Indian conservationist Arun Krishnamurthy, whose campaign to restore his nation’s lakes and ponds began with his decision to remove rubbish from a single pond in his own neighbourhood in Chennai (formerly Madras, in south-eastern India) 10 years ago, is taking on his biggest challenge yet.

In April this year, Krishnamurthy and EFI (the Environmentalist Foundation of India, which he established in 2007) launched “D-50”, a project to clean and restore 50 rural ponds badly hit by climate change across six Indian states, before the onset of monsoons in November 2017. (EFI defines ponds as small lakes ranging in size from less than an acre (0.40 hectares) in surface area up to 15 acres (6.07 hectares).

Volunteers and nature enthusiasts from all walks of life have been invited to revive these water bodies and turn them into biodiversity hotspots.

Ten ponds have already been cleaned as part of the project, with people living near them declaring that the collective efforts have contributed to cooling the air, filtering pollutants, preventing waterborne diseases and controlling floods.

Army of volunteers

Through EFI, over the past 10 years, Krishnamurthy has through EFI marshalled an army of young volunteers to clean up ponds and lakes and take other measures to protect his vast nation’s water resources.

He and EFI’s eight salaried full-time and four part-time employees have mastered the art of inspiring people to take up the cause of conservation: “In the year from January to December 2016, EFI engaged close to 14,000 volunteers across eight locations in the country,” he explains. “For 2017, EFI projects and aims at engaging 22,000 volunteers through the year at 22 locations in six states.”

Krishnamurthy wants to engage people of all ages in EFI’s massive clean-up programme, but as the project is focused on encouraging students − from schools to universities −  it is the young who are leading the way – for their own future and that of their country. “From 45 to 48 per cent of our volunteers are aged 15 to 19 years old; 24 to 26 per cent are aged 19 to 22; 16 per cent are aged 22 to 30 years old; and 6 to 8 per cent are over 30.”

Degradation of water

Of the pollution in Chennai that provoked him to action in 2007, he says: “The rapid urbanization and degradation of freshwater bodies in Chennai and Hyderabad that I grew up with was the primary reason for me to start EFI,” he says. “We have everything from lake-view roads, apartments and stadia on our lakes –  everything but fresh water!”

In 10 years, EFI has become a highly effective operation that has cleaned up 84 lakes and ponds across six states, and restored 19 ponds and six lakes in two states.

The causes of the damage to bodies of water are complex: “Freshwater lakes and ponds,” says the Young Laureate, “bear the brunt of modern-day urbanization. Lakes are being polluted by several factors ranging from dumping of construction debris, urban trash, sewage and more. With natural habitats being taken over for human activities, there is constant addition of pollutants to the water bodies.”

He adds that, at the same time as EFI volunteers are cleaning up the lakes, “the larger solution should focus on holistic development and a sensitized society that is capable of managing its solid and liquid waste better. We are far from there, but definitely moving in the right direction, just not fast enough.”

Urgent action

Government action is urgently required, he says. “Policy-level changes and administrative decisions are key to implementing these strategies. Hence, EFI is strongly pursuing the federal and state governments to bring about effective water-management policies.”

D-50 is only one of several initiatives that EFI is sponsoring. For its 10th anniversary, the foundation is also cleaning its first river in a programme scheduled to last 18 months. “We are kick-starting an ambitious effort to participate in better understanding of river ecology-economy and climate impact on the Thamirabarani, [a river in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu],” he explains.

Krishnamurthy firmly believes that a misconception is at the root of the problems EFI is dealing with: “Earth’s natural resources belong to all life forms and not just us. It is unfortunate that we want to run around, swim, picnic and dump trash into a lake. We also need to keep in mind that a frog, fish, snake, crab, turtle and birds survive on these water bodies. We need to have an inclusive vision, we should live and let live.”

EFI’s projects regularly receive highly positive coverage in the Indian media, as city and state newspapers encourage local people to save their environment. Krishnamurthy adds that his Rolex Award has given “my young team confidence and has groomed us to aim big and achieve bigger.”

Learn more about Arun Krishnamurthy

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