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Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Meet the young climate leader behind Kerala’s ‘model wetland village’

The campaign titled ‘We the Change’ brings together young climate activists as they deliberate with the government, media, policymakers and most importantly, millions of other youngsters, to push forward solutions and inspire collective action.

Written by Vishnu Varma | Kochi |
Updated: November 9, 2021 9:10:53 pm
Sanju, a native of Adoor in Pathanamthitta district, said his engagement in social activism began way back in 2012 when he was doing his graduation in psychology.

Credited with helping build the first ‘model wetland village’ in Kerala beside the highly vulnerable Vembanad backwaters, Sanju Soman, an environmental activist all of 28, is one of the 17 young climate leaders picked by the United Nations (UN) from India to spread its message about innovative solutions to climate change-related problems.

The campaign, titled ‘We the Change’, brings together young climate activists as they deliberate with the government, media, policymakers and most importantly, millions of other youngsters, to push forward solutions and inspire collective action.

“It’s a very happy moment for me,” said Sanju. “Especially to get to know other young leaders and understand their stories. There are very few networking platforms available for youngsters working in climate action. Through this campaign, there will be opportunities for collaboration.”

Sanju, a native of Adoor in Pathanamthitta district, said his engagement in social activism began way back in 2012 when he was doing his graduation in psychology at the SN College in Chempazhanthy in Thiruvananthapuram. At the time, he started an NGO ‘Save a Rupee Spread a Smile’ (SARSAS) with the aim of mobilising youngsters towards charity and social work by encouraging them to make financial savings. “We took on many activities and campaigns such as teaching at orphanages, visiting old-age homes, promoting organic foods and spreading awareness about high-pesticide foods,” he said.

Sanju, who remained the NGO’s founder-secretary for four years, claimed the group was able to become the largest volunteer-led NGO in Thiruvananthapuram district within two years and helped raise Rs 70 lakh for cancer patients and those from marginalised communities.

In subsequent years, he enlisted himself in a range of green projects, from rainwater harvesting in a drought-prone region in Kerala to a passive solar housing initiative in rural parts of Leh district and a rainwater recharge system at the campus of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai where he completed his post-graduation in Climate Change and Sustainability Studies.

Sanju, who remained the NGO’s founder-secretary for four years, claimed the group was able to become the largest volunteer-led NGO in Thiruvananthapuram district within two years.

It was in 2016 that he began to be more associated with the Vembanad Lake ecosystem and its myriad problems when he joined the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE) as part of the latter’s Habitat learning project. Vembanad, the longest lake in the country and identified as a Ramsar site as per the 1971 Ramsar Convention, has made headlines for its deteriorating water quality, high levels of coliform bacteria and discharge of untreated sewage from the hundreds of tourist houseboats that play on its waters.

It was important, said Sanju, for students and middle-school teachers in government institutions, who lived by the waters of the Vembanad and were often the first to face the effects of climate change and unnatural weather patterns, to understand about habitat conservation especially around wetlands.

And in 2018, while still at ATREE, Sanju began working on the project to develop the Muhamma panchayat in Alappuzha district as a ‘model wetland village’ in conjunction with local government and the residents. As part of the project, he underlined, a social innovation lab was set up to train women from fishing communities about the benefits of cloth upcycling, a plan was devised to make the panchayat plastic-free and energy-efficient in three years and 40 per cent of the women residents were provided cloth pads and menstrual cups at low costs.

“With the help of panchayat officials, we were able to carry out the project quite well. We distributed moringa and papaya saplings as part of food security, cleaned a lot of public spaces with the help of college interns, installed name-boards and promoted sustainable tourism,” he said.

Sanju also heads the SUSTERA Foundation that aims to churn young climate leaders and support climate entrepreneurs in the state. He is currently doing research at the World Institute of Sustainable Energy about building climate governance in Kerala.

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