Green Antilles interview: Sharda Mahabir

Sharda Mahabir. Photo: via Write It Down
Interview

Today’s Green Antilles interviewee is Dr. Sharda Mahabir, founder of the Adopt A River programme in Trinidad and Tobago. As Project Manager of the Adopt A River programme, Sharda manages community projects across Trinidad and Tobago that help to improve the condition of the country’s rivers.

Please tell Green Antilles readers a little about yourself.

I hold a PhD in Environmental Biology from the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. For my project, I completed a national survey of heavy metals in local rivers and realized that over 66% of rivers were polluted. Further, in some rivers, this pollution was moving up the food chain, thus posing a risk to human health. However, most people don’t know that they are polluters and that they are poisoning themselves. In 2011, I got an opportunity to develop a programme to educate people and hence evolved the Adopt A River Programme.

What is the Adopt a River Programme about?

The Adopt A River Programme is an initiative of the Water and Sewerage Authority, aimed at implementing approved watershed rehabilitation and conservation projects, identified by stakeholders at national and community levels, for water supply and/or water management improvement. Simply, we teach citizens of this country the importance of water and rivers and how they impact on its quality and quantity. After empowering them with knowledge, we develop projects where they can help to improve rivers. I bring together stakeholders to make these projects happen and highlight their contribution in making a difference.

I am especially proud of our Water Warriors Training Programme. In this training, we teach anybody from any educational background how to test water and we gift them a testing kit. The community groups then uses this testing kit to test their rivers.

How can people get involved in the Adopt A River Programme? 

The Programme works by community groups, corporate entities or NGOs adopting a river. First, if you want to make a difference, you register with us online at www.adoptarivertt.com. This registration forms lists the kind of projects that you can get involved in and you can choose from there. Whether you do or don’t know what project you want to do, submit the form and we will contact you for a meeting. In our meeting, we will discuss the type of projects, the watershed and the contribution that you can make to a project. Contributions can be as simple as your time. Monetary contributions are also welcomed. Having agreed on a project, we prepare a proposal and present to our Steering Committee for approval. The Steering Committee consists of representatives of all Ministries and Agencies with vested interests in water. As long as the Committee has no issues, we implement.

Tell us a bit about some of the programme’s successes so far.

We have 55 adopters now across 20 watersheds locally.

The Programme was awarded the “Outstanding HSE Project” for 2015 by the American Chamber of Industry and Commerce (AMCHAM) Trinidad and Tobago. In 2015, the Guanapo Project also won The UWI St. Augustine Campus “Most Impacting Research Project “ Award and The Faculty of Science and Technology “Best Research Team – Encouraging Multidisciplinary Research” Award.

We have completed at least 6 Water Warriors Training with over 150 persons across the country, and now have at least 4 community groups collecting water quality data in their rivers.

In 2015, a multidisciplinary team was able to stop a pollution source from a landfill from impacting on a river which is contributes to 40% of the country’s water supply.

In 2016, the Programme assisted a community in establishing the first community-based recycling project in the country. I am happy to report that this project is still running.

As its manager, what have been the most rewarding aspects of the programme for you?

Standing in front of a room of persons I have just trained and seeing their passion ignited, wanting to work on improving rivers. Working with people who appreciate the message I am trying to get across. Seeing the joy on people’s face when they use the testing kit and enjoying science. I started doing this to help the people of Trinidad and Tobago and now, when I get dejected or down, they pick me back up and remind me why I should continue

What are your goals for the Adopt a River programme in the next five years?

I want to help more communities with respect to river improvement and water supply projects. I also want to expand the media campaign to continue to encourage Trinidadians to change their behaviour. I also want to make Adopt A River regionally and internationally known and recognized.

What do you think are some of the biggest challenges these days for the protection and sustainable management of the environment in Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean?

In Trinidad and Tobago, culture is the major issue. People consider rivers to be dumping grounds for garbage. The culture affects how people treat rivers but also how much money is allocated nationally by Government to address river issues. Rivers and water and not important until the streets are flooded or the taps run dry. Our water issues locally can be managed better but it has to start from the ground up because the knowledge is lacking.

In the Caribbean, the understanding that climate change is a major concern needs to be formalized by CARICO and regional governments and strategies be implemented to deal with these. Climate change has already changed the way we get water locally, and it will be the same for other islands, and as such there needs to be greater discussion, at a regional level, on how we are going to deal with the water supply issues with our current infrastructure. For example, in Trinidad, our rainfall patterns have changed drastically. We not have shorter, more intense rainfall events, sometimes not within the areas of water supply. In order to move forward, we need to come up with more mobile, flexible water supply management strategies. And the same will be true of other countries. If we share our collective knowledge and experiences, maybe can help each other solve them.

What message would you like to leave with Green Antilles readers about why and how everyday people should help to protect the environment in the Caribbean?

In a small community in Central Trinidad, a community leader complained of too much plastics in the river and asked if a recycling programme could be established. This one woman, a dynamic and powerful woman by the name of Roslyn George, pulled together the community children and started the first, community-based recycling programme in the country. It started with 6 barrels, some donated garbage bags, at least 10 children and a volunteer van. Two years later, the programme has its own Government-assigned bin and has regular collection by the relevant authorities. This lady did what the Government has been trying to do – roll out curb-side collection in communities. She did it out of love for her community and country. One person can make a difference. You just have to decide what you going to do to protect the environment and….just do it.

You can learn more about the Adopt A River Programme on the Programme’s website and Facebook page.  Much thanks to Sharda for this interview, and especially for your inspirational closing message. 

[Interview responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images via Sharda Mahabir and Dizzanne Billy.]

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