Rejuvenating rivers, Reviving life

Rejuvenating rivers, Reviving life

Dr. Lingaraju Yale looks up from his laptop with some trace of weariness and yet with some sign of hope. The summer ahead is the cause for the first and initial results from his work over the last 4 years in rejuvenating three major river sources (Kumudavathi, Vedavathi and Palar) in Karnataka however is keeping his hope up. Four decades ago, as a young geologist Dr. Yale had planned to make a career in the thriving mining business in his home state. However today as a geo-hydrologist, he is one of the foremost experts on natural water resource management in India and leads the River Rejuvenation Project inspired by Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar under the auspices of International Association for Human Values.

Despite the massive industrialization post-Independence and the ushering in of free market capitalism India witnessed post 1991 liberalization, the country continues to a vastly agrarian economy, with an estimated 65-70% of the population depending on farmland for sustenance either as a landowner or farm worker.  This means water for irrigation has a direct bearing on not just the survival or rural India, but also plays a decisive role in the food security of the country. The Green Revolution in the early Sixties, while enabled vast improvement in the agricultural productivity, also unleashed a surge in the exploitation of groundwater using electric bore well.  Inefficient and unsustainable agricultural practices along with loss of forests to farmland played a big role in loss of access to water for agricultural and household use in rural India.  The tragic culmination of these factors witnessed a surge in farmer suicides in the country.

According to Dr. Yale, a study of rainfall over the last ten decades shows that there has been little or no change in its volume or pattern (spread over geographic areas).  Thus the source of rivers continuing to be more or less what it has been over the last 50-60 years, the real damage has primarily been man-made.  Degradation of natural vegetation in the mountains, valleys and plains, over-exploitation of groundwater,  soil erosion and massive plantation of exotic trees (that consume more water than they retain in the ground) have been the main reasons for the rivers drying-up which finally has exploded into an epidemic level of farmer suicides across the country and mainly in the western state of Maharashtra that accounted for over 90% of the 2000-odd suicides in 2015 in the country.

Since mid-2013, Dr. Yale and his team of 20-odd full-time volunteers and few hundred part-time volunteers across four states India have initiated their work in rejuvenating 38 rivers in Maharashtra (25), Karnataka (4), Tamil Nadu (6) and 1 in Kerala. What Dr. Yale and his team are trying do is in some sense seminal, the fruition of which is likely to show up in rest of India. Traditional methods of artificially pumping water into river sources or large scale afforestation to help retention of rainwater in the hills and plains don’t really work towards long term resolution of droughts in the country says Dr. Yale. “What most people don’t understand is that a river is a system and mountains are its banks. What we are now trying to do is copy nature, which is the best way to rejuvenate our rivers,” he said. What Dr. Yale means by copying nature is that allowing nature to take back its role for feeding the rivers and converting dried or semi-perennial rivers into perennial ones.

Back in May 2013, Dr. Yale presented his first comprehensive report on the revival of Kumudavathi River in Karnataka that is a primary source of water for Bengaluru.  Leaning on his extensive experience working with Indian Space Research Organization’s Natural Resources Information for Management of Natural Resources, Dr. Yale and his team laid out a comprehensive approach to revival of the river using a three-pronged approach — erosion control measure (using boulder to decelerate the speed of river flow), groundwater recharge (using recharge well and bore well), rejuvenating water bodies (step wells, tanks and massive afforestation).

Boulder checks by reducing the speed of water flow, prevents soil erosion while it promotes creating and retaining soil moisture by supporting natural vegetation. Further stream, recharge wells and bore wells help in raising the water table by allowing vertical flow of the river.  A similar technique is also used by creating water pools that minimizes loss of water through evaporation and also doubling up as a source for human, cattle and birds downstream. The final leg of this comprehensive plan in undertaking afforestation on a massive scale with vegetation natural to the locality. This prevents soil erosion, accelerates water infiltration, attracts water molecules to the gravity zone and enhances water retention through capillary action.  Planting exotic trees like eucalyptus with a sole intention of commercial exploitation have also contributed to the water scarcity problem.  “These exotic trees consume more water than they retain and nothing else grows around them,” said Dr. Yale.

Unlike in the past, state governments have started showing great interest in adopting Dr. Yale’s long term river rejuvenation plans.  “Rivers being a holistic system in itself cannot be dealt in silos.  Water, forest, mining and other departments have to work as one and not with isolated action plan or targets,” he said.

The efforts in reviving the rivers have also found support from the central government.  More than 1000 locals working in the revival of Kumudavathi river basin are now direct beneficiaries of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

Dr. Yale’s methods to rejuvenate rivers in Karnataka have also been effectively deployed in Maharashtra.

Art of Living​ volunteers in Ramegaon and Jalegaon villages in the state have managed to revive dead river streams and have now converted the into a perennial source of water for both farming and household use.  In Ramegaon for example, the revival of streams along with more efficient agricultural practices have allowed farmers to increase the number of crops in a season too.

“(In the) last 8 years there was no water.  Farming was dependent only on rains, hence we managed only one crop a year.  Now water is available throughout the year and I grow three crops a year.  My annual income has also grown 10 times to Rs 3 lakh now from Rs 30,000-40,000 earlier,” says Dayanand, a small farmer in Kalaspur village in Maharashtra.

The impact of these efforts by Art of Living volunteers have also started to receive accolades.  Some of the recent recognition includes the President’s Award for Innovative Project, ‘Best CSR’ project from NHRD, Finalists for FICCI Water Award 2016 and Finalists for MGNREGA Awards by Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India.

River rejuvenation is a long term and sustainable solution.  Results come in trickle but ensure that past man-made errors are reversed permanently.  This is the only way to deliver a long term solution to reviving dried up rivers said Dr. Yale.