Showing posts with label Science. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Science. Show all posts

July 11, 2018

Community protection holds hope for climate change affected Similipal sanctuary

Impacted by climate change and human activity, hope for the Similipal biosphere reserve in the eastern state of Odisha has come from protection offered by area residents. 

 Standing in the backyard garden of his thatched house near the core area of the Similipal national park, Shyam Ho (50) of Kusumi village recalled his childhood when the forest around his village was thick and the primary source of food for his tribal community.

“We used to get everything, from tubers to leafy vegetables and a variety of fruits and berries, in the forest. Honey was abundant available in the hedges, the mud walls of our houses, and in the nearby forest. They all have become rare these days,” Shyam Ho said. “Today, we have to buy honey from collectors whenever we need it even for medicinal use. We don’t see so many varieties of honeybees around our villages these days.”

Although the forest is no longer bountiful, the impoverished people living around it have been spared from the spectre of acute hunger through a welfare scheme of the Odisha government that provides them rice, a local staple, at INR 1 (1.5 US cents) per kg, said Makara Ho (35) of Gudugudia, another village within the forest limits.

“With the pattern of rain becoming erratic and scarce most of the years, growing food through agriculture has become a risky affair,” Makara Ho told Droughts have become more frequent in recent years, agreed Laxman Ho, a friend of Makara.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the Simplipal biosphere reserve, a treasure of flora and fauna, and an important factor in regulating the local climate of Odisha, is facing the brunt of climate change.

Plant species affected

Famous in this part of the world as a habitat of big cats and elephants, among a variety of other mammals, birds and reptiles, Similipal is a thickly forested hill range in Odisha’s northern most district of Mayurbhanj. Its name is derived from the simul (silk cotton) tree and the hill range is referred to in Odia literature as Salmali Shaila (Hill of Simul) by eminent authors.

“At present, one can hardly find a simul tree in this forest,” said Arjun Mahakud, a forest guard at Chahala in the Similipal Tiger Reserve (STR). “Phanphania (Oroxylum Indicum or the Damocles tree), among one or two other species, which were common to this forest during our childhood, are almost extinct now.”

Sal (Shorea robusta) being the dominating tree, Similipal Biosphere Reserve (SBR) is a treasure house of 1,076 species of plants from 102 families and 96 registered species of orchids. “We have identified 94 orchid species but most of them have become rare,” Dharmeswar Naik, a worker at the Orchidarium in Karanjia division of STR, told “Vanda Tessellata (Grey Orchid) is becoming rare and the endemic Dendrobium Regium, called the Queen of Similipal, is shifting to north Similipal, where atmospheric temperature is relatively lower.”

A threatened species in the IUCN Red list, the decline of Vanda Tesselata has been attributed to changing environmental conditions, habitat loss and degradation.

Climate change has not only impacted orchids. “The other endemic plant species, Piasala, or the Indian Kino (Pterocarpus marsupium) is under attack from new diseases,” Arjun Mahakud added.

Deficient rainfall

Defining the climate in Similipal as wet tropical monsoon, Faunal Resources of Similipal Biosphere Reserve of Zoological Survey of India, Kolkata, notes, “The cyclones from the Bay of Bengal bring copious rains during July to October from low pressure at Bay of Bengal, which passes over north Balasore and strikes at Similipal Meghasan range. If the range were absent, then Odisha would have been a desert tract like Rajasthan,” the report says.

Similipal functions as a watershed, giving rise to many perennial rivers like Budhabalanga, Hadkei, Khairi, Bhandan, Salandi, etc. The rich water sources facing drought conditions more frequently is surely something odd to imagine, thus a matter of serious concern.

Rainfall data of the past five years (2013-17) for Mayurbhanj district shows a declining trend. Rainfall trend analysis for Mayurbhanj, done by scientists of Keonjhar-based regional research station of Orissa University of Agriculture and Technology, concludes: “Any year receiving rainfall less than or equal to 1,609.14 mm will be drought year.” The annual rainfall in the years 2015, 2016 and 2017 being 1,332.4, 1,424.6 and 1,504.1 mm respectively, the host district of Similipal forest has faced drought for three straight years.

“The precipitation behaviour in recent years reflects the rising trend of less precipitation and is expected to receive 70 cm (700 mm) average precipitation by the middle of next century,” cautions Faunal Resources of Similipal Biosphere Reserve of Zoological Survey of India, Kolkata.

Extreme weather conditions

An analysis of temperature data in the winter month of January and summer month of May over a period of 20 years (1995-2015) shows that Mayurbhanj district, the climate of which is completely influenced by Similipal, is slowly marching towards extreme temperature conditions.

While the average maximum temperature in the district in January has increased by 2.02 degree Celsius over the past two decades, the minimum temperature has fallen by 2.26 degree. The trend for May shows an increase of 1.42 degrees and a fall by 3.3 degrees in regard to average maximum and minimum temperatures.

“Though this is not yet an alarming change, it indicates more extreme temperature conditions in the future if no precaution measure is taken immediately,” Yugal Kishore Mohanta, a microbiology research scholar at Baripada-based North Odisha University, told “Such conditions may badly impact the rainfall pattern and alter the ecosystem.”

“Warmer temperatures lead to increased water losses from evaporation and evapotranspiration and can also result in reduced water use efficiency of plants,” Says the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report on climate change impact on forest health. “Longer, warmer growing seasons can intensify these effects resulting in severe moisture stress and drought.”

Deforestation trail

Being the major food source for its human population and hunting ground for the local rulers, Similipal forest has been facing anthropogenic pressure since centuries.

Timber harvest to earn revenue was a practice during the British colonial rule. In the northwest region of Similipal, Badampahar remained a deforestation hotspot for years due to mining activities. With agriculture promoted among tribal communities to minimise pressure on the forest, deforestation took place to convert forestland into farmland. The southern part of Similipal witnessed large-scale deforestation for agriculture.

“There was 23% (946.1 sq. km) of reduction in the forest cover between 1930 and 1975. Within a period of 82 years (1930–2012), the forest cover decline was 970.8 sq. km (23.6% of the total forest),” according to a study based on satellite remote sensing data.

Analysis using Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) found “significant negative changes” in the core areas of a few large protected areas of India including that of Similipal wildlife sanctuary.

“After relocation of villages in the core area of STR in the name of tiger protection and forest conservation, forest around those deserted villages are being wiped out to raise grassland,” Maheswar Nayak (61) of Balipaka, a village in the buffer zone of Similipal, told

“Such grasslands are being raised under meadow development scheme” implemented by the STR authorities, villagers said. The objective of the scheme is to maintain the existing meadows and improve those that have shrunk.

Carbon emission

Other than deforestation, forest fires have been the major culprit behind degradation of forest in SBR. As estimated by a study, the total area affected under forest fire in the SBR has been 23.7% in 2004, 11.5% in 2005, 24.8% in 2006, 23.5% in 2007 and 18% in 2008, 27.9% in 2009, 16.4% in 2010, 16.3% in 2011, 27% in 2012 and 14% in 2013.

The buffer and core zones of Similipal have been emitting more carbonaceous gases than the transition zone, the study found.

“Warmer climate means more fires, and more fires mean more greenhouse gases,” cautioned Odisha’s State Climate Change Action Plan, while suggesting necessary actions to evaluate the long-term effects of climate change on forests and determine what to do to respond to this threat.

Community management 

The Forest Right Act (FRA) of 2006 has recognised the rights of tribal and other communities traditionally living in Similipal sanctuary and empowered them with community forest rights to protect the forest and its critical resources — wildlife and biodiversity — within their respective dwelling areas. So far, community rights over forest resources of people living in 44 villages in Similipal have been recognised.

“We are entitled with community forest right (CFR) over 3,000 acre of forest in the buffer zone of Similipal sanctuary since 2015. During the last three years, sal and other local trees have regrown. We not only guard this forest from poaching activities but also allow it to rejuvenate to fulfil our food and livelihood demands,” Maheswar Naik, president of the Forest Right Committee of Balipaka village, told

According to villagers, they have collected a good amount of honey and fruits this year from the forest under their protection.

“These tribal people are worshippers of trees, forest and the nature. The heritage trees and sacred grooves, which are more than 300 years old, are testimony to this. They only were to be taken into confidence and entrusted with responsibilities to protect and conserve forest resources, and promote sustainable use of it in their communities,” said Bijaylal Mohanta of Jashipur-based non-profit Centre for Regional Education, Forest and Tourism Development Agency (CREFTDA), which helps tribal communities in filing community right claims, forming FRCs and functioning as per FRA guidelines.

The scenario is now changing. “As communities are protecting forest in the buffer area, human interference in the core area has drastically come down,” said Arjun Mahakud, the forest guard at Chahala in STR.

With community engagement in conservation activities, green cover is spreading over the barren edges of southern Similipal, raising hope about rejuvenation of the degraded forest to face and mitigate the challenges of climate change.

This article first appeared on the India Climate Dialogue, on July 9, 2018, under the title: Community protection holds hope for Simlipal Sanctuary.

January 10, 2018

Traditional tribal farming shows way to climate-smart agriculture

The practice of planting a wide variety of crops by Odisha’s Dongria Kondh tribe could hold the key to strengthen climate-smart agriculture in a state that has been buffeted by recurrent droughts and erratic rainfall.

Although crops failed in large parts of Odisha in 2017 due to pest attacks, prolonged periods of dryness and untimely rainfall, farmers among the Dongria Kondh tribe in the south-western parts of the state brought home a rich harvest, primarily due to their traditional practice of diverse cropping to safeguard against nature’s vagaries.

“We hear about the stories of farmers committing suicide in different parts of the state. But we have never faced such a situation when all our crops are lost and there is no hope for our survival,” Raina Saraka, 55, a Dongria Kondh farmer of Leling Padar village in Rayagada district, told

Last year, the famed rice fields of Odisha were hit by drought, pest attacks and untimely rain at the time of harvest. As per government estimates, crop loss was reported in half a million hectares while drought resulted in crop loss of 33% and above in 70 administrative blocks of 15 districts. Over 10 farmers in the state have committed suicide because of the current agrarian crisis.

In the past decade, the state has suffered one natural calamity after the other almost every year. Thousands of disaster-affected farmers have committed suicide. Experts say that the increasing frequency of natural calamities is a result of global warming and climate change.

“Delayed monsoon has become regular phenomenon, resulting in dry spells and drought-like situations during early kharif (summer cropping) season. Again, untimely rain during October-November disturbs the humid and temperature conditions, making it conducive for spreading of diseases and pests like the brown plant hopper that attacked paddy crop in parts of Odisha this year,” Mayabini Jena, Head of Agricultural Entomology at National Rice Research Institute in Cuttack, told

Reality of climate change

Suggesting that climate change is a reality and the impacts of it are going to be worse in future, Bidyadhar Maharana, an expert in agriculture as well as a consultant to the Odisha government, warned: “Severe warming, floods, and drought may reduce crop yields. The ranges and distribution of weeds and pests are likely to increase and cause new problems for the crops previously unexposed to these species.”

The current state of agrarian crisis in Odisha is, however, one side of the story. Indigenous farmers who still rely on their traditional farming practices seem to be free from such distress that motivates many of the plain land farmers to sacrifice their lives.

The Dongria Kondhs, an agrarian tribal community inhabiting the forest villages of Koraput, Rayagada, Kandhamal and Kalahandi districts, raise their farms on lower hill slopes where they grow variety of crops ranging from rice, millets, sorghum, leaves, pulses, legumes, vegetables and tubers throughout the season and harvest them crop by crop from October till the end of February every year.

Crop diversity

Growing over 50 varieties of crops is almost a standard with any single farm of a Kondh farmer. In her nearly five acre area farm, Sunamain Mambalaka, 50, a tribal woman farmer from Tada village of Rayagada, grows over 80 varieties of crops including one upland paddy, finger millet, foxtail millet, pearl millet, barnyard millet, little millet, sorghum, maize, edible leaves, black gram, hoarse gram, pigeon peas, cowpeas, varieties of beans and several types of vegetables. In tubers, she has grown arum, yam, sweet potato and tapioca.

“Our dongor (as the tribals name their farms) is influenced by the culture of the forest around us. As the forest is a diversity of plants, our dongor is diversity of crops. It gives us everything, including the seeds for the next year, which we would be using throughout the year. In case any single crop fail, we have many more to survive on,” Sunamain told “But, so far, I haven’t seen any single year when any single crop grown in the dongor has failed completely.”

In order to grow so many crops in one dongor, the sowing period extends up to five months from April till the end of August, basing upon climatic suitability.

“We broadcast the millet seeds on hill slopes during summer months. Sowing of upland paddy seeds is usually done with arrival of monsoon. Simultaneously, we grow vegetables and other crops as well. While we get spinaches and vegetables from the dongor almost daily, paddy and millets are harvested over a period of five months (from October till February next year),” Kalia Mambalaka, 40, of Tada village told “All the seeds we use are traditional seeds conserved by farmers of the community. The seeds are shared with farmers from the community.”

Resilient to natural calamities

Almost unaware of the scientific debate and discussion over climate change and its impact, the traditional agrarian practice of these tribal communities has evolved in sync with nature having climate resilience integrated with it naturally.

Genomic profiling of millets like finger millet, pearl millet and sorghum suggest that they are climate-smart grain crops ideal for environments prone to drought and extreme heat. Even the traditional upland paddy varieties they use are less water consuming, so are resilient to drought-like conditions, and are harvested between 60 and 90 days of sowing. As a result, the possibility of complete failure of a staple food crop like millets and upland paddy grown in a dongor is very low even in drought-like conditions.

The dongors can also survive extreme and untimely rain because of the traditional cropping pattern the indigenous farmers follow. “Rain water cannot flow in full speed to wash away the plants and damage the crop,” Gani Kumbaruka, 40, of Kandhaguda village in Rayagada district told “The speed of the rain water flowing down the hill slope is broken by the thick shrubby black gram and groundnut plants to protect the millet and other crops.”

The tribal farmers don’t need to do anything for pest control but to raise the dongor as a food opportunity for 10 families (dus parivar) including that of the grower, pests, insects, ants, flies, spiders and birds.

“As we grow crops, pests and insects come,” Landi Sikoka of Khalpadar village told “The ants, flies and spiders eat them. Birds, searching for food, also come to the dongors to eat the flies and insects.”

“This natural system works because they don’t use any kind of chemical fertiliser or pesticide. Rather, they allow pests and insects and their predators to visit the dongor freely,” said Debajeet Sarangi of Living Farms, a non-profit working in the KBK region (undivided Koraput-Balangir-Kalahandi districts) on traditional and sustainable agriculture by indigenous communities.

A lesson for others

For these indigenous farmers, agriculture is not just about the yield or producing more, but growing food without harming nature, the soil and the ecosystem, while creating food opportunities for many other co-existing species.

When the world advocates for sustainable and organic farming to achieve global food and nutritional security in the wake of climate change, the traditional agrarian practice by these indigenous farmers make it a case of success to be studied and followed.

A lesson from these tribal farmers would also strengthen climate change adaptability among distressed farmers and help the state and policy makers overcome the agrarian crisis Odisha is facing today.

The report first appeared on January 8, 2018, at the India Climate Dialogue.

December 15, 2017

Forest food ensures nutritional security of Odisha’s tribes

Access to naturally grown forest produce would go a long way in protecting tribal communities in Odisha from the worst impacts of climate change and supply them with all that they need for sustenance

Sunamai Mambalaka, a Kondh tribal woman in her 50s, is not bothered about the vulnerability of cultivated crops to climate change. She believes that she and her community will never experience hunger as long as the forest, their perennial source of food, exists. “I was born in the forest, I grew with the forest. Forest is our life and soul,” she said.

To the Kondh community living in Tada village of Rayagada district in Odisha, the forest adjacent to their village has remained the source of food, nutrition and livelihood since generations. Recent studies confirm that forests not only meet the nutritional needs of the communities, but also would play an important role in helping them face vagaries of nature and achieve some of the sustainable development goals.

Perennial food source

“We are never short of food because the forest has plenty to offer us,” 40-year-old Kalia Mambalaka told According to Padmavati Paleka of Leling Padar village, they get a variety of mushrooms, tender bamboo shoots, fruits like custard apple and several kinds of leaves and edible insects during the rainy season.

“Honey and many tubers are harvested throughout the year,” Paleka told While some tubers are harvested during winter, the food items specific to summer include leaves and fruits of mango, kendu, jackfruit, amla, bel and tamarind among others. Except rice, the staple food of Odisha, as 35-year-old Biswanath Sarakka puts it, “Three fourth of the rest of our food comes from the forests.”

The average daily intake of uncultivated forest food ranges between 12% and 24.4% of the total cooked foods, according to a study by Living farms that promotes agro-ecology as the foundation of food security and sovereignty. The study was carried out in Rayagada and Balangir districts, with predominant forest-dependent tribal population.

Key source of nutrition

Conducted in collaboration with Basudha Biotechnology Laboratory for Conservation, the team of scientists led by ecologist and champion of traditional rice Debal Deb studied the link between the biodiversity and ecology of the forest to availability of food items. “This is the first time that we have studied the nutritional properties of available wild foods,” Deb told “It’s not just about food security, but about nutrition as well.”

For example, edible leaves such as gandheri sag and ambgili sag available in the forest have very high content of pro-vitamin A (Beta Carotene), anti-oxidants and soluble protein. The research found that the leaves are rich in digestible iron, zinc and manganese as well.

Some of the tubers and mushrooms also have high iron, zinc, vitamins and anti-oxidant content that are vital for nutritional security. “We found that the households consuming about 20% of their cooked food from the forest have no signs of malnutrition,” Deb said, urging for further studies with quantification of data.

Critical for future food security

Being such storehouses of food with rich nutritional value makes forests critical for future food safety. According to Deb, the forest species are more resilient to climate change than any of the cultivated crops, thus assuring the villagers of nutritional security.

While mentioning that forests are fundamental for food security and improved livelihoods, State of the World’s Forests (SOFO) 2016 released by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) notes, “The forests of the future will increase the resilience of communities by providing food, wood energy, shelter, fodder and fiber; generating income and employment to allow communities and societies to prosper; and harboring biodiversity.”

SOFO 2016 also highlights that, given their multi-functionality, forests can play significant roles in achieving about six of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets set by the UN. Such contributions are usually poorly reflected in national development and food security strategies. Coupled with poor coordination between stakeholder sectors, forests are mostly left out of policy decisions related to food security and nutrition, FAO observes.


Forest foods are in high demand in haats or tribal community markets and nearby rural markets. Forest produce such as honey, amla and several fruits are in great demand in urban malls. Though this may appear as an opportunity for economic empowerment of the tribal communities, this may lead to degradation of the forests, hampering availability. “When there’s greater density, diversity of tree species and basal area (total base area of trees in the forests), the availability of food, not only plants but also animals, is much higher,” Deb told

Though total forest cover in Odisha has increased from 48,903 sq. km in 2011 to 50,354 sq. km in 2015 as per the State of Forest Report, Odisha, very dense forest (VDF) and moderately dense forest (MDF) in the traditional forest boundaries have come down from 7,060 sq. km to 6,763 sq. km and 21,366 sq. km to 19,791 sq. km, respectively.

The other threat is from commercial monoculture plantation on forestland under afforestation and social forestry programs. According to FAO, monoculture plantation totally affects the organic productivity and reduces the natural stability of the soil. “The forest department wanted to plant eucalyptus in our forest land. We didn’t allow,” 52-year-old Landi Sikoka of Khalpadar village told “We plant trees of our choice in the forest periodically.”

Way ahead

“For the tribal communities, forest is not just a source of food, but it’s also a part of their identity,” Debjeet Sarangi of the Living Farms told “Tribes such as the Kondhs’ way of life is respectful of others including nature and recognizes diversity in its different manifestations.” The tribal community’s relationship with the forest is one of belonging rather than ownership.

Community forest management is good for the health of the forests. When local users have long-term rights to harvest from the forests, they are more likely to monitor and sanction those who break the rules, resulting in better forest conditions, according to Nobel laureate economist, the late Elinor Ostrom, who advocated for common rights over land and forest.

The study conducted by Living Farms corroborates the theory. According to the study, ecosystem of the forest is likely to be much improved in terms of number of tree species, density and food availability, when managed by the communities. “Forest gives us food, fodder, firewood and everything we require,” Sunamai Mambalaka told “It’s our god, our mother.”

The report appeared first on December 11, 2017, at the VillageSquare.

June 02, 2017

Air pollution in India, a threat to human lives bigger than terrorism

Air pollution in India kills more people than terrorism every year. Yet there is no international war against pollution as there is against terrorism
Terrorism has drawn global attention and most countries have joined the effort to contrast it. But the international community is yet to wage a war against air pollution despite the enormity of the hazard it poses for global health. In India, for example, terrorism has taken 65,900 human lives between 1994 and 2017, which is almost half of deaths caused by air pollution in a single year.
92 per cent of the world’s population lives in areas where fine particle levels exceed the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) air quality guidelines, according to the report State of Global Air 2017. Worldwide an estimated 6.5 million deaths (11.6 per cent of the total) were associated with indoor and outdoor air pollution in 2012, according to the WHO. 

Air pollution in India

China and India together accounted for 52 per cent of global deaths attributable to hazardous particulate matter (PM) in the air. Whilst the number of deaths in India has risen 24 per cent over the past decade, the situation has improved in China with a 3 per cent drop since 2005, a Greenpeace analysis estimates.

India has witnessed economic growth, the rapid expansion of cities, industrialisation and fast-paced development of infrastructure since liberalisation during the 1990s. With this the scale of air pollution has increased too making it a major health hazard and killer of people surpassing the number of casualties caused by terrorism.

An estimated 1.2 million people died from the effects of air pollution in 2015 in the country due to ambient particulate matter pollution, according to Global Burden of Diseases. Reports find that the country has recorded a nearly 50 per cent increase in early deaths linked to fine airborne particles between 1990 and 2015. Pollution levels in the country have been rising at an alarming rate. Coal consumption almost doubled and oil consumption increased by 60 per cent from 2005 to 2015. 

A national problem

“A poisonous mixture of smoke, fog, air and other chemicals form ‘smog’ and cause the havoc that we saw in Delhi post-Diwali festival last year,” says Doctor Viyatprajna Acharya, biochemistry professor at Bhubaneswar-based SUM Hospital, commenting on the consequences of the use of firecrackers during the festivities. Yet the problem of deadly air pollution isn’t restricted to the capital region or the country’s metropolitan cities. It has become national in entity, costing the economy an estimated 3 per cent of GDP says a recent report on air quality in Indian cities.

In addition, “young adults exposed to passive smoking for a minimum of two years showed signs of oxidative stress and subtle changes in their lipid profile, placing themselves at higher risk of cardiovascular disorders or even cancer due to mutagenesis at their genetic level,” says Doctor Acharya based on the findings of her research on the effects of passive smoking.

India’s response to the threat of air pollution

In order to address the issue of air pollution India constituted a Steering Committee in 2014 whose members include health sector workers and those in non-health sectors such as renewable energy, petroleum and natural gas, rural development, as well as development partners such as the WHO.

Though more than 200 cities and towns are included in the government-run air quality monitoring network, “measurements in most are only taken twice a week and aren’t available in realtime,” Greenpeace points out. “Lack of realtime monitoring means inhabitants can’t check current pollution levels to protect themselves, and the government is unable to issue public warnings”.

Given its gravity and the number of annual casualties tackling air pollution must be a priority for the government and the approach to deal with it needs to be focused as well as holistic.

The article was first published on May 31, 2017, at the LifeGate.

April 09, 2017

Conserving rainwater in subsurface soil to fight water scarcity

Indigenous communities in India's Rayagada district mitigate the challenges of water scarcity by storing rainwater in subsurface soil. A cheap and concrete solution to a global problem.  

With a population of over 1.2 billion people, India’s per capita water availability has decreased substantially over the years. From 5,200 cubic metres (m3) in 1951 to 1,588 m3 in 2010 according to the Water Resources Information System (WRIS). This may shrink further to 1,401 m3 and 1,191 mby 2025 and 2050 respectively. To note is that the average volume isn’t available everywhere because of temporal and spatial variations in rainfall.
With deficient rain years becoming frequent and water demand rising non-renewable aquifers are being overexploited and states are engaged in disputes over river water sharing. Crop loss due to water scarcity has become a regular occurrence. The general decline in the conditions of agriculture is one of the reasons behind the over 300,000 farmers suicides that have taken place between 1995 and 2015 as National Crime Record Bureau data shows.
Nearly 30 per cent of India’s extension is threatened of desertification reveals the Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas of India. To face these challenges the Indian government has planned a 165 billion dollar river linking project to connect about 37 rivers with 15,000 kilometres of artificial waterways to relocate 174 cubic kilometres (km3) of water, reports The Economist. 

Rainwater in subsurface soil

“The success and impact of this project on basin ecosystems are still in doubt. India can instead go for simpler solutions like conservation of rainwater before it runs off to rivers and the sea,” says Banamali Naik, an agriculture engineer and irrigation expert who works on conservation of rainwater in subsurface soil. India, in fact, receives annual precipitations of the volume of 4,000 kmof which only 1,123 kmis utilisable. 1,869 kmof water flows through rivers whilst most of the rest for evaporates according to WRIS data.
Instead, “for most of the rainwater to be stored in the soil subsurface you don’t need sophisticated technology nor do you need to tamper with the geography. Its the runoff time that needs to be extended,” explains Bimal Chandra Sahu, an agriculture engineer in Naik’s team, “the speed of water in the soil is about two inches per hour but over a mile on the surface”. “To increase the runoff time, straight down flow of rainwater has to be checked and managed to move in a lengthier serpentine path within the landscape”. 

An idea that works

“We created small earthen bunding [a containment wall] down the hill to check the rainwater and defined its flow path so that it takes hours of time to run off the landscape after filling all our fields,” says Phulka Khanjak of Sikapai village in Odisha state’s Rayagada district. Now as the water flows for longer, over 60 per cent of rainwater gets absorbed into the soil, claims Sahu.
The villagers explain the impact this has had on their agricultural activities: “It’s been a year since we did this. Our fields used to remain fallow between rainy seasons but are now producing vegetables during winter and summer,” says Para Khanjaka of Sikapai. “We never thought of growing anything in this arid region after the rainy season. But it’s early summer and I’m now growing tomato and vegetables,” says Majibani Praska of Chichimi village, “some even cultivate rice now”. Another woman farmer, Almati Praska, says “production has also increased by 50-100 per cent”.
This is because rainwater stored in deep soil evaporates during dry seasons and adds moisture to the soil subsurface to support plant life. It keeps the groundwater streams alive too, Naik explains. “The idea has been implemented in the Keonjhar and Rayagada districts of Odisha and parts of Madhya Pradesh. It’s a cheap solution costing 150 dollars per hectare only,” he says 

Raising hope

 On the entire planet less than one percent of freshwater is available for human consumption, the Water Scarcity Factsheet shows. Meanwhile, climate change has taken on global dimensions and affects water quality in various ways says UN-Water. “By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages. And ecosystems around the world will suffer even more,” cautions the World Wildlife Fund. At such a crucial moment, the intuition of conserving rainwater in subsurface soil bears enormous hope for humanity and the world to escape the dangers of water scarcity.

This report first appeared on April 7, 2017, at LifeGate.

January 27, 2017

Living close to major roads may increase risk of dementia

People living near major roads and busy traffic are more at risk of developing dementia, according to a report analysing over 6 million people
Emerging evidence suggests that living near major roads and busy traffic might adversely affect cognition and increases the risk of developing dementia, according to the findings of a study published in UK medical journal The Lancet.

The research aimed to investigate the association between residential proximity to major roadways and the incidence of three neurological diseases: dementia, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis. 

A higher incidence of dementia

Living close to heavy traffic was associated with a higher incidence of dementia, but not with Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis,” the report says.

Dementia is a syndrome causing deterioration in cognitive functions. It affects memory, thinking, orientation, comprehension, calculation, learning capacity, language and judgement. It, however, doesn’t affect consciousness, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

Closeness means risk

The research’s findings are based on analysis of records of nearly 6.6 million residents of the Canadian province of Ontario between 20 and 85 years of age. Samples were divided into two population-based cohorts including all adults aged 20 to 50 years and those aged 55 to 85 years.

People who lived within 50 metres of roads with busy traffic had a 7 percent higher risk of developing dementia compared to those who lived between 200 and 300 metres from such roadways, found the study conducted by research organisation Public Health Ontario (PHO).

With 243,611 cases of dementia identified between 2001 and 2012 the mapping of residents’ proximity to major roads was done using postal codes. Compared to people who lived within 50 metres of busy roads, the risk of developing dementia was reduced by nearly 3 percent for those at a distance of between 50 and 100 metres, and nearly 5 percent for people within 101 to 200 metres. 

A public health concern

“These people have dual exposure to noise and air pollution,” said Doctor Viyatprajna Acharya, professor of Biochemistry at the Bhubaneswar-based SUM Hospital in India. “Noise causes neural irritability, which may lead to neurological disorders. A mixture of pollutants in the air leads to chronic respiratory tract infection as well as oxidant generation in the body. This, in the long run, may affect different organ systems, the brain and nervous system, causing dementia. The study by PHO researchers has reconfirmed this”.

Population growth and rapid urbanisation place more and more urban dwellers close to roads with heavy traffic. Exposure of these people to noise and bad quality air could pose a large public health burden,” she added.

Worldwide, the number of people with dementia remained 47.5 million in 2015, according to WHO estimates. Projections expect the number to increase to 75.6 million by 2030 and more than triple this by 2050. 

An urgent call

“Developing nations like India, which plans to convert 60 urban places into smart cities, should include traffic management as a major component in urban planning. The country needs to bring strong regulations to control vehicular movements and pollution in its cities,” Acharya emphasised.

The study’s authors, in fact, issued a warning call to world governments for more and stronger action to check air pollution to reduce health risks. Given that population influx to urban areas keeps increasing, scientists also hope that the results will motivate town and city planners to take traffic conditions and air pollution into account when planning for development.

The report first appeared on January 23, 2017, at the LifeGate.

January 20, 2017

Ocean warming will kill fish, make them smaller and potentially toxic

No matter how near or far you live from the coast, you'll be affected by it: ocean warming may become one of the biggest threats to ecosystems and food security. 
Ocean warming, driven by increasing carbon emissions and rising temperatures, may become one of the biggest challenges facing humanity and threatening the Earth’s life systems, affecting even those living far from oceanic coasts. Already impacting people, fish stocks and crop yields, it may lead to more extreme weather events and increased risk from water-borne diseases including cholera. Fuelling global warming, it would put the livelihood of agrarian and fishing communities in the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions at stake, cautions the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in a report. 

Affecting crop yields

“There is likely to be an increase in mean global ocean temperature of 1-4 degrees Celsius by 2100,” reads the IUCN report. “The greatest ocean warming overall is occurring in the Southern Hemisphere and is contributing to the subsurface melting of Antarctic ice shelves”.

In addition, subsurface heat in the Pacific and Indian Oceans at a depth of 100 to 500 metres has profound implications for the Earth’s future warming. In a strong El Niño year this subsurface heat is suddenly transferred to the surface layer and released into the atmosphere. If frequent and continued for a number of years, it further contributes to global warming.

With oceans warming over the course of this century, El Niño events are expected to double in frequency and become more intense according to projections, therefore affecting Pacific and Indian Ocean monsoon systems. This will badly impact crop yields and, “may affect most Asian countries including India where agriculture is primarily monsoon rain-fed,” says Doctor Rahas Bihari Panda of the Department of Environment Science at India’s North Odisha University.

Such a situation in the food-producing Asian continent may lead to severe food insecurity and hunger across the globe. 

Reducing fish mass 

Already influencing ecosystems from polar to tropical regions, ocean warming is driving entire groups of marine species such as plankton, jellyfish, turtles and seabirds up to 10 degrees of latitude north and south of the Equator to move towards the poles. It has also led to the expansion of low oxygen areas because warmer water holds less dissolved oxygen.

Under the combined influence of rising sea temperatures and less dissolved oxygen, maximum fish size across all seas is predicted to decline by 10 per cent, says Karin Limburg, Professor at State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Such a reduction in fish mass may strongly impact fisheries, exacerbating the already stressed situation in those parts of the world that depend on them for protein, Limburg adds. 

Declining fish production

The oceanic phenomenon has already reduced the abundance of fish species in East Africa and the Western Indian Ocean by killing parts of the coral reefs they depend on. On top of the fact that tuna catch rates in the Indian Ocean have declined by 50-90 per cent over the past five decades, reduced phytoplankton may become an additional stress factor leading to a decline in the region’s fisheries, say scientists at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology on the basis of a study of the area.

Harvests from marine fisheries in Southeast Asia are expected to fall by a rate between 10 and 30 per cent by 2050, compared to the period between 1970 and 2000, according to the IUCN report. This would affect the livelihood of developing countries’ fishing communities, also making it difficult to meet the global demand deriving especially from areas such as Japan, the USA and Europe. 

Making fish inedible

Warmer water also leads to harmful algae blooms that cause neurological diseases such as ciguatera in humansAs fish consume toxic marine algae in the sea they produce toxins in their tissues and become carriers of the poison. So, of the fish caught for human consumption, part of it may not be safe.

In a recent outbreak, over 100 people in India fell sick from a ciguatera infection. With an annual 50,000 cases around the world, nearly 400 million living in the Caribbean basin, Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean regions are potentially at risk, according to The Louis Malardé Institute. 

Need for urgent action

Ocean warming therefore poses one of the biggest threats to food security and the nutritional ambitions set in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of global goals defining the international agenda moving towards 2030: in particular Goal 2 aims to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.

Hence, it has become essential that urgent attention is turned towards ocean warming in order to save ecosystems, marine resources and fisheries. Only strong measures, including cutting greenhouse gas emissions rapidly and substantially, can contribute to checking the trend threatening all life on Earth.

The report was published on January 17, 2017, at the LifeGate.