Climate solutions

Finding solutions to India’s freshwater challenge

Inside the extraordinary effort of two environmentalists to safeguard the country’s lakes and rivers—and the life that depends on them.

This article reports on the impact of Rolex’s Perpetual Planet Initiative, which supports outstanding individuals and organizations that are implementing novel solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. The initiative includes the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, a program that for over four decades has recognized changemakers from around the world, including Romulus Whitaker and Arun Krishnamurthy, who are featured in this story.
Published in November 2020icon-clockTime to read: 5min 0s

From an early age, Arun Krishnamurthy knew of the legendary herpetologist Romulus Whitaker. One of South India’s leading voices for conservation, Whitaker focused on protecting reptiles, and the lakes and rivers they call home. He had established the country’s first snake-specific zoo, not far from the village where Krishnamurthy grew up. Whitaker’s organization would also give presentations in local schools, Krishnamurthy’s class among them. For a child, seeing the natural world up close was profound. “He was one of my childhood heroes,” Krishnamurthy said.

These experiences helped inspire an enduring passion for ecology in the young Indian. And now, decades later, Krishnamurthy has emerged as one of the country’s leading environmentalists, as well. His focus mirrors that of his idol: He founded his own organization that mobilizes volunteers to clean up water bodies throughout his home region and beyond.

Their missions are motivated by an urgent issue. Over the past few decades, India has experienced incredible economic growth that has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Yet this trajectory has also put acute pressures on the country’s waterways. Certain consequences of India’s development—poor urban waste practices, increased chemical runoff from farming, widespread river damming—conspire to make clean freshwater a diminishing resource. “It's really our biggest problem right now, environmentally speaking,” Whitaker said.

Each conservationist in their own way has dedicated themselves to addressing this challenge. To help advance this work, both individuals were named Laureates of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, which provided them and their organizations with significant support, valuable public exposure and a global peer network of fellow Rolex Awards Laureates. The honors have been vital to the duo’s groundbreaking efforts to keep India’s freshwater systems—and the animal and human life that depend on them—protected.

Population pressures
The Collective's Alexander Verbeek explains the connection between India's swelling citizenry and its water stress.

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Portraits of environmental pioneers

Meet two conservationists that are protecting India's water bodies

An early warning system

Whitaker’s focus on water conservation started with a love of snakes. In the early 1970s, he established the Madras (Chennai) Snake Park and began working with a local tribe to protect the reptile population. Over the next decade, “authorities began to realize that this is something very significant—and [our work] grew from that,” Whitaker said.

He soon began to shift his conservation efforts upstream: from a focus on the reptiles themselves to the waterways they rely upon. He started with the rivers stemming from the Western Ghats, a mountain range stretching down the southwest coast of India. Besides providing a crucial habitat for reptiles, these rivers supply drinking water and support agricultural irrigation for at least 300 million people. In the 1990s, Whitaker helped establish field stations that track the quality and quantity of vital waterways. Years later, to support this work, the American expat was formally honored with a Rolex Award for Enterprise.

These efforts came at a time of dramatic transformation for India. By 2000, nearly 300 million Indians resided in cities, more than quadrupling the number from when Whitaker first arrived in India in the early 1950s. Over that same period, the country’s GDP grew ten-fold. This economic development and urban expansion has had significant repercussions for the environment—lakes and rivers, in particular.

Whitaker has seen the impact firsthand. The waterways that he studies are changing dramatically due to river diversions and water extraction for farming, putting numerous animal species at risk. Recent studies, for example, show that the summertime water flow in northern India’s Chambal river is far below what is needed to sustain the gharial, a critically endangered species of crocodile. An even more iconic Indian species, the king cobra, is currently losing its rainforest habitat.

These creatures serve as modern canaries in the coal mine for India’s broader water issues, Whitaker notes. “The reptiles are the indicator species, the early warning system that can guide doing the right things to maintain a constant, safe flow of clean water.”

The reptiles are the indicator species, the early warning system that can guide doing the right things to maintain a constant, safe flow of clean water.Romulus Whitaker

Water bodies on the brink

Krishnamurthy was just a child when Whitaker first began expanding his field station research in India. But even to an unexperienced eye, the trends were apparent; growing up, he couldn’t help but notice the steady demise of bodies of water around Chennai. In his early 20s, while working a day job at a global tech company, he decided he had to do something about it. He started by going to local schools, asking to start environment clubs that would clean lakes. The response was overwhelming; Krishnamurthy soon left his day job and, in 2007, started what would eventually become the Environmentalist Foundation of India (EFI).

Like Whitaker, Krishnamurthy directly links development to the threats facing natural freshwater resources. He says there are three factors that have led to the demise of the waterways. The first is the “reclassification” of bodies of water, which means they can be built upon. “We first dump the construction debris into these water bodies during the dry season,” he said. “And one day that water body is nowhere to be seen.”

The second issue is another consequence of urban growth: a lot of people means a lot of waste. Without proper sewage treatment plants, contaminants end up polluting local bodies of water. The third and final problem is the breadth of climate change impact experienced in India. Melting glaciers in the Himalayas, erratic monsoon seasons and record heat waves all contribute to the growing crisis.

These threats, however, only motivated Krishnamurthy’s relentless pursuit of solutions. In 2012, this effort got a boost when Krishnamurthy was honored with a Rolex Award for Enterprise. “I saw the Rolex Award as a seed of trust and faith, which was planted in EFI,” he said. “And it’s been a huge morale-booster for a small-town boy like me.”

The accolade has helped the young activist continue to grow his organization. Today, EFI operates in 14 states and has a permanent staff of 12, who oversee tens of thousands of volunteers. The organization has helped clean up 129 polluted bodies of water across India

Why water bodies matter
Verbeek delves into the impact of freshwater biodiversity loss on ecosystems and surrounding communities.

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Conservation through community engagement

These days, Whitaker oversees three research stations across India. After collecting data, his team transfers it to local state forest departments, which helps them assess their conservation work. “Our efforts are aimed at educating the authorities in charge of looking after the integrity of these waterways,” he said. He’s found a way to get local communities involved in the effort, as well, by helping them understand just how much their own livelihoods depend on healthy rivers. His work has inspired dozens of young conservationists to be part of the mission to protect India’s vulnerable ecosystems.

Krishnamurthy is a living example of the power of this type of community engagement. As a result, he too is dedicated to inspiring others to take action. That hands-on education and training, which focuses on everything to home waste management to the impact of construction, is essential to transforming the way bodies of water are treated in India.

For both Whitaker and Krishnamurthy, this type of grassroots conservation is essential to keeping the planet clean. “We cannot wait for that somebody to come and solve our neighborhood environmental issues,” Krishnamurthy said. “We have to become that somebody.”

The answer starts with outreach
Verbeek speaks to the importance of community-based conservation tactics.

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The human crisis of water scarcity

Krishnamurthy and Whitaker have fought hard to protect lake and river systems, as well as the catchments that supply them. Their mission intersects with broader concerns related to the management of water resources for humans. Alexander Verbeek has spent years working on these problems. As an environmentalist and former diplomat, Verbeek has a keen understanding of how access to freshwater affects human security.

Water issues are hardly ever localized. If segments of the population don’t have access to clean water, the consequences are widespread. “I remember this research in India where they took an area of a city where only a small percentage of the people did not have access to clean water, and the vast majority did have access. Yet still, you see that diseases were spreading amongst all 100 percent of the population.”

Freshwater management isn’t just an issue in India. It’s something that’s affecting global welfare and security. “Today water scarcity leads to migration issues—the earth keeps heating up, and areas on the brink of not enough water become dire. The people go to a neighboring area, which barely has more water, and soon deplete it as well. It creates a domino effect.”

Q: What percentage of the earth’s water is freshwater?
1. 3%
2. 13%
3. 30%

A: It may seem like our freshwater resources are boundless, but that’s not the case. Only 3% of the world’s water is freshwater, and most of it is frozen or found underground. In fact, fresh surface water sources like lakes and rivers account for just 1/150th of one percent of the world’s total water.

These stories highlight Rolex’s commitment to support research on environmental issues and join forces with individuals and organizations aiming to find solutions to protect the environment. This content was produced independently from The Washington Post Newsroom.

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