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Mass tree planting along India’s Cauvery River has scientists worried

  • A plan to plant 2.42 billion trees by the Isha Foundation along the Cauvery River has attracted the chagrin of some scientists.
  • While scientists say the project is well-meaning, they don’t believe it will cure the Cauvery River’s ills as promised.
  • The Isha Foundation has yet to announce a number of details of the project, including what tree species will be planted.
  • India’s rivers are suffering from numerous issues, but researchers contend mass tree planting is too simplistic to fix them all.

The Isha Foundation, a spiritual organization headquartered in south India, is taking on the cause of revitalizing India’s imperiled rivers. With government and public support, it says it has successfully raised enough money to plant more than 46 million trees in its test project site, the Cauvery River basin. However, some ecologists and scientists oppose the methods of the planned project. While they say they appreciate the sentiment behind the idea, they add that mass tree planting will not solve the real issues and may even cause new problems.

Despite the criticism, on Sept. 3 last year the organization commenced its Rally for Cauvery. Isha Foundation head Jaggi Vasudev, more commonly referred to as Sadhguru, kicked off the 3,500-kilometer (2,200-mile) rally with a motorcycle convoy to raise awareness of the cause.

Sadhguru is a well-known yogi, mystic, teacher and author in India, and his fame has helped his cause. Support has come from leading Indian politicians and movie stars, and even influential personalities like Leonardo DiCaprio, as well as millions of Indian citizens.

On its website, the Isha Foundation says the project will “support farmers to plant 2.42 billion trees through agroforestry.” It is raising funds through government and public donations of 42 rupees per sapling, or about 60 U.S. cents. To date, it has collected enough to buy more than 46 million saplings.

But many ecologists are skeptical, citing the vagueness of the Isha Foundation’s plans and its numbers: for the trees, the area, and the required funds.

“Restoring riparian vegetation is no doubt important but without addressing the root causes of river degradation, Rally for Rivers is completely missing the point,” says Shishir Rao, an ecologist who studied tropical river ecology in the Western Ghats, the headwaters of the Cauvery River, and is now a doctoral student at the University of Georgia. “A major reason for the Cauvery’s degradation is it has five to six large dams for hydropower, irrigation and drinking water provision. The operation of these large dams drastically changes the river’s hydrology and sediment transport.”

The Cauvery originates in the Kodagu hills of the Western Ghats in Karnataka state, flows east across the subcontinent, and drains into the Bay of Bengal in Tamil Nadu state. Along its 805-km (500-mi) course, the Cauvery is flanked by forests, grasslands, farms, cities and rural settlements, with several dams interrupting its natural flow. Millions of people along its course depend on its water for agriculture, industry and daily use, leading to frequent water disputes over the last few decades.

A crucial river in southern India, the Cauvery was once perennial. But every year now it gets reduced to wide dry stretches at several points for several months prior to the monsoon rains.

Led by Sadhguru, the motorcycle rally last September toured districts along the Cauvery, from its source in Kodagu district to the city of Coimbatore, visiting farmers and local communities to spread awareness about the health of the river and the need for its revitalization.

Troubled waters

The Cauvery is not alone. Almost every river in India is in trouble, hit by multiple impacts including climate change, pollution, overexploitation, river-interlinking, mining, and damming. For the Isha Foundation, the solution to the declining health of India’s rivers centers on tree planting.

In an October 2017 draft policy recommendation, the foundation listed six “knots that need to be untied” for the successful revitalization of Indian rivers: the colonial British legacy of river management; deforestation; overexploitation of groundwater; increase in human population; pollution; and climate change. The document then described the scientific and social issues concerning each knot in detail.

The initial plan, according to the draft policy recommendation, was to plant trees along a kilometer-wide ribbon of buffer zones either side of the Cauvery, and half a kilometer wide along its tributaries. Such an endeavor would call for planting nearly 2.5 billion trees, covering one-third of the river basin.

Responding to the debate with some scientists, the Foundation has recently made changes to include the catchment area of the Cauvery River in Kodagu, too.

The total impacted area will span 10 districts in Karnataka state and 18 in Tamil Nadu, according to a spokesperson for the Isha Foundation. “The project entails encouraging farmers to plant trees on their own private agricultural lands,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

The idea is that the increased tree cover will lead to greater water transpiration and moisture cycling, and hence more rainfall, bringing an end to the seasonal drying-up of sections of the Cauvery.

But water sustainability experts from the Bengaluru-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), alongside other ecologists, say that although the campaign’s arguments are correct in theory, the major causes for the Cauvery’s woes lie elsewhere.

ATREE fellows Veena Srinivasan, Sharad Lele, Jagdish Krishnaswamy and Priyanka Jamwal spelled out the science behind their concerns in an article published in the Economic Times in 2017. In it, they said planting trees along a river is unlikely to impact local rainfall patterns.

They said that while there is evidence that large forests contribute to rainfall, changes can be expected to occur only at regional or continental scales. The same logic applies to trees being planted in the river basin.

Rao attributed the decrease in water in the Cauvery to urbanization and groundwater depletion.

“The Cauvery’s catchment area is experiencing rapid urbanization, especially in the hilly areas of Western Ghats. Loss of forest cover in catchment decreases groundwater recharge,” he said. “If groundwater supply is not stable, rivers tend to dry out during summers and flow only during monsoon, essentially changing the river from perennial to seasonal.”

The best chance for groundwater stabilization, according to the scientists, is through afforestation to suit the landscape and not through monoculture plantations.

The campaign also says that tree cover will reduce soil erosion during heavy rains, resulting in a more controlled flow of water instead of floods. The trees will also trap sediments and pollutants, preventing them from entering the river, according to the foundation’s plan.

The ATREE researchers, however, pointed out that the real reasons for the erosion along riverbanks is not due solely to the absence of trees. Instead, rampant sand mining and dams that divert water for irrigation and cities have led directly to erosion.

Water conservation here also depends on employing more sustainable practices, they added.

“The only solution is to release water for ecological needs. To make this possible, upstream farmers and urban users will need to make their practices less water-intensive,” the ATREE researchers wrote.

They attributed the disappearance of streams to groundwater overexploitation. Streams are being sucked dry due to a drop in groundwater levels — in other words, aquifers are running dry and unable to feed the streams. Watershed development, including rainwater harvesting, building small check dams and tanks, and tree planting, has been embraced as a set of solutions. But while it recharges the groundwater, it doesn’t introduce new water into the streams.

Finally, the researchers addressed the social and ecological impacts of tree planting at such a grand scale. Traditionally, village common lands serve as grazing grounds for the landless groups in a society, most often people of lower castes. Reforesting these lands and natural grasslands with their own unique ecosystems would create problems both social and ecological.

The Cauvery is an important river in south India and its water is used by millions of people across the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Image by NaanCoder via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).
The Cauvery is a rich and important river both ecologically and for millions of people. Overexploitation has reduced this once-perennial river to dry stretches for several months of the year. Image by Neeti Mahesh.

But the Isha Foundation’s campaign website promises that the Cauvery Calling project “will initiate the revitalization of Cauvery River and transform the lives of 84 million people.”

A question of trees

The Isha Foundation says it will help farmers and rural residents by planting trees on private farmland. It says the project will increase farmers’ incomes by 300 to 800% over five to seven years.

“The planting will start from next sowing season in June-July 2020. A list of high value timber trees is under discussion with the government,” said the foundation spokesperson.

But the ATREE researchers have warned against planting certain species.

“Moreover, tree planting is not necessarily benign. Deep-rooted, fast-growing species like eucalyptus have been shown to consume a lot of water and decrease groundwater recharge,” they wrote. Eucalyptus, commonly used for pulpwood, is not native to India, but remains a popular tree for monoculture plantations in the country.

The Cauvery Calling campaign proposes to plant 2.42 billion trees in the river’s catchment area through agroforestry. Proponents say the project will increase both rainfall and farmers’ incomes. Image by Arati Kumar-Rao.

“We’ve been having meetings with the [Karnataka] Forest Department. We haven’t yet finalized what trees we’ll be planting,” a member of the campaign’s technical team said. “We’ve been working with the Institute of Agroforestry Farmers & Technologists and the Institute of Agricultural Technologists. These mainly include retired foresters and agricultural scientists who are giving us inputs.”

Even as the Isha Foundation says it won’t plant monoculture plantations, the vagueness of the project has left it open for criticism.

For instance, the total number of trees planned for the area covering a third of the Cauvery basin — about 5.9 million acres, or 2.4 million hectares — gives a planting density of 400 trees per acre. But accounting for agricultural land and forest area, the planting density would be approximately 140 trees per acre. This can only be achieved through tampering with existing landscapes, including grassland ecosystems, experts say.

“Sadhguru mentions that the strict laws that don’t allow trees to be felled is a complication,” said Neethi Mahesh, an independent researcher and riparian habitat conservationist along the Cauvery in Kodagu.

The Isha Foundation claims that it would need to get certain permissions from the government, and that takes a long time. As Sadhguru met farmers during the rally, he told them that whatever they grow on their land through agroforestry, they need to be able to harvest it.

“However, there are laws that exist already that the farmers can apply to harvest certain species of trees. It’s important to know what trees will be planted through the campaign,” Mahesh added. “They haven’t disclosed what trees they’ve chosen and there doesn’t seem to be awareness about the required tree species; however, they’re raising money anyway. There’s no clarity on how the project will be implemented and there are no guidelines they are following that we are aware of.”

Existing and planned dams along the Cauvery remain the major reason for the degradation of the river and its surrounding environment. The upcoming Mekedatu Balancing Reservoir threatens to submerge forest land and affect the river’s flow further. Image by A.M. Shudhagar.

Suggested solutions

Ecologists and environmental activists say the Isha Foundation is not paying enough attention to the real problems and is instead focused on the one-stop solution of planting trees, which however well-meaning, may not deliver as expected.

The Karnataka state government, which has embraced the campaign and donated 20 million saplings, is continuing to plan road and rail projects in Kodagu district, which would clear another 400,000 trees in the catchment area.

It is also planning another major dam at Mekedatu, at the confluence of the Arkavathy and the Cauvery. The reservoir for this dam would submerge more than 4,000 ha (10,000 acres) of forest. Sand mining, too, is a rampant yet unchecked problem along the Cauvery. Researchers have suggested several solutions they say are just as important, if not more so, than planting trees.

“Bring big polluters in cities to book. Invest in sewage treatment and solid waste management in urban centers,” the ATREE researchers said.

Instead of focusing solely on tree planting, they suggested the restoration of riparian and flood-plain ecosystems that include a mix of grasslands, scrublands and wetlands. They also recommended that watershed development funds be tied to measures taken to reduce groundwater and canal water abstraction. Growing less water-intensive crops or using drip irrigation will make a drastic difference here, they said.

“If one wants to plant trees anywhere, one needs to do the research, find out what species are native to that stretch of the river depending on the elevation and vegetation type, raise nurseries for those feasible trees, and only do restoration where it’s required,” Mahesh said. “With urbanization increasing all over Kodagu, the plantation owners also need to be made aware of the fact that the solution to the crisis depends on their cooperation with conservationists.”

Essentially, the ecologists’ argument is that it’s unsound, unscientific and unethical to dedicate such a large amount of money and publicity to only the popular, attention-grabbing solution of tree planting. Instead, the Isha Foundation, which has the advantage of popularity and immense support from both the public and the government, needs to pay equal attention to all the other “knots” that it already understands but has neglected to address.

Environmentalists have raised concerns and ecologists published articles; the Isha Foundation has responded with its own articles and open letters. But there seems, to date, little direct communication between the concerned scientists and the Isha Foundation.

“Direct communication is not a problem for us if we are approached directly,” said the Isha spokesperson. “We too approach environmental and agricultural scientists directly. If queries are posed through media, we respond through media.”

Mahesh, however, told Mongabay that her approaches to Isha Founation the Cauvery Calling organizers was mostly met by silence and vague responses; she got in touch with the technical team only when she attended an Isha event in Kodagu.

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