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NOW ON EARTH YOUTH ADVENTURE GRANT RECIPIENTS 2023

The West Bengal Water Project

By the West Bengal team: Raphaela Betz, Patrick Robichaud, Susy Higueras Carrillo, and William Wallock.

For our project we traveled from the mountains in Sikkim down to the hills, plains and urban centers of West Bengal, and finally to the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans. Throughout this journey, we learned how communities are adapting to changing hydrological conditions. This blog post will share a selection of stories from each of the regions we visited.

Filming an interview in Sikkim

Filming an interview in Sikkim. Raphaela, Rajeev (translator/guide), William, and Patrick (from left back).

Sikkim Springs

Sikkim, the Indian state nestled in the Himalayan foothills, is increasingly at threat of chronic water shortages. In a small village in the southern Sumbuk region, an older couple shared that although they like their village, and their land is fertile, water is becoming scarce. In Sikkim, rainfed springs are the main source of drinking water for most people, but they are now drying up. Mr. Sharma, an elderly man from Sumbuk, recounted how as a child, he would fetch water every day from a nearby spring which is now barren for most of the year. During his youth, winter rains would replenish the local spring and ensure an annual supply of water. Now, he said, winter rain showers are becoming more infrequent and the lean period without any rainfall is becoming longer.

Despite the confluence of upheavals, the people of Sikkim remain resilient and are harnessing traditional knowledge in an attempt to rejuvenate their springs. In a village located in the Pakyong district, we spoke with a community that had recently launched a spring rejuvenation project based on the construction of trenches. Santosh Rai, the president of the project, explained that the trenches were built to retain water after rainfall. This will decrease runoff and increase water percolation into the ground, thus feeding the springs.

Lakpa Doma Sherpa sharing the struggles of gathering water

Lakpa Doma Sherpa sharing the struggles of gathering water, although always with a smile.

Fishing canoe on the Teesta

Fishing canoe on the Teesta, banks are newly deposited sediment.

The Teesta River Flood

The Teesta River winds its way from the high peaks of the Himalayas down to the plains of Bengal. Along its way, it promises prosperity by providing water, fertile land, and fish. But the river also poses perils. The livelihoods of countless individuals hinge on the Teesta for agriculture and fishing.

Recently, the destructive potential of the Teesta has shown its full force. On October 4th, 2023, a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) unleashed havoc downstream. The flood had originated at 5,200 meters from South Lhonak Lake, which had been rapidly growing due to increased glacial melt in the Himalayas. The GLOF triggered the collapse of the Teesta III dam, and the ensuing catastrophe caused casualties, damaged settlements, and buried fields and homes beneath deep layers of sediment. While periodic river overflows are anticipated, this flood caused unprecedented devastation. Gujoldoba, once a fishing village along the riverbank, now stands a thousand meters away from the water’s edge. The village, which used to launch fishing boats twice a day, has seen its harvest buried, and half of its fishing boats destroyed. The Teesta, once teeming with fish, now remains barren, and the villagers do not anticipate a resurgence until the next monsoon, many months from now. Those who could not migrate are now cultivating new fields on the sandy aftermath of the flood, counting on the richness of nutrients deposited.

Fishermen in the East Kolkata Wetlands.

Fishermen in the East Kolkata Wetlands.

Fisherman in East Kolkata Wetlands.

Fisherman in East Kolkata Wetlands.

East Kolkata Wetlands

The East Kolkata Wetlands use the nature-based solution of fisheries to convert sewage effluent into an economically viable product (fish). The wetlands cover 12,500 hectares, and comprise of over 260 small ponds, which are fed by the city’s sewage streams. The ponds are used for rearing fish, and provide a sustainable livelihood for more than 20,000 people (East Kolkata Wetlands Management Authority). The East Kolkata Wetlands are the only large-scale natural sewage treatment system in the world. This system, which has long been implemented by fishermen, was not recognized until the early 1990s when Dr. Dhrubajyoti Ghosh demonstrated the significance of the fishermen’s contribution to wastewater treatment in Kolkata. The East Kolkata Wetlands are a unique space of nature and humans collaborating with co-benefits.

Community in Bankura district

Community in Bankura district, West Bengal, showing resources in community with support from PRADAN.

Bankura

Bankura is a district in the western part of West Bengal, which suffers from poor soil fertility, seasonal droughts, and inopportune topography. Most of the annual rain falls in high-intensity events and is lost as runoff. As a result of these conditions, the per capita income in Bankura is less than half that of West Bengal’s average. Bankura is home to some of the most marginalized people in India, including indigenous and Dalit populations. Climate change is expected to exacerbate these existing challenges.

In 2016, an organization known as PRADAN (Professional Assistance for Development Action) began working with members of the Guniada village to address issues of insufficient water and depressed incomes. Its approach was to act as a catalyst for community-led change and to have women lead the charge. A variety of water harvesting structures, such as retention ponds, as well as improved agricultural techniques and other income streams were established. As a result of these interventions catalyzed by PRADAN, life in Guniada has been transformed: during our visit, women explained how their harvest and income have multiplied, and how them leading the change has strengthened their voices within the community.

Sundarbans Community

Community that DRSCS works with in the Uttar Kasiabad area Sundarbans with our team.

Community members in Ramaganga area

Community members involved with DRCSC’s work in Ramaganga area, Sundarbans.

Sundarbans

The Indian Sundarbans are characterized geographically by a group of islands surrounded by mudflats with tidal streams and channels of water in between them. Houses, small ponds, paddy (rice) fields and aquaculture farms are spread out on the land, while mangrove forests cover the islands comprising the Sundarbans National Park and the intertidal zones of inhabited islands. There we visited a tribal hamlet of 50 families that the Development Research Communication and Services Centre (DRCSC) have been working with to promote organic climate resilient agriculture and other interventions to reduce the community’s climate risk. We sat down cross-legged in a school building with 16 women, who are implementing the projects within the community, to discuss the agricultural projects that DRCSC has introduced. The projects included backyard gardens (also known as nutrition gardens), organic farming, aquaculture, and multi-cropping. The women were pleased with the projects that DRCSC had introduced as it has allowed them to reduce the cost of agricultural inputs, improve their nutrition and food security, and become more self-reliant. Additionally, DRCSC promotes aquaculture, the establishment of brackish water ponds on land which otherwise would not be usable. Fish and shrimp are grown in these ponds providing an additional source of nutrients and income. With the interventions of DRCSC, the women and their families are gaining resilience, making them better prepared for the living conditions in the fragile ecosystem of the Sundarbans.

The West Bengal Water Project

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