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A quick recap with the Environmentalist Foundation of India on the restoration of rivers and the challenges that come along with it!

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A quick recap with the Environmentalist Foundation of India on the restoration of rivers and the challenges that come along with it!

Environmentalist Foundation of India, a non-profit trust based in Chennai, carried out a restoration project at Saraswati river in Madhya Pradesh in 2021. In a recent conversation with Local Samosa, CDO A. Sharun spoke about the process and the challenges that followed the initiative.

Environmentalist Foundation of India, a Chennai-based wildlife conservation and habitat restoration group, had conducted various clean-ups at rivers and restored lakes earlier. Although last year for the first time, they buckled up for the restoration of a river named 'Saraswati,' which flows through Indore and was in dire need of restoration. As A. Sharun, the Chief Design Officer, says, the task was "challenging" on all fronts.

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Saraswati river before restoration by Environmentalist Foundation of India

A not-for-profit trust, E.F.I has been working on the conversation and restoration of lakes across various states since 2007. The group's founder, Arun Krishnamurthy, was moved to see the dilapidating condition of Mudichur lake in the suburb of Chennai and the vanishing of lakes owing to the construction of buildings. Back then, he called for nearly 200 school students and youth for the clean-up of the lake. Sharun, who was in class 8, was also part of one such initiative that drove him to continue working with the organization.

The restoration project aimed at rejuvenating the Saraswati river was also initiated after the E.F.I team discovered how few parts of the river were suffering from various challenges. However, according to A. Sharun, identifying the "parts" was also tricky. "As compared to the lakes, the size of a river is big, and hence, it becomes hard to identify which parts of the river need the restoration," he says.

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The restoration process of the Saraswati river

After dedicating the first few months of 2021 to "pre-study," the team found out that the stretch between Lokhande bridge to Bhairav temple required to be restored. "This part was dealing with problems like solid waste dumping, improper sewage system, and encroachment," A. Sharun says, adding that the municipal corporation for the area helped the team with the latter.

The E.F.I team, which also includes engineers, then, carried out the water and soil testing before coming up with the solutions. It was in October when the team was entirely ready to work on the restoration. Apart from removing the weeds and the dried shrubs from the area, the team also carried out the plantation drive at the site. "We opted for native plantations to strengthen the soil bunds so that it could prevent flooding and improve the soil quality," A. Sharun says.

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Saraswati river after restoration by E.F.I

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One of the major highlights of the project, as stated by A. Sharun, was the local community's involvement in the restoration process. Sharun says the community took part in the cleaning drive at the river. "It is of utmost importance to involve the community into the project and make them understand that the project is being carried for their betterment," he says, adding that the team kept the locals engaged through initiatives like 'wall painting' etc. during the restoration.

Social impact on the local communities

While it is not very difficult for the team to involve the local communities in the projects carried out in rural areas, it, definitely, requires efforts to involve the citizens in the urban settings in such initiatives, observes Sharun. From his experiences working on cleanliness and restoration projects in rural and urban areas, he says, "The difference exists due to distinct lifestyles in rural and urban areas."

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As Chennai's example, Sharun explains, "The residents living in the rural areas, whose livelihood depend on the rivers and the lakes, understand the importance of its maintenance and willingly contribute to our initiatives. But the city dwellers, who are not directly dependent on the water bodies for their survival and do not understand the implications of water scarcity, tend to avoid participation."

Adding to his observations, Sharun also says that the situation is reversed when it comes to teaching the people belonging to the rural areas about the adverse impact of encroachment. "The lack of understanding arises due to the prevalence of illiteracy in the rural areas, but it is easier to teach the youth from schools and colleges about these problems," he says.

E.F.I maintains to engage the local communities with various activities to ensure that they keep up with the cleanliness in their areas even after the end of the projects. "We aim to make all our projects self-sustainable by keeping the time frame to be three years for each project. We do not only take care of the water body but also organize various activities and programs to keep the communities connected to the root cause during this period," he says.

The results of such activities are much visible, as Sharun says, the team has often observed the locals washing their clothes or fishing in the water bodies, at the maximum, after the completion of the projects, but they do not perform harmful acts on the rivers or lakes.

Dealing with challenges through experiences

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Amidst various initiatives aimed at conserving water bodies and wildlife, the Environmentalist Foundation of India has also dealt with multiple challenges, especially during the initial phases of operation. Talking about the time, Sharun says, "The major challenge has been to understand the government. It used to be difficult to identify the right government body to be approached for our activities. We had no idea who to ask and seek assistance from during that time," he laments.

Only after the team conducted 10-15 restoration projects did they understand the relevant official bodies to be contacted for various purposes. Further, sourcing funds for the projects has also been a challenge for the team. Sharun says that, initially, the trust would not take the donations, and it was self-funded. Although the team still does not accept donations, most of the funds are managed through CSR funding in collaboration with various corporates.

Even though Sharun says that the organization is not running short of funds for the projects, he also says that, often, it is not easy to procure finances. "It is not necessary to get funds for the projects we want to work on for restoration. If we locate a lake that requires restoration on an urgent basis, we start working on it. However, it's not mandatory that we also get companies who want to invest in that particular lake. In such a case, we work on self-funded mode again," he says.

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A recent restoration of Ajjanur pond by the Environmentalist Foundation of India in Coimbatore

E.F.I has restored 175 lakes and is currently working on more than 30 projects, including 17 lake projects in Chennai. With time, the team has also managed the restoration work in 17 states in India, including Kashmir, where the team carried out the clean-up drive at the famous Dal lake five years ago. In addition, a plantation project named 'Ahilya Van' is also underway in Indore, along with a new waste management project called 'Kalyani' aiming to compost the wet waste to use it during the plantations further.

Emphasizing the importance of volunteers

As a matter of fact, 90% of the projects under E.F.I are aimed at the restoration of freshwater in India, while the rest are dedicated to conserving wildlife habitats, all of which are joined by not just national but also international volunteers. Sharun says people contact them through their website, YouTube, and workshops at schools and colleges. "We request people to not donate to us but volunteer with us," he says.

Despite the large number of volunteers working with EFI currently, Sharun has still not forgotten the memories of working with a volunteer when the team was working on the first-ever lake restoration project in Keelkattalai of Chennai during 2012-14. It was a long project, and many students, including Sharun, were cleaning up the lake for a few days.

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"There was a cattleman who would see us taking efforts every day. Gradually, he got motivated by us and would help us indirectly by moving his cattle from the site. He did not know the way to help us but wanted to help. Later, he helped us in cleaning," Sharun recounts, mentioning that it was emotional for the team.

On whether he wants to share a message with the youngsters, Sharun says, "We have spoken a lot about the environmental issues and are already aware of the problems. It's only the actions that can make the difference. And, it's time to take action and to turn the thoughts into acts."

Also Read: How NGO Shuddhi is ensuring cleanliness along with women empowerment and child education

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