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LATHA ANANTHA

India,

Dr. Latha Anantha is drawing from her deep understanding of complex river basin systems to apply the concept of environmental flows to river basin planning and management in India. Using the flow of the river as a reference point, she makes interlinkages between different interventions and draws various stakeholders together to cohesively plan and manage water resources in order to strengthen the health, economy, and peace of river communities.

This profile below was prepared when Latha Anantha was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2012.

INTRODUCTION

Dr. Latha Anantha is drawing from her deep understanding of complex river basin systems to apply the concept of environmental flows to river basin planning and management in India. Using the flow of the river as a reference point, she makes interlinkages between different interventions and draws various stakeholders together to cohesively plan and manage water resources in order to strengthen the health, economy, and peace of river communities.




THE NEW IDEA

A river that does not flow to the sea disrupts all the hydrological and ecological cycles, in turn affecting both human and wildlife needs. Recognizing the critical role played by the river in connecting and enriching different ecosystems, like forests, wetlands, flood plains, river islands, mangroves and deltas, Dr. Latha founded the River Research Center (RRC) in 2006, which assesses the environmental flows required based on ecological and hydrological parameters of a river. Through RRC, Dr. Latha aims to drive change through grassroots education and policy advocacy.

Dr. Latha applies science and management principles to make upstream and downstream linkages of human interventions in a river basin. For example, how upstream catchment areas, dams and diversions impact downstream livelihoods and ecology due to daily flow alterations. These linkages ensure better planning and management of river basins that can take into account effects of various interventions within the entire basin and regulate them from the perspective of the continuing existence of the river. She has successfully influenced the government of Kerala to introduce the concept of “sand mining holidays” and alter reservoir operations management to improve downstream flows. Dr. Latha has also drawn the attention of river basin communities’ upstream interventions that alter flows and mobilized them toward decentralized planning. Gram Panchayats, or local self-governments at the village or small town level in India, have formed water monitoring and management committees that plan their land, soil and human resources for livelihood enhancement. Dr. Latha believes that given appropriate tools, such communities can play the role of monitoring the river bodies to ensure the uninterrupted flow of the river.

Through a direct intervention on Chalakudy River in the state of Kerala, Dr. Latha is showcasing how this idea can be implemented and can benefit both the river and society. She is drawing from her experience on the river of Chalakudy to design a blueprint of tools and strategies to manage other rivers around India. 




THE PROBLEM

People depend on rivers in myriad ways: drinking water supply, power generation, cultural and religious needs, fishing, and farming are a few. Globally, 41 percent of people live in river basins and their life patterns are directly linked to the rivers. However, ensuring supply of water to meet basic human needs and food security is becoming a global challenge. 

According to a report by the United Nations, the growing needs of agriculture followed by the expanding demand for industry and energy are the main drivers behind the increase of water use. New projects for mining, dams, industries and irrigation are approved every day. Thus, destructed ecosystems around river basins do not allow the river to naturally revive and replenish itself. This leads to reduced flow of water in the river affecting all human activities related to them, particularly affecting the communities which directly depend on the river. The lack of freshwater triggers a series of negative effects on the health, economy, and peace of a community.

To worsen the matter, there is a prevailing mindset that rivers have an unlimited hydrological potential, meaning that there is no limit to their capacity and utility. There is also a perception that rivers can be re-engineered to fit various needs of the surrounding population and industries. The example of river Krishna in Central India demonstrates this misperception. Estimates show that the river’s discharge into the ocean has been gradually decreasing. Before 1960, the river discharge into the ocean equaled 57 BCM (billion cubic meters) a year. Since 1965, it has been steadily decreasing, falling to 10.8 BCM in 2000 and falling further, close to zero in 2004, thus impacting the coastal ecosystems. Research by the International Water Management Institute demonstrates that most of the rivers in India are facing a similar situation. This research showed that most Indian rivers have already depleted to an alarming level where there is very little water left for the rivers to continue flowing while providing for the sustainability of the ecosystems depending on them. 

Unfortunately, most countries, including India, do not have any appropriate mechanisms to measure, monitor and control the use of rivers. Current understanding of the effects and reactions of the ecosystems due to various interventions is highly inadequate. In addition, the regulatory framework in India is created for the river as a separate entity from the river basin and the ecosystem of the river. Although cumulative impact assessments have long been advocated for, projects that affect the river (such as dams, irrigation, and sand mining) are planned and executed by separate ministries without any understanding of the interlinkages between projects, in the short- or long-term. Such a fragmented approach, along with the lack of coordination between agencies, results in an absence of holistic assessment of the environmental impact and poor management of the rivers. Additionally, every river basin is unique with its own set of contributing conditions and factors. Therefore, creation of sustainable policy for the rivers and its implementation is a challenging but urgent process. 




THE STRATEGY

Approaching the river basin as a hydrological, ecological, and biophysical unit of water and land resources, Dr. Latha and her team undertook extensive research in the Chalakudy River basin in Kerala to inform their strategies. Their studies brought out a holistic picture of the river basin and the interlinkages between existing interventions on the flow of the river. 

To leverage her field experience and the data she collected, Dr. Latha founded the River Research Center, to drive change at the grassroots and policy level. RRC has since prepared a blueprint for revival and management of the Chalakudy River basin. 

In this blueprint, stakeholders in the river have a role in preparing the roadmap relevant to their sector. For instance, the Gram Panchayats within the river basin prepare the water resources management plans. Likewise, the irrigation department prepares the management plan for the irrigation canals, the Kerala State Electricity Board prepares the plan for the reservoir operations management and the Forest Department prepares the same for regeneration of catchment and streams. The stakeholders involved utilize funds raised for this planning process. The RRC team consolidates and facilitates this planning process and takes up the campaign and advocacy role for the river basin. Once the plan is ready and approved by the District Planning Committee, it is taken to the state level and/or the central level as appropriate. The plan is then implemented through the local self-governments, government departments, and other agencies. The RRC has already established relationships and gained support from the local communities. 

The blueprint for the river basin management action plan evolved by RRC is built on two key principles. First, it is based on the concept of the environmental flows, which is defined as the water regime provided within the river, wetland or coastal zone to maintain ecosystems and their benefits, where there are competing water uses and where the flows are regulated. For instance, on the Chalakudy River, RRC has discovered that the environmental flows on the hydroelectro plant (HEP) significantly affected fluctuation in the river flow. This resulted in scarcity of water in the irrigation and drinking water canals downstream. RRC revised an operation plan for the HEP, which would reduce fluctuation and allow enough water to flow in the canals. 

Second, the action plan is engineered toward active involvement of the local self-governance in the water management of river basins and improvement of the downstream flows. Dr. Latha realizes that allowing more water for the ecosystem requires a decrease in consumption behavior, potentially triggering conflicts. Equipped with information in linkages in interventions and its impact on their own well-being, communities can play a critical role in influencing different government agencies. Local COs, in partnership with RRC, have mobilized several Gram Panchayats to form their own water monitoring and management committees. Equipped with information about the impact of the HEP operations, Gram Panchayats started to put pressure on the Kerala State Electricity Board to adjust the operation pattern. They also undertook work to revive the canals by monitoring water releases and ensuring the water reaches the tail end of the canals. Finally after many years, the water started reaching the tail end in several canals for the past four years. 

Dr. Latha is cognizant of the fact that while rural and tribal populations have traditionally possessed knowledge about rivers, younger generations are increasingly disconnected from such knowledge. Therefore, RRC also educates children and youth about the river. RRC has built relationships with six schools along the Chalakudy River to conduct regular nature walks and workshops with students. Students organize and actively participate in campaigns for revival and protection of their river. 

In this process, RRC designs various innovative solutions for river management, which they propose to the stakeholders. For instance, they have introduced a mechanism for the regulation of sand mining on the rivers. Their research shows that in some places, the river depth has decreased by 10 meters due to sand mining. To address this, Dr. Latha became a member of the high power committee to amend the Sand Mining Act in the state of Kerala. As a result of her recommendations, the government of Kerala now conducts regular sand audits and has declared “sand mining holidays” in the over mined stretches to allow the river to replenish itself. 

Similarly, Dr. Latha witnessed that carrying out any farming or development activities in critical catchment areas can have severe impact on the water tables in the river. To ensure adequate flow in the river, RRC worked on demarcation and notification of these critical upper catchments as Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA). This status recognizes that the changes in the ecosystem of these areas will have recognizable impact. In India, only a few areas have been decaled as ESAs so far and RRC has begun mapping and demarcating the ESAs on the Chalakudy River. Upon completion, RRC plans to submit a proposal to the State Government and State Western Ghats Ecology Committee in which tribal populations living in these areas will play a leading role. 

Applying her experience from the Chalakudy River, Dr. Latha is also designing a blueprint of strategies and principles for the revival and management of rivers. She envisions scaling these principles and strategies to river basin planning in collaboration with other leaders in the field. For instance, she is collaborating with Ashoka Fellows Pandurang Hegde and Sudhirendar Sharma, to revive the Save Western Ghats Movement. In 2010 the Minister mandated the creation of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, and many of her principles and strategies were incorporated into the final report presented to stakeholders. 

Drawing from these learnings on the ground, Dr. Latha is influencing the mindsets and strategies of important stakeholders at the state and national levels. She is also a National Steering Committee member of the Forum for Policy Dialogue on Water Conflicts in India. Due to her influence, the concept of the environmental flows and the need for water for ecosystems was included into the purview of water conflicts. Dr. Latha has also been an organizer or a contributor on many national level dialogues to mainstream the thinking of river basin management among the critical stakeholders in the citizen sector and the government. 




THE PERSON

For as long as Dr. Latha can remember, she has been passionate about issues such as population, consumption growth, and degradation of natural resources. Her passion for ecology and nature led her to pursue her higher education in agriculture. 

While at university, she interned with a well-known ecologist from the Western Ghats, Dr. Sathis. With him, she participated in many nature camps and discussions. This informed her perspective and understanding of the environment. At the philosophical level, she started to disagree with the existing paradigm of the relationship between humans and nature. As opposed to the common view that people can conquer and “manage” nature, she saw the need to co-exist and respect the right of nature. 

After earning her Ph.D. in Agricultural Extension, Dr. Latha took a position as an agricultural officer. She wanted to learn how government systems function and how to collaboratively work with the system. Apart from her mandated responsibilities, she promoted organic farming. She organized farmers to visit plots and worked with them to implement organic methods on their fields. During her five-year tenure, Dr. Latha witnessed how communities were alienated from their environments and also developed insights into the relationship between communities and their natural resources. 

In 2000 Dr. Latha got involved with the movement against the Athirappilly Hydro Electric Project on the Chalakudy River full-time. She recognized the potential destruction the seventh largest dam would cause on a small, 144 km long river. She stepped into the movement and eventually became one of its leaders. Until 2009, she was engaged in building three cases that were filed before the Kerala High Court. She gathered and analyzed technical and scientific data to counter three Environmental Impact Assessments prepared for the project. As a result of her efforts, the Kerala High Court suspended the approval for the project twice. In both instances, she mobilized Chalakudy communities to organize public hearings and file public interest litigation in court. In 2007, the project gained its third clearance. During the course of the litigation battle, Dr. Latha had the chance to meet with the then current Environmental Minister and discuss with him the dreadful impact the dam would have on the Challakudy River. As a result of the meeting, the Minister issued a show cause notice to the project holder, Kerala State Electricity Board. Since then the project has been put on hold. The case of Athirappilly dam is a rare example of successful resistance by the citizen sector against dams. 

During these struggles, Dr. Latha developed insights into the importance for rivers to reach the sea. She gained deep understanding of various factors that destruct the flow of the river: how the river can act as a reference point for assessing several projects and how that in turn affects the people and their environment. Recognizing the important role communities can play in protecting rivers, she learned to translate complex technical aspects of river management into the language and concepts understood by rural communities. 




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