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Kochi: On March 14, the Union environment ministry unveiled a plan to rejuvenate 13 major rivers in India using “forestry interventions”. A major thrust of the plan is to afforest river banks; others include “riverfront development” and installing “eco parks”.
The government has selected Himalayan, peninsular and inland rivers in 24 states and two Union territories, including Jhelum, Yamuna, Cauvery, Krishna and Luni, for this programme, with a total outlay of around Rs 19,300 crore.
According to the ministry, the project is based on the “successful implementation” of a pilot afforestation programme in 2015 as part of the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) – a Central scheme to rejuvenate the ailing Ganga river.
However, experts said they are not convinced for two reasons. There’s no proof the NMCG-funded project succeeded, and the new promises could further deteriorate the rivers, they said.
Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav and state ministers released the detailed project reports (DPRs) to rejuvenate 13 major rivers: Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, Sutlej, Yamuna, Brahmaputra, Luni, Narmada, Godavari, Mahanadi, Krishna and Cauvery. These rivers together run for 42,830 km and drain more than half of India’s geographical area.
The Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE) prepared the detailed project reports with funds from the National Afforestation and Eco-development Board under the environment ministry.
The rationale to use “forestry interventions” to rejuvenate the rivers is that riverbank afforestation will recharge groundwater and ensure perennial flow. The project proposes to use different plantation “models” for different landscapes – natural, agricultural and urban – that the rivers pass through.
These models also propose to include a combination of distributing saplings to farmers, planting fruit- and timber-producing trees, constructing staggered contour trenches for soil and water conservation, promoting ecotourism, and so on.
By doing this, an overview document that the ministers released claims the project will increase forest cover, carbon sequestration and groundwater recharging; reduce sedimentation; and create jobs.
So the Union government is yoking the project’s outcomes to India’s international commitments under the Paris Agreement, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and the Sustainable Development Goals.
An immediate implication is that if this river rejuvenation project doesn’t succeed, India’s climate commitments could be in danger.
‘Priorities need changing’
The preamble of the overview document is “welcome” for its talk of forests and rivers being complex systems. And planting medicinal plants and other vegetation that hold economic value for people could be a good way to ensure political will and local stakes. But there are “some issues” and certain “priorities” that will have to be changed, ecohydrologist Jagdish Krishnaswamy, dean of the school of environment and sustainability at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bengaluru, said.
One is that planting plants and trees along riverbanks alone won’t restore rivers, according to him.
Indeed, this topic of discussion emerged when Jaggi Vasudev and his Isha Foundation launched a project in 2017 called “Rally for Rivers”. Its prime proposal was to raise funds to plant trees on the banks of rivers for 20,000 km, based on the idea that afforestation along river banks would recharge the groundwater table and ensure flowing rivers. But ecologists had pointed out that trees don’t necessarily make rivers flow.
Instead, restoring river flow would be the first step to revive rivers, Krishnaswamy told The Wire Science. Our rivers are “in trouble” because of upstream regulation and water management, such as dams, and extraction.
“Unless we make changes in the amount of water we use for agriculture, industries and cities, we won’t be able to retain or enhance flow in our rivers,” he said. “Our groundwater extraction is so high that it has reduced the dry season flow in many rivers, especially peninsular ones.”
We also need to take climate change into account while planning such “large vegetative treatments,” he added. These investments must be resilient to ongoing and future climate change.
For example, many rivers sport enormous old-growth trees, such as mango, jamun and ficus, along their banks and in the riparian zone. No amount of planting new trees will be able to replace the ecological functions that such old trees provide. Therefore they should be retained, Krishnaswamy explained.
‘Success’ with the Ganga
Afforestation along the Ganga has succeeded – this claim underlies the new afforestation-oriented project to rejuvenate other Indian rivers, according to the ICFRE document. Is this true?
According to the report, in 2015, the Indian government launched a pilot afforestation project along the banks of the Ganga. This refers to a project funded by NMCG that the state forest departments of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal have been implementing since 2016, according to the mission website. The total allocation was Rs 2,293 crore.
But after almost five years, environmental activist Manoj Misra, head of the ‘Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan’ organisation, told The Wire Science that there is no sign it succeeded.
“This is clear from so many perspectives, including the state of the Ganga’s tributaries, continued release of mostly untreated industrial and urban effluents, and so on,” Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, also said. “To use it as an example of a success story for other rivers is out of the question.”
As The Wire Science reported in December 2021:
“… it is one of the most polluted rivers on the planet. Researchers estimated in 2018 that the Ganga was one of the ten river systems in the world that carried 93% of the plastic that ends up in the ocean from rivers alone.
The river’s biggest problem is untreated sewage. One study reported that the prime cause of its deteriorating water quality was untreated sewage from urban areas. Another … found that untreated sewage accounted for 75% of its filth. … Barrages and hydroelectric projects [also] divert more than half the water away, reducing flow in the river’s main stem and concentrating pollutants.”
Misra, in fact, called the Ganga’s rejuvenation a “myth”. According to him, it isn’t possible to “rejuvenate rivers with … engineering concepts” that have fixed deadlines. Instead, such an “ecological challenge” ought to be tackled as a “mission”, not over “five or 10 years” but in a more open-ended fashion.
Because rivers are often combinations of multiple streams by the time they drain into a sea, reviving them will have to mean reviving all of those streams. The new proposed project doesn’t offer to do this.
Third, rejuvenation will need to be encouraged and led by local stakeholders and institutions, and not a project-implementing government department, Misra added.
Double standards and destruction
There is still room to argue that the new project could succeed where the NMCG has failed, but India’s ‘riverfront development’ efforts so far haven’t been successful either.
Thakkar said the cases of the Ganga and the Sabarmati “don’t inspire confidence”.
In 2019, The Wire found that a joint investigation by the Gujarat Pollution Control Board and the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti held riverfront development to be responsible for the river’s current “drought-like condition”. Their report read that the river’s concretised banks had played havoc with groundwater recharge and forced it to depend on water from the Narmada to maintain its hydro-ecological character.
Indeed, when restoring rivers – especially in urban stretches – the riverfront should retain its ecological characteristics and shouldn’t be concretised or channelised, as in the examples of riverfront development thus far, Krishnaswamy said.
Misra, in fact, called ‘riverfront development’ and “eco parks” “fancy terms and fancy ideas which have nothing to do with river rejuvenation per se”. According to him, “The Sabarmati example is the worst possible model for any river rejuvenation exercise.”
And even as the government talks of rejuvenating rivers on the one hand, Thakkar added, it continues to promote projects that destroy rivers on the other. The government is “working at complete cross purposes with what they are saying”.
The most recent example of such a contradiction could be the Ken-Betwa river-interlinking project. For the project, the Indian government is to fell 2.3 million trees and submerge around 9,000 hectares of land, including a part of the Panna Tiger Reserve. Thakkar said these forests together constitute an important “hydrological asset” because it is the catchment area of the Ken river.
“The Ken is one of the most pristine tributaries in the Ganga-Yamuna basins,” Thakkar said. “In the context of the document they have come out with, where they talk of river rejuvenation through afforestation, … why are [the Ken catchment] forests not seen as a hydrological asset in governance?”
Don’t just plant trees
Planting trees alone along river banks can deplete water too, Krishnaswamy said. In 2017 when the “Rally for Rivers” project prompted discussion on this, Krishnaswamy had said that “70%” of the time, increasing tree cover on riverbanks could in fact decrease streamflow – including in the dry season.
Ensuring a mix of trees, grasses and shrubs in “appropriate densities” and species composition – compatible with the flow regime of the river and the area’s climate – will be crucial to ensure tree-planting itself doesn’t deplete water, Krishnaswamy said.
Planting trees – even native species – on riverbanks can displace existing vegetation, such as sparse scrub forests, grasslands, reeds and shrubs. These important riparian plants support many species. Along the Cauvery, for example, smooth-coated otters (Lutrogale perspicillata), a vulnerable species to which the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 reserves a high level of protection, live among such plants.
“For the smooth-coated otters found in the plains, shrubby growth, reeds and grasses along the river’s edge are critical for denning and as sites of refuge,” Nisarg Prakash, an ecologist who studies the species along the Cauvery, told The Wire Science.
“Any disturbance to the existing riverside vegetation can have a detrimental impact on these populations of smooth-coated otters, which have managed to survive in these vastly modified riverscapes.”
Unfortunately, the new project’s overview document describes “Rally for Rivers” as a “priority conservation programme” initiated in India in the last three decades. It also states that the ICFRE, which prepared the project reports for the 13 rivers, consulted the Isha Foundation in the process.
“At the outset, we have an issue with the whole process of such planning, where something is carried out behind closed doors or with highly restricted and selected consultations – and then all of a sudden a document is released with grand aims and objectives claiming to work for the rejuvenation of rivers,” Misra said.
“It is a totally unacceptable method and huge amounts of public funds should never be invested in such cavalier fashion, with results that no one ever comes to know.”
“There is currently no body to govern the very complex entity that a river is,” Thakkar said. He suggested we need one to monitor the state of India’s rivers and another to coordinate its management.
“These are among the bare minimum initial few steps to take to truly rejuvenate our rivers.”