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Photo ©: By Sharada Prasad CS from Berkeley, India (Water from the Mountains), via Wikimedia Commons

India’s rivers may be revered, but that doesn’t guarantee healthy flows.

In India, rivers are thought of as mothers: life-giving, nurturing fundamental assets in human society. Or as gods and goddesses.  

In Uttarakhand, also known the “Land of the Gods,” the dual role of rivers as spiritual centers and economic opportunities is strikingly obvious. The state is home to numerous pilgrim sites, as well as the headwaters of the Ganga and Yamuna, two of the most sacred rivers in Hinduism. The rivers and their surrounding watersheds also provide habitat for important biodiversity, from tigers to golden mahseer, a highly coveted game fish. Despite their importance, Uttarakhand’s rivers are dammed, crowded by roads and floodplain development, and polluted by agriculture, industry and trash.  

© Robin Darius / Felis

Two key mainstays of Uttarakhand’s economic growth are hydropower and a tourist trade that offers visits to holy sites, wildlife viewing, whitewater rafting, kayaking, and other activities—all of it dependent on vibrant rivers.

Together with partners, WWF is trying to understand which rivers in Uttarakhand remain healthy and free, and to protect some for future generations.

© Robin Darius / Felis

In 2013, the state experienced devastating floods and landslides that led to massive property damage and loss of life. This was India’s worst natural disaster since the 2004 tsunami. Infrastructural factors—such as poorly constructed roads, resorts built on fragile riverbanks, andunscientifically planned and constructed hydroelectric projects—place significant stress on Uttarakhand’s rivers; they worsened the impacts of the 2013 monsoon. In addition, climate scientists have found that northern India has experienced increasingly intense summer rainfall since the 1980s, and they anticipate that extreme events like the 2013 monsoon could happen again.

“The current paradigm of river basin management looks at those rivers which are already degraded because of a human impact and needs to be rejuvenated. The time is ripe to look at the pristine or wild rivers left in the country and have a policy for conserving them now so that we don't have to invest to restore them later on.”

Suresh Babu, Freshwater Director, WWF-India

WWF-India is bringing together diverse stakeholders to mainstream the idea of conserving high conservation value (often called “pristine” or “wild”) rivers, and shift focus away from the conventional “restoration after degradation” approach. 

© Robin Darius / Felis

Hope From Uttarakhand 

Through a stakeholder engagement process that builds upon the free-flowing rivers methodology, a holistic framework is being developed in Uttarakhand to identify and prioritize stretches of high conservation value Himalayan rivers and ultimately support work toward their legal protection. This information can help local, state, and national leaders make informed decisions to protect and conserve freshwater resources for people and nature.  

As Uttarakhand looks to the future, it seeks a more sustainable approach to infrastructure development that will secure key watersheds for spiritual and cultural sustenance, critical biodiversity, and sustainable development. 
While the process will begin in Uttarakhand, it won’t end there. Initiatives to help conserve pristine stretches of rivers could provide key lessons for other Indian states, enabling the Land of the Gods to pave the way for new approaches that balance infrastructure potential with existing natural and cultural wealth.