Youth champions help reverse climate migration

Help restore the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen in Odisha

Stalin Nayak
Youth champions
13 June 2022

KHORDHA, India – Fifty-five-year-old, Ashok Behera had one dream. A simple and satisfying dream of growing old with his children and grandchildren in Mangalajodi. Climate change had forced his children to leave Mangalajodi and earn their livelihood in different parts of India. Twenty-four-year-old, Danie Behera, too, harboured a dream. To return to his picturesque Mangalajodi, so he and his children can swim in Chilika lake and be surrounded by migratory birds all their lives.

Behera and Danie's dreams have come true. Courtesy, fantastic work from Youth4Water Campaign, the Indian Grameen Services and support from UNICEF.

A fisherman fishing at Chilika lake
A fisherman fishing at Chilika lake at Mangalajodi village at Khurdha district in eastern Indian state of Odisha

Climate change affects livelihood and forces pople to migrate

Mangalajodi is a wetland connected to the Chilika lagoon in the Khordha district in the eastern Indian state of Odisha. A large population live around this wetland, spread across several villages and hamlets. More than 50 per cent of the people like Behera depend on fishing in the Chilika river for their livelihood.

The shrinking of the Chilika lake due to climate change, heavy siltation, dumping of waste and overgrowth of bamboo grass had meant Ashok Behera and his children had to migrate and start their life afresh in far off places like Surat and Chennai as cotton mill workers. The local communities had also to contend with sudden-onset climate-related disasters such as floods and cyclones.

"It wasn't like this when I was young. Climate change has wrecked everything. Our children were living in Surat and Chennai like refugees. All I wanted was to grow old with my children and their children at my native place," says Ashok Behera.

Youth champions
The youths voluntarily remove the plastic bottles, cans and solid waste from Chilka wetland while collecting them in a dry waste dustbin at Mangalajodi village at Khurdha district in eastern Indian state of Odisha

Youth groups fight climate change and revive Chilika lake

In response to the problems faced by the climate migrants, the Indian Grameen Services (IGS), a not-for-profit organization, started initiatives involving the youth to provide economic incentives to people so they do not have to leave their homes in search of work. In 2010, IGS established the Mangalajodi Ecotourism, whose mission is to engage the youth in groundwater conservation and ecotourism services. 

Young people are trained to spread awareness about preserving the ecosystem for the community and the migratory birds at Chilika lake. They also ensure that tourists do not pollute the environment and work as tourist guides which also helps them earn a livelihood.

In collaboration with UNICEF supported Youth4Water, these interventions focused on waterbody protection, rejuvenation, and livelihood generation. The Youth4Water Campaign in Odisha started in 2019 to reach out to and engage youths in WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) and climate actions.

Behera was already involved in climate change education in his periphery. With support from Youth4Water, he mobilised villagers from a diversified community to build an institute for mitigating such crises. They all created an inclusive process for the protection of left-out wetlands. Combined efforts were initiated to protect the bird habitats around the wetland.

Through their interactive WASH Guardian training modules, entrepreneurship support, innovation challenge, and youth-designed awareness drives, this innovative campaign makes every youth a WASH Change Maker.

The Youth4Water campaign is a platform for youths and by the youths. One lakh youths are currently engaged with this platform, and it consists of 17 partners from Odisha. 

Artisian makes mats from Chilika wetland grass bamboo outside their house at Mangalajodi village at Khurdha district in eastern Indian state of Odisha.

Back to home 

Climate migration has reduced a lot since the youth-led initiatives were started. As more local employment opportunities emerged, the climate refugees gradually returned home. Behera now lives with his family most of the year. Today, Mangalajodi has become an iconic water body supporting sustainable livelihoods, responsible fishing, ecotourism, and bamboo crafts.

"Our wetland is our mother. Thanks to our youth, our beloved lake is now clean and safe. Now, you can hardly find any plastic or garbage on the shoreline or inside the wetland," says Satwika, a local woman leader from Mangalajodi.

Nearly 70 youth have pitched into the footmark of their elders with their active participation and have been trained for water quality testing and groundwater mapping. They are actively involved in dredging activities with the local government to ensure healthy water flow in wetland channels. 

 "When we moved to my village from Chennai, my father couldn't work there because he was too old. I was a little tense about our sustenance. However, the community-led initiative for protecting the waterbody could allow me to be a guide and boatman for tourists. Now, I live with my family and celebrate each moment of joy," says Danie Behera, 24 from Mangalajodi.

Danei has only been to Mangalajodi once a year during his childhood and has never lived with his family in Mangalajodi for a more extended period. This beautiful water body has given his entire family a fantastic scope to live a life with dignity. . 

Sustainable Development Goal 3 seeks to "ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages. The restoration of identity or belonging to a place has a crucial impact on one's well-being. These interventions are the best examples of the well-being of a community with water and sanitation. 

"Well-being is defined as the state of being comfortable, healthy, and happy. And we are so happy to be living here," says Danie. 

The migratory birds
The migratory birds at Chilka wetland at Mangalajodi village at Khurdha district in eastern Indian state of Odisha.

Pakhi Sarkaar – Birds' Government

The youth-led initiatives have increased awareness of the importance of preserving birds and generated local employment. The hunting of birds eventually stopped, and the region saw a steady increase in the influx of migratory birds. 

"Whether we are formally educated or not, most of us know the names of each and every bird by heart and can easily guide the tourists," says 41-year-old Danie Behera.

"We are not governed by any political leader. We have a 'Pakhi Sarkar' (Birds' government). Birds are everything to us – when they are here, it means the Chilika lake is in good health. We can all continue to live here," he says, reflecting the sentiments of people wetlands people who have deep bonds with the birds.

“Until a few years ago, the number of birds visiting the lake had reduced to a mere 5,000-6,000. Now with our efforts, we get over six lakh birds every year,” says Behera.