Watershed Development is key to promoting the use of water in a way that is socially equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically beneficial.

Arun Venkatesh, our next pathbreaker, Water Stewardship Coordinator at World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), works on freshwater habitat and ecosystem conservation programs to manage water better, mitigate water-related risks and promote shared governance of water resources.

Arun talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal abut his experience working on an Integrated Community led Watershed Development project and its impact on the farming community that steered him towards a career in the water management sector.

For students, water is the elixir of life, and  water security is the need of the hour. Take the lead by developing conservation plans for our waterbodies which are the lifelines of our future !

Arun, what can you tell us about your background?

I was born and brought up in Virudhunagar in Southern Tamil Nadu. My father served in the Army as a Junior Commissioned Officer, mostly in Northern States. I grew up with my mother and grandparents in Virudhunagar. In my school and college days, I was in NCC and NSS, and attended many awareness campaigns and rallies. During weekends and holidays, I used to go to our agricultural land with my grandfather and help him in irrigation and harvesting etc. During my middle school itself, I set a goal to become an Agriculture Graduate. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my Graduation (Agriculture), Post-Graduation (Agriculture specialized in Agronomy) and PhD (Agronomy) from Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore. During my MSc, I worked on weed management in “Direct Seeded Rice” and during my PhD, my research was on High Density Planting System in Cotton genotypes. In my MSc and PhD, I took up challenging credit seminars on emerging topics/issues vis., Robotic Agriculture, Carbon Trading, Aerosols and Climate change. During my post-graduation, I developed my skills in Microsoft office and statistical tools. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

During my school days, I used to help my grandfather in agricultural activities, which developed my interest in agriculture. Also, my undergraduate agronomy professors played a key role in my selecting agronomy for my post graduation. I also realised that agronomy is a wider subject which deals with all aspects of agriculture viz., climate, soil, water, pest, diseases etc., 

The major turning point was after my post graduation when I was working as Senior Research Fellow in the Water Technology Centre on “Ground Water Scheme”. This experience gave me an on-the-ground experience in understanding the current scenario of groundwater availability, groundwater pollution, future threats etc.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

Cotton is a commercial crop as it is a main raw material for textile industries. The major issue in cultivation of cotton is pest and weed control. Considering these challenges, the project was designed to increase the plant density through higher canopy cover which smothered the weeds. We tried it with different genotypes including ruling varieties and BT Cotton. The high density planting suppressed the weed growth and increased soil moisture retention invariably in all genotypes and recorded higher yield per unit area compared to conventional plant geometry. More research is needed to explore this high density planting system. 

After completing my PhD, without much effort, I got a Research Associate position in the Centre for Agriculture and Rural Development Studies in Tamil Nadu Agricultural University. The project was focused on “Estimating Cost of Cultivation of Major Crops in Tamil Nadu” and I was incharge of four districts under the guidance of a professor. This job included management of field teams, data collection and compilation of cost of cultivation from farmers. My work involved a lot of travel, which gave me a lot of exposure by interacting with farmers from different areas to understand their cultivation practices and issues faced by them.

Then, I got an opportunity to take up a position as a teaching faculty in Agronomy in a newly established Agricultural college under Tamil Nadu Agricultural college in Thanjavur, where my major role was to develop an Agricultural farm, demo fields and a meteorology observatory for the newly joining batch. It was a very challenging job that required me to implement my knowledge on the field. I established the same under the guidance of my professors and handled Agronomy and Meteorology courses for the students. 

While teaching, I continued searching for a job that could provide me with more exposure to ground level issues and measures. At the right time, I got a project consultant position in National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) to implement NABARD Watershed projects in Tamil Nadu. This position gave me a different field experience which involved visiting almost all parts of Tamil Nadu and working on Integrated Community led Watershed Development, which involved a lot of integrated components to improve Food and Water Security of the region, with a focus on soil and water conservation measures, livelihood development through self help group funding, livestock farming, afforestation, capacity building, to community driven and sustainable agriculture. In this role, I have seen many changes in the watershed project areas due to the project interventions. The livelihood of the watershed community was improved by increased agricultural income through our water conservation measures. This gave me the confidence to continue my career in the water management sector. Throughout my career path, I always see opportunities to learn new things, Hence I attended many trainings, seminars and conferences.

How did you get your first break? 

I got my first break at Monsanto India Ltd., as Technical Development Trainee after my post graduation. I worked on regulatory field trials on Round up Ready Cotton (genetically engineered cotton). Weeds are a major problem in these crops and lead to 40 – 50 % yield loss. Roundup is a non-selective systemic weedicide which kills all type of vegetation. Hence, Monsanto developed Round up Ready Cotton to withstand the Roundup weedicide. This worked well and totally controlled the weed menace and reduced the labour cost and increased the cotton yield. This experience influenced me take up research in Cotton during my Ph.D.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: 

Establishing an Agricultural Farm and Meteorology Observatory was an immense challenge. This was my first challenge in implementing my theoretical knowledge in the field. With the help and guidance of my professors I have established an “A” class Meteorology observatory, which helps students and the farming community of the region.

Challenge 2: 

The next challenge was taking up the NABARD Contract as a Project Consultant to implement Participatory Watershed projects in Tamil Nadu. Here, the main challenge was to involve the community to take ownership of the project through various capacity building training programs and help them in making the watershed project sustainable. With the help of Implementation partner NGOs we have completed 10 + successful watershed projects in my tenure through various trainings as well as by implementing participatory interventions on Soil and Water Conservation, Livelihood development through leveraging government schemes etc., 

Challenge 3

In my current role, I lead a team and project with a multi stakeholder approach with the aim of developing a stakeholder mapping to implement a water stewardship program in Noyyal Bhavani river basin and a vision that  “Noyyal and Bhavani are healthier river for humans and Nature”. Even with the pandemic situation, our team has completed on-the-ground research and is moving towards implementation along with like-minded partners, government and ngos. This role taught me a lot about working with multidisciplinary teams and partner organizations to conserve the river basin ecosystem.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your role

I am working with World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) as Coordinator- Water Stewardship under Rivers, Wetlands and Water Policy Division. Here at WWF, an independent conservation organization active in nearly 100 countries, we are working to sustain the natural world for the benefit of people and wildlife. I am working on freshwater habitat and ecosystem conservation. Apart from education, with a career in environmental management and sustainability, you could become part of this group of people who are driven by a passion for ensuring our planet is able to remain home for us with an abundance of wildlife. My specialisation in agriculture is the foundation for my skills to deal with this current role, as agriculture is a wider subject, which deals with climate, water, environment, statistics, economics etc.,. My past experience from various jobs, trainings gave me the confidence to lead the project. It needs ability to manage teams, timelines, budgets while ensuring quality work on-the-ground.

What is a typical day like?

Facilitating my team for field work, knowledge sharing and guidance to the team, getting permissions for some of the on-the-ground projects from government departments, stakeholder meetings, purchase of equipment for research and field work, data management, reporting to higher management and donors, as well as managing MoUs, timelines and deliverables from consultants  form the majority of the work on a daily basis. 

What is it you love about this job? 

I love the fact that I am working with a multidisciplinary team, getting new opportunities to learn and take on new roles, travelling and fulfilling my passion for contributing to the environment.

How does your work benefit the society?

Water stewardship programs manage water better, mitigate water-related risks at their site and within supply chains more effectively, and build better community relations through shared watershed governance.

Water: The elixir of life.  Water security is the need of the hour. Worldwide, rapid developmental activities are damaging the fresh water resources. We need to save the fresh water sources viz., rivers, wetlands etc. We should understand the importance of clean water and efficiently sustain water to ensure a sufficient supply for our future generations.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

As part of our program we did River Health Assessment (RHA), it is an attempt to measure the health of the river and is based on physical, chemical, and biological aspects. It’s a team effort to document the characteristics of the river including land use, the land cover of banks, sighting of terrestrial and aquatic animals, flow and quality of water. The RHA study is being carried out in Noyyal and Bhavani by our teams in three different land use and cover scenarios viz. forest, urban/industries and agriculture in pre and post monsoon seasons. Upper reaches of the Noyyal and the Bhavani Rivers and the scenes of natural bounty we come across are spellbinding and we engage with local communities in the area to learn about the native varieties of fish and we have documented endemic fishes. However, RHA activities at points where the rivers reach the plains and pass through cities, present a totally different scenario, heavily polluted due to industrial and domestic waste. RHA is important in the river rejuvenation process, as it throws light on the status of the river in terms of water quality, richness of biodiversity and environmental flows required for the endemic fish to survive. It helps us to develop a conservation plan for the river.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Study what you like and master it. Apart from the subject, develop skills in programming languages and application software programs like Python and GIS, which helps a lot in your career. Be open to work in any situation and be willing to learn new things. Be ready to take new roles and opportunities. 

Future Plans?

For now, i plan on continuing water stewardship programs, demonstrating models and scaling it up through participatory multi- stakeholder approach to implementing sustainable river basin management at national level.