Rejuvenating Odisha’s Rivers

Healthy rivers are key to Odisha’s economic, social and environmental well-being. There is a need to move away from a highly centralized, technocratic and infrastructure-heavy approach of river management to that of a more integrated and nature-based solutions of rejuvenation and restoration.

Jyotiraj Patra

Odisha’s rivers, as many other rivers in India, are witnessing significant changes in their natural and hydrological characters. Most of these changes are caused by human interventions such as untreated sewerage and wastes from our growing cities, direct discharge of industrial effluents, dams and barrages, deforestation and land-degradation in the watershed, sand mining, river erosion, water over-extraction to meet the water and food needs of a growing population. Climate change further impacts river systems by altering their functions such as unpredictable flow and water availability, floods, droughts and declining biodiversity. The resulting economic and environmental costs are humongous.  For example, as per the Odisha State Pollution Control Board (OSPCB)’s river water quality assessment last year, water of over 20 rivers in Odisha, including that of the Mahanadi, is unfit for human consumption.

Rivers are dynamic ecological systems and flow across administrative and political boundaries. River rejuvenation efforts need to take in to account this dynamic and complex nature of rivers and their functions.  Odisha needs a multi-pronged approach to river rejuvenation to address the root-causes of many of these negative impacts on its river systems and restore the rivers’ ecology. This is also critical to ensure the state’s economic growth is sustainable and not at the cost of its rich riverine resources.

Odisha is endowed with a large and diverse network of rivers. 11 major rivers drain the state – some of which are inter-state in nature. The state’s economic, social and environmental well-being is dependent on the health of these rivers. The Odisha Economic Survey (2017-18) recognizes the need to improve water resources management policies and practices, including integrated river basins planning, to boost growth of water-dependent sectors such as agriculture, fisheries, tourism and navigation and reduce the risks of floods, droughts and river erosion.

The state’s water resources management and river development policies and practices have so far been highly technical, centralized and infrastructure-dominated.  For example, in 2016 and 17, the state government constructed a total of 7434 kilometers of protective embankments, 1952 spurs and 253 kilometers of stone packing as flood control measures in different basins.

While such engineering structures (also referred to as grey infrastructures) are often required, there is also growing evidence on the efficiency and cost effectiveness of green (and blue) infrastructures such as restoration of wetlands, forests, soil and floodplains. Rejuvenation of natural ecosystems and restoration of their lost/degraded functions such climate regulation, soil formation, water quality, flood control, ground water recharge etc., are gaining more space in policy and practice, including in business investments by the private sector. Practitioners call them nature-based solutions (NBS).  The 2018 World Water Development Report, titled Nature-based Solutions for Water, highlights the emerging need for, and benefit from, investments in more rejuvenation and restoration approaches.

Such policy and practice shift from river management to river rejuvenation needs institutional reforms which are more innovative and inclusive. The business-as-usual approach to river management is unable to cope with the growing uncertainties associated with climate change and other burgeoning societal demands such as food, water and energy.

Any such institutional reform and shift should be based on adequate analysis of the benefits that the rivers provide to the state and its economy. Natural Capital Accounting (NCA) – which measures the economic value of nature is one such tool which could help the state’s policy makers and other stakeholders, including communities living on and dependent on these rivers, better understand the rivers’ contribution to various economic activities and how are the benefits shared in society. Such analysis will help establish clear linkages between the rivers and the economy of the state (e.g. Gross State Domestic Product, GSDP) and help mobilise more political will and support for river rejuvenation initiatives as part of water resources development policy. The Departments of Finance and Water Resources (WR) can work together, supported by specialized research organisation and private businesses, to identify and assess variety of benefits from these rivers and ways for their equitable sharing in society. The River Basin Organizations (RBOs) in Rusikulya Basin and Baitarani Basin can take a lead in this effort by piloting NCA in these basins and demonstrate the policy opportunities, as well as challenges, with this process.

Many of Odisha’s river are inter-state and flow across political and administrative boundaries. Such NCA and benefit sharing approaches in inter-state basins, like Mahandi, could help the governments and other stakeholders work together on sharing the large gamut of benefits from rivers. This will be instrumental in shifting the focus from water sharing to sharing of associated benefits such as fisheries, irrigation, flood and drought control and climate change adaptation dividends.  This could also help mobilize constructive engagement and cooperation and reduce existing conflicts on water sharing which is most often a zero-sum affair.

Some of these shifts and changes could be initiated at larger policy level. The Odisha State Water Policy (2007) is being considered for revision. This gives an opportunity for river and water resources practitioners, think tanks, NGOs and activists, communities, media and private sector to work with the state government on the inclusion of and more focus on river rejuvenation and restoration.

Existing associations, networks and platforms can take forward this agenda of river rejuvenation in the state and beyond. For example, the annual Odisha Environment Congress, Odisha Vikash Conclave, Odisha River Conference, the Odisha CSR Conclave and Foresight (the annual conclave by Odisha Television) are such platforms. Although their focus and mandates are different, water security issues are common to all sectors and stakeholders. Thus, some degree of collaboration and convergence of efforts and ideas among these platforms would help bring river rejuvenation issues to the forefront.

Active engagement of youth, including more women members, as river researchers, advocates, and champions could help harness their energy, enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit.  Research and academic institutes like IIT-Bhubaneswar, other state/central/private universities and institutes could work together for River Rejuvenation Youth Co-Labs in Odisha. The private sector, including investors and innovation hubs, could help such youth co-labs grow in scale and impact.

As part of this, network of village/town-level of citizen water observatories (CWOs), involving young school and college students could be established to regularly monitor and report water quality in the rivers and discuss factors, natural as well as man-made, that can help improve water quality. Grassroots institutions such as panchayat raj institutions (PRIs), village development committees (VDCs), water users associations (WUAs)/Pani Panchayats, women self-help groups (SHGs), municipal authorities and urban local bodies (ULBs) could be effectively engaged in the state’s river rejuvenation efforts.

On this World Rivers Day, let us commit to river rejuvenation for our common good.


The author works with Oxfam’s Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA). TROSA is a regional water governance program working in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) and Salween transboundary river basins. It is supported by the Government of Sweden. The views expressed are personal. Twitter @PatraJyotiraj