10 states – 24 changemakers – 1 mission

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10 states – 24 changemakers – 1 mission

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Rescuing & reviving Indian rivers

By Rajendra Shende, former Director UNEP, IIT Alumni

Getting to the roots of the problem, rapid bio-assessment of river water downstream

Most water bodies across the globe and notably in India have been decimated to a large extent due to human greed and uncontrolled pollution and dam building. Attempts to save and rescue rivers have begun in some countries. One such attempt has been made in India by a group of environmental organisations to rescue and revive rivers. 

The importance of river conservation and constant monitoring of the health of rivers was underlined at a unique event held recently in Chengannur in Alapuzzha district of Kerala.

The issue was discussed at length by experts and environmental professionals at a 5-day interactive and skill building ‘train-the-trainer’ event on the issue of River conservation to train practitioners in assessing the health of a river’ that was organised by the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) and Asia Pacific Network for Global Change Research at Chengannur.

The workshop-cum-training programme concluded on April 22 which is also observed across the globe as the Earth Day. A total of 24 participants from 10 states travelled to Kerala with a common mission to invest their skills bringing Earth’s veins and artilleries back to flowing-life, says a press release issued by the organisers. “Their diverse back-ground from architecture to academicians and from heads of gram panchayat to officers from government had singular focus of exploring the practical ways transform the river restoration initiatives into a national movement,” it adds.

Terre Policy Centre, a not-for-profit global organisation that promotes the actions by youth in universities and not just the policy recommendations to the government, was invited as special guest for valedictory session on April 22.

Community dialogue on future challenges : right on the bank of Pampa river (Photo: Terre Policy Centre)

The comprehensive training module was integrated with skill-building agenda, experience sharing, community dialogues during the field expedition along the Pampa river, one of the three largest rivers in Kerala and probably the most polluted one. Religious tourism due to festival of Sabarimala and Ayappan temples, indiscriminate use and disposal of plastic in the river water, draining  of chemical fertilisers and pesticides used for agriculture, the construction debris, sand mining and direct drain of untreated sewage  in the river have all led to the pollution levels in the river reach many times over the prescribed norms. This in turn has led to widespread diseases among the villagers on the banks of Pampa, the organisers say.

At the workshop several eminent scientists and conservationists with hands on experience in restoration of the nature briefed and trained the participants on the issues of river pollution and how to monitor the health of these lifelines of humanity. The experts included G N Hariharan, Executive Director of MSSRF, Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, Advisor to IUCN and T V Ramachandra of Indian Institute of Science, among others.

Giving voice to people

N Anil Kumar, Senior Director of MSSRF and the man behind the entire project, said beyond the skills training, the project sought to take river restoration beyond just the physio-chemical aspects and develop a science-based river management system.

The trained volunteers, according to him, will inspire more people, who will continuously contribute to the inputs required for monitoring the invisible damage being done to rivers, say the organisers. “More than the data collection ,  the key challenge  is in transforming  the way the riparian population interacts with scientists and policy makers more effectively. Such approach does not just let people collect data, but it goes beyond and  empowers communities  and gives them a voice to make a change,’’ he added.

In the concluding session, Rajendra Shende, Chairman of Terre Policy Centre and former Director UNEP, said that 6th Assessment Report of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released just a few weeks back,  was unequivocal in stating that the disaster is on fast track and our actions are lagging behind. “Such train-the-trainer initiatives would have multiplying impact to accelerate action,” Shende added. Considering the ongoing United Nations Decade of Action for Nature Restoration, he emphasised that inaction would not only be disastrous, but suicidal.

Shende suggested that an ‘Indian Institute of River Management’ be established to undertake policy oriented research and for skilling the river-worriers. “Trapping the water and jailing it in mega-dams for the purpose of irrigation and electricity  is equivalent to taking away the right of flow and freedom of rivers. The adverse impacts of arresting the flow of river need to be studied and conveyed to policy makers and communities,” he added.

In 2017, Whanganui, the third longest  river in New Zealand, became the first waterway in the world to get legal personhood. It can now be represented in court and has two guardians to speak on its behalf. Environmentalists and indigenous rights advocates have praised this unprecedented development. “Following the example of New Zealand, Ganga and Yamuna have also been declared as living entities in India,” said Shende.

As an immediate follow-up action,  MSSRF & Terre Policy Centre agreed to collaborate in leveraging the potential of the youth from the universities and the higher educational institutes (HEIs) by establishing a network of universities from Western Ghats. Restoring the drying, non-flowing and polluted rivers as well as endangered ecosystems  would be the priority actions of the University Network of Western Ghats. The network would be the part of Smart Campus Cloud Network– SCCN (sccnhub.com), a digital network of 400 universities and Higher Educational Institutes ( HEIs) across the world.

The workshop concluded with the proactive determination by  the participants ensuring nation-wide grassroots level training for the local bodies and devising restoration plans with the help of communities along the rivers, taking into account the impact of climate change and the need for sustainable development.

This article also appeared in New sMedia :



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