The challenge and the organization
Most people would not associate geospatial information systems (GIS) with protecting water access, but GIS and Google Earth are helping to ensure that indigenous people in the Nilgiris mountain region of southern India and beyond have sustainable access to the water that has sustained their communities for generations.
Keystone Foundation is integral to this effort. Keystone is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that works to improve the environmental conditions and protect access to water and biodiversity in the Nilgiris, with the ultimate goal of enhancing quality of life for all who live there.
Keystone’s founding journey began in 1994 when three friends set out to perform a survey of honey-gathering. They surveyed the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, carrying backpacks as they walked through mountain paths and backroads. They saw firsthand the conditions in which 11 indigenous communities lived. Together they started Keystone and decided to forge a new approach to preservation: using eco-development to improve people’s lives while preserving the natural environment.
How they did it
Keystone uses maps for a variety of campaigns related to water access, biodiversity, conservation and land and water use. It first creates localized maps using satellite images from Google Earth, the GPS capabilities of Android devices and handheld GPS units and freehand maps drawn by community members. It then layers data onto the maps using GIS, including information about water resources, land use and ownership, biodiversity, wildlife movement and interactions between humans and wildlife.
Keystone shares learning, data and resources with partner NGOs, research groups and state governments as part of the Springs Initiative. These partners work together to mitigate the water crisis in India by conserving springs, which are safe sources of drinking water for rural and urban communities across the country.
Springs are especially important in hilly regions, where they are often the sole water sources for local communities. The foundation and community volunteers mapped the springs in the Nilgiris region of India and is creating a first-of-its-kind atlas about each spring in the region.
T. Balachander, program coordinator for information and communication at Keystone explains that protecting springs can help ensure water security and improve the management of land and water resources. “Changing land use, ecological degradation, exploitation of natural resources and climate change are cutting down on the number of springs and the amount of water that flows through them,” he says.
– T. Balachander, program coordinator, Keystone Foundation
Keystone creates maps that show, in detail, the ways in which springs are endangered by changes in the countryside near them. For example, a spring may dry up when new developments nearby pump too much groundwater from wells. In other instances, Keystone’s maps have illustrated how sewage upstream endangers springs and wetlands downstream, or when agricultural runoff pollutes groundwater that feeds springs. Based on those maps, communities and government can take actions to protect the springs.
Keystone has used mapping technologies to improve access to water and support related initiatives that impact 4,000 families. These initiatives protect springs and wetlands, promote sustainable livelihoods and help indigenous people gain title to traditional lands.
The maps offer other benefits as well. In a number of communities, testing water samples from springs and wells has shown the presence of faecal contamination. Mapping the nearby wetlands and springsheds revealed the sources of contamination and is helping the communities mitigate health risks.
Balachander says countless problems, particularly those revolving around access to water, can be solved using mapping information. “We’ve found that maps, GIS and data are liberating tools, and we’re trying to make them available to everyone,” he says. “We hope that we’ll be able to use maps to protect access to water, indigenous communities, the environment and biodiversity. India and the whole world will be better for it.”