Borewells sunk at Ladakh heights! – Dr Ritesh Arya

Borewells sunk at Ladakh heights!
Tribune News Service 

SOLAN: Dr Ritesh Arya, Kasauli- based geologist-turned-hydrologist, has accomplished the path-breaking feat (hitherto deemed impossible) of sinking borewells at altitudes varying from 13,000 to 18,000 feet, in the barren mountain deserts of Ladakh.

Thanks to the expertise of this young alumnus of Panjab University’s Geology Department, 22 hand pumps were functioning, yielding a heavy discharge of sweet, potable water, at Sonam Ling settlement in Choglamsar (13,000 ft.), near Leh, and an unspecified number at Thoise in the Nubra valley, which is at a height of 18,000 ft. The Indian Air Force maintains a base camp at Thoise for supplies to the Army’s Siachen glacier garrison.

These handpumps, considered to be the first-ever such devices at such high altitudes, were installed in June 1998 and have successfully withstood the harsh conditions of peak winter, when temperatures dipped to as low as -20° to -25° Celsius in the area. These had been hailed as a boon, both by the 5,000 odd residents of Sonam Ling and the defence establishment at Thoise.

Before the installation of these pumps, the residents of Choglamsar were forced to trek up to 4 km just to get a pail of water from the Sutlej, flowing nearly a 1000 ft below their settlement, and the establishment at Thoise had to undergo a similar ordeal in getting water from the Shyok.

Both rivers freeze during the severe winter, leaving no choice to the people of Choglamsar and Thoise except to melt snow with precious fuel for obtaining the barest minimum water. In fact, according to legend, the difficulties encountered on account of scarcity of water in Ladakh had lead the British to name the capital town, Leh, which was derived from the first letter of a local saying “life ends here”.

Ironically, even as lakhs of people living in Himalayas suffer chronic water scarcity, there were no takers for Dr Arya’s handpumps. He has since 1993 been propounding the theory that almost every Himalayan mountain peak, including Mt Everest, contained huge reservoirs of water that could provide a ‘perennial’ solution to the hill people’s water shortage. He had based his premise on the fact that the Himalayas, having emerged from a sea, had a lot of water underground.

As often happens with Indian scientists, Dr Arya got a break when a UK-based NGO got interested in his theory on “water aid”, enunciated in a paper which he read out in 1996 at an international conference in Beijing. Earlier, the “water aid” plan had been sought by the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan government-in-exile, for assistance in providing round-the-year water supplies to the Sonam Ling settlement at Choglamsar.

After agreeing to finance the project, the NGO contacted the Central Ground Water Board which promptly discounted any possibility of finding any ground water in the area and advised installation of a lift water scheme on the Sutlej using diesel generator sets. This was hardly a solution, as both diesel and water remain frozen for long durations in winter. During his five-year stint with the IPH Department in HP, he helped instal 400 handpumps in mountain tracts.

However, the water aid plan provided a ray of hope and got him the contract to drill 15 borewells in 1998, after the hydrologist, raring to have a go at proving his theories, offered “no water, no money” terms.

The success of the first 15 handpumps lead to aid being given by another NGO — a French one — for the installation of another seven at Sonam Ling. After these too proved to be successful, the IAF invited Dr Arya to do a similar job at Thoise.

Dr Arya at a meeting with this correspondent here last week, strongly advocated an immediate shift from the current emphasis on tapping of surface water resources to the one on “conjunctive utilisation of both ground and surface water resources” in all hill states.

He was of the view that surface water alone could never meet the hill man’s need fully as the discharge of water in springs, streams, and rivers was wholly dependent on certain weather conditions. It got depleted substantially at times when water was needed the most — in summers. Heavy silting during the rains and freezing of water during winter were the other factors that had a bearing on surface water flow.

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