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Department of Geography


The Political Economy of Water Security, Ecosystem Services and Livelihoods in the Western Himalayas

This project aims to study the ways in which small towns in hill and mountain regions of South Asia depend on springs, streams and rivers in their surrounding catchments for the supply of water.

Small town

Current infrastructure planning processes for water supply in low income countries tend to focus on the needs of large urban settlements, or of rural areas, and the needs of small towns are often overlooked or neglected.

Small towns (defined as those with populations below 100,000 people) are particularly important in hill and mountain regions of India and Nepal because they have grown very rapidly, with little planning for infrastructure needs more generally, and for water supply in particular. Across the region, almost half the urban population in the Indian states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and in the hill regions of Nepal, live in small towns. These towns also tend to be relatively resource poor, lacking the revenue and resources available to larger settlements, and their populations and settlement patterns usually display peri-urban and semi-rural characteristics, making infastructure planning and provision particularly challenging.

The project will work in a selected set of small towns in the two Indian states, and in the hill regions of Nepal. It will undertake an assessment of the hydrological dependence of these small towns on water flows from the surrounding landscape, and identify areas that are critical to securing these water flows (‘critical water zones’). The project will study existing patterns of resource and land use in these critical water zones, and the range of ecosystem services that flow from these areas to meet the needs of local and non-local stakeholders. This will allow an understanding of the synergies and trade-offs associated with managing these areas to secure water supply for the towns, in relation to their potential use for other livelihood and resource use strategies.


The project will work directly with local government officials, and local communities in both urban and rural areas in these towns and their surrounding catchments, to explore the possibility for negotiating agreements that protect these critical water zones, without adversely affecting livelihood options for upstream residents.

The project will also explore, where appropriate, the possibility of compensation based mechanisms to offset costs associated with changes in resource and land use patterns undertaken by upstream communities in order to secure water supplies in these catchments. The learning from this project is particularly important for understanding the ways in which urban and rural areas interact with each other in the context of flows of ecosystem services. The hydrological dependence of small towns on their surrounding ecosystems provides the potential for negotiated agreements that secure water supplies to these towns (especially the urban poor), while also ensuring secure livelihoods for upstream local communities, and protecting and enhancing a range of other ecosystem functions in the surrounding watersheds. This project will explore the conditions under which such synergies can be realised, while also exploring and highlighting the trade-offs and difficult choices that characterise decision- making in such contexts.