We are concerned about the increasing superficial optics around saving rivers, with little or no effort to address fundamental issues which are causing their demise.
The high profile rally initiative to save India’s rivers taken up by well respected religious guru Sadguru and his followers is noteworthy, and the most recent case in point. It is striking that so many film stars, politicians, governments, and public personalities, are joining the call. Lakhs of children are expected to join in the program. While we welcome such an outpouring of good intentions and good will as a demonstration of the positive energy all around, unfortunately, we have seen no evidence either from the rally organisers, on their website or their messaging, that they understand or plan to address the real threats faced by our rivers and their sorry state.
What concerns us, as people engaged with issues that ail our rivers, most of which are polluted, drying up, or have severely restricted flows amongst other problems, is that this may be an opportunity lost. In fact, we go further to say that partial engagements and knowledge, or engagement with hidden agendas are misguided or counterproductive to the future of our rivers, since at best, they oversimplify issues at stake, and provide a false sense of ‘feeling good.’ Good intentions must be supported by deeper understandings and confidence inspiring & transparent track record else the efforts wont help the cause of our rivers.
The rally, by its own statements (also its website) proposes some cursory actions.
The website claims it is “a nationwide awareness campaign to revive our rivers” and asks people to send missed calls! The question is, can missed call save our rivers? What happens after the call? Another action the rally proposes is the planting of trees in a strip of 1 km along the river. While planting trees is laudable, and can help the environment (only if right kind and number of trees are planted at the right place), by itself it cannot rejuvenate rivers or “ensure our rivers are fed throughout the year by the moist soil or reduce floods, drought and soil loss” as the website claims (for further info see endnotes for a list links). There is also the question if the sponsors of the rally who include governments and corporate bodies are themselves not implicated in the sad state of our rivers?
Understanding a river
On the other hand, we must not forget that rivers are more than simple water channels. They are ecosystems that carry silt and sand, nutrients and support a myriad of biodiversity. They extend below the ground to recharge groundwater, extend to flood plains, water bodies and wetlands and also allow aquatic biodiversity to move up and down the river, from the source to the oceans. Finally, rivers undergo seasonal and annual changes.
As ecosystems, basins of rivers are composed of numerous tributaries and distributaries, whose combined health ensures a healthy river. The floodplain is an integral part and plays a key role in ensuring river’s health. The river’s sand, rocks, geology, geomorphology, floods are all part of the river, as are the plants, fish, several aquatic and amphibian creatures, besides tiny microbes.
Alongside there are social, cultural, spiritual, aesthetic, religious and artistic dimensions of rivers. Millions of people depend on the rivers for their livelihoods, and their waters for meeting daily needs.
The multiple threats to rivers
There are serious threats to our rivers. Hence when it is said that rivers are sick, or under risk or threats, it implies that many of these dimensions are either destroyed, adversely affected or threatened. The causes include dams, diversions, hydropower projects, inter linking of rivers, pollution, encroachment, deforestation, catchment degradation, indiscriminate mining, unsustainable groundwater use & dumping of waste etc. Perennial rivers are no longer flowing while some seasonal rivers have turned perennial owing to sewage flow from factories and cities. Less recognized is the fact that when rivers are blocked, silt and sand will not reach the sea causing depletion of deltas or that developmental activities can lead to erosion and landslides. Even religious rituals add to rivers’ stress. And then there is climate change. All this is facilitated by a mindset and shallow understandings of rivers. Institutions that are in charge of rivers also do not understand the myriad values of the river, or engage in informed transparent, participatory and accountable decision making about them.
It can be no one’s case that we cannot use our rivers. But surely, such use should not hamper flows to make them unsustainable. Hence not only is proper messaging key, especially since children are involved, it is crucial. There are many ways to move in the direction to improve state of our rivers. For example, pl see:https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2015/01/17/let-our-rivers-live-delhi-declaration/. We are sure there will be other ways too. Rivers are not a luxury. We need them for our own existence, and that of the planet.
India Rivers Week – Organising Committee
Manu Bhatnagar, INTACH
Ravi Agarwal, Toxics Link
Debashish Sen, PSI
Jayesh Bhatia, PEACE Institute
Manoj Misra, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan
Himanshu Thakkar, SANDRP