of the business. This arrangement enables the greatest portion of the consumers dollar to reach the producer. Each year, these groups are in a position to distribute a bonus from the ‘profits’ of their businesses.

The annual turnover of these small rural enterprises amounts to $250,000. Plans are underway regarding the way forward for scaling-up such/and other initiatives to at least $1.5 million in the next three to five years through the establishment of a Producers Company.



The Future & Way Forward

Efforts over the past few years could certainly be viewed as an awakening to the environmental crisis in the Gagas river basin. The participation of large numbers of farmers and the establishment of Save the River Federation would seem to have paved the path for the securing the participation of other key stakeholders, especially the forest managers.

Communities in selected drainage basins have taken strong steps to reverse the process of degradation and improve the hydrological cycle. The lessons of these ‘first steps’ would indeed be significant to lead the way forward in the immediate future for strengthening and consolidating inter and intra basin dialogue.

Grassroots has certainly enabled communities to focus on the problems which plague them in a holistic manner. It is significant to note that communities have identified the problems jointly, in the sense, that eco-restoration activities need to be initiated right from the headwaters down to the mouth of the stream. This has led to a fresh sense of camaraderie amongst residents of all villages located along either banks of a stream – in fact, the growth of the Manch or Federation is based on this concept of inter-basin dialogue.

Based on the success of this inter-basin platform, steps are being taken to enlarge the scope of such a dialogue at an intra-basin level. Over the next decade, the idea is to forge these networks towards the eco-restoration of the entire Gagas river basin.

And, in order to succeed, the linkages between Forests and Water needs to be discussed even more intensively at every level, be it the policy makers, scientists, community leaders, non-governmental organisations, international forums, political leaders and last though not in the least, the forest managers. Grassroots believes that communities may find a fresh balance in their lives, even during times of climate change, through ecological security. For which, it must be recognised that Forests provide a Vital Balance for sustaining the development process.


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Comment by Alejandro Camino on October 9, 2013 at 7:06am

Kalyan Paul´s quite comprehensive and holistic approach to environmental degradation of mountain habitats in Himalayan gadheras (watershed basins) demonstrates the dynamic of outside pressures over local communities that end up degrading their natural resources and soils, and thus increasing poverty and migration looking for urban jobs.

There are certainly paralelisms with the Andean rural realities in this respect. Increased forestry reduction to attend government revenues in an already diminished forest cover, replacing native broad leaf trees for  pínes have impacted soils, resembles  very much similar trends in the Andean highlands with its original tropical highland´s  native trees been replaced for eucaliptus and pines (with their straight trunks needed for house construction and mines). Another paralelism is overgrazing over fragile pastures on slopes, thus gradually reducing carrying capacity for cattle and thus of potential income, placing additional migratory pressure.  In the case of the Andes another technological impact  has been the replacement of the millenary and highly mountain adaptive technology of the footplough (chaquitaclla, that turns the turf instead of creating furrows with the Europen type of ox-driven plows which result in increase soil loss). Introduction of new  crops and monocropping that may affect the efficiency of the ancient policultural practices (an many times with their pest reduction rational) is another factor. Other factors: introduction of chemical fertilizers and biocides that end up cutting the natural cycle of soil regeneration, as it was with the use of cattle manure;  presure to increase money supply to buy manufactured goods by favoring less nutritive crops that however the market demands but pays miserable prices for these, and, worst of all, a national state educational system divorced from the rural traditions generating expectations that end up  promoting migration to urban destinations, etc.

As in the Andes we also see these attempts to reverse the degrading trends, with grassroots participation, sometimes against all odds. The  experience of the  Pan Himalayan Grassroots Development Foundation aims an interventions to help locals to become aware of the interrelation of factors with aholistic approach, through local self-help groups that organize themselves  to take action with a committment to "resolutions regarding the renewal of the hydrological cycle", which  are  "discussed and adopted". This most rewarding experience is a lesson that could help reverse the situation in the Andes, unfortunately in contradiction with the individualistic urban cultural expectations promoted in rural areas by media (radio and TV were it is available),  and certainly public education). A big challenge worth pursuing.

Alejandro Camino D.C.

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