“Most people think of rivers originating in the Himalayas,” says wildlife conservationist Dr Anish Andheria. “It is a general feeling that when the ice melts, it feeds the rivers that flow down the mountains. While this is true of rivers from Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh, most Indian rivers in fact receive more water from precipitation over forests.” The great waterways that inspire and nourish us are, in turn, sustained by over 700,000 sq km of forests, stretching from the Himalayan foothills to the Malabar Ghats.
Most of us are not taught to make this connection, to consider the vast network of interlocking eco-systems upstream that make it possible for water to gush from our taps at a touch. It’s been Anish’s mission to make these connections explicit, especially for young Indians. He does it through his work as a conservationist, naturalist and wildlife photographer, and in his role as President of the Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT), a not-for-profit that works to protect wildlife and combat climate change. The WCT supports state government conservation efforts in over 130 Indian national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.
Anish lays the blame for our current water crisis on the relentless depletion and degradation of India’s forests. Equally, he credits wildlife conservation initiatives like Project Tiger for the preservation of over 300 arterial water-bodies originating from 52 tiger reserves. In a conversation with Sarmaya, Anish helped us follow the course of an Indian river from its birth in the hills to its final destination at sea, and recognise the many invisible green wheels that make this journey possible.
India is home to many rivers that originate in our Western and Central forests—can you explain the symbiotic relationship between rivers and forests?
“In the north, the forests in the lower reaches of the Himalayas are responsible for capturing rainwater and slowly releasing it through the valleys. They store and generate water for all seasons while the glaciers melt only in the summers.
“When we look at peninsular India, pretty much every single river originates in mountains covered in vegetation, with a forested catchment. Having grass or trees in an area increases humidity in the air, thereby catalysing the formation and entrapment of clouds, which eventually leads to precipitation. Forests also play a crucial role in capturing rainwater during the monsoons. Rainwater that seeps into the soil in a forest recharges underground aquifers; from these aquifers emerge small springs; and these small springs eventually become large rivers and tributaries. If we remove all the trees or grasses from a landscape, the (top) soil will get washed away with the water, leaving behind compact land which cannot absorb rainwater. The rain that falls on such degraded land will simply run off into rivers that empty into the sea, leaving the land dry post-monsoon.”
Apart from forests, India is also home to wetlands and many mangroves. Can you tell us how these function as sources of freshwater?
“When I say forests, I’m also talking about wetlands and’ mangroves. Many wetlands are interspersed with forests and mangroves are a type of forest occupying the brackish regions of our land. Mangrove trees may be physiologically different, but they perform the same function. In India, mangroves are found all along the western and eastern coasts. On the eastern side, we find them in the Sundarbans (West Bengal and Bangladesh), the largest mangrove forest on earth. Mangroves play an important role in capturing sediment from rivers, which would otherwise end up in the sea. They have the best of both worlds, receiving nutrient-rich sediment from rivers as well as from the sea, giving rise to the delta. This means that mangroves are natural land-builders.
“Additionally, estuaries aligned with healthy mangroves are nurseries, where fish breed because the water there is both highly nutritious and supports a lot of biodiversity, which in turn provides food to the young hatchlings. The turbidity of the water helps tiny fish to hide from predators. So when we clear out mangroves, we attack biodiversity, facilitate erosion and increase risk of harm from cyclones. Mangroves are the first line of defence for life on land.”
It has been recognised locally and globally that water shortage is the biggest problem India is facing today. What are some of the biggest threats facing our natural water bodies?
“The most dangerous threat to water supply is deforestation and the degradation of forests. Deforestation is the uprooting of trees and the removal of the forests completely. It usually happens overnight for the construction of dams, ports, mines and other industries. Intense forest fires also cause deforestation. In India, 99% of forest fires are man-made.
“Industries and housing complexes are one thing, but linear infrastructure such as roads, canals, and railways also causes deforestation. On paper, they result in the removal of the least number of trees compared to other developmental projects such as mines, ports and dams, however, the secondary damage they do is much greater. Once a road is made, it gets populated with gas stations and food halts, gives access to people who want to poach animals or smuggle wood, and hinders the migration of animals. Each year hundreds of thousands of animals are killed on roads, railway lines, canals and powerlines in India.
“Degradation, on the other hand, is a reduction in the quality of a forest over a period of time. A high density of people are dependent on forests. To help you understand, India has 52 tiger reserves, which cover only 2.3% of the country. More than 35,000 families live inside the core area of a tiger reserve, as many as 3 million are supported in the buffer zones and a whopping 100 million people live along the periphery! Most of these people are dependent on the forest in some way, either for fuelwood or other produce. The forest cannot recover from this constant consumptive pressure. As good quality forests go down, so does good quality water.”
In an interview earlier this year, you mentioned that we get most of our drinking water from rivers and lakes and that many of the lakes are made using dams. Yet with the construction of new dams in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, the Himalayas and other place, we see news stories of forest cover and livelihoods being lost. Could you throw some light on where these construction projects go wrong?
“This is a very, very important question. When we dam a river, a huge submergence area is formed behind the dam. This impoundment causes deforestation through submergence. But do we need big dams? Large dams make more money for construction companies and the government. However, what we actually need are much smaller dams that allow natural, upward migration of fishes. Big dams hamper the natural movement of aquatic organisms, which in turn depletes the ecosystem thereby directly impacting the livelihoods of the fishing communities that reside along the banks of the rivers.
“We also need to use technology to do efficient farming. A major portion of water is used to irrigate fields. Nearly 60% of Indians are farmers and of them, 85% are subsistence farmers and all of them are dependent on water. The government quotes these farmers and their demand for water as one of the main reasons for building large dams. Yet, when the monsoon fails, those large dams don’t have water and farmers are forced to bore deep into the earth for it. Today, borewells go as deep as 2000 ft to fetch water in areas where, only a couple of decades ago, water was available at 50 ft. How deep are we going to go? Instead, if we were to rejuvenate forests, rivers will flow all year round, and we will have replenished groundwater.
“Cities, of course, need to manage their grey water and reduce inefficient consumption. We can decentralise water harvesting and make sure we have village-level tanks that can capture rainwater. These tanks could support fisheries so that the water, while it’s there, can recharge the land as well as provide protein. Maybe the intake remains the same but the pressures on large water bodies will decrease substantially.”
What effects will the river linking project have on our natural and man-made landscape?
“The river linking project stems from the wrong notion that rainfall and glacier melt create surplus water in some rivers, which is wasted when it reaches the ocean. There is no such thing as ‘surplus water’ for a river. So many of the nutrients in the sea that supports sea grasses, fishes and other organisms often come from big rivers.
“We don’t understand that certain rivers naturally dry out during the summer months. It is part of their natural cycle. By diverting water into these dry rivers from perennial rivers we sound a death knell for the biodiversity of these dry rivers. On the other hand, perennial rivers support a unique mix of biodiversity too, which requires a certain level of water to be maintained throughout the year. For example, dolphins, gharial and several species of turtles need flowing water for sustenance. So diverting water out of such a river into a dry one will destroy their habitat, pushing them to the brink. Today, nearly 30% of India, including island communities, are dependent on fisheries for livelihoods and protein. If fisheries collapse, the impact on these people will be huge.
“While addressing a rally, one politician likened linking rivers to the linking of two water pipes in a building. The reality is lightyears away from this! River linking is a sure-shot way of destroying biodiversity on land and water, and therefore destroying the livelihoods of millions of poor people in the long run.”
You mentioned decentralisation of water harvesting, and village-level solutions. Many environmentalists/naturalists believe we need to learn from indigenous systems of conservation. Would you agree?
“I agree partly, but we need a hybrid model. Traditional methods worked for smaller populations, but failed as populations exploded and people’s needs escalated. We are 1.4 billion and are expected to touch 1.65 billion by 2050. So traditional practices alone won’t work. It will have to be a fusion between traditional and modern methods. Water harvesting can be carried out in a decentralized manner so as to move away from [the need for] large dams and having to distribute water inefficiently across great distances. Agriculture, the largest consumer of freshwater in India, needs to focus on native, organic crops that are irrigated in a far more water-efficient manner. Future cities will have to be built with technology that ensures zero wastage of water. Vegetarianism too helps conserve water.
“Rather than investing on expeditions to Mars and Moon, we need to invest in technology that improves the overall efficiency of man-made systems. We need policies that encourage businesses to become environment friendly. We need carbon auditing of all companies manufacturing consumables goods, like shoes, jackets, car, furniture, batteries, etc. As we do that, the price of those goods will reflect their true negative impact on the climate, instead of being grossly subsidized like they are currently. This will reduce the tsunami of consumerism, thereby reducing the stress on our finite planet.
“All of the above has to happen simultaneously. We’re currently looking at different parts of the elephant and trying to come up with our own description for each part. To solve the water crisis, we will have to look at it as one.”
What are some of the success stories you’ve witnessed in your 25 years in conservation?
“Project Tiger has been the biggest success story; while the population of tigers has dropped in most countries, in India, it has gone up. We have nearly 3000 tigers; there used to be less than 1800 in the early 1970s. These are not tigers bred in captivity, which means forests have regained their diversity. What started as a nation-wide initiative to bring back the tiger ended up securing the hydrological balance of the country. If you map the rivers flowing out of India’s 52 tiger reserves, we are looking at a number in excess of 300!
“There are many such big and small success stories. Silent Valley is a national park in Kerala. In the early 1970s, a hydroelectric project was proposed there. A small group of people started campaigning against it. Prime Minister Morarji Desai gave the go-ahead to the project in 1977, despite opposition from civil society. However, the campaign gained strength, putting pressure on the Kerala government to call off the project in 1983. In 1985, it was declared a national park and it continues to be one of the most beautiful and pristine habitats in peninsular India today.
“The importance of civil society in protecting natural ecosystems cannot be overstated. We need to train our young people and school-going children to recognise the importance of uniting for the environment.”