Every day after returning from school, young Ramveer Tanwar would quickly eat his lunch, pick up his school books and take a herd of cattle for grazing. While the livestock munched on the grass, Tanwar sat beside the village pond and leisurely finished his homework, soaking in the scenic view.

Soon the childhood activity became a passion, and ponds an integral part of his life. But over time, as Tanwar completed his Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2014, urbanisation and the growing population had taken over the water bodies of his native village Dadha in Greater Noida.

Once brimming with farmers and farmlands, the planned satellite city in the National Capital Region is now standing tall with its modern skyscrapers, booming real estate and shrinking space for nature.

Losing his “most cherished childhood memory” made Tanwar take a hard look at the larger issue of disappearing inland wetlands including ponds and lakes, and the growing water crisis across India. So, he started a campaign on water conservation in his village, which was already facing a dwindling water table. Flushed with the success of the drive and people’s support and participation, Tanwar, an engineer, became a full-time conservationist in 2016.

“We think of ponds and lakes as places of beauty and repose and picture them as clean waterbodies surrounded with lush greenery, refreshing cool breeze and myriad birds humming beautiful tunes,” says Tanwar, who is currently reviving a pond in Chauganpur village in Gautam Budhha Nagar that houses the twin cities of Noida and Greater Noida. “Sadly, the reality is different. Across the country, wetlands have either been encroached upon for construction or turned into dumping grounds or simply left to fade away with neglect.”

In total, so far, the 26-year-old has resuscitated at least 20 ponds and lakes, a majority of which are in this district.

Ramveer Tanwar (left) cleaning the pond at Azampur Garhi village. Photo from Ramveer Tanwar

Awareness is the first step

Take a walk on the shoreline of a pond or lake, and you will realise what Tanwar means about the state of wetlands. Strewn with green and clear plastic bottles of a dozen sizes, polythene bags, a child’s broken plastic helicopter, dismembered toys, Styrofoam glasses, chips wrappers, used condoms, milk packets, torn clothes, diapers, a taut old shoe, and stretched nylon socks – it gets uglier and fetid with each step.

This unsavoury scene reminds one of Pablo Picasso’s anti-war painting Guernica which displays scattered dead bodies and severed limbs. But unlike the corpses, the garbage in these water bodies is not going to decompose – organic material decomposes comparatively faster than wood, which takes three months, a plastic bag which could take over 20 years and a plastic bottle, more than 700 years.

“When we revive a pond or lake, three things dominate our mind – nature, heritage and groundwater. But to achieve success, you first have to wade through people’s mindset, plastics and construction garbage,” said Tanwar in Hindi, adding that for every acre of pond and lake space, he and his team clean almost three quintals of plastic as well as other waste.

Before starting to revive the water body, Tanwar and team start an awareness campaign in the vicinity about the relevance of conservation and its impact on people’s lives. The idea is to make locals part of the transformation process and face relatively less resistance to rejuvenating the water body.

Ramveer Tanwar conducting a wetland awareness campaign at Mirpur village. Photo credit: Ramveer Tanwar

“I remember, once we were working in Ghanghola village in Gautam Budhha Nagar,” said Rohit Adhana, part of Tanwar’s team. “After what looked like a successful awareness drive, when we started work on the water body, people turned hostile. They started pelting stones on the machines and our vehicles. They were angry and doubtful about why we were so interested in their dirty water reservoir. So, another round of conversations and convincing people had to be done before restarting the work and this shows how the mindset of people is a key factor in preserving the eco-system.”

On the home front too, these wetland warriors were fighting a battle – changing the mindset of parents regarding their career choice. Both Tanwar and Adhana had left their cushy jobs and taken up conservation as a career. “In my family, I am the first person to study beyond high school,” recalled Tanwar. “So, when I quit my job the whole house was consumed with sadness and agony.”

“Things have changed over the years after they saw the impact. Life has come a full circle – from nut-bolts to nature, from wrenches to wetlands,” he grinned. For Adhana too it took constant effort to change his parents’ mindset. “Now my parents realise the importance of the work we do,” he said.

Spotlight on Surajpur

Tanwar’s work in Gautam Budhha Nagar and adjacent Delhi National Capital Region has a larger impact too. While his lake and pond conservation efforts have helped in recharging groundwater, creating awareness about water crisis and conservation, his success stories have brought the spotlight on conserving the Surajpur natural wetland, near his village Dadha.

His constant activism and persuasive power is bringing local forest officials to look at the wetland, revive it and save it from possible construction encroachments.

“While Surajpur wetland is under the district administration, our lake and pond conservation efforts, in and around it, has helped the greater natural ecosystem,” the engineer-turned-conservationist said. “One of the ponds, which we revived closer to Surajpur wetland, has now started witnessing arrival of migratory birds, and we have created a mini-island in the large pond to facilitate nesting of birds.”

He, however, reiterated that more efforts are needed from the authorities to make Surajpur part of the wetlands list of the Ramsar Convention. Getting into the Ramsar list helps a wetland get national and international recognition, helps speeding up its revival and upkeep by authorities.

Surajpur wetland houses 186 species of birds of 44 families, of which 102 species are residents, 53 species are winter migrants, 28 species are summer migrants and three species are passage migrants. The Surajpur wetland on the Yamuna river basin, and nearby waterbodies see birds like Asian openbill stork, white-necked stork, black-crowned night heron and black-headed ibis. Moreover, birds like bristled grassbird, black-necked stork and sarus crane also breed here.

Talking about why urban wetlands like ponds and lakes, are facing a silent death, Tanwar said people treat them as dump yards of solid waste and wastewater. They don’t realise that these wetlands are meant to serve a bigger purpose for our ecosystem.

“In rural India, people still depend on wetlands for their livelihoods like fishing, rice farming, travel and tourism. So, they make efforts to conserve and maintain them. But in urban India, this is not the case so wetlands are vanishing faster. Urban wetlands are not wastelands. As urbanisation grows, urban wetlands are encroached upon, filled in, and built upon. But we all must strive to retain, restore and preserve them,” Tanwar said in Hindi.

Explaining the wetland revival process, Tanwar said he uses a five-point chart to reach his goal. The team first cleans the water surface off hyacinth and garbage, then the water body is divided into parts depending on its size. One by one, the water is drained out from each section, garbage gets cleaned, and the bottom is left to dry-up completely and if required, they excavate the bottom.

A path is created around it and plants are planted. Finally, water is flown back in it and voila, the waterbody comes alive! So, how much does it cost? Between Rs. 3-5 lakh per acre of wetland area, answered Tanwar. “We encourage locals to lend their hands, time and money to be part of the cause. If we are still running short, we approach corporates,” he said.

Ramveer Tanwar and volunteers on their way to clean Surajpur wetland, a biodiversity-rich habitat, amidst urban landscape in Gautam Budhha Nagar district. Photo credit: Ramveer Tanwar

Mitigating water crisis

Neglect and encroachment lead to deterioration and drying up of water bodies which in turn leads to an acute water crisis. In India for example, as rivers and water bodies dry up, a water crisis is looming.

The country’s groundwater depletion increased by 23% between 2000 and 2017, as per a Water Aid India study and here, conservation of wetlands both man-made and natural, inland and coastal will have a significant positive impact. The allied biodiversity of wetlands is also impacted by any deterioration of these ecosystems.

In a situation like this, the work and role of wetland champions like Tanwar assumes greater significance.

According to an official assessment, in June, before the monsoon arrived, the water table in different parts of Noida and Greater Noida had depleted between half a metre to nine metres when compared with 2019. In one of the sectors of Noida, the groundwater level has reached 30.14 metres that is almost 10 stories deep and highlights the crisis of a district that is now dotted with high rises.

In 2017, the Central Groundwater Board had marked several regions in the district as critical from a water resource point of view. “This is where wetlands can be of great help to recharge groundwater and reduce the water crisis,” Tanwar said.

Ritesh Kumar, director of Wetlands International South Asia, a global non-profit dedicated to wetland conservation, said, “The solution to India’s water problems lies in reviving wetlands.”

Inland wetlands, including ponds, lakes, marshes and peatlands, help in the regulation of local water cycle, maintenance of water supplies and reducing the risk of disasters like floods and drought. “Wetlands are the kidneys of earth,” said Kumar. “They clean and recharge groundwater, thus help in water security. At a time, when one in three people globally lack access to safe drinking water, saving water bodies is equal to saving lives.”

Urban centres are increasingly becoming concrete jungles, destroying natural habitats, water bodies and greenery. And we see artificial flooding, and waterlogging during monsoon. “While crores are spent to improve drainage and curb urban flooding, what we do not realise is that conserving water bodies and wetlands can provide cost-effective solutions to such problems,” explained Kumar further adding “while authorities and people spend millions in treating polluted water and bringing fresh water from a distance, there is hardly any effort to recharge groundwater and get it for free”.

According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, directly or indirectly, wetlands provide “almost all of the world’s consumption of freshwater”.

“More than one billion people depend on them for a living and they are among the most biodiverse ecosystems,” the UNFCCC had said in October 2018. “Up to 40% of the world’s species live and breed in wetlands.”

Wetlands play a central part in climate change mitigation as well. They are among the planet’s most efficient carbon sinks. They absorb excess carbon-dioxide – the primary greenhouse gas emitted by human activity – from the atmosphere through plants and in soil.

Any change in this carbon stock can help mitigate climate change or can aggravate the problem, explained Kumar adding that “wetlands, small or big absorb pollution and also help in regulating local temperature”.

Tanwar said, “While groundwater recharge is a great outcome of wetland revival, its allied impact on biodiversity, local climate control and bettering land fertility are equally rewarding.”

Volunteers working to revive pond clogged with water hyacinth, an invasive aquatic plant, in Jalalpur village. Photo credit: Ramveer Tanwar

A heritage link

Dharmendra Singh of Chauganpur village of Greater Noida is a supporter of Tanwar’s endeavour. But more than ecology and wetland, he believes that his work has a cultural and heritage link and explained how he invited the conservationist to revive a pond in his native village.

“As children, we used to drink its water, swim in it and perform pujas (prayers),” said Singh, 46, whose family is based in the village for generations. “But gradually it turned into a dump yard, and I could see my ancestral heritage getting destroyed in front of me.”

In a bid to revive the pond, Singh contacted Tanwar. “I feel I have done some ‘punya(pious deed) by reviving the pond…I believe my ancestors must be smiling up there,” smiled Singh and added that his fellow villagers will now enjoy clean water, visiting birds and lush biodiversity while he continues to cherish his childhood memories.

Agreed Gajendra Panwar, a resident of Nain Kheri village in Saharanpur district around 166-km from Chauganpur. “Our lake was a place of cultural gathering for us,” said 40-year-old Panwar. “Holi always meant offering family prayers on its banks…But in 2016, when the lake was dying due to human neglect and mistreatment, the tradition had to end. Ending generation old tradition was painful…We could no longer live in denial that the lake and our culture were on the death row.”

“There are four benefits to wetland conservation – the recharge of groundwater, growth of biodiversity, and increase in agriculture produce in nearby farmlands, and the larger cultural and heritage connection, which is priceless in an Indian value system,” Panwar explained, and thanked Ramveer Tanwar for successfully reviving it in 2019.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.