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Climate crisis is a health catastrophe, Covid-19 is just the beginning

For many years, scientists have warned governments and citizens of the consequences of rising greenhouse gas emissions and the link between the climate crisis and global health—but for the vast part their cries fell upon deaf ears.

Dr Marcus Ranney

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The events of the past six months, driven by the emergence of Covid-19, have changed all of our lives for a very long time to come. With about 25 million confirmed cases and more than 800,000 deaths globally, the response to this disease has been on a scale never seen before. Over half of the world’s population have (or currently) lived through lockdown; empty airports, stadiums, schools, religious places, city centres and offices have become the norm. Millions have lost their jobs and the economic consequences of this event will likely play out for many more years.

But how necessary was this pain and suffering? Was any of it predictable? And could it have been avoidable? The answer I am sorry to say is yes. For many years, scientists around the world have warned governments and citizens of the consequences of rising greenhouse gas emissions and the link between the climate crisis and global health — but for the vast part their cries fell upon deaf ears.

Man-made greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by our economic and population growth. This has led to the highest atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide in at least the last 800,000 years. Several reports published by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) have, year after year, demonstrated successive record breaking events across a range of geological parameters.

In the last century, the world has warmed by approximately 0.75 degrees Celsius, with each of the last three decades being successively warmer than any preceding decade since 1850. Since the beginning of the industrial era, oceanic uptake of carbon dioxide has resulted in a 26% increase in acidity. Ocean warming has resulted in a greater number and severity of tropical storms and rain patterns. The annual mean sea-ice extent has been reducing at a rate of around 4% per decade in the Arctic, decreasing the ice sheet depth in every season since 1979. Over the period 1901 to 2010, the global mean sea level has risen by an average of 19 cm.

Though many people still view the climate crisis as a geographic and physical phenomenon, there is a very real human and biological side too, with a host of related global health issues (Covid-19 is the biggest example of this). If left unchecked, the climate crisis will cause hundreds of millions of deaths across the world in the coming decades.

 According to the World Health Organization (WHO), taking into account only a subset of the possible health impacts, and assuming continued economic growth and progress in public health, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050; 38,000 due to heat exposure in the elderly; 48,000 due to diarrhea; 60,000 due to malaria; and 95,000 due to malnutrition in children, estimates which pre-date the occurrence of Covid-19. This does not include the immeasurable deaths that will occur due to extreme climate events and forced migration (patterns which are playing out across Europe and the Middle East).

 Broadly speaking, the effects on our health can be divided into four main categories.

  • Heat stroke and cardiovascular diseases

Increased cardiovascular disease especially in ‘Urban Heat Islands’ (UHI) where the city centre temperature can rise up to 5 degrees Celsius higher than surrounding areas. This pattern has been seen in Europe for the past two summers, driven by higher than usual heat waves, and is especially true for the elderly vulnerable population. Modelling done by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine has reported that heatrelated deaths would be expected to rise by around 257% by the 2050s from its current level.

  • Air pollutants and Respiratory disorders

With a rise in air allergens, decrease in air quality and rising ozone levels, respiratory conditions — which already affect 334 million people with asthma and 210 million people with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) globally — will be exacerbated. India, which has 22 of the top 30 most air polluted cities in the world, saw a spike in respiratory disorders last year in its National Capital Region (NCR) driven by abnormally lower Air Quality Index (AQI) scores resulting from the falling winter temperatures and increased crop burning and fossil fuel emissions.

  • Vector Borne and Zoonotic diseases (VBZD)

VBZDs are infectious diseases, the transmission of which involves either animal hosts or vectors serving as reservoirs for human pathogens as they move between species. India is already home to some of the highest rates of malaria, dengue and chikungunya cases globally and is seeing an elevation of numbers due to the increasingly severe monsoon patterns and temperature changes. Zoonotic disease outbreaks are the result of man versus nature conflicts, largely driven by anthropogenic changes. As humans alter their patterns of land use for agriculture, trade, livestock rearing, and travel, these pathogens have an opportunity to cross species and establish localised emergence. This vector of transmission already accounts for 60% of all disease and 75% of new emerging infections; the prevalence of which is rising due to increasing pressures and speed of transmission. The novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is itself thought to have possibly originated in a wet market in eastern China and the majority of recent major human infectious disease outbreaks worldwide such as SARS, MERS and HIV/AIDS, originated in animals.

  • Malnutrition through food and water

According to the United Nations Development Programme, some 3.7 billion people worldwide are currently malnourished. Extreme weather events will directly damage or destroy crops and other food supplies, as well as interrupt transportation chains. Food and water can also be a source of exposure to illnesses, resulting from the ingestion of microbes, chemical residues (such as pesticides, biotoxins) or other toxic substances. With a rise in the number of natural disasters and changing weather patterns, there will be a reduction in the supply of fresh drinking water. The WHO already estimates there are approximately 760,000 child deaths annually due to diarrheal diseases, and this huge number will only be compounded by the rise in floods, droughts and famines that climate change will bring.

In 2016, the people of the world cheered their own fate and that of future generations in Paris, as 157 world leaders from 196 countries crafted the climate accord, which could have once and for all addressed the impact of climate change on our planet. Whilst we have made some progress, we still have a very long way to go.

 The global response to Covid-19 has shown us that the international community can come together and create a synchronised, unprecedented, mitigation response when faced with a systemic threat. Multiple stakeholders have joined forces to focus on producing an antidote to this virus, on a scale never seen before in history. If we can work together to achieve these goals now, then surely our human spirit of cooperation and excellence will allow us to create a remedial response to the climate crisis. To turn the clock back on our current unsustainable way of life and create a world which we are not dependent on oil and natural gas and one where we live within our means to create a lasting legacy for mankind which we can be proud of.

 Dr. Marcus Ranney is a global thought leader in health and wellbeing. A Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, he also volunteers as a frontline medic in the fight against Covid-19. Edited by: Ambika Hiranandani.

Environmentally Speaking

Re-imagining sustainable water in the realm of climate change

Reimagining water is like a Dickensian epic. This is the epoch of belief and incredulity, the spring of hope and the sewage of despair, as we see water before us, but cannot have water to drink. Securing water today will reflect the empathy, courage, imagination and innovation.

Ravi Mariwala

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We drive through the winding roads of Pauri, Uttarakhand, at the behest of a concerned minister. We stop at a dozen water treatment plants on the banks of rivers, sample water, and test it. The results are the same — excellent physical and chemical properties but all test positive for E.coli, an indicative bacterium for faecal contamination. The villages we traverse either have open gutters, filled with plastic, or none at all. Sewage finds its way into clean water. A ray of hope here is the pine trees being replaced by the local bhaanj which retains water in its deep taproots and provides potable water round the year — a lesson in sustainability. Humans seem to have gone back to their roots, rejecting ‘modern’ ways of managing forests and water. 

Families in the villages have to walk fifty to a hundred metres to fetch water for daily use. The sanitation facilities are common but kept clean. The water from the common toilets is let out without treatment. The thriving shrubs downstream of the discharge are a testament to the presence of nutrient-rich untreated sewage.

Towards the end of the journey, we stop at the local kirana store to buy a bottle of water. It is closed. A neighbour proudly offers us ‘pure’ water from his proud new possession, an RO water purifier, a sign of new-found prosperity from selling land. We drink the almost-distilled water without bacteria and head towards Rishikesh. 

A road trip to Vrindavan is a reality check on the water situation. An ashram, a social net for the elderly, is in need of an economical water solution. We stop at a prosperous-looking farm on the banks of the river Yamuna. A crop of mustard is being sowed. The owner comes with an earthy grin and offers us hot tea. We chat and learn that electricity is erratic, so he leaves his pumps on for irrigation and floods the farm.  We talk about productivity, water, irrigation and fertilizer. He is oblivious to most of it, including drip irrigation.  After all, water is ample and electricity is free, so why bother about such things?  We have practised this for generations. Isn’t the government paying to use it?  Further small talk over a hot kachori reveals that the water table has been falling, pump failures are frequent, and the water smells bad, but it seems to be working well for the crop.  What the farmer is pumping is the discharged sewage from upstream which has contaminated the groundwater.  It reminds me of a cousin saying, “The rivers of India are in direct communication with the lower end of the gastrointestinal tract of those who live upstream and with the upper end of those who live downstream.”  For me, the trip yields no business.  I am ridiculed for the water budget and treatment scheme.  The learned managing committee of retired professionals resonates: “If water is free, the treatment scheme should be free too!”

 The story of the village Ter in Maharashtra involves a large lake full of water and a well-kept water treatment plant lying idle due to electricity arrears which no one wants to clear.  The villages around struggle to find water at their doorsteps.  One hand pump for 100 households wastes almost 200 productive man-hours daily, and in return, is doubtful of adequate and safe water.  The drinking water agenda is hijacked by an RO ATM selling water at the princely sum of Rs 3 per litre – but at least it is cheaper than Rail Neer!  The sarpanch of the village struggles to bring in piped water and too many vested interests wear him down.  The sewage does not even get attention as everyone is too occupied to get water for their daily chores.

We shift gears to the affluence of Mumbai.  Alibaug, the Hamptons of Bombay, is a quiet hamlet located 14 km as the crow flies south of Mumbai. The million-plus dollar weekend homes have a perennial problem of seeking the elixir of life, either from wells on their property or from the tankers which roam the potholed roads as a messiah for their lush green lawns and swimming pools.  There is no piped water in Alibaug!  Sewage and waste management do not even get an honourable mention and rainwater harvesting is a great topic for the ‘WhatsApp University’!  After all, there is no payback for rain harvesting and storage compared to the cost of a tanker!  The locals have their hand pumps and the gram panchayats provide a ¾” line for one hour of water.  The irony is that the area receives one of the highest rainfalls, at almost 2400 mm per year.

India receives 4,000 km3 of precipitation every year through a fairly predictable monsoon. The majority of it occurs in the four months from June through September. The intensity and the patterns vary because of geography and regional climates. Half of the precipitation runs off to the sea, and the balance is used to charge the surface and groundwater. Agriculture is the largest consumer of water at 83%, followed by the power and industrial sectors at 6% each, and potable use at about 5%. 

The water for agriculture is virtually free. Potable water is charged for but does not cover the cost of operations. Industries are charged for water and that partially subsidises other uses. As a consequence, crop patterns are skewed, productivity with respect to water is dismal, and the depletion of groundwater is alarming.

The case of access to water is even more disturbing.  In rural areas, 12% of households have access to piped water.  In urban areas, this number is 40%. 

 The sewage situation in India is dismal too.  We generate 78 billion litres of sewage every day, out of which 23 billion litres is treated.  The balance goes to our water bodies with partial or no treatment. 

Storylines on water across India are similar, only the plots twist and turn. Water is available, access is not. Sources are drying up, but floods are galore, and yet, droughts are also rampant. Quality is dubious, but water treatment does not work. Water is not priced but de facto privatised through tanker lobbies.  Agriculture receives virtually free water, but we buy some of the most expensive water in bottles. Meanwhile, the majority of the polity is oblivious to the nuances and complexity of water. 

Water is essential for sustainable growth and public health, especially in times of climate change.  But why can’t we deliver a life of abundant, clean and safe water for all? It is the empathy, will and innovation on which we have failed to act and thus, the dream of abundant, clean and safe water seems distant. 

Climate change is a reality, not a point of debate.  In the short span of the last 300 years, the earth has seen a million new chemical entities, greenhouse gas emissions, more fossil fuel burnt than at any other time in its life, concrete jungles and forest lands cleared for agriculture and urbanization.  Global warming is a major outcome of it.  The implications are dire: expansion of sea levels, dwindling freshwater resources, local hot spots, extinction of habitats and biodiversity and increased freshwater demand.  Extreme weather events leading to storms, floods, droughts, soil erosion, seawater ingress and destruction of property and life are a daily affair now.  All these affect the availability of freshwater for human use.  Economically, more than 39% of Indian banks’ portfolios are exposed to sectors that face high levels of operational risk related to water and climate change, and worldwide, flood risk is a major risk factor for real estate.

 A hundred-year vision

A nation of 1.3 billion people has to be fed and its thirst quenched. The economic growth which improves the health and standard of living needs to be addressed urgently.  Water resources, some of which are shared with other countries, have to be addressed for longterm water security. A 100- year water vision is a necessity, not an also-ran agenda. Civilisations have died and thrived because of water.  The vision needs to recognize that water is a basic necessity, not a political tool to manipulate the republic with for governance and winning elections.

 Ownership and governance

Whom does the water belong to? This debate is indispensable for water sustainability.  A clear answer is a must for governance.  A central regulatory agency with geographical subdivisions may be a good idea, with the appropriate structures and human resources. Lucid and clear policies and laws are a necessity for sustainable water too.  Data, water mapping and online water analytics should be used to govern water resources and usage.  Water needs to be regulated, not politicised.  How we bring about these changes would be a Herculean task.

Sustainable infrastructure

The current realisation of using natural systems for the storage of water and mitigating the effects of climate change are well recognized.  Investments should be made in natural systems for water sustainability and mitigating the effects of climate change.  A number of cases are quite promising.  An oak forest over 10 km2  serves as a nice example of a watershed to provide potable water to the town of Shimla.  Rather than damning the rivers through dams, an ecological flow should be ensured in the river systems of India for groundwater recharge, and the development of wetlands to mitigate floods and provide habitats for biodiversity.  Rivers are like a rubber band.  They flex themselves to find their way when fertile silt is deposited.  Constricting them is a definite way to increase floods and destroy biodiversity.  Can we reimagine the Narmada and Tehri projects to be far more sustainable?  Can’t the immense solar potential of Kutch be unleashed to develop revolutionary solar desalination and create a pioneering industry?  It could have alleviated the need to submerge vast forest cover and displace more than a million people from their lands.

Groundwater recharge

Groundwater should be considered as a water bank rather than a water source.  The extremities of climate change will then allow us to draw from water reserves during droughts and replenish it in good years.  For a successful ground resource strategy, the mapping of aquifers and the development of recharge methods and structures are essential along with withdrawal and groundwater management strategies.  It has to be a key part of the 100-year vision and a major element for sustainable water.

Pricing water

Today, water is virtually free. It discourages any discretion in use. It needs to be priced for behaviour change and economic growth. A number of issues need to be addressed before a well thought out pricing strategy can be introduced.  An equitable and affordable basic need has to be met. Water needs to be metered.  An infrastructure to deliver has to be created. A block tariff model may be used to address equitable distribution as it has been done successfully in Durban. Priced water assures a number of advantages: the consumer can demand quality, quantity and uninterrupted supply, it allows for upkeep and modernisation of water supply and, importantly, forces a behaviour to use it responsibly. It also allows for improved public health. Reliable and confirmed water supply also reduces a large risk factor for farmers. It can help them earn a better living through multiple and high-margin crops. Thus, water pricing can make agricultural produce more market-driven. 

 The pricing of water allows for revenue generation, and thus, a market to raise funds for water infrastructure projects.

Human behaviour and resources

Besides economics, education is the second lever for behaviour change. Sustainability as a part of the high school curriculum will bring this change and create young minds who would be interested in working with water.  They can be the agents of change. This approach can lay a strong foundation for developing water champions who will address all aspects of water.

Behaviour change has to go through a continuous path for it to be imbibed.  Making small but continuous changes which do not drastically disrupt the lives of people is essential for successful behaviour change.

Sewage: A priced resource

Sewage treatments warrant incredibly urgent attention because only 30% of it is treated across the country. The two major implications of untreated sewage entering the environment are the contamination of clean water sources and becoming a public health hazard. Sewage is rich in nutrients for agriculture.  It can be treated well with phytoremediation technologies for agriculture use or with hybrid technology for non-potable reuse such as cooling tower makeup.  The enablers for realizing value out of sewage are metering, robust and well-managed infrastructure, and compliance with standards.  These will allow for multiple uses of water before discharge, protection of clean water sources and improved public health.

The role of technology

Technology will play an increasing role in water sustainability.  Agriculture consumes the largest quantum of water today.  Presently, the penetration of microirrigation techniques is less than 3% for all irrigable land.  A yearly target of bringing 2-3% of land under microirrigation will preserve water resources and improve agricultural productivity on all counts.  The key to adaptation is creating conducive market conditions through metering, pricing and enabling free markets for agricultural free produce.

The price of decentralized solutions for water treatment is reducing.  A costbenefit analysis of large pipe networks versus decentralized water solutions needs to be addressed too.  Decentralised solutions reduce large capital outlays and allow for technology customization for water quality and upgradation.

India requires special technologies to address natural contaminants like arsenic, fluoride and iron.  We have to deal with them as they are part of our geology. Increasing affluence will lead to the ingress of pesticides, drugs and excessive fertilizer in water sources. Advanced techniques for water treatment like ozonation will be needed in the future. We need to develop multiple approaches to address the issue of contaminants. 

Reverse osmosis (RO) is an enigma for India. RO is an expensive technology. To successfully run it, trained manpower, energy, and significant maintenance are required.  The environmental footprint of RO is poor too.  It is power-hungry, generates substantial saline waste and the descalants are discharged into the environment as waste.

Using RO or desalination for salinity control, especially for industrial wastewater is necessary.  Re-engineering wastewater generation is the need of the hour. However, as far as possible, RO is to be avoided for potable water treatment.  Can’t we think of rainwater recharge to reduce salinity for landlocked regions? Or use solar energy for desalination using electrodialysis? The adaption of RO needs critical, integrated and holistic thinking before investment.  It is an easy way out but a steep price to pay in the long run.

Reimagining water is like a Dickensian epic. This is the epoch of belief and incredulity, the spring of hope and the sewage of despair, as we see water before us, but cannot have water to drink.  Securing water today will reflect the empathy, courage, imagination and innovation which have gone in providing a sustainable future for upcoming generations.  It is for the future of sustainable water that we should endeavour.

The writer is the founder, promoter and CEO of Smaart Water, a company that provides affordable, integrated and holistic water solutions for industrial, institutional, residential, commercial and community markets in rural and urban India.

Edited by: Ambika Hiranandani

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Rajaji National Park isn’t just about elephants

Joydev Sengupta

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Not far from Haridwar lies the Rajaji National Park, an example of prime elephant habitat, nestled between the mountains and the Ganges flowing nearby. The Park never receives publicity or media attention the way the better known Corbett and Ranthambore National Parks do, but it too has its own jewels, some of which are not constrained to remain within the Park boundaries. Rajaji itself has various entry points, gates like Chilla and Motichur with some differences in habitat and animal population. It is often a worthwhile exercise to probably visit each area once to get a sense of the place, and if lucky, get to see some of their rarer inhabitants.

Any conversion about Rajaji predictably begins with its elephant population. The fact is that Rajaji and Corbett actually form a corridor where the elephants travel from one to the other during specific times of the year, and many elephants seen in Corbett may well have crossed over from Rajaji. The elephant population can be seen pretty easily, for example, in Chilla foraging in the undergrowth, and in de- cent numbers. What is not so easily spotted, are its tigers.

 In a country which the tiger is a major draw, where people will throng National Parks in droves in the most inclement and extreme weather just for a glimpse of it, the presence of a tiger in a National Park ups its desirability quotient many times over. The absence of the tiger similarly also takes the Park down when the animal goes missing, a case in point being Sariska where the number of visitors dropped dramatically from the day it was announced it had lost its tigers to poaching and other reasons. Rajaji, of course, does have tigers but not in the kind of numbers that the Ranthambore and the Corbett have, and consequently seeing them in the Park is a rare occurrence. Nature of course compensates for this in its own way, and the chances of a leopard sighting in the absence of the tigers consequently become better.

As those who have spent any time in the wildlife sanctuaries will testify, leopards are elusive creatures, and as a result, their sightings are rarer and fleeting as opposed to tiger sightings. Leopards are therefore a big draw for many in Rajaji. In the natural world where the larger and stronger tiger competes with a leopard for the same prey base, it is but natural that the tiger will also hunt the leopard. Tigers being bigger in size are often known to kill leopards found in their territory, and hence very seldom will tigers and leopards be seen in close proximity. The small tiger population in Rajaji therefore ensures that the Leopards thrive in the area. A close acquaintance, little interested in wildlife, and a very reluctant early riser for the safaris, actually saw 5 of them in a single stretch of road within Rajaji, much to this author’s consternation. The author is still waiting for his first sightings of the tiger and the leopard.

The visitors to the Park typically associate Rajaji with its elephants and invariably ask for, at the very least, a sighting of some. The drivers and the guides respond to their patrons accordingly and have been known at times to drive around the circular track in a perfunctory manner, looking for just that one animal. It then becomes a matter of luck as to what the guest will see, but invariably the elephants or the ubiquitous spotted deer make an appearance — the tiger a massive bonus when it appears. Very rarely do they take the initiative to point other animals and birds to the guests. Other than the one or two odd guides like Kundan Bisht, the Park ecosystem, comprising the guides and the drivers, and sometimes even the forest guards, rarely stopped for or even discussed any wildlife other than the elephants and the tigers. The most skillful guides and drivers in any National Park will have patience in spades, and above all intimate knowledge of where certain creatures can be found, not just the dominant species, and Rajaji could well do with some of them. What this does to the visitor to the Park is that he is seldom shown the birds in the area, even when they are rarer spottings than the tiger. It also means that unless a visitor finds a knowledgeable guide, it is imperative he or she does his own research and spotting of animals and birds.

 For those seeking birdlife, finding a knowledgeable guide in Rajaji will be an issue. For those willing to look however, the Park is heaven for seeing Hornbills. Three species of Hornbills are found here, the Indian Grey Hornbill being the commonest. The Grey Hornbill is found in urban settings as well, and one often sees them flying around in large metropolises like Delhi. Not too many visitors therefore look for this bird within Rajaji.The other two Hornbill species — the Oriental Pied Hornbill and the Great Hornbill — are however found only in the forested areas, and Rajaji is one of the best places to see them. The Great Hornbill, in fact, is listed as a vulnerable species by IUCN, and is the state bird of Arunachal Pradesh and Kerala. The Oriental Pied Hornbill, on the other hand, are sighted in larger numbers in the Park and its outskirts, and despite lacking the majestic presence of the Great Hornbill, makes for interesting sightings. Seeking these two species of birds may well be worth a trip to this National Park.

The Chilla range of Rajaji is also a great place to see the Changeable Hawk Eagle and the Crested Serpent Eagle. These species are not the rarest eagles found in the country, and every single drive through the Park will throw up a few individuals at various stages of development, some juvenile, some older in their nests, or some high in the tree tops calling their mates in their distinctive manner. The best sightings are often when these birds are found with a kill, at which time they ignore human presence till such time the people do not get too close.

The Bindasini area in Chilla threw up a very interesting find during the author’s last trip there. A famous temple is located in this area as a result of which the place sees a heavy influx of locals visiting it ever so often. The river runs nearby and at some junctures, vehicles must ford the river to get to the base of the hillock where the temple is located. This stretch of water, full of garbage thrown by people, also threw up the rare Spotted Forktail, and the Plumbeous Water Redstart and the White capped Redstart, oblivious to the chaos around them.

The Forktail, a shy and retiring bird, is difficult to see at the best of times, and for it to be located so near human habitation was an interesting find. In a reflection of the kind of birds and animals the typical visitor wants to see, even the experienced bird guides and drivers did not know of the Forktail or its significance when it was first pointed out to them — and since then they have been offering specific trips just to show this bird to experienced birders.

 The Chilla gate of the Rajaji National Park is some 8 km from the Haridwar railway station. Trains are therefore viable options to reach the National Park. GMVN Chilla, a wonderful property, is located just outside the Rajaji National Park less than a km away, and is a great place to stay. Saroj Kukreti (Ph: 07895690981) who oversees the GMVN Chilla and other properties at Lansdowne, etc, has completely transformed the place. Bookings can also be made by calling one Mr Rana (Ph: 9568006649, 9568006623). Kundan Bisht (Ph: 9917569684/9368125474) arranges safaris to the Park and the surrounding areas, and can be contacted for prior bookings.

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Environmentally Speaking

Splendour of Himalaya: Valleys to steepest inclines

The inspiring presence of Himalayan massifs has less to do with magnitude than the subtle nuances of nature out of which they rise.

Stephen Alter

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Mountains are often defined by their height, though the summit of a peak is nothing more than the point where it ends, giving way to clouds and sky. The true substance and structure of a mountain rests beneath, amidst the cliffs and crags that fall away into fluted snowfields and sunsculpted ice. More than elevation, other elements of a mountain help establish its presence — the contours of its ridges, the angle of its slopes, the solidity and depths of its foundations as well as the meadows and forests that grow at its feet. When we measure and calculate the complex geometry of a mountain, all its various dimensions must be taken into account, including where it stands in relation to other peaks. 

 The Himalaya may be the tallest mountain range on earth but to focus on altitude alone limits our perspective and lessens their significance. The splendour of these mountains exists as much in their valleys as it does on the steepest inclines. The inspiring presence of Himalayan massifs has less to do with magnitude than the subtle nuances of nature out of which they rise: The trickle of a glacial stream flowing through channels of ice; translucent crystals of quartz embedded in a granite boulder; a twisted juniper root clutching loose moraine; or a herd of wild sheep silhouetted on a distant pass.

  As we approach the Himalaya and observe their physical features, our eyes trace each fretted profile, where sunlight dazzles off the snow and casts uneven shadows on the rocks. At times, these mountains seem almost alive for they are always changing. The clatter of falling stones echoes the process of erosion or the scrambling hooves of an ibex gaining purchase on a precipitous ledge. The boom and thunder of an avalanche disperse clouds of white particles that float like mist yet settle and harden as firmly as concrete, burying whatever lies beneath. 

 The Himalaya contains places of terrifying beauty, vertiginous terrain and extremes of weather that inspires both awe and fear. With their immense grandeur, they appear to have been around in perpetuity despite the fact that these are among the youngest mountains on earth and continue rising several millimetres every year. Constantly pushing upward, they have formed a series of arcs that stretch from the arid borderlands of Baltistan to the tropical jungles of Arunachal Pradesh.

  The Himalaya span a distance of roughly 2,500 kilometres in length and between 350 and 150 kilometres in breadth, rising to a maximum height of almost 9 kilometres above the level of the sea. Altogether, fourteen of the world’s tallest summits exceed 8,000 metres and ten of these are located in the Himalaya. The other four are in the neighbouring Karakoram. More than half of the fifty highest peaks on earth lie along the Himalayan chain. Five nations—China, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan—include a portion of the Himalaya within their borders, though many of these boundaries are in dispute and the exiled government of Tibet still lays claim to much of the territory occupied by China.

  Just as the spelling and pronunciation of the Himalaya has been debated for centuries, ever since the Sanskrit name was first transliterated into English, geographers have struggled to define these mountains with any coherence or consistency. While most writers, like myself, limit the Himalaya to the mountains that stand between the river Tsang Po or Brahmaputra in the east and the Indus in the west, others allow for a more flexible definition, often including parts of the Karakoram and Hindu Kush as well as some of the mountains further eastward.

  Regardless of these discrepancies, the two giant peaks that bookend the Himalaya are Namche Barwa in southeastern Tibet and Nanga Parbat at the northwestern edge of Kashmir. An equally difficult question is where to draw a line for the northern and southern limits of this range. For example, Mount Kailas, the most sacred mountain of all, sometimes called the ‘keystone’ of the Himalaya, is technically situated in the trans-Himalayan region to the north. On the other hand, the Shivalik foothills to the south are considered a separate range, though they merge with the Himalaya at many points. Similarly, the Duar Range, the ‘doorway’ to higher mountains in north-eastern India, is virtually contiguous with the Himalaya. Both the Bhabar and Terai, consisting of grasslands and jungle, below an altitude of 500 metres, that skirt the central foothills, are an integral part of the Himalaya, as are the upper margins of the Tibetan Plateau, where the northern slopes of the mountains level out at 4,000 metres. Nevertheless, whatever ambiguities are found on maps, these mountains rise above the contentious and confusing boundaries of cartography and politics that divide them. 

 ‘In a thousand ages of the gods, I cannot tell you all the glories of the Himalaya,’ exclaimed a Vedic sage, while another wrote: ‘As the sun dries the morning dew, so does the mere sight of the Himalaya dissipate the sins of man.’ However remote and ineffable the mountains may seem, nothing on earth exists in isolation and it is our story as much as theirs—whatever we choose to tell of these high places and our place amongst them. 

Origin myths from different regions of the Himalaya seek to explain the formation of the mountains. According to Verrier Elwin’s Myths of the NorthEast Frontier of India, the Hruso tribe (also known as the Aka) in Arunachal Pradesh believes that the world was created out of two eggs. When these hatched, one produced the sky, which was male, and the other the earth, which was female. When the sky tried to copulate with the earth, he discovered that she was too large for him to take her in his arms, so he asked his terrestrial lover to make herself smaller. As she did, her pliable body was drawn together and folded into hills, mountains and valleys. ‘When the Sky made love to the Earth, every kind of tree and grass and all living creatures came into being.’

Excerpts from Stephen Alter’s book, ‘Wild Himalaya’ (Aleph).

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Environmentally Speaking

Delhi’s wild side: Birding around city & its suburbs

Delhi-NCR is home to a multitude of birds, including several fascinating migratory species which fly to the capital each year. With a keen eye and a good guide, birdwatchers can spot a number of them.

Joydev Sengupta

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A few months ago when the Covid-19 pandemic first hit and the lockdowns were enforced, social media was awash with stories of wildlife walking the empty streets vacated by man. The nilgais, the peacocks, and even the occasional leopard were seen within city precincts, to the wonderment of many. What is probably not obvious to many, therefore, is that even in a city like Delhi, wildlife in various forms, including some exotic visitors, does co-exist with its human population, though not always harmoniously.

At the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi lies the Delhi Ridge, a protected reserve forest, arguably the lungs of the city. While the dominant image of the roads snaking past the ridge is its profusion of monkeys, sightings of the Indian grey hornbill and kites are also commonplace. They are more likely to be seen early morning before the traffic starts plying. Some stretches, like the road behind the New Delhi Kali Bari which is relatively less disturbed, are clearly better. The proximity of the Ridge has one big advantage for the surrounding human habitat. Bird species like barn owls and barbets sometimes find their way to the nearby colonies, to the consternation of local bird populations. The barn owl in the picture, for example, being a bird of prey, was attacked mercilessly by local crows for intruding into their territory, as is the law of nature. The other remarkable occurrence is centred in the Delhi Zoo, when come winters, it notably plays host to painted storks in large numbers, a bird classified as “near threatened” worldwide, and an immensely important part of Delhi’s wildlife heritage.

Painted storks are just one of the many species of birds which flock to Delhi and its surrounding areas in winter. Some of the important birding areas in and around Delhi are the Okhla Barrage near Noida, Sultanpur, the Basai Wetlands and Jhajjar district near Gurgaon. A few winters ago, the marbled duck and the Baikal teal made their way across to the places around Sultanpur and Jhajjar, travelling hundreds of kilometres from their breeding sites. The Baikal teal breeds in Siberia and winters in the less harsh climes of eastern Asia. A few of them make their way into India as well and are seen in these parts for a few weeks. The marbled duck, classified as “vulnerable” and globally threatened, similarly breeds mostly in Europe and Asia, and is known to visit India in very small numbers. It may be worthwhile to follow bird sightings reported in the media or connect with expert birders to get to know when these species come during a year and have them arrange the sightings.

The National Capital Region is not just about the headline-grabbing painted stork and the marbled duck, but about species, numerically larger in numbers, but seen seldom. One wonders how many people know about the Spanish and the Sind sparrows, worthy members of the sparrow family but different from the house sparrows one would see so often in Delhi. People across the country often see red-wattled lapwing within the city limits, but the less common yellow-wattled one also exists in this area. The pratincoles also lie unseen among ploughed fields, flying off when one comes too close. Come the month of September, the Eurasian hobby, a bird of prey from the falcon family, will also inhabit the trees around Sultanpur for a few weeks. Meanwhile, the cattle egret will imbibe spectacular hues during breeding time. All these and more will unfold over the next few months as migrating birds start coming in.

 Given their distances from Delhi, all the birding sites are a drive away and can be covered as day trips. While one can find the birds within the confines of the sanctuaries, oftentimes the birds are located outside the parks, and here a bird guide is required. Most sanctuaries have guides associated with them and they can be found at the entry gates. The commitment, knowledge and spotting ability of a lot of them is unfortunately suspect, but the better ones are worth the fees paid to them. A crucial part of the expert guide’s role is the area survey that the guide does beforehand, identifying species over a geographical area and its adjacencies, the preferred habitat, behaviours, and identification parameters, all of which elevates the bird watching qualitatively. A bird-watching guide popular in the NCR and its surrounding areas is Sanjay Sharma, who can be contacted beforehand for visits. (His number is 09812470521.) Be prepared for riding over a lot of unpaved and broken roads, and also hiking to specific spots when necessary.

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Environmentally Speaking

Redefining sustainable luxury with a universal appeal

Karl Irani

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Sustainability, as a movement, is growing legs and gathering momentum, driven by a critical mass of people responding to a problem, looking outward and then reflecting within. The word has been on every practitioner and marketeer’s lips in the last decade and its elevation from buzzword to lexicon has been propelled by the rise of the conscious consumer.

I strongly believe in the principle: “When we build, let us think that we build forever”, which is inspired by John Ruskin’s 1849 essay The Seven Lamps of Architecture. By using the very best materials today, we can ensure the longevity of our build, and consequently not have to materially revisit a structure and consume more than what we are required to, in terms of natural raw materials or finished products.

Traditional Indian architecture is inherently sustainable, a heritage increasingly appreciated in our present context. This comfort in our roots is fielding a return to Vastu Shastra, an ancient system of Indian origin that translates to the “science of architecture.” A concept bandied about for millennia, only with deeper research did the realisation sink in that sustainability is at its core. Every principle within it upholds vernacular forms, suited to indigenous climate and lifestyle. In Maharashtra and Goa, for example, the south-westerly monsoon deems it prudent not to place windows in that direction. It has broadened my approach to design windows, courtyards, terraces and balconies beyond the aesthetic. Similarly, I’ve come to prefer locally available materials for their ability to withstand environmental conditions whilst imbuing an inimitable quality of timelessness. A tip for hot regions is to refrain from glass, and rather build with stone which remains cool at night. Shahabad stone, for instance, keeps homes in Alibaug at a conducive temperature.

 A similar harnessing of natural resources can be applied to water. Today, water tables in certain areas of India get emptied by March. The ground is parched in eager anticipation of monsoon. Water scarcity has become a global phenomenon, one that can be addressed by constructing minimal hardscape and implementing rainwater harvesting techniques.

A yardstick example for impact can be illustrated by water application on a one acre plot: 5-10% for personal use, 60% on landscape and 25% apportioned to the swimming pool (if one is made). Total average usage is estimated at 1.4 lakh litre for a fairly luxurious property. Rainwater harvesting is a key intervention, the benefits of which are staggering enough to merit its recommendation as mandatory policy. One is able to ensure that ground is treated such that during rainfall, natural tables underground are filled. The construction of a borewell on your plot will assist with adequate flow through the year — an assurance of water security and quality. In addition, pool covers may save up to 15% and showering for even 30 seconds less may save a family 18,000 litres a year. Reusable bottles could save 700 litres a year.

 Where local supply of electricity is known to be erratic, reliance can be inexpensively combated through solar energy. Battery packs to store solar power can be easily facilitated, and even during monsoon, panels produce enough to power a home. They may act as a backup if not the primary source during monsoon.

Farm-to-table, a popular phrase in dining circles, speaks to the cultivation of direct relationships between producers and consumers of food. Although it seems trendy, I see this too as a return to tradition. Bringing this idea home, so to speak, can extend to growing organic fruit and vegetable patches of your own. The nutritional and medicinal value is immense, not to take away from the therapeutic role that a lush garden offers. On an ornamental front, the rule of thumb is native over exotic species as much as possible.

In an age of climate change and epidemiological threats to our immune systems, advocacy of eating clean and keeping healthy is no longer a hard sell. A steady supply of fresh, chemical-free produce is now considered of inestimable value. Composting and waste management seem downright sensible when viewed under the holistic lens of completing a life cycle, and ploughing it back into your land.

As I build in Alibaug I have watched a sleepy town transform into a cluster of villages and a thriving community of around 300 homes today has shed insight on the rapid growth expected in the near future. This acceleration is bound to come with pressure on finite resources and what one considers utilities — water, electricity and sanitation. Pollution, noise and security are among the underlying reasons urban dwellers are choosing to reside further away from cities, in the hopes of improving their quality of life. I see it as a redefinition of luxury itself, as a merger of desire and necessity. In my mind, sustainability will follow closely, its aspirational value bound to rise in proportion to how rarefied an experience it is soon to become. If I had singular advice to offer, it would be to start now — slowly but surely — and thank yourself later.

 The author is the co-founder at Palmore, a luxury property development firm building holiday homes in and around Alibaug, Maharashtra.

Edited: By Ambika Hiranandani

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Can cannabis transform Indian agriculture landscape?

Jahan Peston Jamas

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When one utters the word cannabis in India, the person’s reaction would usually be one filled with concern and trepidation. The first thought a lay-man would conjure would be either of bhaang during Holi or a funky image of Bob Marley. However, what if we were to turn the pyramid on its head and view cannabis or hemp as an opportunity for India to reclaim its past glory with the crop steadily gaining a repute as a multi-purpose plant (natural fibres, oil seeds, medicinal flowers/leaves). This could help reinvigorate our agriculture story for decades to come?

How can that be done? Incidentally, this question hasn’t stopped more than 45 countries across the World in empowering the sustainable local industry to utilise hemp across over 15,000 industrial and medicinal uses as a strategic and economic tool for their rural agrarian communities. Thereby effectively contributing immense income and livelihood improvement.

 Case in point, in China thousands of farmers had risen above the poverty line over the last decade just by cultivation and commercial development of hemp. The fibre can be used for sustainable textiles/paper/concrete, the seed for superfoods/bio-fuel or the flower for medicinal use.

Similarly, countries such as Canada have developed a fullfledged system to provide access of cannabis (in different forms) to many patients suffering from an array of serious illnesses including cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and Parkinson’s.

 The present global industrial hemp market is estimated at $4.1 billion whereas the global medical cannabis market is estimated at closer to $12 billion, with India’s contribution estimated at 0.0001% whilst China’s is closer to 70%. This has led to a question about India’s potential to contribute more effectively across this sun-rise global economy around cannabis which gradually saw the birth of an early-stage sustainable industry in the country over the last eight years.

When considering the potential future of a cannabis industry in India, there are positive realities. For example, some of the first historical references to cannabis growth/cultivation in the history of human civilisation traces back to the upper and middle Himalayas. Even in the present day the ubiquity of natural cannabis growth is deeply understated (with an estimated 60% of all districts in India seeing the natural/ wild growth of cannabis).

Similarly, centuries-old Ayurvedic, Siddha, Unani texts highlight the nutritional and therapeutic use of the cannabis seed and leaf (colloquially called bhaang). Even till today, in many parts of rural North/Northeast, the fibre of wild-growing hemp plants are either used to make handloom shawls or rope for cattle, the seeds from wild growing hemp plants are still used as an ingredient in making chutneys and vegetable dishes.

 However, what additionally makes cannabis stand out even from an agriculture point of view are the significant potential agronomic benefits its cultivation brings. Some of these include lesser usage of pesticides/herbicides compared to other conventional crops, significant soil improvement during cultivation due to the phytoremediation capabilities of its roots and waste biomass material recyclability.

In Europe and North America, hemp grown for fibre is considered a low input and low environmental impact crop. It’s based on a calculation of the complete life cycle of production which includes not only the direct impact of hemp production on the environment but also the impacts associated with the manufacture and transport of those inputs needed in hemp cultivation. For example, a crop that requires chemical fertilisers and pesticides would be “charged” for the environmental costs associated with the manufacture, transport, and storage of the chemical inputs in calculating the crop’s total life cycle impact. Hemp grown for fibre requires fewer chemical inputs than most other fibre crops; it has a lower life cycle impact than other fibre crops like cotton. This results in a net environmental benefit.

Similarly, several qualities of Hemp make it an attractive raw material for papermaking: Hemp fibres are long (lending strength to paper) and hemp contains high levels of cellulose (corresponding with high pulp yield from the raw stalk) and low lignin content (an undesirable constituent that requires intensive processing to remove). Due to both its chemical and physical composition, hemp can produce high pulp yields and can be pulped without the use of the Kraft process (used for chemical pulping of wood and long-fibre speciality papers) which uses environmentally toxic sulfur compounds. Also, as with other non-wood pulp, hemp can be bleached with peroxide and through other processes that do not involve chlorine. The environmentally preferable pulping processes are those, such as the Organosolv process, where processing chemicals and waste products can be recovered and reused either within the pulping mill or as marketable byproducts like fuel or fertiliser.

Being mindful of all these environmentally sustainable factors, combined with the inherent risks and cultural stigmas around hemp/cannabis in India, establishing it as the next generation of cash crops would require cooperation and collaboration with the entire ecosystem that it takes to create an industry. It includes experienced policymakers, bureaucrats, scientists, academicians, narcotics experts, agriculture farmers and industry.

The writer is co-founder and director of strategy & collaborations, Bombay Hemp Company.

 Edited: By Ambika Hiranandani

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