When the Green Trails team set themselves the goal of installing rainwater harvesting systems at Roopkund, little did they know what they were up against. They had factored in known hurdles – rough terrain, harsh winds and a dearth of resources. But what they didn’t realize was that things they took for granted could also turn into challenges. This included their own philosophy of not tampering with the surroundings.
Their aim was to test the extent to which their campsites could become self-reliant for water. In time, this would minimize their dependence on local sources such as streams and tanks.
Over six weeks, they put their heads together to set up rainwater harvesting systems at three campsites — Ghairoli Patal, Bhagwabasa and Patar Nachauni. This was the first time that such a thing was being attempted on remote trails in the Himalayas.
This is how the team set up rain water harvesting systems at the campsites –
First experiment at Ghairoli Patal – The Lowest Campsite
The first campsite that the team took up for their experiment was Ghairoli Patal.
At 10,000 ft, Ghairoli Patal is at a relatively low altitude. The forests surrounding the campsite shield it from furious winds. The terrain is friendly – no snow through most of the year. These conditions made the Ghairoli Patal campsite fairly easy to deal with.
Added to that, there was a tin shed that stood in the middle of the campsite. It had a sloping roof. The team could use this to channelise rainwater. They had a plan charted out.
But it was anything but easy to follow the plan.
For one, the entire team was exposed to rainwater harvesting systems in urban areas. Here, water is either collected on the roof of a house or channeled into an underground storage system. The basic idea in either case is to prevent rainwater from naturally flowing in a direction of the least resistance. The team quickly realized that neither of these options would work at Ghairoli Patal.
On one hand, the existing structures at the campsite had no capacity to hold water. On the other, they had their own philosophy of leaving no trace behind. This ruled out the option of digging channels in the ground or constructing a new structure. Furthermore, forest department rules also prevent the setting up of new, permanent structures or digging of pits in this area. A third challenge was the likelihood of theft of the entire set up or some of the materials used.
After much brainstorming, the team arrived at the ideal design. They decided to line the edge of the roof of the tin shed with PVC pipes split lengthwise into half. These PVC pipes would be tied to the roof using ropes. By providing the flexibility to remove the pipes at the end of the season, this setup was made theft-proof. Rainwater falling on the roof could flow through these pipes into a drum placed below.
Simple as the design might sound, it was easier said than done.
Getting PVC pipes that were 50 metres long at a remote village like Lohajung (the base camp) took several days. Next was ensuring that these were cut lengthwise exactly through the centre. Any deviation would render the smaller part useless. Finally, the team had to hire people to carry these pipes up to the campsite. Given the length of the pipe, each one required 3 people to carry it. Added to this was the task of finding 100 litre cans that would stand steadily on the rocky terrain without toppling over. Mules were put on the job to bring these cans up.
Once the materials were procured and brought to the campsite, the team was set. The staff tied pipes beneath the roof sheet, just along the edge. All that was needed now was a good downpour. As expected, there was good rainfall that entire week.
The team could fill up a 100 litre can in 20 minutes! This was enough water to meet the entire washing and toilet requirement for a day for a batch of 20-25 trekkers.
Next campsite, Bhagwabhasa – A rocky campsite at 14,100 ft
Seeing the system at Ghairoli up and running gave the team the confidence to set up something similar at a higher campsite. They set their sight on Bhagwabasa, the highest campsite of the Roopkund trek.
An untold story about the struggle for water at Bhagwabhasa and Pathar Nachauni
While Bhagwabasa also had a tin shed, its altitude was formidable. At 14,100 ft, it meant physically carrying the pipes up over 6,000 ft from Lohajung. While the team had the design from Ghairoli Patal ready, the altitude of Bhagwabasa made its replication extremely demanding.
Despite this, the team persevered.The result at Bhagwabasa was delightful. On a very rainy day, the team managed to collect another 100 litres of water within 20 minutes.
Next, Patar Nachauni – A campsite with legendary winds
After the success of the setup at Bhagwabasa, the team was now ready to move to its most challenging campsite — Patar Nachauni. This is an extremely windy campsite. To comprehend how windy it gets here, imagine a place where a full gas cylinder that weighs close to 30 kg, getting knocked off by the wind. Any structure that is even a couple of feet tall faces a similar fate.
In the absence of a shed here, the team had to set up a system from scratch. It had to be light, sturdy and designed in a way that the centre of gravity held up against the wind.
The structure that the team built had a simple design. Four poles, a tarpaulin sheet and ropes were the only materials involved. The trick was in tying the sheet to the poles in a way that it was tight enough at the edges to withstand the wind, yet loose in the centre to hold water without pulling the structure in. A hole in the centre of the sheet emptied the accumulated water into a can below. This can had to be secured by mud to ensure it did not fall and roll away.
The team managed to collect 150 litres of water during a good downpour of rain!
Why do Himalayan treks require Rainwater Harvesting?
If you have been on a Himalayan trek, you might wonder why the team wanted to set up rainwater harvesting systems in the first place. After all, you trek alongside rivers, you camp beside streams. To top this, it seems to rain in the mountains all the time! You might go, “where is the dearth of water?”
But when the number of trekkers grows, you realize that even streams and rivers are not limitless. Over the past two months, 828 trekkers went to Roopkund with Indiahikes alone. While we limit our trekkers to 25 in a batch, there are organizations that bring in 40-50 trekkers at a time. At its peak this season, the Bhagwabasa campsite sees close to 350 trekkers from various organisations in a single day!
The staff at various campsites are already noticing the impact that these numbers put on natural sources of water. At Roopkund, the most obvious one is the water reaching Ghairoli Patal, the first campsite after base camp. It is supplied here in a pipeline from Bedni Bugyal, the campsite above it. What was once a gushing flow which could even burst the pipeline has now been reduced to a trickle.
That’s what made the Indiahikes team experiment with rainwater harvesting.
The other reason, which flows from the first, is to reduce the risk faced by staff members. At places such as Patar Nachauni, which is two campsites above Ghairoli Patal, they make numerous trips to fetch water from a source that is located 500 metres away from the campsite.
Patar Nachauni, at close to 13,000 ft, is in the alpine zone. There are no trees here to shield the staff from the strong, cold winds or grasslands to cushion the stony terrain. If you add to this the steep incline, the staff’s trips to the water source become all the more dangerous. The distances they walk every year has only been increasing as the camps move further away in search of quieter locations.
The most effective solution
Given how much it rains in many parts of the Himalayas, rainwater harvesting came as an obvious answer to the question posed by these problems. In places like Chamoli, where the Roopkund trek is located, average rainfall can go all the way to 300 mm in a single month. If used effectively this rain water can meet most of the requirement at campsites.
What is the way ahead for rainwater harvesting on treks?
The success of the rainwater harvesting setup at Roopkund gives us reason to rejoice. The tarpaulin structure from Patar Nachauni is flexible and easy to replicate. It does not require any construction material that may interfere with the natural environment of the place. Campsites can have multiple such units to collect more water.
On the other hand, the team found that the water collected this way was suitable only for washing and for use in the toilets. Till there are effective solutions to purify this water, campsites will continue to rely on natural sources of water.
However, the essential thing is to continue reducing our dependence on local sources. Doing so even by a fraction is another step towards leaving the mountains as we found them.