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Millions of trees under threat amidst climate change

Trees are known to be vital for water conservation, so it is extremely strange that a widely publicised project in India to reduce water shortage in the drought-prone Bundelkhand area, a region of 13 districts in central India, is slated to start by axing of 2.3 million trees, disrupting wildlife, including tigers, in a protected zone, and displacing thousands of villagers. Bharat Dogra reports

The Ken-Betwa River-Link Project (KBRLP) was approved on December 8, 2021, despite its claims being trashed repeatedly by experts and a Supreme Court-appointed committee. The government has committed to spend about Rs 5500 crore per year over the next eight years (a total of Rs 44600 crore) on this multipurpose power and water project.

Essentially, the project is about the transfer of water from the Ken river basin, considered a water-surplus area, to the deficient Betwa Region. But as critics have pointed out, the basic premise of the project is flawed, as the water-surplus status of the Ken River has never been scientifically established. In fact, the river and its tributaries have been depleted in recent years by reckless sand mining carried out by politically well-connected mafias. Besides, the two river basins are adjacent to each other, and experience similar weather conditions of deficient rainfall, so there is little justification for transfer of water.

Studies on water scarcity in Bundelkhand mention deforestation as a leading cause; hence seeking to solve water scarcity with a project involving the axing of over two million trees appears foolhardy. These studies, highlighting the rich traditional wisdom seen in many water conservation works of the region, have called for better care of trees and conservation efforts based on local conditions.

Earlier, 30 experts, some of whom have held official positions, joined hands to prepare a document which states that “the project has been plagued by sloppy, intentionally misleading and inadequate impact assessments, procedural violations and misinformation at every step of the way.”

Pandurang Hegde is an environment activist who worked very hard – and with much success – to save many trees from commercial felling in the ecologically crucial Western Ghats area of Karnataka state. He says bitterly, “Before we could celebrate our success, even more trees started being cut in the name of big projects whose desirability and viability were not well established at all.”

In the Himalayan Region, a very large number of trees are threatened even in river catchment areas by projects of questionable necessity. Around four million trees in ecologically crucial areas throughout India are under such threat. Vimla Bahuguna, who has devoted her life to protecting forests in the Himalayan region, told me recently, “The gains of the battles we won in the 1970s and 1980s are being lost now.”

When her husband Sunderlal Baguguna, the venerable leader of the Chipko (hug the trees) Movement, died recently, the government paid rich tributes to him. Just a few months earlier, I had gone to their home to present them my new book on their lifelong struggles to save trees and rivers in the Himalayas. As we discussed the current situation, he almost broke down when speaking of the slaughter of trees in several places.The government honours his memory, but will it honour his vision of making all possible efforts to save threatened trees and forests?

At the world level, of course, trees are under much greater threat. Hence, there is increasing need for setting up international mechanisms for making every effort to protect trees from dubious projects, or more broadly, all harm. An agency could be set up at the United Nations for the purpose, and it should be mandatory for projects in any member country that involves axing of trees beyond a limit to inform this agency and at least obtain its opinion on the possibilities of avoiding such loss. This will also help establish reliable records of worldwide projects involving heavy loss of trees.

(The writer is honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril and Protecting Earth For Children.)

April – June 2022