Groundwater resilience Nepal: preliminary findings from a case study in the Middle Hills
Groundwater resources in the Middle Hills of Nepal perform a major role in supplying domestic and irrigation water and in regulating river flows. However, there has been little systematic study of groundwater within the region, making it difficult to evaluate how water supplies and river flows may change in response to climatic and anthropogenic change. To begin to build an evidence base, two catchments in the Middle Hills were investigated. The aim of the study was to characterise the hydrogeology of the catchments, assess water supplies and water usage and evaluate how resilient groundwater may be to change.
Two contrasting sub-catchments within the Kali Gandaki River catchment were chosen: Ramche Village Development Committee (VDC), at an elevation of 2000 – 3000 m, with subsistence terraced farming and highly forested slopes, and Madanpokhara VDC which is largely below 1000 m, with expanding commercial agriculture. Groundwater sampling was undertaken during the post-monsoon season 2013 and pre-monsoon season 2014. Springs, tube wells and rivers across the two catchments were investigated using a combination of surveys, flow measurements, and sampling for inorganic chemistry, stable isotopes, groundwater residence time indicators (CFC and SF6) and noble gases. In addition, 12 months of weekly hydrological monitoring and monthly water usage surveys were undertaken at several sites.
There is a heavy reliance on springs for water supply in Ramche. The springs are typically perennial but with significantly reduced flows during the winter and pre-monsoon season. The springs have bicarbonate groundwater chemistry and generally low overall mineralisation. Springs issuing from the higher slopes are reliant on seasonal monsoon rainfall and snow to sustain higher flows, but baseflows are sustained by groundwater storage within the weathered aquifer and will therefore have some inter-annual storage. Discrete springs issuing from lower slopes are most likely to be fed from groundwater storage within the fractured aquifer network. Groundwater residence time indicators (CFC and SF6) suggest a mean residence time of 10-20 years for pre-monsoon groundwater, implying inter-annual storage and therefore some built in resilience. However the general low storage of the groundwater environment suggests that none of the springs would be resilient to a long term reduction in precipitation.
In the lower catchment of Madanpokhara where floodplain and outwash deposits are present, many hand-drilled shallow tubewells have been installed in the last 5-10 years, decreasing the reliance on springs. The development of groundwater resources has resulted in a thriving agricultural co-operative, inward migration and a growing population. These shallow tubewells have increased the resilience of the water supplies to change but are potentially vulnerable to over-exploitation as a result of the rapid increase in abstraction. Groundwater sampled in tubewells along the margin of the floodplain is modern (~20 yrs Mean Residence Time (MRT)) with bicarbonate groundwater chemistry and no significant water quality concerns. Groundwater sampled from tubewells towards the centre of the floodplain appears to be older (~50 yrs MRT) with elevated concentrations of iron, manganese, zinc and arsenic detected at some sites.
With a growing recognition of the importance of groundwater storage in the Middle Hills there is significant potential to further advance the characterisation of groundwater systems and investigate the resilience of groundwater supplies to change. Systematic monitoring of groundwater, as springs flows, groundwater levels and chemistry would give a much better understanding of emerging trends. Likewise, monitoring current yields of springs and comparing to historic values at installation may allow some conclusions to be drawn about the trajectory of springflow. There are several groundwater-related initiatives underway within organisations in Nepal; the lessons learned from this current research, the methodologies used and the preliminary findings will be of value to these.
Bricker, S.H.; Yadav, S.K.; MacDonald, A.M.; Satyal, Y.; Dixit, A.; Bell, R. Groundwater resilience Nepal: preliminary findings from a case study in the Middle Hills. British Geological Survey, Nottingham, UK (2014) 67 pp. [British Geological Survey Open Report, OR/14/069]