Odisha is home to 11 major rivers of which many are interstate rivers such as the Mahanadi. As climate change makes extreme rainfall events more frequent in the state, there is an urgent need to better manage the rivers and their basins. Most of these rivers are faced with conflicts arising from issues of flood control, sharing water and hydropower, diversion of water for industries and flood control. These problems are frequently aggravated by the unforeseen consequences of continual human interference in the river basins.
The impact on the river health, human health and environment has led to the need to work on river conservation and restoration. The third Odisha River Conference, organised on March 24-25 by the Water Initiatives Odisha (WIO), Vasundhara, Gram Swaraj along with 35 partner organisations, dealt with some of these issues faced in the state.
Youth urged to lead conservation efforts
The conference identified youth as one of the major stakeholders to carry forward this year’s theme—Promoting the Forest-River-Communities nexus for Conservation of Rivers and Combating Climate Change. Speaking at the special youth conclave, #Youth4Rivers, organised as part of the conference, Ranjan Panda, convener of the WIO said, “At present, young and educated mass is increasingly concerned about the negative impacts of climate change. We can cash in on their concern and motivate them towards promoting and recognising engagement of indigenous communities in protecting natural forests and rivers which is vital for combating climate change.”
A campaign, Youth for Water, has been initiated through which thousands of youth will be mobilised in coming months to contribute their share of efforts on water and river conservation as well as building resilience to climate change. India’s indigenous communities have proven that they are the best protectors of natural forests, rivers, rivulets and streams and it is now time for us to take initiatives to transfer that knowledge to the new generation and develop their interest in conservation of forests, rivers and related ecosystems, Panda added.
Executive director of Vasundhara, Manas Ranjan Mishra called upon the youth to raise their voices by spreading their network, extending their reach. He said social media is the best platform to extend outreach. “In several areas, those who are protecting forests are in their 70s. It is high time a leadership transition to youth happened with proper guidance and knowledge transfer,” he added.
The forest-river-communities link
Rivers, an integral part of ecology, cannot exist without healthy forests which, in turn, cannot exist without local indigenous communities. While the conference called for a state-wide drive for environmentalism to save forests that are essential for healthy rivers and happy communities, Panda said, “Environmentalism has unfortunately been limited to planting trees. We have to break the pattern.”
While it is important to plant trees, it is more important to protect natural forests and water resources. The new generation should be taught multiple functions and values of ecologically suitable local species, he pointed out. It is also important to assess the current plantation and afforestation models and their roles in enriching water resources, river basins and impacts of the same on tenurial rights of the forest and riparian communities.
Even as the government pumps in crores of rupees in the name of protecting river basins by planting on the river banks, we need to ponder over the species which are vital for surface water recharge. It is unfortunate that we are destroying natural forests and planting alien species like eucalyptus and acacia which further deplete our rivers.
Chief guest at the event, Prof. Ashok Panigrahi, a noted conservationist, expressed disappointment over the recent Supreme Court order on the eviction of forest dwellers whose claims over forest land were rejected. If the forest dwellers are going to be evicted from the land where they have been staying for generations, neither the forests nor the wildlife is going to be protected which would sound the death knell for the streams and rivers that originate from forests.
He also said that various large-scale development projects such as the river interlinking project negatively impact the forests and mangroves. He urged the community members to take the lead to ensure the life and flow of rivers before they get dry.
B.V. Subba Rao, Centre for Resource Education and Management, Hyderabad said that the age-old link between water, forest and humans has undergone a metamorphosis and policy-makers are now focusing on exploring and exploiting the natural resources. He said, “Rivers are not safe in the country. We need to carry out a different review, something like a sustainable water audit, of the entire river system to save these.”
Eminent environmentalist Ardhendu Chatterjee, Development Research Communication and Services Centre, Kolkata said that we should get rid of the idea that jungle is for animals only and driving the forest dwellers away can keep the animals and forests safe.
Forests are not just carbon sinks. They are the source of lives and livelihood of millions of local and indigenous communities. They recharge rivers and play a vital role in ensuring water security for all in a sustainable manner, said Satish Sharma, a veteran ecologist from the Foundation of Ecological Security, Udaipur. “It is time to promote integrated ecological river basin models to protect rivers by bringing all the stakeholders—rural communities, youth, academics, experts and civil societies together," he said.
Bishakha Bhanja of Water Aid India said that the efforts of women who are the silent protectors of forests often go unrecognised. They have the traditional knowledge on how to make proper use of water so that groundwater level is maintained. We should look into women’s perspective while talking about water conservation, she said while appreciating the initiative by the organisers to confer Odisha water honours on women this year.
The experts also deliberated on finding out ways towards interstate river basin cooperation aspects in catchment protection. Water security and sustainability can be achieved by ensuring communities’ rights over the resources. They dwelled upon issues to intervene in the policy level to establish linkages between water policy and forest policy and bring in the role and rights of indigenous communities. The civil society organisations chalked out strategies for building a larger network of people and institutions working on forests, rivers and community rights issues and took a resolution to work in unison.
India Water Portal was a media partner for the conference.