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Needed enhanced ecological literacy

That ecologically India has been facing tough times has been known for some time. Things have not been happy and what is perhaps more forbidding is that they are going to become more difficult in the future, generally worsening the plight of the people. Many of those who are suffering perhaps do not even know what is really hitting them. Global warming may have been the reason for most of the misery, yet one cannot entirely rule out thoughtless human interventions with nature.

The following story covering three regions of the country culled out of one single issue of the prestigious environmental periodical “Down to Earth” will try to unravel the problems that their respective inhabitants are trying to face up to and are perhaps, in the process, fighting a losing battle.

Those who have had occasion to see the Konkan coast of Maharashtra would know how picturesque it is. The entire coast is peppered with some exotic beaches like those of Ganapatipule, Malwan, Vengurla and so on. That beautiful coast is being nibbled away by the rising Arabian Sea.

Scientists from Pune who have been studying the coast have found that the sea level on the West Coast of India has risen by five to six centimetres over the last decade making the tides creep up more and more inland and the levels of several creeks have risen alarmingly. They ascribe it to global warming and thoughtless constructions on the coast. The people of the region feel that ever since the Coastal Management Regulatory Board was created about ten years ago more ports and jetties have been built, bridges constructed across creeks and the ambitious West coast highway has been launched.

As a consequence salt water has become intrusive and charges with impunity to more than one kilometre inland. In the process, it erodes beaches, damages mangroves and fills up creeks with sand and other detritus. The sea has gobbled up tens of hectares of precious land with coconut groves, casuarina plantations and lands that were used by coastal villagers for drying fish and beaching their boats. While the coastal flatlands have been affected the most, the residents of villages on the rocky coastline have reported slow but progressive submergence of distant rocky outcrops. Needless to say, the phenomenon is causing misery and anxiety to the villagers who see the prospects of losing their hearths and homes and even their livelihood in not too distant future.

Barring the coastal region, the state of Andhra Pradesh on the Deccan Plateau is generally a dry region. Agriculture, therefore, has largely to depend on irrigation by tapping river waters or extraction of groundwater. Farmers have largely to depend on groundwater as it is economical and is easily accessible. Surface water resources are limited and unevenly distributed.  It is the groundwater which has been failing the state for the last decade and more. The monsoons have been erratic with rains mostly infrequent. The reduced and irregular rains could well be because of global-warming induced climate change.

Deficit rainfalls have failed to recharge the underground aquifers. More than half of the 6.7 million hectares of cultivated lands are irrigated by groundwater.  No wonder more and more bore wells are being sunk only to get less and less water. It has been estimated that now even 260,000 bore wells in Andhra Pradesh cannot match the amount of water that used to be extracted earlier from 100,000 bore wells. With plummeting water levels – in 2010 the average fall of the groundwater level in the state has been of the order of 12 metres below ground level in the past year – not only the existing wells are being drilled deeper, new wells are being bored at the rate of 50000 every year.

Farmers have been known to have invested heavily on drilling multiple bore wells many of which failed to yield water. Most of the investments have been made on loan. The problem has been becoming increasingly more acute as many farmers have switched over to water-guzzling crops like paddy, tomatoes etc. When the rains fail they, in desperation, sink multiple bore wells in the hope of striking water. A farmer in Mahaboobnagar district was reported to have sunk 39 bore wells in a period of six years of which only two are functional to service his one out of five hectares of land to grow, of all the things, heavy-on-water paddy. No wonder, indebtedness has increased many folds and as many as 4500 farmers are reported to have committed suicide in the state from 1997 to 2006. Although an excellent piece of legislation was enacted to regulate groundwater use, bureaucratic lethargy, corruption and the farmers’ proclivity to take the easy way out of hiring a geologist and sinking a well have brought the crisis to a head. Once again, coupled with depleting precipitation, recklessness of ignorant farmers and inertia of the government to guide them towards a reasonable cropping pattern are enhancing human miseries.

Away in the north-east of the country, reputed to be a bio-diversity hotspot, the Government of India has pitched in for exploiting the region’s numerous rivers for their latent potential for producing as much as 25000 MW of clean, emission-free hydro-power and as many as 39 MOUs have been signed. However, its plans to build a series of more than 160 mini and mega dams have somehow come unstuck.

One of the mega dam projects on the rivers originating in Arunachal Pradesh is the one on the River Subansiri, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, which is coming up near Dhemaji in Assam. Slated to produce 2000 MW of hydro-power, the project has run into trouble. An eight-member committee set up by the Assam Government of experts from IIT-Guwahati, Guwahati University and Dibrugarh University has recommended a thorough review and redesign of the 115-metre high dam.

The panel has recommended lowering of the dam height and reduction of its capacity to generate power as otherwise it would have environmental and economic impacts downstream. According to the experts, the height of the dam could adversely impact downstream areas leading to siltation and destruction of bio-diversity. More alarming is the finding that the spillway for releasing flood waters is inadequate. Environmental groups and the All Assam Students Union have demanded the immediate stoppage of work. They believe that even if the dam were to be redesigned it would create socio-economic problems.

Claiming that the concept of downstream effect was a recent one, the Minister for Environment & Forests is non-committal about any review as 40 % of the work of the project has already been completed. Until a decision is taken, the fate of the inhabitants of the area, its flora and fauna hang in balance. The earnest quest for clean energy may eventually be the undoing of the many affected people.

These are only a few illustrative instances – there are many more that escape attention or do not find prominence in the media – where people are finding themselves in misery under the overarching influence of global warming. What, apparently, is required is enhancing all round ecological literacy – call it human ecology, if you will – among ordinary people as also those in the public and private organisations who plan measures that interfere with nature, seemingly, aiming at general wellbeing.

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