Himalaya Water Wells – Dr Arya in www.geology.com

Himalaya Water Wells

Water Wells Drilled at World Record Altitudes by Dr. Ritesh Arya

If you lived at high altitude in theHimalayas, especially the cold mountain deserts of Ladakh where would you obtain your water?  The streams there are frozen most of the year and when they do flow they are filled with sediment from the steep, barren terrain transported due to glacial melt. If you decided to melt snow or ice you would use precious fuel which is not available in the remote areas and the work might yield contaminated water.  Hauling or pumping water up from lower elevations is turning out to be an expensive affair. Obtaining safe, reliable and economic water can be a daily challenge for people who live at high altitudes in extreme geologic and climatic conditions which remain disconnected from the rest of the world for more then 6 months in the year..

Many villages in theHimalayasare in a cold semi-arid environment where water is a precious commodity. Successful water wells in these high elevation areas can do much more than provide water – they can change the daily lives of the people who use them. A village scene from Ladakh,Northern India. Many homes in these areas do not have running water.


“I learned that geology, geologists and geological resources can change the destiny of a country.”

Dr. Ritesh Arya owner of Arya Drillers.

Drilling for Ground Water at World Record Altitudes

Dr. Ritesh Arya was one of the first hydrogeologists to explore and drill high elevation wells in the Himalayas. Since then he has completed many wells that now deliver safe reliable water to thousands of people. In doing this work he has earned a few world records.








These are for the highest successful water well at North Polu, 15,400 feet above mean sea level, the highest well with artesian flow at Chushul, 14,260 feet above mean sea level and a water well drilled under the coldest conditions at  snout of Siachen Glacier, 12,000 feet  where temperatures drop to minus 40 degrees C in winter.

We recently had the opportunity to communicate with Dr. Arya about his high mountain drilling. His comments on relevant questions are below.

What triggered your interest in high mountain drilling?

“My first daily wage job was as a hydrogeologist with the government of Himachal Pradesh with 2$ a day. At that time the mountains were considered to be devoid of ground water resources. I had little option but to accept the challenge and work for the development of ground water resources in the region to solve the drinking water problem by exploring sites for groundwater development by drilling wells and installing hand pumps.

My first posting was in Barsar in Hamirpur District of Himachal Pradesh. I saw the drilling rig for the first time when I arrived at the site. All of the villagers were curiously waiting for me to locate the well site so that the drilling could be started.

This was a most challenging experience, as we did not have any instruments or any information that could be used to select the site. I considered it as a challenge and applied simple logic which was mainly based upon the peculiar lithology of the site and the water bodies present in the form of springs, which I felt were nothing but manifestations of the ground water resources.

Within six hours a depth of 150 feet was achieved and by evening the water gushed out from the well. I was mesmerized and the whole village was overjoyed with the success of a well that could solve their drinking water problems. For the first time I realized the practical significance of geology and its importance in solving the day-to-day problems faced by people of the mountainous regions.

Success continued for three more boreholes; however, the fourth well at Bhota bus stand was dry. No water was encountered even after drilling up to 300 feet. I learned that groundwater is not available everywhere. However, at this location there was an old fort at the top of the hill and I wondered how an army could survive there without water. So, I went up to investigate and found two wells in the fort that had been constructed in the 17th century! I was amazed and immediately bowed down in respect of my hydrological ancestors who located these wells without modern instruments, satellite images or other information. Over the years I visited other forts and found successful wells at the top of hills. I learned from these wells and formed a model to explain the occurrence and movement of ground water in the Himalayas. I have used this model with great success and have presented it at scientific meetings.”

What challenges do you face drilling at high elevations?

There are several problems to be faced when drilling at high elevations. These include:

1) A Lack of Data:

Most wells that we have drilled are the first in their local area. With such pioneering work there is usually little or no record of subsurface materials that can be used to ascertain the availability of ground water in the region.

2) A Short Working Season:

These high mountains have a typical problem, as they are accessible for only a short period of four to five months from May to October by road. For the remaining part of the year the roads are closed and due to dropping temperatures the working conditions are not conducive.

3) Keeping Machines Working:

From where the drilling occurs the nearest market is inChandigarhorDelhiwhere a small part could be obtained in case of a breakdown, which takes about three to four days. So drilling in high altitudes is a race of time. Initially with only Indian Airlines operating three or four flights in the region to get any help in case of a breakdown of machinery was a big problem. However, with passing years this has improved as now two more airlines have started daily flights

4) Keeping Men Working:

The high altitude sickness with which the workers had to cope due to changes in altitude was devastating to the timing of a completed project.

5) Well Site Logistics:

The most challenging thing about drilling the wells in the mountains is the accessibility of the drill site and the logistics to sustain the drilling equipment at that altitude where temperatures in winter drop to minus thirty degrees centigrade. Not only the machine but also the men fail to work. We developed new and innovative ways to sustain the tube wells even when temperatures drop to minus thirty. These are very simple and effective.

6) Water Line Problems:

Using high density polyethylene pipe instead of metal pipe and laying it at five feet depth with natural clay as an insulator paved the way for the first piped water from a well in this region and was operational at an altitude of 15500 feet above mean sea level atNorth Polu.

With these problems being solved, now every borehole drilled successfully helps break the notion of the limited availability of ground water in the region. We also find joy in bringing water to where previously the inhabitants were forced to fetch water from distant sources and things were miserable in winters when everything froze.

What types of aquifers are the wells drilled into and do you have a prediction of their lifetimes?

The aquifers mainly tapped in the area are perennial and found in both confined and unconfined conditions. The aquifers are manly in the form of paleochannels. The entire Himalayashave been divided into various hydrostratigraphic zones. A word coined by me    to explain the behavior of groundwater resource in a particular lithostratigraphic unit. The rule of thumb for exploring for water in the mountains is that there is enough water available; however the identification of the well location has to be site specific. There could be a distance of ten meters or less between a successful well and a failure well. They are mainly controlled by the lithology, the structure and also the geomorphology of the region. All these parameters have to be worked out in detail before selection of the site to get 100% successful results. The water can be found in thin, 3-4 inch thick zones in glacio-fluvial deposits. Depths of aquifers vary from few meters below the ground to 100 meters below the ground.

The granites were generally considered to be devoid of ground water resources and whatever water we were finding was confined to the intermountain valley region. However, to our surprise, the well drilled at an altitude of 15,200 feet at South Polu at the base of Khardungla Hill failed to yield any water up to the depth of 230 feet. This is the thickness of the glacio-fluvial deposits. At one point of time, since no water was encountered, the entire project was abandoned as the basement granite batholiths were encountered. But the decision of the driller to try drilling into the granite hills paved way and after drilling for about 20 feet we got the aquifer.

So the notion that the granite batholiths are devoid of water was broken and we had water at that altitude. This has been happening every time. The mountains are full of mystery and we are just trying to unfold the different layers of their nature. Although most boreholes drilled fit into my model of the Himalayas, some boreholes do shock me and make me think certain that the science of geology is mysterious and always has something new to offer.

Do you think that the yields from these wells will be sustained and what could be the impact of global warming on these resources in the mountains?
Yes, this is the million-dollar question. How long these recourses are going to last when water sources in other parts of the country and world are drying up and ground water levels are going down due to overexploitation. I don’t expect this to happen in the mountains. We should expect a bounty of ground water as the climate warms and the snows melt. In fact I visualize that in next few years the volume of water will increase in the mountains at an alarming rate as a result of melting of snow due to global warming. The channels in the mountains in various hydrostratigraphic zones will have a particular storage capacity and once the sub surface water in the mountains reach that threshold point, the mountains will not be able to retain and channelise the groundwater. This would result into mountain bursting leading to massive flash floods. This phenomenon is visible in mountains today but only at a smaller scale and is often confused with the cloud burst. Unfortunately a mountain flooding of a larger magnitude is awaited in near future which will defiantly be responsible to trigger major geomorphological changes besides leading to the end of major habitations enroute as it did in the past leading to the end ofIndus, Harappan and other contemporary civilizations of the world in the past. The impact of global warming  in the mountains is a poorly understood phenomenon and its impact on human civilization can be more devastating then that caused by tsunamis in the coastal areas..  

Who are possible clients for high altitude wells?

The first project was sponsored by Water Aid, a charitable trust in Englandwho wanted to solve the drinking water problems of about 10,000 Tibetans residing in the deserts of Ladakh, bordering the Indo Tibetan border. The funding was done through the Central Tibetan Administration of his Holiness the Dalai Lama with their headquarters at Dharamsala.  The project was successfully completed in 1997 and even after a span of ten years, the Tibetan community can boast of having a 24-hour water supply, 365 days per year.  Prior to this the situation was bad and entire families were surviving on 20 liters per day.

Borewell at Siachen Base camp @Dr Ritesh Arya

After the success this project, the local administrations, military, oil companies, and various other government and non-government organizations approached me to solve their drinking water problems in and around Leh. Many projects have been completed and are still running successfully and the dependency on water tankers has decreased.

I feel the most important opportunity came my way when the Leh Field Research Laboratory approached me to develop ground water resources to meet their agricultural development. This was a great challenge and on completion of this project the production rose by almost 60% in the first year. Not only this, but the milk production also increased as cattle were more comfortable drinking ground water which was warm as compared to frozen water from streams in winter.

Now, ground water development has become a people’s movement because more and more civilians, including hoteliers and homeowners are developing wells to meet their water requirement.

To summarize it all, the journey of ground water development in the last ten years has revolutionized the concept of water planning and its distribution in theHimalaya region. The dependency on surface water has decreased and the cost incurred on procuring water has drastically decreased.

But still lot has to be done to actually instigate the policy makers and executors as majority of decision makers are engineers who have very low respect/knowledge for the sub surface waters and want to restrict the role of hydrogeologist to give the site only.

What are your plans for future drilling?

The satisfaction is being able to provide water to the people living in water deficient area is immense. In the future I look forward to help farmers to bring about a green revolution in the mountains and popularize ground water resource development in the Hindu Kush Himalayas where, even today, irrigation system is poorly developed and is still in its primitive stage i.e. dependant on nature. Since the area is pollution free and the water available here is naturally endowed with minerals,  I plan to develop such sites to provide pre water source for the bottling companies.  I also plan to develop sites along the highest motorable road in the world which is at 18000 feet and prove that every peak which is less then 8848 meters (height ofMt.Everest) above the mean sea level will have groundwater provided certain geological conditions are met.


Groundwater fluctuations and its chemical changes can be an important scientific study which can be used to understand the plate movements and also be used  as a precursor to study  the earthquakes in the Himalayan region.  Last, but not least, I would ask hydrogeologists and scientists to consider mountain hydrogeology as an entity that is very different from the plains of the Indo-Gangetic region and peninsularIndia.