The Union government is planning an ambitious programme for the rejuvenation of 13 major Indian rivers through forestry interventions at a cost of nearly Rs 19,300 crore. The plan, however, experts say, is yet another way of packaging the concept of afforestation and it fails to address the real issues behind the dying rivers.

The detailed project reports on the rejuvenation of 13 major rivers – Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, Sutlej, Yamuna, Brahmaputra, Luni, Narmada, Godavari, Mahanadi, Krishna and Cauvery – were recently released by the Indian government’s environment minister Bhupender Yadav. The reports, funded by the National Afforestation & Eco-development Board of the environment ministry, were prepared by the Dehradun-based Indian Council of Forestry Research & Education.

The 13 rivers across the country, mainly in the Himalayan and peninsular region, collectively cover a total basin area of 18,90,110 square kilometres which is 57.45% of the geographical area of the country. The government states that the growing water crisis on account of depleting freshwater resources, especially due to the shrinking and degradation of river ecosystems is a major impediment to achieving national goals pertaining to the environment, conservation, climate change, and sustainable development.

Issues impacting rivers

The detailed project reports said deforestation and forest degradation, scanty rainfall, flash floods, landslides, bank erosion, faulty agriculture and horticulture practices, soil erosion, excessive groundwater extraction, rapid urbanisation, unregulated floodplain, waste dumping, the release of effluents, unregulated tourism, pilgrimage, unregulated sand mining and riverbank encroachment are some of the issues that are impacting the rivers in the country.

The reports outline various treatment models for natural, agriculture and urban landscape in each of the delineated riverscapes. In natural landscapes, the detailed project reports propose activities such as afforestation, soil and moisture conservation structures, grassland and pasture development, cultivation of medicinal and aromatic plants, management of invasive and alien species, forest fires while in agricultural landscapes it proposes agroforestry (bund and block plantations), high-density plantations, fodder plantations and plantation of fruit trees. In the urban landscapes, meanwhile, they call for riverfront development, eco-park development, industrial and educational estate plantations, and avenue plantations.

The reports noted that soil and moisture conservation measures will precede the plantation activities wherein indigenous species will be preferred. The programme proposes a total of “667 treatment and plantation models” for the proposed forestry interventions and supporting activities, in different landscapes.

As to why forestry interventions could help river rejuvenation, the detailed project reports note that forest and river ecosystems are inter-connected and forests absorb rainfall, leads to slow runoff, regulate the hydrological cycle, reduce soil erosion, improve water infiltration rate and recharge aquifers.

The programme is expected to be executed through the state forest departments as nodal department and with the convergence of schemes of other line departments in the states towards the activities proposed in the detailed project reports and funding support from the government of India. The plan is proposed to be spread over a period of five years with a provision for additional time for the maintenance of plantations.

Flawed approach

Sharachchandra Lele, a distinguished fellow at the Centre for Environment and Development, ATREE, told Mongabay-India that the “plan in this document is mostly about planting trees in catchment areas, along river banks and along farm boundaries, some lantana removal from degraded forests, and a small component of soil and conservation measures”.

“This is just the old wine of afforestation in a new bottle,” said Lele, who carries out research on ecological, and technological issues in forests, energy and water resource management among things. “Moreover, this is a top-down approach that even usurps the powers of the states. It is a flawed and undemocratic approach … As per the Forest Rights Act 2006, the power to decide what happens on their landscapes belongs to the communities. What makes this proposal completely unscientific is that all this has nothing to do with river rejuvenation, the supposed raison d’etre for this document.”

Narmada basin is spread across four states over an area of 98,796 square kilometres, which is nearly 3% of the total geographical area of India. Photo credit: Wikice/ Wikimedia Commons

“The rivers are dead, dying, or degraded because they are being killed first by big dams and then many smaller dams that cut off environmental flows, industrial and domestic pollution, and climate change-led glacier meltdown and extreme weather events,” he said. “Planting more trees is not going to help address these issues. We cannot just push plantations as a solution for anything and everything.”

Can plantations help?

According to the government, the activities proposed in the detailed project reports shall help achieve potential benefits of increasing the green cover, containing soil erosion, recharging water table and sequestering carbon dioxide in addition to benefits in the form of non-timber forest produce.

The detailed project reports highlight that the projected increase in the forest cover after the programme could be about 7,417.36 sq km along with estimated additional carbon-dioxide sequestration to the tune of 50.21 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent after 10 years and 74.76 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent after 20 years.

They also claim that the programme would lead to about 1,889.89 million cubic metres of groundwater recharge every year, sedimentation reduction of about 64,83,114 cubic metres every year, non-timber and other forest produce of about Rs 449.01 crores.

The government noted that this will play an important role in India achieving the international climate commitments such as the creation of an additional carbon sink of 2.5 dillion–3 billion tons of tonnes equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030 made just before the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, restoration of 26 million hectares of degraded lands by 2030 as a land degradation neutrality target under United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and halting the biodiversity loss by 2030 under Convention on Biological Diversity and Sustainable Development Goals.

The government also claimed that a “timely and effective implementation of the proposed forestry interventions” is expected to significantly contribute towards the “improvement of terrestrial and aquatic biota, and livelihoods besides rejuvenation of the rivers”.

However, Manshi Asher, a researcher with the Himdhara Environment Research and Action Collective, an advocacy and research group working on issues of environmental justice and forest rights in the Himalayan region, said, “It seems like there will be the same old mindless plantations that will not survive, riverfront beautification which will concretise natural landscapes, tampering with grassland ecosystems and threat to locals dependent on floodplains for farming, grazing.”

“Really rejuvenating rivers would require tackling industrial pollution, sand mining, stopping mindless dam construction, and protection of existing forest ecosystems in the catchments,” Asher told Mongabay-India. “In the case of Himachal and in the upper Sutlej basin we have found how afforestation done through CAMPA [Compensatory Afforestation Act] has failed and is, in fact, impacting the natural composition of landscapes.”

“The absence of appropriate sites and space for plantations is a problem,” Asher told Mongabay-India. “Plantations through the eco task force and JFMCs [Joint Forest Management Committees] will also threaten communities’ customary land and forest rights and violate provisions of the Forest Rights Act 2006.”

Lele added, “The solutions lie elsewhere: in stopping dam building, regulating effluents, controlling groundwater depletion that immediately affects the base flows in rivers.”

“We need to discuss how to balance human uses and their impacts on river flows, catchment areas and flood plains, all of which have expanded dramatically as our society grew and industrialised,” Lele said.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.