Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Sustaining the ecosystem for water, wildlife and communities in India

Sustaining the ecosystem for water, wildlife and communities in India
Guardian.co.uk, By World Business Council for Sustainable Development

Holcim explains how it is working with local communities and accounting for ecological sensitivities to ensure the future availability of raw material required for cement manufacturing

Ambuja Cement have planned rehabilitation activities across its sites, to counteract the impacts from the withdrawal of limestone and water from the area, both of which are required for cement manufacturing. Photograph: Patrick Pleul/EPA
Ambuja Cement undertakes rehabilitation activities at all its sites, with the objective of mitigating the impacts from the withdrawal of limestone and water from the area, both of which are required for cement manufacturing. The Ambujanagar plant in Gujarat, located between the Arabian Sea and the Gir Protected Area, restores its mines and surrounding areas to the degree that it has enhanced the region's biodiversity and also helped to address water scarcity and salinity problems in the region. These outcomes have helped the company to strengthen relations with local stakeholders, including villagers and local authorities.

The issue

Ambuja Cement, a group company of Holcim, is a leading supplier of cement, aggregates and ready-mixed concrete in India. Ambuja employs approximately 4,500 people. The company operates the Ambujanagar cement plant in the Kodinar region of Gujarat, India. The facility has three closed and rehabilitated quarries and six active quarries. To ensure the future availability of the key raw material required for cement (limestone), the plant will be aiming to enhance capacity at some of its other active mines. The Ambujanagar facility is located between the Arabian Sea and the Gir Sanctuary and National Park, which together are a designated protected area. The Gir National Park provides crucial habitat for the last surviving population of the Asiatic lion.

There have been critical problems of freshwater availability in the state of Gujarat since 1970. The area where the cement plant is located is in a coastal regulation zone. Owing to over-withdrawal of freshwater and intensive land-use in the Kodinar region, there has been marked depletion of the water table and an associated serious increase in water salinity from the ingression of seawater into the water table.

The response

Considering the ecological sensitivities of the region and needs of the surrounding communities, Ambuja undertook a holistic view of the situation while planning rehabilitation activities in consultation with local communities, natural resource management experts, non-governmental organizations and local authorities.

Ambuja has also adopted a landscape approach in addressing impacts of the quarrying activities. The scope of the rehabilitation activities, has thus been widened to include areas outside the quarries and has focused on the following key issues:

Capturing and preserving freshwater: the Ambuja Cement Foundation, the corporate social responsibility wing of the company, has implemented several measures to improve water management in the area, primarily through rainwater harvesting, and converting the mined-out pits into artificial lakes and wetlands. 165 dams and small barriers have been built to reduce the loss of water through shallow rivers and streams. Other water resource management measures, include interlinking rivers and streams, construction of percolation wells, renovation and deepening of ponds and runoff diversion systems.

Quarry rehabilitation through tree planting: as a part of its restoration project, different tree species have been planted as part of the Van Vihar project, the Eco Park project and the mini Gir project, in the mined-out areas and surrounding zone. Small patches of land are earmarked to grow medicinal plants and fodder-yielding plants. The company is also planning Jatropha plantations, which will serve as a source of bio-fuel in coming years.

Conserving the flora and fauna of Gir: under the "Mini Gir project", a large number of tree species native to the Gir Forest are being planted in the reclaimed mines. The company has also supported the conservation of the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica), an endangered species.

Protecting coastal zones through mangrove development: since 2009, the company's Ambujanagar cement plant and Surat limestone grinding unit have been working with the Gujarat Ecology Commission to develop a mangrove area near Surat. State authorities have given 150 hectares of land to the company for the development of mangrove along the Gujarat Coast through the planting of three native tree species.

Sustaining local livelihoods: local people are employed in rehabilitation activities such as pit preparation, watering, tree planting, nursery development and construction of water harvesting structures. Simultaneously, to create awareness of medicinal plants, a medicinal herb garden managed by local people has also been developed nearby. Some former pits are reclaimed with fodder cultivation in partnership with local villages, in order to provide feed for cattle. The water management and mangrove plantation projects have also improved the livelihoods of local people by helping to increase agricultural crop yields and fishing yields.

The results

The water management programme has raised the water table by eight meters, controlled the water salinity problem and made quality freshwater easily available to the communities.

Wells, previously dry for at least seven months a year, now contain water all year round, which has made it possible for local farmers to grow two to three crops per year. Other significant results of the project include:

• By March 2012 the company had rehabilitated approximately 330 hectares of area and planted nearly 275,000 trees. It had also completed some special projects, such as the Mini Gir project, where barren and degraded land near the Gir forest has been planted with native trees.

• Local employment opportunities have been generated through all activities and initiatives with benefits for the livelihoods of local people.

• Artificially created water reservoirs have enhanced the wildlife of the area, becoming breeding grounds and visiting spots for a large number of migratory birds.

• The fish population has increased and Mugger crocodiles (Crocodylus palustris) have also been recorded.

• A planting density of 3,000 plants per hectare has been maintained in the mangrove plantation project, which will provide multiple benefits, such as flood protection, supporting marine life and climate regulation.

In 2011, Ambuja Cement achieved its target of becoming water positive. This approach has helped the company strengthen relationships with all local stakeholders, which has guaranteed its license to operate in the future. The Government of Gujarat is exploring implementing similar water harvesting models elsewhere in the state on a large scale, with advice from the Ambuja Cement Foundation. This project has helped to demonstrate the importance of taking into account the needs of the local communities and how they may be affected by the state of the environment and its resources.

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