Saturday, June 30, 2001

Taking water to the mountains
Peeyush Agnihotri

BOOKS on hydrogeology contend that the probability of being able to economically harness groundwater on mountain peaks is low. Geologists, scientists and drillers have over the years seconded this opinion.

Ritesh Arya
Ritesh Arya

It took indomitable will power and strength of conviction for a young scientist to prove otherwise. In fact, Dr Ritesh Arya (32) left his state government job as a hydrogeologist just because he wanted to prove that it was possible to exploit groundwater in higher reaches of the Himalayas. Arya hails from Kasauli and is an alumnus of Panjab University’s Geology Department.

It all started in 1996 when Arya put forth his views on groundwater movement and its occurrence in China. A UK-based non-government welfare organisation, Water and Charitable Trust, was looking for someone who could provide basic amenities to Tibetans settled in Ladakh and when Arya said that it was possible to harness groundwater on mountain peaks, a deal was struck on a no-water-no-money basis.


This young lad then set about the Herculean task of drilling mountains for groundwater. He painstakingly compiled data from 5,000 bore wells and developed a hydrogeological model. Then he purchased a drill-rig to sink wells at altitudes varying from 13,000 to 18,000 feet, at Sonam Ling settlement in Choglamsar, near Leh, and Thoise.

His venture was successful. Water flowed from the bore wells and the plight of the dwellers was mitigated. A Rs-40-lakh project to drill 20 bore wells was also successfully accomplished. Then, in 1999, Arya drilled quite a few bore wells for the Indian Air Force, including some for drinking water purposes.

Drilling of a bore well in progress at Spiti
Drilling of a bore well in progress at Spiti

"Earlier, this region was facing acute water shortage despite the fact that it is a headwater mountain region where glaciers melt and merge with the river flow. Surface water is dependent on weather conditions and is scarce during summers. People here had to be content with contaminated water that water-tankers used to supply. The supply was just five to seven litres of water per day per family. Their miseries aggravated during winters when the temperature fell to –22°C and everything liquid froze and surface water could not be tapped. Residents of Sonamling Tibetan settlement were looking for a sustainable solution to this problem," he says.

This year he has been invited to present a paper on hydrogeology at an international conference in Switzerland from July 10 to 15. Ironically enough, his hypothesis had initially found very few takers in his own country. Even the Central Ground Water Board, a premier Indian government agency, had scoffed at the theory of exploiting ground water resources at high altitudes and advised installation of a lift water scheme using diesel generator sets.

Recounting his experience, Arya claims that he is the first person to have crossed Khardungla to drill a deep tubewell. Intriguingly, he does not use modern resistivity methods of exploring ground water and goes more by lithology, geomorphology, his intuition and experience.

He is currently working for the Indian Army at Leh and is busy finishing the task of installing deep wells at Partapur and Leh. "The topography is dicey here. While on the one hand we have ‘artesian’ conditions near General Hospital, Leh, on the other we do not encounter any water-bearing strata up to 300 feet in areas around it," he says, but is quick to add that such situations are inspiring.

The hill men are indebted to Arya. He has provided water to their parched lips. In turn, this geologist is grateful to them. Because of them, he was able to prove to the world that his assumptions were right. And for that he had to take on the mighty mountains.