Empowering communities to become stewards for conservation

Bhupen Singh Jath hums an old folk song, as he plants a Jamun (Java Plum) tree sapling on the banks of the river Narmada in the Hoshangabad district of Madhya Pradesh. With a serene smile on his face, he is lost in memory of the river from his childhood – its clear blue waters lapping at the river banks, which were lush green with large native trees swaying in the wind. He, along with community members from 3 villages, have joined hands with The Nature Conservancy to improve 3 km of Narmada’s riverbanks by planting and nurturing native plants to create natural habitat for biodiversity, increase carbon sinks, improve the river’s hydrology, as well as provide livelihood and ecological benefits for villagers.

“Riverbanks or riparian zones are highly undervalued resources, which play a critical role in maintaining a river’s health and providing benefits to people and wildlife. Recognising this, we conducted a scientific study across the entire Narmada basin to identify highly disturbed riparian zones that should be prioritised for improvement. Guided by this study, we are implementing a pilot in Hoshangabad in partnership with local communities, regional NGOs and academic institutions.” says Ashok Biswal, Associate Scientist at The Nature Conservancy.

Ajera

Close to 15,000 saplings of around 30 different native tree species have been planted in an area covering 30 hectares along the Narmada. Apart from creating an additional natural habitat for wildlife, this pilot will sequester close to 2,000 Metric Tonnes CO2 over 10 years (equivalent to taking 400+ cars off the road), improve Narmada’s hydrology, and benefit close to 7,800 people through income generation and ecosystem services.

Community members have been involved in all aspects of the project implementation, from pre-plantation activities such as designing site plans for planting saplings, preparing the land, constructing rain water recharging structures, erecting fences, and finally planting and irrigating the saplings.

Planting trees of hope for a clean river

“I feel immense pride in being part of an initiative to revive the Narmada and its riverbanks to its past glory. I have fond memories of many village functions – from meetings, to get-togethers and even marriages – happening under the shade of large trees that once covered Narmada’s banks.” says Bhupen Singh, the Sarpanch (Head) of Dhansi village whose ancestors have lived near Narmada for more than 100 years. He adds, “I have seen the river recede as far as 500 mts from its original expanse. Water levels have reduced dramatically. Our children don’t have the same connect with Narmada as we had, and that is worrying. This project gives us hope that the Narmada can be revived. The livelihood opportunity is incentivising community members to participate.”

Roop Singh Kewat lives with his family of 11 members in Ajera village. He, too, is an active member in the project, “Our community prays to the Narmada. There was a time when her water was so pure, we would drink it as God’s blessing. Today, the river has turned brown because of soil erosion. I joined this initiative because trees will bind the soil on the banks and stop excessive silt from flowing in. They will also naturally control the climate, improve rainfall and keep our environment cool.”

Gopal Singh from Dhansi village adds, “Earlier, we depended nearly 100% on the Narmada for our household water or irrigation needs. But today, we are relying on tubewells and water tankers. Fishing was a major livelihood option, but the fish population has reduced considerably, impacting our catch. Sightings of animals like otters, crocodiles and freshwater turtle has also gone down. I believe this project has the potential to revive the entire ecosystem. I want to support it so my children have a better future in this village.”

Taking the pilot to scale

“Our vision is to scale up scientific efforts to improve riparian habitats across a 100 km stretch of the most disturbed parts of the Narmada in Madhya Pradesh by working together with various stakeholders– governments, local communities, businesses, NGOs and academic institutions,” says Dhaval Negandhi, Ecological Economist and Lead for this project at The Nature Conservancy India. “We aim to converge public and private resources. A scientific approach will ensure we deploy our financial and capacity resources effectively to receive maximum conservation benefits.”

By improving riparian areas along just 100 km of the 1,300 km long Narmada, we can create 5,000 acres of rich natural habitat, provide direct livelihood benefits to more than 1,00,000 people and sequester 90,000 MtCO2 over 10 years (equivalent to taking off 20,000 cars from the road).

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