Chennai Water Crisis

Freedom From Thirst: Trees, Forests, and Water

By Aahana Ganguly and Vandana Singh

“The right to life is much more than a right to animal existence and its attributes are manifold, as life itself. A prioritization of human needs and a new value system has been recognized in these areas. The right to sweet water and the right to free air are attributes of the right to life, for these are the basic elements which sustain life itself.”

    – From the Kerala High Court Judgement in Attakoya Thangal v. Union of India (1990)

After 73 years of Independence from British rule, India faces what the Government of India’s policy think-tank, Niti Aayog, calls the “worst water crisis in its history”. While over 200 thousand Indians die every year due to inadequate access to safe water, 600 million Indians face high to extreme water stress. Projections indicate that the crisis is only going to get worse with demand becoming twice the available supply by 2030.  India has faced a drought every year since 2015 (except for 2017). 42% of India is currently facing drought. Climate change is only going to exacerbate this situation.

People in Chennai faced severe water scarcity in 2019

All over the world environmental policies recognize that forests, especially in the tropics and subtropics, are critical to slowing down Climate Change. Deforestation and forest degradation are the largest sources of carbon emissions after all the cars, trucks, trains, planes, and ships in the world combined.  If managed sustainably forests can absorb about one-third of the carbon dioxide released from the burning of fossil fuels. We understand the connection between trees, forests and water a little less.  When people do not have enough water to drink and enough water for farming, is it fair to allow forests to grow and to plant trees that use up precious groundwater resources for mitigating climate change caused by pollution by the industrialized world?

It turns out that we wouldn’t have most of our water for drinking and for agriculture without forests.  According to the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), “Approximately 75 percent of the world’s accessible freshwater for agricultural, domestic, industrial and environmental uses comes from forests, with 90 percent of the world’s cities relying on forested watersheds for their water supply. Forests and trees are essential to maintaining resilient production systems, communities and ecosystems. They are vital to our water supply, providing high quality water resources: they intercept atmospheric moisture, contribute to cloud and rain formation, reduce erosion and recharge groundwater. However, changes in climate and land-use are contributing to altered groundwater and base flows locally, and precipitation regionally. Global hydrosheds – major watersheds – have experienced 40 percent tree cover loss, resulting in increased risk to water stress, erosion and forest fires.”

Connections between trees, forests, and water

Forests Create Rain

Forests are a critical part of global water cycles and replenish water vapor in the atmosphere. Trees draw up water from their roots and release water vapor into the air through transpiration. Research shows that as much as 70% of the moisture in the atmosphere over land areas come from trees as opposed to evaporation from lakes and rivers.  

Rain can only fall when water vapor condenses in the air and forms droplets in clouds. Trees release tiny biological particles like pollen, spores, microorganisms and other debris into the air. These particles provide surfaces in the air that moisture can condense on. When these particles are absent, there is no rain at all or rain fall becomes rare. 

The effect of creating rain extends not only over the local catchment area of a forest but over entire continents. A recent theory, called the “biotic pump”, proposes that forests create winds and generate low atmospheric pressure sucking moisture filled air inland from the oceans and, thus, bringing rain into the interior of land masses. A study has shown that in the tropics, air that has moved over dense vegetation for a few days produces at least twice as much rain as air that passed over little vegetation.

Forests Improve Surface Water Flow, Curb Flooding and Improve Water Quality

As rain falls, some water soaks into the ground and some trickles down slopes and join to form streams, lakes, and rivers. All the land area drained by a stream or river and its branches is called a watershed. Natural forests with undergrowth, leaf litter and organically enriched soil are the best land cover in watersheds for minimizing soil erosion. Forest soils soak up water while the roots of trees anchor soil and prevent soil erosion in a forested watershed. Excessive erosion can degrade land and cause excess silt build up in water bodies. Deep tree roots also stabilize slopes and prevent shallow landslides. 

Land use for agriculture, human settlements and industry release pollutants into surface waters. In India, 63% of surface water sources have become unusable because of contamination. Forestry activities in the watershed, apart from commercial plantations, do not use fertilizers and pesticides and also can act as buffer zones around non-point industrial, domestic, and agricultural pollution sources by trapping and filtering pollutants in the forest litter.

Forests Recharge Ground Water 

Maintaining forest lands can, however, compete with agriculture, industry and other human uses of water. Trees remove water from catchments with their roots, intercept rain, and release water into the air by transpiration. They may use more water than other types of land cover like crop lands or pastures. Groundwater accounts for 40% of India’s water needs and is depleting at an unsustainable rate. In water-scarce environments where people rely heavily on a rapidly disappearing groundwater resource, people believe that there is a trade-off between planting trees, or letting forests grow and the water people need.

People digging deeper wells in search of water in Koderma, Jharkhand

Removing forest cover may seem like a solution as a means of preventing and mitigating scarcity and groundwater depletion. But there are many other losses to removing a forest including the loss of erosion control, improved water quality, carbon fixation and, of course, the forest products and biodiversity a forest provides. In some areas, forest removal can bring salts close to the soil surface. In mountain cloud forests, vegetation acts as a net to capture rain from fog or a cloud. Moreover, recent studies have shown that trees at an optimum density actually use less water than the amount they allow to soak in and percolate into the soil. Tree and undergrowth cover prevent rapid evaporation from the ground. Tree roots and the animals they attract like termites, ants and earthworms create holes in the soil for water to soak through. 


Saving Forests, Saving Water, Saving Lives

Jungal se hi Pani hain. Pani se hi Jeevan hain

From the Forest comes Water. From Water comes Life. 

-Slogan of Hasdeo Arand Bachao Samity

Scientific understanding increasingly points to the crucial role the relationship between forests and water plays for our survival and the health of the planet. Communities and indigenous people all over the world have recognized this role for centuries. They grant special protection to their water sources and forests and give them a spiritual and cultural meaning. They regulate their use and ensure their sustenance by conserving resources and preventing overuse and exploitation. The complex interconnections were recognized by Adivasi movements in their collective rallying cry for rights to Jal Jangal Jameen (Water, Forests, and Land) as early as 1900.

Patachitra painting from West Bengal of Santhals celebrating Spring

According to a report by the World Wildlife Fund, we are losing forests worldwide at an astonishing rate: 18.7 million acres annually, equivalent to 27 soccer fields every minuteIndia has targeted a forest cover of 33% since Independence (currently at 24%).

Forest Cover in India

Despite this, natural forest land is being given away to mines and industries at an alarming rate. Clearances for projects that remove indigenous, natural forest cover are given with an illusory promise of compensatory afforestation which involves planting an “equivalent area” of trees in another region. This again takes away control of the forests from the people. Additionally, there is a crucial difference between tree plantations and forests.  Forests are self-regenerating communities of plants and dependent organisms, including humans. They are complex ecosystems with multiple animal and plant species. Because the difference between forests and plantations is not legally recognized, this allows forest departments to create planned monoculture plantations and call them Forests. Natural forests are taken over by the state in the name of conservation, and local communities living in harmony with the forest ecosystems are excluded. 

Painting in a village in Kalahandi, Odisha

It turns out, however, that the socially just solution to the ecological dilemma of conserving and regenerating forest lands is also the right one. Indigenous people and other traditional forest dwellers are the first line of defense against the destruction of forests.  In the U.S., the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and its allies have held off an oil pipeline that threatened to contaminate their river, on which several cities downstream also depend for their water.  “Water is Life,” is their motto. In the heyday of the Chipko movement in the Himalayas, the village women who were its backbone had the slogan: kya hain jangal ke upkaar?  Mitti, Paani, aur bayaar, (what are the benefits of the forest?  Soil, water and fresh air) again acknowledging the connection between forests and water.  Lal Singh, a villager in North Bengal, asks what will happen if forest communities like his are forced out: “Will the forest, wild animals, nature survive?” 

The role of communities in conserving forests is well illustrated by the story of Parvati Devi, a woman from a small village in Jharkhand. Jharkhand has lost a substantial amount of lush forest cover in key districts over the last several decades, mostly to mining and ‘development,’ and, in addition, is among five states in which 50% of the land is undergoing desertification/land degradation.  It is under these dire conditions that Parvati Devi has been organizing village women to protect their last remaining forest.  These women patrol the forest in small groups, fearlessly challenging those who sneak in to cut trees. They dig and maintain pools in the forest so that the animals have water.  Over the years, the forest has turned green, the tree trunks, which used to be spindly, have grown fat and strong. Parvati Devi speaks with a passionate clarity about the link between forests and water.  Where there are healthy forests with wild animals, there are also streams. Groundwater levels are maintained. The air is cooler during the summer. Her village relies on a borewell for water – “quite close by,” she says, ‘about a kilometer’s walk.” But it is farther for other localities in the region.  

Girl children in Koraput fetch water

It is hard for most urban, educated people to believe that some of the most downtrodden, least privileged and least formally educated fellow Indians are intelligent, determined, and passionate protectors of our forests – and therefore, of our water security.  However, the importance of indigenous knowledge in the climate context has been acknowledged by many institutions, including the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC).   In fact a report from the Rights and Resources Institute points out that despite being only 5% of the world’s population, indigenous communities around the world manage about 80% of the world’s biodiversity, and prevent nearly 300,000 million tons of carbon dioxide from going into the atmosphere.  Their data shows that where indigenous people have rights to the land, there is more tree cover. So, protecting and affirming rights for traditional forests dwellers is one of the fastest and cheapest ways to protect water resources and mitigate climate change.  Such a policy shift can help regenerate forests at a fraction of the cost of planting tree plantations.  In West Bengal, for example, according to a planning commission report, 2000 peoples’ forest protection committees have regenerated more than 300,000 hectares of sal forests at little extra investment with the promise of rights to sharing wood and non-wood products. 

Community Meeting for applying for Forest Rights Act in Odisha

In 2006 the Forest Rights Act came into effect in India after a long struggle by tribal and other forest dwellers.  By giving forest dwellers the right to live in the forest and make use of forest produce, which they have been doing sustainably for millennia, the FRA seeks to right a historic injustice first committed by the British colonists and then continued by various Indian governments.  Despite its drawbacks and issues with implementation, the FRA is a vital tool in restoring power to forest dwelling people to continue to live in harmony with the forests and to protect them as they have always done. However vested interests are always in the process of undermining such democratizing legal instruments.  The National Forest Policy Draft of 2018, which seeks to revise the 1988 law, has been criticized for favouring industry while paying lip service to the need to protect our forests. The vital link between forests and water means that we cannot gamble our future away by ignoring these threats to the well-being of all Indians.  

Poor state of implementation of FRA across India

In 2010 the UN General Assembly recognized the right to water and sanitation as essential to the realization of all human rights. What happens to the destroyed forest, the animals desperate for rain, the parched, thirsty land, also happens to the human body denied water.  Without forests, without water, we cannot have a functioning economy, or industry, or agriculture, and the foundations of human culture and society fall apart. And we cannot have water security without recognizing the rights of traditional forest communities over water, forest, and landOn the 72nd anniversary of India’s independence, let us acknowledge that Freedom without Water is meaningless.  Let us work together to secure for all Indians Freedom from Thirst.    

Forests feed rivers to make them perennial. Forests in North Bengal

Aahana has been an AID volunteer for the past 8 years in New Jersey and Ann Arbor chapters, and now with the AID Environment Cell. She is a scientist working to make cancer radiotherapy more safe and effective.

Vandana Singh has been volunteering with AID in the Boston Metrowest area, and is especially interested in the environment and climate change. She is a physicist and writer.

You are donating to : Association for India's Development

How much would you like to donate?
$10 $20 $30
Would you like to make regular donations? I would like to make donation(s)
How many times would you like this to recur? (including this payment) *
Name *
Last Name *
Email *
Additional Note