Tackling water scarcity and funding in Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary

“No matter how small the effort is, it can make a difference to the mission of conserving our environment,” Mr Sunil Kale, the project officer, with the Wildlife Research and Conservation Society (WRCS).

WRCS works towards conserving wildlife and biodiversity using scientific principles and techniques,  in which Mr. Kale has spent more than 10 years understanding and aligning himself with their conservation goals. As a part of their mission, they aim to strengthen the restoration process of private forests and establish a model for its sustainable management and utilisation. This April, as a part of the course: ‘Conservation and Society’ at FLAME University, our class visited Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary on a field trip.

The particular 50-acre plantation site we visited was nestled between two wildlife corridors - Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary and Chandoli National Park in Satara district of Maharashtra. Home to over 20 native species of trees, from bamboo to kokum *, the plantation here supports 15 beneficiaries—who are local private landowners—and their families who have depended on it for generations. These lands were historically utilized for timber and firewood extraction, which has eventually led to its degradation, thus resulting in soil erosion and a decline in biodiversity. It has further impacted the land's water retention capabilities, the health of the local ecosystem, thus water security.

Despite receiving one of the highest rainfall levels in Maharashtra, with annual averages between 5000 mm and 6000 mm, the region faces severe water shortages, particularly during April and May. This problem has been worsening over the past two to three decades. The unique geographical features of the Sahyadri mountain range—where Koyna is located—is that it contributes to rapid water runoff during monsoon seasons, limiting water availability during the drier months. The beneficiaries, therefore, rely heavily on alternative irrigation methods like wells and groundwater pumps. Each plantation currently requires about 70,000 litres of water daily, but these sources are not sufficient to meet their needs throughout the year due to the lack of water security in Koyna.

In response to the water scarcity, the beneficiaries and their employees, such as Santosh who travels over 10 kilometres daily from his village to the site, face significant challenges. The village locals often have to fetch water from sources 1 to 1.5 kilometres away using a syphon, adding additional labour. Moreover, the scarcity of water leads to conflicts with local villagers who prioritize reserving water for personal use over supporting the irrigation needs of the plantation. Accessing water from the Koyna dam, which is more than 7 kilometres away downhill, is also not a viable solution due to the distance and the uphill terrain.

Plantation site between Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary and Chandoli National Park; Credit: Anisha Jasti

In such situations, support from several companies through funds from  their corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives becomes crucial.  As per the Indian Companies Act , 2013, the Government of India introduced CSR as a mandatory provision. Several MNCs—Multinational Companies—and organisations like UPS, KPIT, Tata Motors, Persistent Foundation, Praj Foundation, and more fund WRCS’s environmental initiatives. However, each organisation has their requirements for the project.

Mr. Kale commented on the tough challenge of getting all the stakeholders on the same page as their goals differ significantly. For instance, during one such regular field visits from CSR funders, one funder desired a dense canopy of mature plants, while another preferred a more spread-out layout. While these companies share a common interest in achieving larger goals like "Net-Zero" and "Mitigating Climate Change,", they often set restrictions on the duration and allocation of funds, overlooking the fact that forest restoration is not a short-term project but a continuous effort that requires commitment over decades, often spanning at least 20 years.

Limited funds are a major hurdle for WRCS, thus hindering the implementation of techniques like rainwater harvesting. Even though ponds are proven to be a more effective and efficient method, building it is considered a challenging task. Government grants to subsidize pond building do exist, but the lengthy application process and complex documentation make it cumbersome to implement and therefore discourage participation. In response, WRCS  has shifted its focus to creating smaller water bodies more suitable for plantation purposes. This approach allows them to maximize water use for plant growth while working within their budgetary constraints.

During our visit, we saw an instance which illustrated the issue of the water insecurity experienced by the region of Koyna. We were also made aware of a local water dispute, in which the owner of a local well who had been allowing water extraction for the plantation for years suddenly changed his mind and denied further extraction of water.

Despite persistent challenges, the success of Mr Kale and his team's efforts is evidenced by the work they put towards environmental restoration. To date, they have conserved 600 acres of private forests and planted approximately 160,000 trees, which has directly benefited 300 individuals. For the past few years, they have been working tirelessly to revitalize the area and ensure a brighter future with better water management for generations to come. As they continue to educate and spread awareness amongst locals of nearby villages, Mr Kale emphasizes the dominant role of women in the program, who comprise 70% of the workforce and are pivotal in all operations, from tree planting to grass cutting and fertilizing. He truly believes that these women are the backbone of the project.

Even small efforts can make a difference. The continued collaboration between communities, NGOs, and corporations is essential to ensure the success of such initiatives. This idea was reiterated by Mr Kale, who spoke about the importance of small, consistent efforts; “boond boond se sagar banta hai”, throughout the field visit. He highlighted the importance of incremental actions which subsequently contribute to larger achievements.

Anisha Jasti, Aura Shah, Jahnavi Chowdary Gutta, Rivan Vyas
(Students of Environmental Studies Program, FLAME University)

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