If implemented, this idea will yield to countless benefits which are not far to seek. To begin with, the issue of river pollution due to numerous factors such as polluting industries and direct flow of untreated sewage water into the river will be tackled.; River meandering, though cannot be stopped but this tree patch will significantly act as a shock absorber and prevent destruction of the river bank. This will also help in flood management as the green cover will cushion the impact. What's more, a wildlife corridor will automatically be born where animals can move freely in their own habitat and have access to did and drinking water. Thus, man-animal conflicts will be reduced…
Between 12th to 15th July, torrential rainfall furiously poured in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, thus bringing heavy floods along with it. This caused multiple rivers to burst their banks and flood not only Germany and Belgium but also the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland. These are supposed to be the most 'developed’ Nations, yet climate change demonstrated that none will be spared. Such heavy rainfall hadn’t been witnessed in these countries before, thus they were out of all means to take rehabilitation measures. Hundreds were killed and thousands displaced as the world watched. The scenes were no different than what usually happens in India- be it Kerala in 2018 or Jammu and Kashmir a year before.
Yet the Netherlands stood out. But what did they do right? The country’s experience in dealing with multiple floods (though not of this scale) had led them to go beyond the conventional methods of depending on the dams, dikes, walls and gates to protect themselves from the floods. Their success can be attributed to the ‘Room of the River Project’ that was started after two major floods in 1993 and 1995. Therefore, the Dutch embarked on several projects to widen the river banks and reshape the areas around rivers.
What is ‘Room of the River Project’?
As per Wikipedia: “Started in the Netherlands (2006-15), the ‘Room of the River Project’ is a government design plan intended to address flood protection master landscaping and the improvement of environmental condition in the areas surrounding the Netherlands. The Netherlands has historically been prone to flooding of rivers due to its low elevation. Much of the country lies below the sea level and is located in the delta region of several major rivers like the Rhine the Meuse and the Scheldt. The basic premise of the ‘Room of the River’ project is essentially to provide more space for the water body so that it can manage extra-ordinary high levels of water levels during floods. The project, implemented at over 30 locations across the Netherlands and founded at a cost of 2.3 billion euros, involves tailor made solutions for each river. The measures in the plan include- blessing and moving dykes, depoldering, creating and increasing the depth of flood channels, reducing the height of groynes, removing obstacles, and the construction of a ‘Green Corridor’ which would serve as a flood bypass thus resulting in lower flood levels. Another aspect of the project is also to improve the surroundings of the river banks through mountains and panoramic decks. The landscapes of altered in a way that they turn into natural sponges which can accommodate excess water during floods.
This was subsequently announced to be adopted by the Kerala Government after the Kerala floods of 2018 that claimed more than 500 lives and displaced thousands of people. The government intends to implement this in Kuttanad since that is where rivers drain. Christened as ‘Room for Pampa’, as reported by the Hindu, it would, among other things, reduce flooding in upper and lower Kuttanad. For the protection of the Vembanad lake, the planning board of the Kerala government has recommended an action plan titled, ‘Room for Vembanad'.
What are other similar proposals that suggest ways in which the health of the rivers can be improved?
Former IFS, Anuj Kumar Saxena, who has served as district forest officer in many Ganga divisions such as Shamli, suggests a bold measure of afforestation along riverbeds up to at least 2 kilometers on both sides. As per Anuj Kumar Saxena: “What I am proposing is on both sides of the river- to change the land usage to forestry up to two kilometers on both sides. No building activities, industrial, agricultural or any such thing should be allowed in this area except buffer forest on both the sides. If one imagined the aerial view, then it would look like a green cover on both sides of the river.” Enumerating the benefits of such a measure, he says: “If implemented, will yield to countless benefits which are not far to seek. To begin with, the forest cover would automatically increase. Secondly, the issue of river pollution due to numerous factors such as polluting industries- for example the Kanpur Leather industry, direct flow of untreated sewage water into the river is there. This can be tackled as this green patch will act as a funnel that will absorb pollutants and the river will remain untouched because the pollutants will have to pass through a ‘Lakshman Rekha’. Also, there will be other benefits like improvement in water table and bank erosion will lessen. River meandering, though cannot be stopped but a strong tree fort will significantly act as a shock absorber and prevent destruction of the river bank. This will also help in flood management as the green cover will cushion the impact. What's more, a wildlife corridor will automatically be born where animals can move freely in their own habitat and have access to did and drinking water. Thus, man-animal conflicts will be reduced and the instances of tigers and other animals ‘encroaching’ into the villages and cities and a long arduous struggle of people to ‘save’ themselves will be reduced. It is important to note, that the better the ecological health of the riverbed will be, the cleaner and healthier our rivers will be.”
What are the downsides of the proposal and is there a way out?
“There are only two downsides of this proposal,” Anuj Kumar Saxena points out: “but even they have a solution. First and foremost is the problem of acquiring the land. There will be lot of resentment amongst the owners of the land and then the next thing you know, a pressure group will be formed and the government will have to put the project in a limbo due to political considerations. To this, I have suggested that the authorities need not change the ownership of the land but only it's use. They should make it mandatory that the two-kilometer area will not be used for any agricultural, industrial or residential use, but only for forestry. If there are buildings, they shouldn't be demolished but their repair, renovation or new building activity can be discouraged. The ongoing constructions should made to acquire special permission from the authorities. The second obstacle is that even if land use changes are accepted, people will definitely raise objections when it comes to income from that piece of land. For example, if there was a farmer who was using a piece of land for agricultural use, they will definitely stand to lose a portion of their income from forestry. The solution here is that the government can compensate the people by providing them subsidy. For example, if the farmer will be losing four thousand rupees per acre, then the government can provide the same to compensate the loss. The calculation is not difficult to make and the claims can be settled accordingly. This subsidy will definitely cost the government lesser than what they are already pumping in other measures pertaining to river pollution, flood management, sewage treatment plants, etc. These measures, though each having their own merit are spread across different departments and working on silos but what I am suggesting is a wholesome approach which when implemented will have a Domino effect,” he says.
Ecological Restoration of the River and not Afforestation
Dr Faiyaz A Khudsar, Scientist, Biodiversity Parks Program, CEMDE, University of Delhi, states: “When it comes to rivers, we have to understand the distinction between afforestation, reforestation and ecological restoration. While afforestation is simply about planting trees for the first time and reforestation entails planting trees over degraded piece of land where historically there was green cover. On the other hand, ‘ecological restoration' is totally different process that involves, to put it simply, helping an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged or even lost, regain its habitat and ecological assemblage of species and plants. It is a scientific process which when applied to the river ecosystem will not only help the health of the river but create a lot of ecological services which will help humans as well.”
Sharing his expertise about ecological restoration of the river floodplain ecosystem, Dr Faiyaz enumerates the entire process of ecological restoration: “A river floodplain ecosystem has to be restored to ensure that the river terminates to life. A floodplain is essentially a flatbed on both sides of the rivers with such characteristics as the wetlands, marshes, grasslands and forests, etc.” A river, for example Ganga, travels through a lot of distance covering many forest types, different landscapes, etc. Therefore, the ecology of the entire riverscape has to be considered. Firstly, the ecological history is to be considered. Site condition of that particular stretch 100-200 years ago, which can be obtained from the Gazette or other historical parameters, etc. Next, the reference ecosystem is to be ascertained and this is very critical step. In this, we see what is the neighbouring forest- 50-100 kilometres of that riverine patch and then we make particular plots of 10×10 and study how a particular forest community will be established in that particular stretch. Accordingly, we re-establish those forest communities in that patch. Thereupon, the wetland characteristic is restored by de-siltation method so as to increase the carrying capacity of the catchment wetland to hold flood waters. Another type of wetland is the ‘Treatment Wetland’ that has been degraded due to unmindful development but had historically held water. Next, the characteristic grassland is to be restored. For this, the scrubs and grasses are inspected. For example, when one visits the Dudhwa National Park, there are tall Sacrum grasses. Floodplain wetlands have a particular Vegetation – Typha which is indicative of the Floodplain wetlands. Presence of Typhas indicate that historically it has been a wetland but presently it is non-existent. Lastly, the woodlands are restored. In addition to the above natural characteristics of floodplain, in urban stretches, there is one major component, that is the drainage. More often than not, drain water is directly discharged into the rivers and Sewage treatment plants (STPs) are built which do not adequately address the issue. A good alternative is a ‘Constructed Wetland' for the treatment of sewage water.”
‘Nirmal Dhara-Aviral Dhara’: What efforts have been undertaken under the ‘Namami Gange’ Program?
Namami Gange Programme is an Integrated Conservation Mission, approved as a ‘Flagship Programme’ by the Union Government in June 2014 to accomplish the twin objectives of effective abatement of pollution and conservation and rejuvenation of National River Ganga. As per the detailed project report (DPR) entitled ‘Forestry interventions for Ganga’ released by the Forest Research Institute, Dehradun in 2016: “For the first time in India, riverscape level planning and assessments have been adopted for the forestry interventions in five participating states- Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal.”
The DPR states on the need for forestry interventions for Ganga: “The course of Ganga along with its tributaries in Uttar Pradesh State passes through fertile alluvial plains. The structure is beset with several problems and challenges. Factors such as poor forest and tree cover, less infiltration of water in the soil, lowering of water table, over exploration of brown water and diversion of river water into canals for agricultural activity have led to a condition of very little water flow in the Ganga outside the monsoon season. Reduced waterfall during dry months and frequent heavy floods during rainy seasons are a source of great economic loss to the state. Exposed river banks are the sites of constant soil erosion. Widespread and intense agricultural activity near the river erodes soil, increases silt load and adds fertilizers and pesticides in the river water. Civic and Industrial waste and heavy construction activity propelled by rising population are greatly responsible for deterioration of water quality. The rising atmospheric temperature absence of shade bearing trees near water and presence of hazardous substances such as industrial chemicals, pesticides and fertilizer herbicides and seaweed in water are having a heavy toll on aquatic life which are manifest in the poor self-cleansing ability of river water and are adversely affecting the aquatic flora and fauna. There is an unfulfilled demand for fodder, fuel and small timber for local consumption. Thus, checking soil erosion in forest agriculture and urban landscape, increasing and filtration of water into the soil, promoting ecological water flow from land to river, enhancing biofiltration of unclean water, improving environment, meeting forest produce requirement, improving livelihood and instilling a sense of responsibility in the public towards attaining these goals are the challenges that are sought to be addressed to forestry interventions.”
Dr Sitaram Taigor, Environment Specialist- Ganga State Mission for Clean Ganga- Uttar Pradesh, Namami Gange, states: “The DPR states the river catchments as ‘riverscape’. In this riverscape model, three types of models were proposed for forestry interventions for River Ganga- the natural landscape, the agricultural landscape and the urban landscape.” Commenting on the project in Uttar Pradesh, he states: “In the state of Uttar Pradesh, influence zone of 5-kilometer belt on both sides of River Ganga and 2-kilometer belt on both sides of the tributaries- Ghaghara, Gomti and Sharda has been included in the treatment area for the project. This has been done keeping in mind the maximum flood spread in the past. Some general principles have been adopted like native trees preferred over exotic ones, mixed plantation instead of pure, organic manures will be used.” On the question of progress of the proposed interventions, Dr Sitaram states: “Total forestation as per the Detailed Project Report was 14,212 hectares. Whereas, area sanctioned by National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) so far is 7351 hectares. Proposed river catchments are now being treated/planted through other schemes of the government like Compensatory Afforestation scheme (CAMPA).”
What are the roadblocks in implementing such initiative?
Dr Rajendra Singh, founder of the Tarun Sangh, member of the National Ganga River Basin Authority, and better known as the ‘Waterman of India’, comments: “I fully support the mission for 5 kilometers afforestation on banks of River Ganga and up to 2 kilometers for other rivers. Lack of will on the part of the government has ensured that afforestation of 5 kilometers has not been completed on a single site as yet. It is all ‘talk-shop’ when it comes to implementation and on the ground, one finds that nothing as promised has been implemented.”
Dr Faiyaz states: “Bureaucratic limitations plague the initiative. The officer on ground often decides on their own on what type of plants should be planted. When you ask the labors who work at such sites, they state: ‘Saheb has said’. What we have to realize is that the actual ‘saheb’ is the river and we are the servants of the river. It is the land of the river that decides the floodplains and this the type of forest. But while implementation, it is the forest department that decides, more often than not, without considerations about the local ecology. No wonder such measures end in failure. Scientific evidence suggests that such unsystematic forestry interventions do not help combat climate change; instead, they aggravate it.”
One of our sources (anonymity requested) commented on the technical aspects: “The high flood levels (HFL) which is an indicator of the level to which the river may swell up on rainy season, is different for different rivers. So, certain topographic parameters have to be kept in mind while afforestation on the river bed course.”
Inappropriate funds – a major roadblock
While funding from the government remains inadequate, when it comes to environmental projects, even CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) funds remain grossly inadequate. They simply follow the human-only (human first) approach.
Under the Companies Act, 2013 it is a mandatory provision to provide a contribution of 2 percent of the average net profits of companies. CSR is required and applicable according to Sub-Section 1 of Section 135 of Companies Act, 2013. According to the Companies Act, the CSR provision is applicable for a company having a net worth of rupees 500 crores or more, or a turnover of rupees 1000 crores or more or a net profit of rupees 5 crores or more during any financial year. The data from the Ministry of Corporate affairs for the past six years demonstrates that companies under the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) have spent 27 per cent on health, hunger, poverty, malnutrition, but interestingly very less importance has been given to Swachh Bharat Mission and to Clean Ganga Fund. With only 73.67 crores, to the clean Ganga fund, only 1-2 per cent of the CSR funds have been given in the past 6 years- 2014-15 to 2019-20.
Media representatives of companies like Reliance Pvt Ltd, TCS, Bajaj Group, Aditya Birla group, refused information on the actual amount given to environmental projects under CSR. Thus, despite best intentions, such projects remain stalled and never come to fruition. Gaurav Prakash, founder chair, CII- Lucknow Chapter, said he had ‘no information' regarding the issue.
However, Prabhakar Vardhan Singh, Chief Manager (safety) at Indian Oil Corporations, stated: “Since the Covid-19 pandemic, almost all CSR funds are being channeled to the health sector. Still, plantations have been done using Miyawaki technique in Delhi- Sanjay Gandhi transport Nagar (2020-21), at Haridwar earlier and at many other places from time to time. The information is in public domain at iocl.com website.”
The way forward
Dr Rajendra Singh, comments: “The authorities should ensure the ‘Aviralta’ or the seamless flow of River Ganga so that it’s silt carrying capacity is not compromised. Then the ‘Nirmalta’ of the river should be ensured, which means the river be made pollution free. Then the greenery of the 'riverscape’ as promised in the National Mission for Clean Ganga for up to five kilometres should be implemented with an iron will.”
But Anuj remains positive: “I cannot see why this can’t be done. The only thing lacking is the firm resolve to go ahead and execute. Some countries have shown this resolve and have immensely benefited from it. The Room of the River Project of the Netherlands is well known. In London, they have successfully created a green belt on the Thames riverbed. In India too, isolated instances can be quoted like the Gomti Riverfront project in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, the Sabarmati Riverfront in Ahmedabad and the Yamuna Riverfront in Delhi. So, if it can be done on a small scale then why not on a large scale. To begin with, if it is implemented from river Ganga in Haridwar to Gangasagar, the benefits will be there for all to see. But the PMO office will have to pass definite directions and make states comply in adding this cover around rivers that flow in their territories. Strict stand by the Union Government in this project can add life to it.”