Environmentalists’ Weapon Of Choice Is Innovation

Innovation Is The Weapon Of Choice

A small idea can have a huge impact on the planet. From discovering a revolutionary way to recycle plastic to working towards cleaning up water bodies, these environmentalists are striving to make the world a better place. Rolex has been recognizing individuals with innovative projects to save the environment for more than 40 years now. We look at five Rolex Award-winners and the amazing ways they are deploying their knowledge to solve the planet’s problems.

Krithi Karanth 

Krithi Karanth at Channagundi in Karnataka. Photo: ©Rolex/ Marc Shoul

The daughter of a biologist and conservationist, Karanth grew up tracking tigers and elephants and thinking this is how every Indian is raised. But she soon found out that as the population grows, more people need more room to live and farm, putting them in a violent confrontation with the wild. These run-ins between wild animals and humans often result in damage to property and crops and in the most extreme cases, the loss of life on both sides.

To defuse the situation, in 2015 Karanth set up Wild Seve, an organization with a toll-free number that villagers living on the fringes of the wilds around Bandipur and Nagarhole in Karnataka can call in case they suffer damage as a result of human-wildlife conflict. Karanth and her team help villagers file claims for their losses, bringing them monetary compensation. This takes away any need the rural community might feel to attack and harm wildlife. So far her initiative has helped 7,000 families in this area file more than 15,000 claims worth an estimated Rs41mn. She is currently in the process of expanding to another three national parks in the country and the 1,000 villages that lie on their peripheries.  

The rest of her efforts focus on raising India’s next generation with a love for indigenous wildlife. Her organization Wild Shaale, runs conservation education programs in 500 rural schools, reaching an estimated 30,000 children so young people grow up realizing the importance of the country’s flora and fauna.

Arun Krishnamurthy

Lake Kilkattalai in southern Chennai was under severe strain from the rapidly expanding city. In addition to feeding the nearby Pallikaranai wetlands, the lake itself is home to several species of birds as well as pond turtles, all of which endangered by the pressure its urban surroundings were putting on it. Krishnamurthy decided that this could simply not be allowed to happen. He quit his job at Google and set up the Environmentalist Foundation of India (EFI), a not-for-profit whose sole aim was to save the country’s water bodies. The organization has cleaned up 39 polluted lakes around Chennai and Hyderabad and is now expanding its operations to include water bodies in cities such as Delhi, Trivandrum, Lucknow, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Coimbatore, Pondicherry, and Kolkata.

He recruits volunteers through school programs and they help Krishnamurthy in activities such as the phased clean up of lakes, waste management, reintroducing of avifauna such as sparrows, planting native species of flora, composting, building biodiversity parks in schools, looking after local wildlife, and organizing camps for the youth to get them excited about conservation. Krishnamurthy funds his good work through revenue from a communications consultancy that advises businesses on how best to invest in social and environmental campaigns.

Miranda Wang

Photo by ©Rolex/Bart Michiels

Every year, the world churns out 340 million tonnes of plastic, much of which ends up choking landfills, rivers, and oceans and polluting the atmosphere, soil, and water. Chinese-Canadian tech entrepreneur Miranda Wang has come up with a better idea for what to do with the world’s largest waste problem – turn it into wealth using unique chemical recycling technology developed by her company, BioCellection. Her team develops recycling technologies that transform soiled, contaminated, and unrecyclable plastics into quality materials for 3D printing and consumer products.

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Sonam Wangchuk

Sonam Wangchuk at 4,000m in Ladakh. Photo by ©Rolex/Stefan Walter

Sometimes the problem doesn’t call for reinventing the wheel but just fine-tuning the design. This is the approach Wangchuk, an engineer, took to solve the problem of the lack of water in his native Ladakh. Although large parts of the reason are covered in snow during winter, by spring, the villagers who live 3,500m above sea level have already depleted their water resources so they have very little with which to farm with. So Wangchuk devised an ingenious solution to freeze water dripping away from melting glaciers in the warmer months. He created his now-famous conical towers, resembling the stupas you see all around this park of Ladakh. These small glaciers hold thousands of liters of water, slowly dripping out in the warmer months to irrigate farms. 

Wangchuk based his work on the work of Chewang Norphel, another local engineer who first came up with the idea of artificial glaciers as a way to store water. Wangchuk improved the design, creating towers that have less surface area and thereby lose less water to evaporation on hot summer days. Wangchuk’s glacier has in the past supplied 1.5million liters of water through a pipeline to irrigate more than 5,000 saplings planted by local villagers. His plan is now to use funds from his Rolex Award to create 20 such ice stupas, each 30 meters high so they each hold about 10 million liters of water.  

Wangchuk is raising the next generation of engineers who specialize in thinking outside the box at the Alternative School at his Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) to come up with eco-solutions to the region’s problems. 

Sarah Toumi

Photo by ©Rolex/Reto Albertalli

Less rainfall and more severe droughts are threatening to turn three-quarters of Tunisia’s agricultural lands into deserts. As a young girl, Sarah Toumi witnessed this degradation when traveling with her father in the east of the country and she resolved to do something about it. In 2012, she moved to Tunisia from France and set up Acacias for All, an organization that encouraged farmers to plant crops more suited to the changing environment. Central to the program is the acacia tree, whose long roots bring to the surface essential nitrogen and freshwater to revitalize the land. The gum produced also has the potential to provide an income for farmers. She encourages the locals to use new technologies for water treatment, along with natural products and fertilizers rather than pesticides. By September 2016, Toumi and her organization had helped locals plant more than 1,30,000 acacia trees on 20 farms. She expects to increase this number tenfold in the next two years.

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