Case Studies & Initiatives

Deforestation reduces water availability

A study from IISc on the Western ghats area clearly shows that in the basins of Sharavati and the Kaveri tributary Lakshmanteertha, streams which had good forest cover had waterflow through the year. But streams where forests had been removed carried water for only 4-6 months.

A study in 2012 on a portion of the Varahi river in the Western Ghats found that even small changes in forest cover – 9% over 27 years – can reduce the buffering capacity of the river’s flow. The number of days the river flowed after cessation of rainfall reduced and the number of dry stream days increased.

Perennial streams becoming intermittent have been reported in Brazil as well, and in islands after they were occupied by European powers in the seventeenth century.

Reforestation increases water availability

Villagers in Hesatu village, Jharkhand used 365 acres of fallow land to grow 100,000 trees. They began in 2010. By 2017, they make about Rs. 40-50 lakh a year. The Domba river nearby which used to dry up in the summers is now perennial.

Similarly, the village of Ufrenkhal, in Pauri Garhwal (Uttarakhand), have grown their own forest and rebirthed a river – Gad Ganga. The plan involved planting trees around percolation pits. According to Indiawaterportal, “Trees that were planted around the pits were nourished by the water that was retained there. Once grown, they helped in retaining soil and water. The pits and the trees developed a mutually beneficial relationship, which rejuvenated an entire system.”

The website reports on the results, “The once-dry ravine is dry no more. Now, while walking along the boundary between Dandkhil and Gad Kharak villages, one’s ears continually hear the musical chattering of a stream. This is the Gad Ganga, created by the villagers for the villagers. It is a perennial river with a discharge of 3 litres per minute near its source. This is one-fourth the flow rate of a tap when opened to its full extent. It seems small, but the river continues to build up as it flows down the slopes. The stream is used for irrigation by means of a canal, and also for drinking water in times of drought. The many springs that have been born as a result of this effort to prevent soil erosion and rainwater run-off are yet to be counted.

A miracle in action, that’s what this is. In an area where the recurring narrative is that of dying springs and lost rivers, this effort has shown that miracles are indeed possible.”

In Tamil Nadu, the sacred hill of Arunachala, where Ramana Maharishi spent most of his life, had lost much of its forests in the last few decades. With support from the government, an NGO has taken up reforestation here. The increased tree cover has cut down rainwater run-off drastically as the soil absorbs more water now. And seasonal streams flow more slowly and steadily, lasting longer after the monsoon has ended, making it easier for more trees to survive.

Times of India also reported in 2015 on experts recommending maintaining a buffer zone of trees to ensure the Ganga’s waterflow. From the report: Experts from Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, met at Forest Research Institute early this week and sought forestry interventions for maintaining ecological flow in the 2,525-km-long river. The project part of the National Mission on Cleaning Ganga under the Union ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation.

FRI director PP Bhojvaid told the paper, “Agricultural fields on both sides of the river add to the silt in the river. But the tree line on the banks helps in further release of water into the river. The precipitation process of trees triggers this release.”

According to Bhojvaid, trees soak moisture which gets accumulated over a period of time. He said forests can give rise to a river, as happened in case of Godavari which emanates from a forest area and not from a glacier.

He also cited example of Kerala and many other countries which have developed parks and catchment areas on their banks.

Government Initiatives

Ganga Tree-planting: In November 2016, the Union Government announced that it would be planting trees and conducting associated activities along the river Ganga and its tributaries in five states.

The initiative plans for plantations on sites located within 5 kms on both sides of the river and 2 kms for its major tributaries. 6197 sites have been identified by Forest Departments of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. The initiative plans to carry out plantations in 133,751 hectares in the five states over five years. 4 crore trees are planned.

For agricultural areas, economically beneficial trees will be planted. In urban areas, bioremediation and biofilteration of effluents, and riverfront development, ecopark development, institutional and industrial estate plantation will be conducted. For government-owned land, each state will develop a model based on its ecosystems.

Bihar: Bihar was the first state to submit a detailed proposal for this Ganga tree-plantation drive. The proposal will cost 1150 crore. Plantation on government land along the river’s banks, agro-forestry work on private land and soil conservation work are three aspects of the initiative. It also includes river cleaning and riverfront development in urban cities.

Plantation has been proposed on around 3000 hectares of government land and 200 hectares of private land along the riverbank. Three types of plantation will be carried out on government lands: medicinal shrubs near the bank, bamboo plantation beyond that and regular trees on the outermost layer. The width of plantation will be decided based on availability of land.

In case of private land, agroforestry will be promoted among farmers. The forest department will provide support through subsidies.

Kerala: Kerala used bamboo plantation for restoration and bank stabilization of its rivers, at a cost of 2.57 crores over 3 years. The scheme was begun in November 2014. The upper reaches of all of Kerala’s rivers are forested. The Forest Department plans to encourage local self-governments, NGOs, Citizen Groups and individuals to take up plantation in non-forested areas. Financial support will be given. Funds can also be utilized through MNREGA. Protection and post planting care will be the responsibility of the organization or individual who undertook the plantation. They will be supported financially in this through an MoU.

Andhra Pradesh: Casuarina plantation is planned in coastal and river areas to dampen wind velocity and control damage from natural calamities. Casuarina are rapid-growing species. They have the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen. The forest department is encouraging Vana Samrakshana Samitis to take up plantation under joint forest management.

Intercropping with groundnut, cucumber, watermelons, sesame and pulses is allowed in the plantation area. Banks are financing with support from NABARD. The loan plus interest can be repaid at the end of five years, in view of the fact that farmer receives no income for the first four years.

Chhattisgarh: In Chhattisgarh, in 2015, the Forest Department planned to plant 5 crore saplings. Chief Minister Raman Singh emphasized on saplings being planted on the river banks.

As per the Forest Department’s Climate Change mitigation plan for the Mahanadi river, “Regeneration of degraded bamboo forests along the wetlands will be encouraged.” Other interventions include, “Run off management interventions by constructing different water conservation & harvesting structure. Catchment area treatment & maintenance of existing water bodies. Promotion of vegetation to reduced soil erosion”

Rajasthan: In January 2016, the government launched the Mukhyamantri Jal Swavlamban Abhiyan (MJSA) to make the state drought free by 2020. Within six months, 94,941 water harvesting structures were constructed in 3529 of the state’s 21,000 villages.

The key feature of MJSA is that it brings all water-related projects undertaken by various government departments under its umbrella for effective implementation. No new construction is taking place under MJSA itself. MJSA follows, what the officials call, “ridge to valley” approach to conserve and harvest water – from the catchment area in the ridge to the valley where the runoff flows.

2.8 million trees were planted, all around these water-harvesting structures. A five-year maintenance plan has been given to the forest department, which is the nodal agency for planting trees under the project. One of the basic tenets of this program has been to involve people in all stages—planning, execution and maintenance. Village residents, who are well-versed with water-harvesting methods, participated in the survey [to plan the location and specification of the water harvesting structure suited to an area] along with the officers and engineers, resulting in the selection of the most appropriate water harvesting structures.

Geographic information system (GIS) and remote sensing technologies are being used to get data on groundwater level, soil moisture, topography and rainfall to decide the location of structures. Geo tagging is being used to track the projects and the progress is published by the government online.

Gujarat: Village forests were raised in unused land, and barren areas were re-forested. Trees were planted along canals, rivers and lakes. Private and degraded farmlands were also brought under tree plantation.

In 2011, Gujarat began the Farm Forestry scheme to grow 400 trees per hectare on farms, using MGNREGA funds. 750 farmer camps were organised every year to promote this and educate farmers.

Maharashtra: Maharashtra has signed an MoU with Isha Foundation for the greening of Maharashtra. The government plans to plant 50 crore trees by 2019.

Madhya Pradesh: Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan launched the Narmada Sewa Yatra to spread awareness among people about the state of the Narmada river, and to bring out the essential relationship between human beings and rivers. The MP government has launched a comprehensive plan to rejuvenate the Narmada, with inputs from Isha Foundation. Action points include supporting farmers to move to horticulture, and planting forest trees in government land along riversides.


United States: Virginia state has sponsored a riparian reforestation project in Fairfax county to prevent pollution from entering waterways, stabilize stream banks, provide food and habitat to wildlife and keep streams cool during hot weather. 8000 miles of tree strips have been planted. Plans include planting 15,000 more miles of streamside buffers.

Most forest departments in the United States encourage the planting and maintaining of streamside tree cover. According to the Kansas Forest Service, “streamside forests provide a wide range of benefits to both the environment, as well as landowners – benefits that include water quality and quantity enhancement, streambank stabilization, wildlife habitat, and enhanced recreational activities. These areas can also act as a sustainable source of income through timber harvest and the production of other forest products.”

European Union: There is a European government project for revitalising the Danube river. A central component of that is to restore the natural ecosystems affected by human activity. And the way of doing that is to establish a continuous ecological corridor River Greenway adjacent to the Danube river.

England: The municipal authorities of Pickering in North Yorkshire have used tree planting to reduce flooding. This is in stark contrast to other areas where heavy rainfall caused devastating flooding. Their initiative is called “Slowing the Flow”. An analysis of the scheme concludes that the measures reduced peak river flow by 15-20%. The scheme was set up in 2009 after the town had suffered four serious floods in 10 years, with the flooding in 2007 estimated to have caused about £7m of damage.

The work included planting 40,000 trees and the restoration of heather moorland, all intended to slow the flow of water into the river and reduce flood peaks. The project cost the government £500,000. An analysis of the project calls for a more natural approach to flood risk management that followed a series of serious floods in recent years.

Simon Dixon, the study’s lead author from the University of Birmingham, said: “We believe that tree planting can make a big contribution to reducing flood risk, and should be part of a wider flood risk management approach, including conventional flood defences. Tree planting would represent an extra element that helps to slow down the arrival of rain water to vulnerable locations.”

Pakistan: Torrential rains and landslides during April 2016 in Pakistan resulted in the deaths of more than 140 people and destruction to material property. Deforestation and erosion of mountain slopes are said to have increased the level of destruction. According to environmentalists, “While climate change is causing the enhanced intensity of rainfall, deforestation is unfortunately abetting the mass scale damage”.

After this experience, the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province began the “Green Growth Initiative”. Under this initiative, the party aims to reverse sixty years of deforestation. A large scale afforestation project called “The Billion Tree Tsunami” is a key aspect.

Starting from June 2015, over 250 million saplings have been raised in largely private nurseries so far. The remaining 450 million saplings are being naturally generated in forest enclosures, which are being maintained by local communities. Such nurseries are present in almost every district of the area. Most are privately owned and the demand is increasing.

According to thirdpole, “Under the “youth nurseries” package, the provincial government provides a secure buyback agreement for unemployed youth or rural women to set up kitchen nurseries – with about 25,000 saplings – as well as a 25% of costs in advance. The nursery can then earn around PKR 12,000 to 15,000 (USD 115-143) per month, which is a sizeable income in the area. In fact, most of the small scale or household nurseries are currently being run by rural women who have managed to enhance their income.”

The WWF is supporting the government in this endeavour. Imran Khan aslo launched the “One Tree, One Life” initiative, under which children are being inspired to take up tree planting and caring for trees.

Pakistan’s federal government is also joining in with a “Green Pakistan Program”, which aims to plant 100 million trees in five years.

Around the world, Agroforestry has been shown to be an effective means of river watershed management. Studies have been conducted in several places. Indonesia has had a program in place since the 1970s to regreen its watersheds, which are crucial for drinking water, irrigation and other activities that support many of the country’s poorest communities. Besides these ecological benefits, benefits to farmers also include higher crop yields, increased income, resilience to climate change, reduced dependence on natural forests, reduced pest incidence due to birds nesting in trees, and more biomass production.