Most citizens would not necessarily associate a geographic information system (GIS) with protecting water access, but in the Nilgiris mountain region of southern India, the former is helping preserve the latter. GIS and other mapping technologies are helping to ensure that indigenous people in the region have sustainable access to water that has sustained their communities for generations.
Over the last two decades, an NGO Keystone Foundation has adopted new technologies to do its work more effectively. Key among these tools are GIS data and mapping systems such as Google Earth. Conservation, protecting water resources and sustainable economic development require that you know in precise detail information about the land, water and biodiversity. On a national scale, some information of this type is available via India biodiversity portal. The data doesn’t exist at the local level, however, and is particularly scarce when it comes to water resources. The toposheets of the Survey of India are the most commonly used data source, although at a scale of 1:50,000 these are not detailed enough for use at a village level.
GPS and GIS mapping have changed the manual approach and introduced a level of precision to Keystone’s mapping efforts. Keystone now uses GPS capabilities of Android phones and tablets as well as handheld GPS units to create highly detailed and localised maps. Community members and volunteers are trained to use GPS and Open Data Kit forms to gather data about their surroundings. The team uses GIS to layer data onto those maps, including information about water resources, land use and ownership, biodiversity, wildlife movement and human wildlife interactions. The data is still generated by the community, but is leveraging the accuracy and convenience afforded by technology.
Using the maps and the data they display, Keystone launches projects for a variety of campaigns related to water access, biodiversity, conservation and land and water use. For example, ‘Save the Western Ghats movement’. The map created by Keystone included national, state and district boundaries, state capitals, major rivers and reservoirs, mining projects, major power plants, populations of tribal people and protected areas, crowd-sourced from partners in the movement and other open sources. The Foundation also built a 3D fly-through of the Western Ghats that helped in visualisation of ecological issues in the region. The maps and fly-through were designed to highlight the environmental threats faced by the Western Ghats, as well as the geopolitical and social influences on the area.
Keystone relies on these types of maps and GIS for one of its largest water-resources projects, under the Springs Initiative. Supported by the charitable foundation Arghyam, with technical support from Pune-based non-profit Advanced Center for Water Resources Development and Management (ACWADAM), this initiative is designed to conserve springs across India and protect local communities’ access to water.
Keystone has achieved significant results, including saving springs, protecting wetlands, and is helping indigenous communities gain title to their traditional lands. There have been other benefits as well. In a number of communities, testing water samples from springs has shown the presence of faecal contamination. Mapping the nearby wetlands and springsheds revealed the source of contamination and is helping the communities mitigate health risks.