Baripada: The 3rd Odisha River Conference organised on March 24 and 25 by the Water Initiatives, Odisha (WIO), Vasundhara, Gram Swaraj along with 35 partner organisations identified youth as one of the major stakeholders to carry forward this year’s theme – Promoting the Forest-River-Communities nexus for Conservation of Rivers and Combating Climate Change.
Speaking at the special youth conclave – #Youth4Rivers – Ranjan Panda, convenor of WIO and chief of the organising committee of the Odisha River Conference said at present young and educated mass is increasingly concerned about the negative impacts of climate change. We can cash in on their concern and motivate them towards promoting and recognising engagement of indigenous communities in protecting natural forests and rivers which is vital for combating climate change.
A campaign – Youth for Water – has been initiated through which thousands of youth will be mobilised in coming months to contribute their share of efforts on water and river conservation as well as building resilience to climate change. India’s indigenous communities have proven that they are the best protectors of natural forests, thus the rivers, rivulets and streams and it is now time for us to take initiatives to transfer that knowledge to the new generation and develop their interest in conservation of forests, rivers and related ecosystems, Panda added.
Executive Director of Vasundhara, Manas Ranjan Mishra said young people need to be more vocal and understand real issues related to conservation of natural resources. He called upon the youth to raise their voices by spreading their network, extending their reach and social media is the best platform to extend outreach. In several areas, those who are protecting forests are in their 70s. It is high time a leadership transition to youth happened with proper guidance and knowledge transfer.
While the conference called for a state-wide drive for environmentalism to save healthy forests that are essential for healthy rivers and happy communities, Panda said environmentalism has unfortunately been limited to planting trees. We have to break it. While it is important to plant trees, it is more important to protect natural forests and water resources. The new generation should be taught about the multiple functions and values of ecologically suitable local species, he pointed out.
Eminent environmentalist Ardhendu Chatterjee, Development Research Communication and Services Centre, Kolkata said, “We should get rid of the idea that jungle is for animals only and driving the forest dwellers away can keep the animals and forests safe. On the other hand forests, animals, forested communities and water resources and interlinked. One cannot exist without the other. So, we should urge upon the the Supreme Court (SC) of India to withdraw its recent order that is about to evict more than 1 million tribal and forested communities from their forests.”
Forests are not just carbon sinks. They are the source of lives and livelihood of millions of local and indigenous communities. They recharge rivers and play a vital role in ensuring water security for all in a sustainable manner, said Satish Sharma, a veteran ecologist from the Foundation of Ecological Security, Udaipur. If forests are destroyed, the rivers will get dry and with the rivers, most of the rituals associated with them will die. This will lead to a downward movement our happiness index, he said, adding that this is time to promote integrated ecological river basin models to protect rivers by taking all the stakeholders – rural communities, youth, academics, experts and civil societies together.
Bishakha Bhanja of Water Aid India said women have been the silent protectors of forests but unfortunately their efforts go unrecognised. They are enriched with their traditional knowledge on how to make proper use of water so that ground water level is maintained. We should look into women perspective while talking about water conservation, she said while appreciating the initiative taken by the Water Initiative Odisha to confer Odisha water Honours on women this year. “It can go a long way to identify and recognise the women conservationist from the communities to ensure that their examples are emulated by others.”
It may be mentioned here that the 3rd batch of Odisha Water Honours was conferred on Malati Nayak (Odisha Jalajoddha Samman 2019) (Odisha Water Honours for outstanding individual achievements) and Dengajhari Mahila Jungle Suraksha O Parichalana Committee (Ajira Bhagiratha Samman 2019) (Odisha Water Honours for commendable community initiatives) for their outstanding contribution in forest and water conservation.
The conference urged upon the governments to appeal the Supreme Court of India not to evict millions of tribals and forested communities from their forests as it is because of their presence the forest is protected and biodiversity is maintained. The eviction will jeopardise India’s Paris Climate goals, it was unanimously felt.
The experts also deliberated on finding out ways towards interstate river basin cooperation aspects in catchment protection through conservation of natural forests by ensuring communities’ rights over the resources so that proper water security an sustainability can be achieved and India’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be attained. They dwelled upon issues to intervene in the policy level to establish linkage between water policy and forest policy and bring in the role and rights of indigenous communities. The civil society organisations chalked out strategies for building a larger network of people and institutions working on forests, rivers and community rights issues and took a resolution to work in unison.