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Securing aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems for the future

The global population seems to be multiplying exponentially, while resources aren’t being replenished at the same rate. World-over, water reservoirs are being adversely affected by climate changes and extreme weather conditions. Marine pollution due to non-biodegradable waste being dumped into the oceans threatens the survival of its biodiversity and the future of marine fishing. Forests are affected by intensive chemical-based agriculture that degrades soil quality and eventually impacts food and water security. Thus, the aquatic and terrestrial components of an ecosystem are more important than they are usually given credit for.

India’s inland water sources majorly consist of rivers and canals, reservoirs, tanks & ponds, in addition to several smaller kinds of water bodies. India is blessed with many rivers, 12 of which are classified as major rivers with a total catchment area of 252.8 million hectares (M.Ha.), while the catchment area of the medium rivers is about 25 M.Ha. All remaining sources cover about 7 M.Ha. India receives a large amount of rainfall, but this is unevenly distributed in terms of space and time. Due to this, only a small amount can be utilized. Not all parts of the country receive an amount necessary to fulfil their needs; some have frequent floods, while others battle recurrent droughts. It is essential that each person receives enough water necessary for their survival.

Lt Gen Arun Kumar Sahni from the Club of Rome India cited the example of Denganmal, a drought-stricken village in Maharashtra just 150 km away from Mumbai, which is notorious for its system of paaniwaali bais (‘water wives’). The Basta river (which supplies water to Mumbai) is just 8 km away and its dam is even closer at 3 km. However, despite the villagers working to build the dam, a water connection to their village was never constructed. Men in the village now marry multiple times, sadly only to ensure that their household receives enough water for survival. The first wife cooks, cleans, (gives birth to and) takes care of children, while the second and third wives are tasked with the sole duty of making multiple trips to the dam to fetch water. It is rather unfortunate that despite media coverage, the village has had no respite from the crisis. A popular news report, published last year stated, “Despite being common knowledge, the authorities have not stepped in to curb the growing number of water wives in Maharashtra. Is this not an example of regressive thinking that even in 2016, women are seen as the substitute of water pipes or tankers?” What is particularly appalling is that Thane district (in which Denganmal is situated) houses not one, but three water-themed amusement parks, less than 60 km away from the village.

According to the latest edition of the United Nations World Water Development Report released earlier this year (in March 2017), more than 80% of wastewater in the world is left untreated before it is released into the environment. This increases to a whopping 95% and more in some developed countries. This affects the quality of freshwater sources and eventually the marine environment. The increase in global population and migration have dealt a major blow to the equitable use of water. Additionally, factors such as physical scarcity, unsuitability for use (due to pollution or contamination of sources), inaccessibility due to inadequate infrastructure, and inefficient usage due to over-consumption or over-exploitation are barriers to water security. To combat this, Dr Anish Andheria from the Wildlife Conservation Trust shared a thought-provoking ideology that resources are under-priced and under-paid. For example, payment is not extracted for using oxygen from forests. He called for a fundamental change in pricing of resources by basing it on those that have the willingness to pay.

The India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2015 states that the total forest and tree cover in the country is 79.42 million hectares, which is 24.16% of the total geographical area. The North-Eastern states account for one-fourth of this forest cover. Combatting the effects of growing industrialization, urbanization and expansion of infrastructure is possibly a long and arduous process, but one that critically needs scaling up.

The Forest Rights Act (FRA), that was passed in December 2006, is a step in the right direction. It recognises the right of an individual forest dweller to live in and cultivate forest land he/she is occupying. It also allows the government to grant Community Forest Rights (CFR) to village gram sabhas, and thus permit them to manage the forest around them and utilise its 'minor produce'. Before the FRA, the forests were governed by the Indian Forest Act, a law from the British era, that gave the government the rights to unilaterally declare any area as a 'reserved forest' or 'protected forest', after which only the state had rights to the forest's produce. Thus, villagers living in the midst of a reserved forest, could not legally even pluck a leaf from the thick clusters of bamboo that surrounded their village. It was a milestone event a couple of years ago, when Mendha Lekha, a village in Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra secured CFR over 1,800 hectares of forest surrounding it. They also obtained transit passes (TPs) to exercise their right to sell the bamboo growing around their village. However, a few nearby villages faced confusion when TPs were given to a private company to fell bamboos in addition to giving it to their gram sabhas, thus evidencing incoherent policies.

Several other initiatives such as sustainable agricultural practices, reforestation and increasing the life of trees also need to be encouraged. Reforestation has multiple benefits; it recharges the water tables, reduces carbon emissions and soil erosion, mitigates the effects of climate change, contributes to food and nutrition security and preserves the ecosystem. The need of the hour is to encourage the sustainable use of water as a critical resource. One way to do this would be to minimize needs at all levels such as households (using efficient toilets and frugal bathing and washing practices), industry (encouraging a policy of reduce, reuse and recycle) and agriculture (increasing the amount of food produced per unit of water input, using sprinkler and drip irrigation, and incentivising farmers to encourage frugal practices). Various measures would also be needed to augment supply such as artificial recharge, rainwater harvesting and inter-linking of rivers. While desalination may also be explored, it in turn raises the question of the disposal of brine. Marine pollution also needs to be reined in by greening the blue economy and not repeating mistakes made on land, at sea.

In its contribution to the environment, EVPL assists and provides expertise from the pre-setup stage to the compliance and monitoring activities post-setup for Effluent Treatment Plants (ETP). It also helps calculate the number and types of trees as mandated for green belt development around factories. In terms of providing technical assistance to industries, EVPL conducts third party assessments, testing and monitoring of manufacturing processes and installed units, to ensure pan-India compliance with environmental norms such as those for water supply, wastewater treatment, and drainage systems and recommends mitigating measures, where necessary. It also conducts Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA), in addition to assessing the water cess and ensuring compliance to all provisions of the water act and all standards under the E(P) act.

It is important to understand and keep in mind the larger picture of ecocycles. Working towards better wastewater management will herald social, environmental and economic benefits that are essential for sustainable development. As Dr Andheria said, water that returns to the sea is more important than the water we drink because it contributes to the sustainability of fisheries as an industry and provides livelihoods to a large section of India’s population that is dependent on it.

Content by Natasha DLima

About the CLUB OF ROME

The Club of Rome was founded in 1968 as an informal association of independent leading personalities from politics, business and science, men and women who are long-term thinkers interested in contributing in a systemic interdisciplinary and holistic manner to a better world.

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