10 states – 24 changemakers – 1 mission: A unique initiative to skill citizens in assessing a river's health

Twenty-four participants from 10 states travelled to Kerala with a common mission to invest their skills in bringing Earth’s veins and artilleries back to flowing life. Their diverse background from architecture to academicians and from heads of gram panchayat to officers from the government had a singular focus - on exploring the practical ways to transform the river restoration initiatives into a national movement

Apr 27, 2022

Let us rise above the concept of human rights and consider the rights of rivers to remain clean, flow uninterrupted, meander according to the Earth’s inclination and meet the sea at the dating place. Rivers were historically the sine qua non of the human settlements that later became civilizations. The dominance of humanity has changed the natural course of rivers. The rivers now need independence from that dominance. They indeed are veins and artilleries of the civilizations now requiring to have their fundamental rights.  

That's what exactly identified as a need of today when IPBES ( Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform based on Biodiversity and  Ecosystem Service) in its 2021 report warned that Nature’s Dangerous Decline is ‘Unprecedented’. It went on to state in no uncertain way that “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.” The Riverine, a unidirectional ‘flowing ecosystem’ composed of water, sand, vegetation and aquatic and non-aquatic life is the crucial part of this loss.

 A five-day interactive and skill-building train-the-trainer event on ‘river conservation to train practitioners in assessing the health of a river’ was organised by MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) and Asia Pacific Network for Global Change Research. It concluded on 22 April 2022 - World Mother Earth Day. 

Twenty-four participants from 10 states travelled to Kerala with a common mission to invest their skills in bringing Earth’s veins and artilleries back to flowing life. Their diverse background from architecture to academicians and from heads of gram panchayat to officers from the government had a singular focus - on exploring the practical ways to transform the river restoration initiatives into a national movement.

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

The comprehensive training module was integrated with a skill-building agenda, experience sharing, and 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 has caused the crossing of limits of pollution in the rivers and has resulted in the widespread diseases among the villagers on the banks of Pamba

The sessions were addressed by eminent scientists and conservationists with hands on experience in restoration of the nature including Dr G.N. Hariharan, Executive Director of MSSRF, Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, Advisor to IUCN, Dr T.V. Ramachandra of Indian Institute of Science among others.

Giving people a voice to communicate

Dr N. Anil Kumar, Senior Director of MSSRF, the man behind the skilling concept said 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. “More than the data collection ,  the key challenge is in transforming the way the riparian population interacts with scientists and policymakers more effectively. Such an approach does not just let people collect data, but it goes beyond and empowers communities and gives them a voice to make a change,’‘ added Dr Anil Kumar.

Dr Rajendra Shende, Chairman of TERRE Policy Centre and former Director UNEP and IIT Alumnus  in the concluding session stated that the 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’, he added. Considering the ongoing United Nations Decade of Action for Nature Restoration, he emphatically conveyed that ‘inaction is not only disastrous but suicidal.

He suggested that ‘The Indian Institute of River Management’ should 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 rivers need to be studied and conveyed to policymakers 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 praised this unprecedented event. 

Ganga and Jamuna are also declared as 'living entities' in India following the example of New Zealand.

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 in the 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).

The workshop concluded with the proactive determination by the participants to ensure nationwide 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 impacts and the need for sustainable development. 

TERRE Policy Centre is a non-profit, non-partisan and independent organization dedicated to sustainable solutions to our developmental imperatives. TERRE also is the abbreviation for ‘Technology, Education, Research and Rehabilitation for the Environment.’ TERRE strives to reach all strata of society, particularly the young generation and people at the bottom of the pyramid with capacity building tools on energy and food security. Its motto is: "To think is good but to act is better”. https://terrepolicycentre.com

Smart Campus Cloud Network (SCCN) facilitates colleges and universities to mainstream the future policy- makers and policy-implementers in implementing the SDGs by promoting sharing of the information on transformative actions undertaken by students and faculties in the campus. More importantly, it encourages to deploy the digital technologies like IoT (Internet of Thing), AI (Artificial Intelligence), Cloud-networking, Machine-to-machine learning and Block chain for optimum use of energy, water in campus and catalyse effective waste management, sustainable transport, air pollution and nature conservation within the campus. sccnhub.com

M S Swaminathan Research Foundation    

MSSRF is a non-profit research institution founded by Prof MS Swaminathan. Based in Chennai its  core aim is to use contemporary science for sustainable agriculture & rural development.  It develops and promotes strategies for economic growth that directly target increased employment of poor women in rural areas. Demonstrating the Sustainable development approaches is the key approach of MSSRF. M S Swaminathan Botanical Garden (MSSBG) at Puthoorvayal, Wayanad, Kerala is an initiative of MSSRF to save, study and sustainably use the biodiversity of the Malabar region of India.

Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research    

Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research is an intergovernmental network of 22 countries working towards an Asia-Pacific region, with special emphasis on recent trends in global change and sustainable solutions. Through the competitive Collaborative Regional Research Programme (CRRP) and the capacity development programmes it promotes regional research that has potential to improve our understanding of global change and its implications while contributing to the sound scientific basis for policymaking in areas affected by global change.

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