Dec 2023

Fireside chat with Dr. Veena Srinivasan on Sustainable Climate Action in India


Dr Veena Srinivasan is leading WELL Labs' mission to transform scientific research into real-world impact by designing solutions that simultaneously create livelihoods and conserve the environment. In 2022, she was listed as one of the top-cited scientists in the world. She is also a part of the Strategic Advisory Taskforce for ClimateRISE Alliance.

Water, Environment, Land and Livelihoods (WELL) Labs , Land and Livelihoods (WELL) Labs co-creates research and innovation for social impact in the areas of land and water sustainability. They design and curate systemic, science-based solutions using a collaborative approach to enable a high quality of human life while simultaneously nurturing the environment.

During the interview with Dr. Veena Srinivasan, we delved into the center's mission and the driving force behind its establishment. Our conversation explored their collaborative efforts utilizing a multi-stakeholder approach, their initiatives in urban water management, and their work in rural communities to improve small and marginal farmers’ incomes. Additionally, we delved into Jaltol, an open-source data-analytics tool by WELL Labs, and its successful adaptation by various stakeholders. Dr. Veena concluded our discussion by offering her perspective on the country's climate action initiatives slated for 2024.

1. You recently founded and setup WELL Labs. Could you share about the mission of the centre and the impetus for its creation?

WELL Labs was established with a clear mission to bridge the gap between research and impactful action in the field. As the founder, my professional journey has predominantly been within the realm of research, and a prevailing concern has been the tendency for research outcomes to remain confined to academic papers or reports without translating into tangible results.

Recognizing this issue, WELL Labs was conceptualized to address specific challenges that hinder the effectiveness of research organizations in making a real-world impact. Several crucial aspects were identified:

  • Timescale Optimization: In research, there is always a trade-off between rigor and speed. In the context of an implementation-focused organization, expediency often takes precedence over absolute rigor.
  • Shift from Push to Pull Mindset: Traditionally, research organizations adopt a push mindset, commencing with a scientific question and subsequently transitioning to implementation and dissemination. However, a pull mindset is required, wherein we proactively engage with policymakers and external stakeholders, allowing their needs and perspectives to guide our research agenda.
  • Problematizing versus Problem Solving: A significant differentiator is the distinction between understanding a problem and designing solutions. While many research initiatives focus on problem analysis, it is crucial to cultivate a skill set that goes beyond diagnosis to actively designing and implementing effective solutions.
  • Normative Decision-Making: Recognizing the reluctance of researchers to engage in normative decision-making, it is crucial to bridge the gap between research, evidence interpretation, and the formulation of frameworks and principles. This holistic approach ensures that our research not only elucidates problems but also guides normative decision-making for transformative change.

By integrating these fundamental principles into our organizational ethos, WELL Labs seeks to become a unique entity capable of driving research and innovation with the explicit intent of effecting transformation. Our vision is to establish an organization that seamlessly combines the strengths of research and solution design, thereby contributing substantively to overcoming societal challenges.

2. As an Alliance, WELL Labs works with various stakeholders to co-create science-backed solutions. What is the importance of working with a multi-stakeholder approach to improve people’s lives and action towards climate?

Imagine if only one group tried to fix everything in one place, it's not possible with the skills and resources one has. So, we believe in working together with different stakeholders. This means everyone, including organizations and policymakers, comes together to make things better.

The imperative for a collaborative approach stems from the recognition that transformative change on a significant scale necessitates a collective effort. A Civil Society Organization (CSO), for instance, cannot effect meaningful change in isolation; rather, it relies on an enabling policy framework to facilitate and sustain its efforts. A multi-stakeholder approach is not only advantageous but essential for addressing the pressing issues affecting people's lives and promoting action towards climate mitigation.

3. Urban water management is emerging as key priority as cities grapple with the impacts of the climate crisis. What are the pathways to address it at the policy and practice level?

Urban water management has emerged as a pivotal priority for cities contending with the ramifications of the climate crisis. Effectively addressing this challenge requires strategic interventions at both the policy and practice levels. Four primary pathways can be identified to enhance urban water management:

  • Improving Efficiencies and Reallocation: As cities grow, it's crucial to use water wisely and reallocate it to accommodate growth. This entails implementing measures to enhance the efficiency of water utilization for various purposes, ensuring a judicious and sustainable allocation that aligns with urban development objectives.
  • Wastewater Treatment and Management: An integral facet of comprehensive urban water management involves the treatment and responsible management of wastewater. By implementing advanced technologies and efficient systems, cities can reclaim, and reuse treated wastewater.
  • Floodwater Capture: It is important to capture floodwater. This proactive approach not only helps prevent flooding but also provides an additional source of water for urban consumption and resilience.
  • Reallocating Water from Agriculture: While reallocating water from agriculture remains the most adapted and viable option, it should not be the sole reliance. Cities should explore alternative sources and strategies to secure water for urban needs without disproportionately burdening the agricultural sector. In instances where water reallocation from agriculture is inevitable, the establishment of a drought fund can serve as a mitigating measure, compensating for agricultural losses and fostering sustainable water management practices.

Understanding the inherent dynamics of water usage between urban and agricultural sectors is crucial. Urban areas predominantly utilize water for high-value productive purposes, such as households and industries, while agriculture, though vital for job security, often employs water for lower-value productive purposes. This recognition underscores the need for a balanced approach to water management that goes beyond involuntary transfers from agriculture. By adopting a comprehensive and sustainable approach, cities can navigate the challenges posed by the climate crisis and ensure the long-term resilience of their water supply systems.

4. The Rural Futures programme of WELL Labs co-designs practices to improve small and marginal farmers’ incomes, their access to markets and finance, and land-use management, especially of degraded lands. What strategies can be adapted to develop region-specific sets of practices, ensuring solutions that centre farmers’ needs?

To develop region-specific sets of practices prioritizing farmers' needs, a series of strategic approaches are being employed by the Rural Futures programme. Recognizing the diverse agricultural landscapes across regions is paramount, as challenges faced by farmers vary. Tailored solutions addressing specific issues related to water availability, soil health, and climatic conditions are essential. In regions like Karnataka, where rainfed agriculture is predominant, strategies are being devised to optimize water use within the constraints of limited availability.

Ensuring equitable water distribution is a key focus, involving the revision of canal systems to operate on principles of protective and deficit irrigation, preventing concentration of resources. Market linkages and capacity building are emphasized to enhance farmers' economic well-being, facilitating access to markets and providing necessary training. The programme adopts a holistic land and water approach, incentivizing practices that improve productivity and contribute to equitable water resource distribution. By combining these strategies, the Rural Futures programme is tailoring interventions to specific regional needs, ensuring contextually relevant and effective solutions to address the multifaceted challenges faced by small and marginal farmers.

5. WELL Labs product Jaltol, is an open-source data analytics tool. How can we ensure adaptation of it by various stakeholders such as government agencies and civil society groups?

WELL Labs' open-source data analytics tool, Jaltol, has been developed with the fundamental principle of universal accessibility and collaborative data sharing. The motivation behind Jaltol emerged from a recognition of the redundant efforts involved in creating base layers of data by every organisation. However, the challenge lies in a prevailing trend where data is primarily used for tactical reporting rather than strategic decision-making. To ensure the broad adaptation of Jaltol by diverse stakeholders, including government agencies and civil society groups, it is imperative to communicate its open-access philosophy, demonstrate its practical benefits, and advocate for a transformative shift in societal norms regarding data utilization. Positioning Jaltol as an entry point for reporting purposes can serve as a gradual introduction, paving the way for broader acceptance. Additionally, dedicated communication and training initiatives are crucial to enhancing stakeholders' capacity to use data for informed decision-making, ultimately fostering the tool's integration into the landscape of database decision-making.

6. What do you foresee as the next steps in the country's climate action initiatives in 2024?

Water emerged as a priority at COP28 where there was increasing recognition that "the climate crisis is a water crisis, and climate action will ultimately be in vain unless we prioritize a water secure world"

The priorities I see in the Indian context are:

  • Systems approaches: Recognition of the interconnection between food, water and energy. The drivers of water use are often agriculture, urban and energy policy so a "nexus" approach is important.
  • Collaboration for collective impact: Addressing these inter-connections requires collaborative approaches; no one organisation can do it alone. This in turn requires new ways of funding collective impact.
  • Measurement and metrics: What we measure is what we improve. While we have made huge strides in reductionist approaches that look at one program/intervention at a time, if we are to drive fundamental structural change, we need to measure how systems change, not just individual components.

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