Helping India to help itself with water management and reforestation

Dr Mark Everard is driven by a desire to shape the direction of development and influence world views about sustainability, given his love of nature. This drive has taken him all over the world and most recently to India, where he is working on two projects. One involves reforestation in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the other pertains to water management in the north-west state of Rajasthan. “I think, globally, people have forgotten the importance of nature and my work is to help re-invent an ecologically based economy,” says the environmentalist, who is Associate Professor of Ecosystem Services at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol).

Tamil Nadu

One element of Everard’s work in India is in partnership with The Converging World (TCW), a charity that helps regions in India work towards low-carbon energy production and development. One of the charity’s activities is to install wind turbines before recycling a proportion of operating surpluses into reforestation across the country.

Nadukuppam_forest
The beginnings of a forest at Nadukuppam

Reforestation, the natural or intentional restocking of existing forests and woodlands, provides multiple benefits. First there is the positive impact on people and nature, including hydrological buffering (helping with flood reduction and water resource regenerations), biodiversity enhancement, microclimate, and production of food and medicinal resources. A 40 year-old restored forest at Pitchandikulam demonstrates this. Tended from initial plantings on degraded farmland, it now hosts a diversity of wildlife, medicinal plants and a cold microclimate.

Then there are the carbon and climate benefits. By analysing data on carbon storage in the region’s typical forests, Everard and colleagues have demonstrated that an area of forest restored by incremental investments throughout the operational life of a wind turbine can sequester 3,000 times more carbon dioxide than that averted by the wind turbine.

Along with partners, Everard is involved in an ongoing reforestation programme around Nadukuppam village.  The planting of young trees began two years ago, and the involvement and empowerment of local people has played a vital role in its progress. The academic has now contributed to two scientific papers about the scheme.

Rajasthan

In India’s largest state, Everard is involved in a different environmental issue: water management. Rajasthan is a desert state and is today experiencing rapidly depleting groundwater levels and increasing geological contamination of the water, as mechanised pumping of deep groundwater becomes more common.

The region contains many traditional water management methods attuned to local geography, rainfall and culture. Unfortunately, a lot of this traditional water wisdom is lost today, according to the academic. “When the water levels decline, traditional water extraction techniques may cease to work, so interest in communal efforts to replenish it are displaced by competitive pumping of receding water,” he explains.

The environmentalist therefore looks at success factors in cases where people have reversed the cycle of degradation.  He collaborates with NGOs working with local people to restore traditional water harvesting solutions, as well as more modern innovations that complement local hydrology, geography and cultural perspectives. Such solutions can help intercept infrequent and increasingly erratic monsoon rains, enabling them to percolate into groundwater insulated from the region’s high evaporation rate and available for year-round access. In partnership with Wells for India and to highlight these effective methods, Everard is shortly publishing a guide in Hindi and English documenting over 30 ‘water wise’ water harvesting techniques in the region.

For example, monsoon run-off can be harvested using a ‘Johad’ (semi-circular mound of earth) that is adapted to drainage lines on sloping land with a permeable surface. The water is detained and able to recharge soil moisture and shallow groundwater, accessible year-round using open wells. Other solutions are adapted to where the land is sloped or flat, permeable or impermeable.

Mark_Kesar_village
Meeting with villagers in Rajasthan

Using this evidence, Everard communicates with highly placed officials in the Rajasthan government to remind them of such water resource recharge practices that have kept communities in the region viable over centuries. The academic says that authorities are beginning to recognise the need to rebuild ecosystem vitality from the bottom up.  “The Additional Chief Conservator of Forests in the Government of Rajasthan has recognised that the work we have published at UWE Bristol contains jigsaw pieces useful in converting high-level aspirations into practical reality.” Everard has already published three papers on this topic with three more in the pipeline.

 

 

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