Crocodiles are not Sneha Shahi’s favourite animal, but every time she sees one now she smiles. And she sees plenty.
Sneha led a campaign to clean up the filthy river, stuffed with plastic waste, that winds its way through the campus of Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in Gujarat, India. Ridding the river of plastic had an unexpected outcome – bringing crocodiles back.
“We used to joke about how there can be a crocodile in our college’s stream, ‘it’s not possible, it’s not safe!’ Then we realized it not being there was the issue … not the other way around. It’s his habitat and we’ve ruined it and we ought to do whatever we can to revive this ecosystem,” she told the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in an interview.
Sneha, a bubbly 23-year-old Masters student who loves reading and trekking to unexplored places, heard about UNEP’s Plastic Tide Turner Challenge campaign. Funded by the United Kingdom since 2018, the “Tide Turners Plastic Challenge” has reached over 225,000 youth in 25 countries in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. The initiative is a crucial element of the British government’s pledge through its 25 Year Environment Plan to reduce ocean plastic.
In India, Tide Turners is backed by the government and will be rolled out through some 160,000 eco-schools.
“Plastic waste and its irresponsible disposal have an adverse impact on our flora, fauna and land water systems. Students being the future of the nation can act as effective agents of change for their families and society at large. We will be calling on schools across the country to be backing the Tide Turners curriculum so that the next generation of Indian children are educated, informed and inspired to act,” said Shri Ravi Agrawal, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change.
The programme takes the participants on a learning journey consisting of three different levels: entry, leader, and champion. The young people who make it to the champion level gain a thorough understanding of marine plastic pollution and how to address it. They then become leaders in their communities – exactly the path followed by Sneha.
She was the first student to sign up when it was introduced to her college by the Centre for Environment Education (CEE), an implementing partner in the campaign. Sneha recruited over 300 fellow students – about 90 of whom come from the Department of Environmental Sciences where she studies – and together they conducted a survey about single-use plastics and whether they should be banned and replaced.
The team decided to focus on the Bhukhi Nala stream flowing through the university grounds which was clogged up with plastics and solid waste. They checked the water quality and decided that despite appearances it was not compromised beyond help.
“Nala means gutter, but on mapping it, we found that it is a natural rivulet which was choked with plastic. Multiple factors have caused this stream to look like a gutter but at certain patches, it has incredible urban biodiversity,” Sneha explained.
The Bhuki stream restoration project was borne. During an initial clean-up, about 300 kgs of waste were removed, segregated and recycled. Bulk plastics and thermcol were cleaned and moulded into small planters and wall hangings. Glass bottles were sent for recycling. The project was extended and overall the group removed an enormous 700 kgs of waste from an 800-metre long stretch.
As the waste decreased and the habitat improved, Sneha and her volunteers were delighted to see the return of Gangetic Flapshell turtles and crocodiles who swam up the tributary from the main river during the monsoon rains. Plant life and insects have also returned.
“Nowadays each time I pass over Bhukhi stream, I wait for some time on the bridge in the hope of spotting a crocodile. Before, the chances of spotting one were low, but now it’s about 8 out of 10. This makes me so happy. The university has even had to install safety fences due to the regular appearances of our new friends,” Sneha added.
Sneha and the team’s efforts were rewarded when they won the Youth for Earth Award, (Team name – Our Common Future) for the Bhukhi Stream Project. The group now intend to build on this success and hope to take the project forward and have a fully restored ecosystem in the heart of the city.
UNEP is working together with the World Associations of Girl Guides (reach 20 million members), World Scouts Association Movement (50 million members) and Junior Achievement (10 million members) to educate young people on the topic of marine plastic pollution and how they can help address it in their communities.
Tide Turners is also one key challenge of the Earth Tribe, a ground-breaking initiative that offers young people an opportunity to learn and act around key environmental issues aggregated on one platform, supported by UNEP.
But Sneha explained it was not easy to obtain the ‘Tide Turners Badge’ and at times she was daunted by the challenge, but she felt the issue of plastic waste was so little understood that she had to persevere.
“When you first look at the challenges, you might feel that you won’t be able to complete these all levels. But I decided to give it my best and reach out to people and stakeholders,” she explained.
Gradually the campaign took momentum. Plastics shouldn’t be ending up in our streams, rivers, oceans or forests. They are a man-made entity, it’s completely our responsibility to phase out single-use plastics and prevent it from entering our ecosystems.”