Forests and water are interlinked

While recognising the need to conserve the forest resources, the government of India has evolved the Forest Policy in 1988 that states ‘the main aim is soil and water conservation for mitigating floods and droughts and for the retardation of siltation of reservoirs.’ The paradigm shift came only after the realisation that the commercial orientation initiated by the colonial rulers and then reinforced by the post independent era had either destroyed or converted the natural forests into mono culture plantations resulting in water scarcity and recurring floods.

Nevertheless, despite such positive policy framework, the practice over the years has been very dismal. The ongoing developmental activities, both industrial and non industrial have impacted negatively on the quality of the surface water due to increased amount of pollution load from these units.

The links between forests and fresh water are inextricable, they play a dominant role in provision of surface drinking water, a key watershed based ecosystem service. Forests can help in alleviating excess surface run off through its leaf litter, acting as sponge that helps in infiltration of the water to underground water aquifers. The forest cover reduces the maintenance costs of water treatment by providing quality clean drinking water to millions of people.

The watershed forests in Kufri, on the hill slopes near Shimla is a living example of the ecosystem service provided by the forests. However, in our urban planning, there is hardly any effort to protect the watersheds that provide water security to millions of people.

High priority

The relationship between forests and water is very critical that needs to be accorded highest priority in the decision making process. The draft Water Policy of 2012 does not contain any reference to the links between availability of water and the forests, though it states that holistic and interdisciplinary approach to water related issues is missing’, it hardly mentions anything related to the linkages between forest cover and the water runoff or availability of the water in rivers and the watershed forests.

The Central as well as state governments have spent thousands of crores of rupees over the years towards implementation of the watershed programmes. Unfortunately, they are aimed at ‘exploiting’ the water resources through water harvesting structures rather than ‘husbanding’ water and to protect the watersheds of rivers.

In this context it is pertinent to reflect on the traditional wisdom of people, who designated the watershed forests as ‘sacred groves’ leading to conservation of this fragile region. Compare this to the ongoing policy in which the small streams and tributaries in watersheds are being devastated to construct micro and mini hydel projects as well as run of the river schemes in both Himalayan and Western Ghats.
These practices indicate the sheer disconnect between the forest and water linkages among the policy makers as well as those who have narrow mindset while implementing these projects.

In the context of climate change it is pertinent that the regulation of water flows and availability of water quantity will have negative impact. The water crisis has direct bearing on the food security as well as the status of health of common people. There is an urgent need to evolve policies that reinforces the links between forests and water. European countries like France and Switzerland have a history of developing close linkage to the polices of forests and water. However, the developing countries have had to learn from the disasters of deforestation and its negative impact before the forest policies have incorporated the ecological principles of provision of water as one of the main produce of forests.

 According to Food and Agriculture Organisation, the forested watersheds are exceptionally stable hydrological system in comparison to other land uses and it  strongly influence the quantity and quality of water yielded from watersheds, stabilize soil and prevent gully and surface erosion and the sediment transport is reduced to the minimum'.Globally 75 per cent of the fresh water supply comes form the forested catchments, thus water is critically linked to forests. The water storage function of the forests is significantly  higher than the potential timber valve of the forests.

Chipko women from Himalayas have expressed the link between forests and water in a unique way. In midst of their struggle, one forester challenged them with his slogan that the forest provides timber and money that is essential for developing the region. The women responded spontaneously:
What does the forest bear?
Soil, water and pure air,

Soil water and pure air
Is the basis of life
The water and forest policies in our country need to be based on these basic ecological and holistic principles. Implementation of such polices will lead towards enhancing the basic capitals that sustains, and enriches all forms of life, including the human beings.

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