Meet the member: Vaishnavi Balachandran MCIWEM C.WEM CEng

Meet Stantec water engineer and CIWEM member Vaishnavi Balachandran MCIWEM C.WEM CEng, who spends her down time volunteering as an Earth Buddy, on a mission to save our soils.

Buckinghamshire-based Vaishnavi Balachandran is a water engineer by day and a volunteer by night, working to raise awareness and explore new ways to connect people and nature.

In her day job, she develops engineering solutions across water supply to improve water quality, adapt to climate change and develop long-term water resilience. Off-duty, her chosen causes include Engineers Without Borders, WaterAid and promoting STEM education. But she’s especially passionate about protecting our land, volunteering as an Earth Buddy with Save Soil.

What got you interested in soil?

Nature has always fascinated me. After studying engineering, I moved into developing engineering solutions to manage our water resources. What most interests me is learning about the myriad interconnections between water, humans, nature, and life.

One of those connections is the often unvalued and unseen life-supporting water hidden beneath our feet in soil. Globally, soil can hold eight times as much as water as all the world’s rivers. But we rarely consider managing soils to address water scarcity.

Soil degradation is the physical, chemical and biological decline of soil quality. Degrading soil and desertification threaten food quality and supply, water security and biodiversity. Those things can lead to loss of livelihood, conflict and migration.

Degraded soil contains fewer nutrients for growing food leading to poorer health. It is less able to regulate water flows, which leads to water scarcity, droughts, and floods. Healthy soil can store three times more carbon than living plants, which can significantly mitigate climate change. Thriving, living soil is vital to life. A spoonful of healthy soil contains billions of living organisms.

A year ago I knew very little about soil, or about the alarming threat of soil degradation that we face. Half the world’s agricultural land is degraded, thanks to deforestation, urbanisation, industrial pollution, overgrazing and unsustainable agricultural practices.

If we let our soils continue to degrade at current rates, we may have no soil left within our lifetimes. So when I heard about the Save Soil movement I had to get involved.

What is the Save Soil movement?

It’s a global movement to initiate a conscious approach to soil and the planet. It is addressing the soil crisis by bringing people together around the world to stand up for soil health. Save Soil’s three main aims are:

  • To raise global awareness about degrading soil
  • To inspire four billion people – 60 per cent of the world’s electorate – to support policy change to safeguard, nurture and sustain soils
  • To change national policies in 193 countries to raise the organic content of soils and maintain it at a minimum 3-6 per cent.

We can increase the organic content of soil to at least 3-6 per cent in many ways, bringing land under shade from vegetation and enriching the soil using plant litter and animal waste. Unless we act to support microbial life, we risk soil extinction.

The Save Soil movement was initiated by Indian mystic and visionary Jaggi Vasudev, known as Sadhguru, following decades of engaging citizens in ecological work in India and mobilising volunteers around the world.

The movement was launched by Conscious Planet in March, when Sadhguru set off on a 100-day lone motorcycle journey from the UK to India. He rode 30,000km through 27 countries in Europe, central Asia and the Middle East, to raise awareness, bringing his message to four billion people.

The campaign has won support from global organisations, including the United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organisation and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. It’s inspired scientists, world leaders, governments, influencers, businesses, farmers, media and the public to pledge to support and rekindle our relationship with soil.How does the Save Soil movement work?

The Conscious Planet initiative aims to align human activity to support nature and all life on our planet. It is working to create a planet in which we act consciously, elect governments consciously and to put ecological matters on the electoral agenda.

Save Soil movement has staged public events in cities across the world to promote its campaign. Volunteers support the movement by talking about why soil matters, however and wherever they can. That includes school events, exhibitions, conferences, corporate and community events, creating artwork, writing to MPs to highlight the state of our soils and press for action.

What is Save Soil focusing on now?

Now that Sadhguru has completed the 100-day journey, Save Soil continues to press governments globally to implement soil policies. Citizen participation is central to this, pushing ecological issues to become election issues, so that governments create policies and set budgets for ecological solutions to support and improve soil.

There are many ways we can work towards that minimum 3-6 per cent organic content in soils. The movement has published a soil-revitalisation global policy draft and a solutions handbook. These set out policy solutions to support different soil types, latitudes, agroecological zones and cultural and agricultural traditions.

So far, more than 70 countries have voiced support and ten have signed memorandums of understanding with Save Soil that commit to delivering policies to protect soils. Numerous organisations and millions of individuals also support it.

We need to continue to engage and act, so that soil policies are implemented. We need healthy soil, to pass on as our legacy to future generations.

What does your work as an Earth Buddy involve?

I have learnt that saving soil, the largest ecosystem, is one of the best nature-based solutions we have with so many benefits and one of our greatest opportunities.

Volunteers with the Save Soil movement come from all walks of life. We use our own skills, knowledge and network to raise awareness. Earth Buddies dedicate their minds, hearts and actions to raising awareness of the condition of our soils and how urgently we must regenerate them.

As an Earth Buddy, I have learned about soil crisis so that I can talk with knowledge and authority about soil. I’ve organised lunchtime sessions at work, screening the Kiss the Ground documentary.

I’ve produced a podcast, talked to friends, family and total strangers and campaigned on social media. And I volunteered with the Conscious Planet research team to gather information about sustainable agricultural and soil practices from around the world to include in the Global Policy and Solutions handbook.

As with every ecological challenge we face, if we act now we have 15-20 years in which to significantly reverse the damage to our soils. If we leave it any longer, there will be severe consequences for all life forms. That is both a unique privilege and a responsibility for our time on Earth.

What can the rest of us do to protect soil?

People from all walks of life need to speak and act together to raise awareness about soil degradation globally. Soil is fundamental to our lives yet we have neglected it for a long time. That urgently needs to change. You can:

  • Educate yourself about the soil crisis
  • Spread the word across your own networks
  • Pledge support, as an individual or organisation, for soil regeneration.

The Save Soil movement aims to catalyse policy change. What matters most is to lend your voice to the cause. Talking to people about saving soil, encouraging global leaders to do so, is the most valuable thing we can do.

We know what we need to do to regenerate soils and reverse their degradation. We still have time if we act now. The Save Soil movement is on a mission to make that happen.

To learn more about all CIWEM membership grades, visit our dedicated membership page.

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