We are supporting national conservation priorities by applying our expertise in science and global experience, as well as our ability to take pilot initiatives to scale and collaborate with various partners.
We have been advancing projects in India since 2015 to support the country’s efforts to develop without destruction. We work closely with the Indian Government, research institutions, NGOs, private sector organisations and local communities to develop science-based, on-the-ground, scalable solutions for the country’s most pressing environmental challenges.
Here is an overview of India's national priorities and our projects that align with each.
Restoring River Narmada
The River Narmada is India’s 6th longest river and flows more than 1,300 km westwards through Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Nearly a quarter of its 92,672 sq km-basin is densely forested and home to more than 11 Protected Areas. Narmada is the lifeline of Madhya Pradesh, providing food, water and livelihood to more than 25 million people and the habitat for a variety of plant and wildlife species. Like many of India’s rivers, the Narmada too is struggling against the pressures of development such as nutrient run-off from agriculture, degradation of its riparian zones, over-extraction of water, construction of dams and pollution from sewage discharge and solid waste dumping. The Madhya Pradesh Government has launched the Namami Devi Narmade programme which has a strong focus on tree plantations along the river’s riparian zones. However, the sapling survival rate is only one in six and therefore, not having the desired restoration impact.
To support the government’s restoration movement, we have conducted a scientific analysis of the entire Narmada basin to identify locations where the effort would have the maximum conservation benefit for the river and improve the survival rate of the planted saplings. The analysis classifies sites along the Narmada and its tributaries based on the impact of land use, population and infrastructure development. Subsequently, it identifies sites that are degraded as well as most suitable for restoration, thereby enabling the Government and other stakeholders to prioritise these areas and utilise resources efficiently. We have also published a book on more than 200 native species of trees, herbs, shrubs, climbers and grasses that are best suited for reforestation along the Narmada, and provide benefits to the people, biodiversity and river hydrology. To demonstrate success on the ground, we have launched a pilot initiative to restore a 5-km stretch along its riparian zone in Hoshangabad district. Our efforts seek to improve water quality, enhance the natural habitat for biodiversity and generate nutritional benefits and jobs for local communities. Our endeavour is to demonstrate the applicability of our research and encourage all stakeholders to replicate this model in other parts of the basin.
- Partners: Office of the Divisional Commissioner, Narmadapuram; Environmental Planning and Coordination Organisation (EPCO), Madhya Pradesh Government.
- Government departments engaged: Office of the Chief Secretary of Government of Madhya Pradesh; Office of the Divisional Commissioner, Narmadapuram; Collectors of Hoshangabad and Harda Districts; State and District Forest Departments; State and District Horticulture Departments; MP Council of Science and Technology; Central Water Commission.
Restoring River Ganga: A Trade-Off Analysis
The River Ganga, undoubtedly India’s most sacred and iconic river, holds special significance for Indians as a symbol of spirituality, culture and life. It is India’s longest river flowing 2,525 km through five states, providing water, food and livelihood to more than 500 million people. It supports unique wildlife such as the Gangetic river dolphin, gharial, otters and several species of turtles and fish, and its tributaries form the lifeline of many forests in north India. Among the many problems facing this river, over-extraction of water and pollution from industrial and sewage discharge and solid waste dumping have the highest negative impact. Over-extraction considerably reduces river flows in the dry season, impacting its health and biodiversity. While several studies have been conducted on this, they are not available in a form that can be used easily by policy makers to make informed decisions about the allocation of water from the Ganga, including allocation towards ecological flows required for maintaining the river’s health.
Restoring and conserving this iconic river is a national priority for India but implementation gaps remain on the ground. We are working with various partners to develop a framework for evaluating the consequences and trade-off of alternative river management actions on the health of the Middle Ganga (Haridwar to Varanasi). A trade-off framework will help organise available research and data in an easy, ready-to-use form which enables policy makers to make informed decisions about how much water to allocate for specific uses without adversely impacting the river’s ecology. It will help quantify the amount of water that must be allocated towards ecological flows in the Ganga required to maintain river health. This exercise will also identify critical gaps in research and knowledge about the river and bring stakeholders together on a common platform to work towards an integrated vision for the Ganga.
- Partners: Centre for Ganga River Basin Management and Studies (CGanga); Wildlife Institute of India (WII); National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG); WWF-India.
- Government departments engaged: National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG).
Restoring Chennai’s Wetlands
Chennai, the largest city in Tamil Nadu, was once home to more than 474 wetland complexes that served as the lifeline for its people, nature and wildlife. Over the last three decades, more than 85% of these water bodies have been degraded because of rapid and unplanned development. This has had an impact on the quality of life of its residents, as well as its unique and endemic biodiversity. The degradation has compromised the city’s resilience to storms, floods and droughts, as its wetlands can no longer absorb excess water during floods, nor provide adequate surface and groundwater during droughts. Recognising the importance of these wetlands for the city’s sustainable growth, the Chennai Municipal Corporation has prioritised the restoration of 200 wetlands as part of its Smart Cities Initiative and disaster mitigation efforts.
We are implementing a pilot project with partners to restore the Sembakkam Lake, one of the 54 lakes that drain into the famous Pallikaranai marshland—the only natural marshland left in Chennai. We are adopting a holistic approach, wherein we are mapping the hydrology and biodiversity within a 2 km radius surrounding the Sembakkam Lake, and then developing a restoration plan that will measurably improve the water quality, quantity and surrounding natural habitat of the region. Through our interventions, we will address important issues such as excessive silt accumulation, spread of invasive species, sewage and solid waste dumping, blockage of inlet and outlet water channels, degradation of natural habitat and much more. Simultaneously, we are creating a knowledge network to gather experiences on wetland restoration from key stakeholders. We will use this information and our on-ground experience to create a set of wetland restoration best practice guidelines that can be integrated into the government’s restoration efforts across Chennai.
- Partners: Care Earth Trust; Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.
- Government departments engaged: Public Works Department; Revenue Administration, Disaster Management and Mitigation Department; Chennai Smart Cities Ltd.; Greater Chennai Corporation; Municipal Administration and Water Supply; and Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewage Board.
Renewable Energy and Reforestation by Design
India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world today and chasing an ambitious development agenda for its population of 1.3 billion people. India’s efforts to develop sustainably while also conserving its environment is critical for human well-being, as well as nearly 8% of the Earth’s biodiversity which is found in the country. Moving towards a low carbon economy is fundamental to meet the balance between development and environment conservation. India has therefore committed to achieving 40% cumulative electric power generation capacity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030 and simultaneously implementing large-scale reforestation and forest protection activities to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent. However, achieving both these goals requires land, which is a limited resource in a country that supports 18% of the world’s population on just 2% of the world’s land area.
For India to achieve both these goals, the use of land needs to be optimised with the adoption of an integrated and holistic approach that proactively avoids land conflicts by strategically planning for both conservation and development. To this end, with partners, we have designed a freely and publicly accessible web-based decision-support tool, SiteRight, to guide decision makers in siting RE (Renewable Energy) projects—by adding selection criteria on ecological and social values, land use, land type, and suitability for ecological restoration, alongside existing economic and technological criteria. The use of this tool will help decision makers identify land with lower ecological and social values that are suitable for setting up solar and wind plants, thereby avoiding impacts to sensitive natural areas that can create conflicts and slow down the rate of renewable energy deployment. It will also help in identifying potential land for reforestation. We are piloting this effort in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, which have a collective target of establishing 34 GW of power generation capacity from renewable energy sources by 2022. These are also among the most biodiverse and forest rich states in India. Therefore, it is critical to ensure RE expansion here does not conflict with conservation.
- Partners: Vasudha Foundation, Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP), and Foundation for Ecological Security (FES)
- Government departments engaged: Madhya Pradesh New and Renewable Energy Department; Maharashtra Energy Development Agency.
Addressing Air Pollution from Crop Residue Burning
Air pollution is among the top five health risk factors in India, contributing to premature mortality and morbidity. India accounts for the top 14 cities with the worst air quality worldwide, making it an issue of national concern. In recent years, the burning of agriculture crop residue has become a major source of air pollution in northwest India, where close to 23 million tonnes of rice straw are burnt annually. This contributes to nearly half of Delhi’s air pollution on some days of the winter months, when the air quality level is 20 times higher than the safe threshold defined by the WHO. Northwest India produces close to 34 million tonnes of rice residue annually, and the most sustainable way of managing such large volumes would be to utilise it in the field itself.
We are working with partners to promote the use of the Happy Seeder—a technology solution that enables farmers to utilise rice residue in the field, while also providing other benefits such as reduced input costs and improved yield, soil health and water conservation. We are working with farmers in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh in districts where crop residue burning is most prevalent. We aim to implement extensive awareness and capacity building programmes and demonstrate the use of the Happy Seeder to encourage its adoption. We will create model no-burn villages which commit to zero burning by using the Happy Seeder and become examples for other villages. We will identify farmers already using the Happy Seeder and encourage them to share positive experiences with the larger farming community to facilitate peer to peer learning. We will work closely with the State Government to implement these initiatives. This project will support the Central Government’s financial scheme of INR 1,151 crore that is subsidising agricultural equipment such as the Happy Seeder to promote in-situ crop residue management and eliminate burning.
- Partners: The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) and the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW).
- Government departments engaged: Governors of Punjab and Haryana; Farmer Commission Directors; Commissioner of Agriculture (Punjab); Principal Secretaries of Agriculture (Punjab and Haryana); Minister of Finance (Punjab); Horticulture and Crop Sciences, ICAR, Ministry of Agriculture; Vice Chancellor of the University System.
Building Drought Resilience in Water-Stressed Maharashtra
Close to 70% of India is classified as dry land—arid, semi-arid and dry sub humid—which are prone to regular drought. Further, India receives more than 80% of its annual water supply in just 2-3 months during the monsoons. Lack of proper water and soil management strategies, along with these climatic conditions, poses a challenge to ensure water security during the dry seasons. The most severely impacted are India’s farmer communities who suffer huge economic losses due to crop failures. Maharashtra is one of the many states in India that has been experiencing debilitating drought for the last decade. It has recorded the highest number of farmer suicides for 3 consecutive years. Inadequate water supply is impacting its people as well as local flora and fauna.
To ensure water availability in the dry season, the Maharashtra Government launched a state-wide policy ‘Gaal Yukt Shivar’ in 2017 to desilt more than 34,000 traditional water tanks and improve their storage capacity. We partnered with the Watershed Organisation Trust and supported this effort by evaluating some pilot desilting initiatives to quantify the impact of such activities on the local communities and the region. We developed scientific guidelines for desilting of water tanks which have been adopted by the state Government. Moving a step further, we aim to conduct a study on various water conservation efforts being implemented in different parts of Maharashtra and identify the most cost-effective interventions that will have the highest impact for improving water security, both for nature and people. This would help the State Government in strategically investing its resources towards interventions that have highest return on investment. We will also conduct a study on different organic fertilisers used in farming practices to identify the ones that have highest impact on improving soil health. Better quality soil has higher capacity to retain water, thereby requiring less irrigation in farming and contributing to building drought resilience. To demonstrate the applicability of these scientific studies, we will develop and implement a holistic drought resilience framework for a catchment in Nashik and showcase how it reduces risks for people and improves biodiversity of the area.
- Partners: Watershed Organisation Trust;
- Government departments engaged: Maharashtra Water Resource Department.
Water Trust: Conserving Watersheds to Improve Water Security
Many Indian cities rely on surface water such as lakes, rivers and reservoirs to meet their water requirements for domestic and commercial activities. Today, the quality and quantity of these freshwater resources have been significantly compromised due to the degradation of their watersheds, resulting from unplanned development, unsustainable agricultural practices and deforestation. Watershed is the land area containing various water bodies that form a city’s water source. A watershed captures any water that falls on it and allows it to drain into these waterbodies, thereby playing a critical role in controlling the water flows of the region. Conserving these watersheds through activities such as reforestation, sustainable agriculture and planned development can improve water quality and quantity for rural and urban requirements at lower costs than interventions that rely on heavy, man-made infrastructure.
We conducted a study to understand the state of close to 150 watersheds that form the water source of 53 Indian cities and assessed the scope of implementing conservation interventions. Our analysis revealed that at least 15 cities have a positive return on investment on watershed conservation interventions. This means that proactively conserving watersheds would be more cost effective in preserving the water quality and quantity for these cities than establishing water treatment facilities. Watershed conservation would also provide various co-benefits to the Government, businesses and industries, citizens and environment.
To facilitate watershed conservation efforts at scale, we are working to introduce a global financial and governance mechanism called the Water Trust. It seeks to bring together stakeholders who either impact or are impacted by a watershed, to collectively secure funds and design and implement watershed conservation activities. This concept has been created by The Nature Conservancy and was first launched in Ecuador in 2000. Since then, over 30 Water Trusts have been launched across four continents, thereby proving it to be a successful and sustainable model. We have identified Pune and Thane as two potential cities to implement our first Water Trust in India.
- Partners: Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM).
- Government departments engaged: Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC).
Indian Collaborative for Applied Sustainability Solutions (ICASS)
While economic development and environmental conservation have often been pitted as being opposed to each other, we believe that both people and nature can thrive together. This balance is more relevant in India than anywhere else in the world since it is among the fastest growing economies supporting the second largest human population as well as more than 8% of all biological diversity on earth. India’s decision makers must make informed choices and incorporate sustainability solutions into policies and business practices to ensure that the country’s continued economic growth does not undermine the health of its rivers, that forests flourish, the air quality in its cities improves and climate resilience is fostered to support society at large. However, public policy and programmes often miss the appropriate science, data, monitoring and evaluation protocols needed to drive Government and private sector objectives for sustainability. There is a need to provide science and data in an actionable format that supports India’s decision makers to act on shared challenges for people and nature.
To address these gaps, we have conceptualised the Indian Collaborative for Applied Sustainability Solutions (ICASS) in partnership with the Tata Trusts. ICASS will connect researchers with decision makers in the government and businesses to generate actionable science that informs decisions which balance economic growth with the conservation of natural resources and ensure long term improvement of human well-being and the environment in India.
- Partner: Tata Trusts.
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