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UN report shows staggering rise in climate disasters



The first 20 years of this century have seen a staggering rise in climate disasters, a new UN report has revealed. 

The report, titled ‘Human Cost of Disasters 2000-2019’, published by the UN Office on Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) on Monday, showed that there has been a dramatic rise in disasters over the last 20 years, due to a rise in climate-related disasters, including extreme weather events, reports Xinhua news agency. 

The last 20 years have seen the number of major floods “more than double”. The report also records major increases in storms, drought, wildfires and extreme temperature events. Over the last 20 years, major recorded disaster events claimed 1.23 million lives, impacting 4.2 billion people, many on more than one occasion, resulting in approximately almost $3 trillion in global economic losses. 

The report said that disaster management agencies “are fighting an uphill battle against” an ever-rising tide of extreme weather events. More lives are being saved but more people are being impacted by the expanding climate emergency. 

Although better recording and reporting of disasters may help explain some of the increase in the last two decades, researchers insisted that the significant rise in climate-related emergencies was the main reason for the spike, with floods accounting for more than 40 per cent of disasters – affecting 1.65 billion people – storms 28 per cent, earthquakes 8 per cent, and extreme temperatures 6 per cent. 

“This is clear evidence that in a world where the global average temperature in 2019 was 1.1 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial period, the impacts are being felt in the increased frequency of extreme weather events including heatwaves, droughts, flooding, winter storms, hurricanes and wildfires,” according to the report. 

Currently, “the world is on course for a temperature increase of 3.2 degrees Celsius or more”, unless industrialized nations can deliver reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of at least 7.2 per cent annually over the next 10 years in order to achieve the 1.5 degree target agreed in Paris. 

With IANS inputs

Environmentally Speaking

SC gives more time to Goa mining firms to remove mined ore



In a major relief to mining companies in Goa, the Supreme Court on Tuesday extended the time, till end-January 2021, for the removal of the minerals mined on or before 15 March 2018. 

A bench headed by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde and comprising Justices A.S. Bopanna and V. Ramasubramanian said, “The lessees (mining firms) are granted time up to end of January, 2021 for the removal of the minerals excavated/mined on or before March 15, 2018, subject to payment of royalties and other charges.” 

On 30 January, the apex court had granted six months to all lease holders to transport the mineral already excavated and this period expired on 30 June. The bench noted due to lockdown to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, the exercise could not be completed, and a few firms filed applications for extension of time with effect from 1 October.

 However, the respondent in the case, NGO Goa Foundation, argued that the state government should have invoked Rule 12(1) (hh) to confiscate the minerals allegedly lying at site for the past more than two and half years. In terms of Rule 12(1) (hh) of The Minerals (Other than Atomic and Hydro Carbons Energy Minerals) Concession Rules, 2016, the mineral not removed within a period of six calendar months is liable to be confiscated to the government.

 The NGO had filed an application for clarification in September, after the expiry of six months period granted by the apex court, by the judgment. 

On this, the SC said: “The quantity of mineral to be removed by each of the lessees shall be determined by the concerned officials with reference to the records of the government maintained at the relevant point of time; If within the time stipulated above, the lessees could not remove the mineral, the government shall invoke the power under Rule 12(1) (hh).”

 One of the contentions was in connection with the quantity of mineral allegedly mined on or before March 15, 2018, but lying unremoved from leasehold area. 

The state Advocate General stated that the government has complete details about the mineral already excavated and lying at site. “The lessees cannot remove more than what the records of the Government, already maintained in the course of discharge of official duties of the concerned officers, reflect,” the state government had contended before the top court.

 In January this year, the apex court had modified its earlier order, allowing the mining firms to transport validly mined iron ore from mines in Goa, within six months, on the condition that they have paid royalty to the government authorities. 

The verdict by the apex court was delivered on a plea by mining firm Chowgule and Company Private Ltd. In 2018, the SC quashed the second renewal of iron ore mining leases given to nearly 88 companies in Goa in 2015, banning mining and transportation of iron ore in Goa.

 With IANS inputs

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Environmentally Speaking

Making slum life colourful and environment-friendly

Millions of people are forced to live in an environment filled with frightening
health hazards, excrement, poorly managed waste and plastic. No wonder the
battle to save our environment should begin from these very places.



Here in India, especially Mumbai, most of us are more than aware of the havoc that slum conditions continue to reap for our communities, and in turn, our people. Across our nation, there are millions of individuals living in these unstable environments; environments filled with frightening health hazards, disease, excrement, poorly managed waste, never-ending piles of plastic, and the list goes on, and on, and on. 

Whilst this may be the case, we know that at the very heart of our slums, the only thing that truly exists is pure, unfiltered humanity. Beneath the layers of grime, dirt, and poorly managed infrastructures, lies a raw and inherent human urge; an urge to survive, an urge to find a place to call home, a place to raise children, a place to cook and to eat, to laugh and to cry, to learn and to grow, a place to shelter from heavy rains, a place to have hope, hope for a better life, one that is filled with possibility and opportunity. 

Social and economic heterogeneity weakens the community and some households are headed by women who must earn a living. This situation has consequences on the health and development of small children and often turning small children into a workforce. On one hand, slums may be a place for individuals to call home, but on the other, they also serve to neglect the very same individuals. 

Often found to be in areas close to open-sewer systems, there tends to be very little or no education concerning proper waste management and correct sanitation. The frightening array of negative implications that these shocking living conditions can cause truly are endless. But we must never forget that the people found living within slums are not just any people, they are our people, and they must never be forgotten.

 In many instances, it seems that society and our government have conveniently just forgotten about the many people surviving in these areas. Or maybe they just have chosen to turn a blind eye and move their vision away from the unsightly and hard to swallow truths that are so clearly visible to the rest of us. 

For the purpose of this article, we feel it necessary to discuss some hard facts concerning slum life for the many unfortunate, and might we add, underrepresented, and marginalised individuals that are barely being housed in overcrowded slums across our nation. A major part of these environmental problems we are facing today have risen out of the steady increase of population, harsh topography as well as lack of proper planning for the development. Especially in Mumbai this has led to an ever-growing demand for the basic civic services and amenities. 

The provision for housing and shelter, water supply, sewage and sanitation, health care services, transport facilities, etc, are becoming scarce and costly for slum dwellers. This has a direct effect on the living conditions of the poor who were already subsisting on the margins of their existence. Our research has outlined that a large proportion of the statistics provided for slums in India are highly underestimated. In Mumbai itself, where our project is based, an estimated 55% of individuals live in slums or similar conditions. 

It is important to note that it is likely that this percentage is much higher in reality. Mumbai, also known as the ‘city of dreams’, couldn’t be further from the truth in my opinion. These slums and squatters create environmental pollution through their unorganised and unsystematic waste and sewage disposal, congested and unplanned housing. Millions of individuals flock to Mumbai and other cities in India in search of a better life, but in most cases, this is most certainly not what they find. Instead, individuals find themselves barely surviving in ramshackle constructions, surrounded by litter and very often, human excrement.

 Slums are often a breeding ground for disease, and within recent months, those living within slums have been some of the worst affected by the destructive coronavirus. Slums are known to be ideal locations for respiratory diseases, decreased life expectancy, drug abuse, domestic abuse, and exploitation. Since water is the basic necessity, the sufficiency and quality of its supply directly affects the well-being of the society living in that particular city. Safe collection and treatment of waste water is almost equally important as the supply part, since inappropriate handling of waste water and sewerage create disease-prone living environments.

 For these very reasons, and many more, we are compelled to make a change and to do so, we believe that taking care of our people should be our nation’s top priority. Air and water pollution, lack of personal hygiene, noise and cultural pollution are among the most considerable environmental problems in the area. 

A unique initiative Through the Missal Mumbai/India initiative, we are working towards empowering and giving a voice to our people, the forgotten people, the underrepresented people, and those that have previously been neglected by our failing social systems. We believe that with time, hard work, care, love, and compassion, we can help empower individuals in slums to make small changes that will benefit their environment for years to come.

 We help educate families on how to take care of their environment for the benefit of their health. By helping to educate those living in slums about the danger of improper waste management and sanitation issues, we hope that residents will start to look at their environment differently, and the dangers that poor management can cause. 

By using art and colour, we hope to help individuals view their environment in a different light. Although we are all too aware of the problems that slum-life houses, we also know how unbelievably strong the power of creativity is too. 

Through colour and creativity, we want to empower individuals to transform their environment into a place that they can really call home. Since our conception, we have noticed that by using art and colour, some of the slum environments that we have worked in have become more welcoming and friendly, but most importantly these activities have created a much-welcomed change of perception for these desperately undersupported communities.

 Every big change in the world today came from a dream, a dream to help those without support, those without hope, and those that continue to be neglected. Rouble Nagi is a social activist who runs the Misaal Mumbai/ India initiative, which started with Paint Dharavi in 2016. Over 150,000 houses have been transformed so far. The main aim is to educate people through art about the importance of children education, empowering women, creating job opportunities for youth, cleanliness, hygiene, sanitation, waste management, etc.

 Edited by Ambika Hiranandani

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Environmentally Speaking

How communities can become more water resilient



Currently, the human population touching 8 billion people is already thirsty for more water. A UN study estimates that by 2100 the population of the world will touch 11 billion, which means there will be millions and millions of parched throats if we don’t act fast. Unequal access to water will exponentially increase the disparities and catapult us into a world where inequalities thrive.

 The Covid-19 pandemic has only hastened the inevitable reality — mindfully conserve, save and protect or else, face harsh consequences. Water, a resource that is 70% of our bodies and supposed to be free for all — a basic need and right — will now become a metric of evaluating the wealth of a country by the abundance of their water supply.

 Global commercial interests are also investing heavily in and buying up water resources. All of us have a role in ensuring equitable distribution and access to water, and it is incumbent upon us to change our behaviour, mindsets and habits.

 Keeping water bodies clean, reducing the over-consumption of water, striving for equal distribution of our resources and adding innovative solutions, like small water enterprises, are some of the solutions before us.

 Keeping water bodies clean and rejuvenating them could be one of the biggest challenges, primarily because of the intricate interconnectedness of water bodies. If not directly as tributaries, every single water source of the world is connected to groundwater. Contaminating even one part can lead to another part being affected. When we clean a water body, factoring in this network of water systems — visible and not so visible — is critical. Great attention must also be paid to water quality.

 Pollutants entering water due to water transportation (watercraft) need to be monitored. Reducing the over consumption of water at a local level might not sound exciting but is actually one of the most impactful ways of protecting this resource. Monitoring the amount of water that a household needs and distribution of the resource based on needs to prevent over-exploitation can help curb consumption. To bolster this very idea, the team at Why Waste? has come up with an app to help consumers calculate their daily water footprint and engage in fun challenges to help them realise where and how they’re overusing water, while teaching them ways to optimize water usage. [] 

Educating people about “virtual water” (hidden water), that goes into the making of every single commodity around us, is critical. A cheeseburger requires 700 litres of water to make; a single pair of jeans requires 2,000 litres of water to make; and a sedan car requires 30,000 litres of water to make. Human consumerism is destroying the planet and depleting resources at an unimaginable rate. 

We live and use resources as if we have 1.75 Earths! Curbing consumerism while maintaining economies can be hard but it is important. It can start with promoting goods and products that are locally made, with fewer resources, and fully sustainable. Waterborne diseases take a huge toll on families — especially women and children. 

A simple intervention of access to safe, affordable water can prevent a majority of illnesses, saving huge sums of money for the family and the health system as a whole. There is a national focus and momentum to ensure piped water in every household. However, innovative interventions like small water enterprises have been effectively bridging the gap until such a time when the vision of piped water to every home is fully realised.

 Many states across the country have installed the Water Purification Plants, commonly referred to as Water ATMs, which ordinary citizens, especially from the lower economic strata of society, can procure at nominal prices. While wealthy families can afford to have sophisticated filtration systems in their homes, these plants have been a blessing for the underserved to get safe water.

 Water Knowledge Resource Centres are springing up, alongside these Water ATMs, all across the country in many cities in partnership with local municipal bodies. These centres are serving as knowledge hubs, promoting public awareness, sensitising them on water and sanitation, conservation, judicious use of water and amplifying good practices, especially during the pandemic to improve public health. All concerned are coming together — citizens, civic authorities, water supply officials, NGOs — to share their water related grievances, discuss and act on solutions. 

Campaigns engaging and led by communities are needed to raise the public consciousness. ‘Clean Hands Save from Diseases,’ a part of the Global HandWASH campaign, is currently underway led by water NGOs in 11 states of India. The corporate sector has a role in this too. Honeywell, for instance, is supporting the installation of foot pedals for handwashing at hundreds of Water ATMs across the country. Let us talk about the unequal distribution of resources, especially safe drinking water. 

It is imperative upon the haves to think of the have-nots and help address this imbalance. This will take a fundamental mindset change and empathy building. Water truly exists in a cycle. It is the one single resource that can be easily reused and recycled, reduced and refused. But it requires collective effort from every single human being on this planet, especially the privileged. Bangalore, for example, is staring at a grim drinking water future. 

However, the heartening news is that it has an active citizen’s community working tirelessly. Individuals, like S. Vishwanath (aka ZenRainMan), have led by example in solving Bangalore’s water crisis. His home runs completely on recycled rainwater and he hasn’t paid for water now in years. He is helping people reach this resource, using it judiciously and preserving it. 

Several apartments across Bangalore have also begun taking up rainwater harvesting and greywater recycling at a large scale to reduce dependency on the conventional water sources. Initiatives like the “Half Bucket Challenge” have helped bring about a huge change in the mindsets and habits of people. Why Waste?’s #GlassHalfFull movement to conserve water in restaurants went viral in 2019 and continues to have a massive positive impact on the industry with the support of National Restaurants Association of India. Starting the movement with barely 30 restaurants, it has now spread to reach over 5 lakh restaurants. India has dug 22 million borewells as we have been relentlessly “mining” ground water. We say “mining” here because we are doing absolutely nothing to replenish this resource. 

Due to concrete paving, water doesn’t seep into the ground anymore. This fast-depleting groundwater resource is critical for our agrocentric economy, besides sustaining the water bodies that need to be recharged. Berlin has shown that cities can transform themselves into sponge cities. How can we transform our water-starved cities into sponge cities? 

The images and recent memories of Chennai and Shimla with their dire water situation are too vivid for us to ignore, pretend everything is going to be alright, or that someone else will address this issue. Let us come together and tackle this on a war footing, lest a war breaks out on water! 

Garvita Gulhati is the founder of Why Waste? and Ashoka Young Changemaker. Venky Raghavendra is a social entrepreneur and SVP, Saf Water Network.

Edited by Ambika Hiranandani

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Environmentally Speaking

The lyrical voices of our subcontinent

There has been a marked shift into activist climate-centric art, led by an array of interdisciplinary
thinkers from across the subcontinent. The output has been as surprising as it is exciting.



In this moment of environmental crisis, there’s little point in listing out the major ecological issues facing the subcontinent — borne out of culture, geography and even geopolitics. And unsurprisingly, artists and creatives across South Asia are addressing this state of emergency head on.

 The 2020 Lahore Biennale addressed climate at its core, asking “how might we reflect on our place within the cosmos today, at this conjunction of planetary climate crisis and polarities between societies?” 

There has been a marked recent shift into activist climate-centric art, led by an array of interdisciplinary thinkers from across the subcontinent. The output has been as surprising as it is exciting. 

What has emerged is a group of creators across South Asia who bridge the sciences and the arts: Artists, filmmakers, professors, architects, and writers — each of whom is telling the story of our times.

 Their work addresses suffocating urbanisation and infinitely destructive construction and development projects, population growth, the absence of sanitation and sewage infrastructures, animal farming, the destruction of tenuous natural ecosystems and a lack of regulation and layers of incompetence, corruption and negligence in conservation and preservation. 

Multi-faceted in vision, approach and experiences, they include trained doctors, lawyers, even computer scientists who are making films, presenting installations at biennales, writing poetry — responding to our shared environmental crises through their varied practices.

 Artists like Ravi Agarwal who have for decades worked across creativity and science are having a unique moment — climate change and the environment seem to present a lyrical confluence of these two halves of our world: Our planet, our humanity, and the science needed to protect it. 

One of India’s most well known contemporary artists and photographers, Agarwal’s work has been exhibited at Sharjah, Kochi, India Art Fair; and yet in his “day job” he is the founder director of the environmental NGO Toxics Link and has pioneered work in waste and chemicals in India.

 And increasingly, creative practitioners are defining themselves as activists for the planet and reaching outside of the bounds of the art world in their collaborations.

 Artist and professor Risham Syed digs deep into the urbanisation of Lahore and aligns with a civil society-led resistance to the fast and mad construction over fertile land, the destruction of the Ravi river, overcome by greedy developers and the requisite grasping administrators and stakeholders. 

Syed’s students are part of the journey for change with her, the community she brings to the fore in her work. There is strength in diversity, and there is a power from younger voices as much as from the established stars in this field. 

Artist studies on water 

What feels most central and inexorable for the art world of the Indian subcontinent today remains the issue of water. Running through as a connector — like the seven major rivers of the subcontinent — bringing sustenance and driving glaciers and life down through thousands of kilometres into all corners of the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, the Andaman Sea, artists are drawn to the stories of water in their South Asian present. 

Curator Zahra Khan chose Naiza Khan to represent Pakistan at the Venice Biennale in 2019. Together they showcased Manora Field Notes, a subtle and beautiful ode to Manora Island, off the coast of Karachi and in the Arabian Sea — a tiny fishing village presented as a microcosm of the country’s history — of which water, the politics of it, the impact of climate change all figure deeply in their central narrative. 

The poet and art critic Himali Singh Soin grew up in Sikkim surrounded by mountains and has been drawn to the representation of time through the lens of the continuously shifting and increasingly vulnerable landscape and ecosystems of the Himalayas. Singh Soin has gone deep on issues of water and the melting polar ice caps, winning the 2019 Frieze artists awards for her research proposal on remote areas of the Arctic and Antarctic circles, building a complex narrative on a melting fossil — ice — that has witnessed historic changes throughout time. And Murree resident Saba Khan tells me about Pak Khawateen Painting Club (translated from the Urdu as Pure Pakistani Women’s Painting Club). 

The Khawateen are a group of women artists who venture to the frontier of the Indus river for plein air painting of nationalistic infrastructure projects. These include mega hydropower dams in the country’s vulnerable northern areas and barrages in the poor south. In their own words stereotyped “as a benign, bourgeois group of patriotic conformists”, these female artists wear uniforms inspired by Pierre Cardin’s 1960s design for Pakistan International Airlines’ air hostesses and interrogate sites built by powerful men to generate power and energy for the country — subverting those very prescribed roles. 

Architecture and sustainability 

For architects across the subcontinent, commentary has been turned into action. Karachi based professional architects Tariq Alexander Qaiser and Marvi Mazhar have done extensive research and documentation on Karachi’s mangroves – part of an ecosystem that stretches between Mumbai, Karachi and along the coastline of Iran.

 The two worked together on the Mangrove Project, documenting the destruction of this necessary ecosystem as part of the KarachI Biennial in 2019 titled. 

Incorporating mixed media and soon to be borne out in the form of a documentary film by Qaiser, “Flight Interrupted: Eco Leaks from the Invasion Desk” considers how Karachi’s toxic environmental crisis has stagnated ecological relationships between her land, waters, and citizens. Both Mazhar and Naiza Khan are students of the deeply political forensic architecture program at Goldsmiths College in London. 

The program was founded by a team of architects who decided to use their training to explore space to expose war crimes and social injustice — rooted through the lens of mostly violent countries — Palestine, Turkey, Minneapolis. Activism is at the core of their study. Certainly other practitioners are questioning the making in their own practice, Singh Soin works to minimise the carbon footprint of her work and output. 

Bangladeshi architect Marina Tabassum was listed earlier this year by Prospect Magazine as one of the greatest thinkers for the Covid-19 era, “at the forefront of creating buildings in tune with their natural environments. Tabassum’s practice is built around local materials, sustainable practices and working with communities to consider nature and the environment; she recently unveiled designs for lightweight houses made from locally-sourced materials that perch on stilts and can be moved when the waters rise during Bangladesh’s now regularly occurring devastating floods. 

And the celebrated architect and activist Yasmeen Lari has now for decades explored the use of sustainable design and construction techniques in her native Sindh, designing adobe style refugee housing for earthquake victims in Kashmir in 2015 and propagating the mud chulha to bring independence for women and sustainable material usage to homes in rural Sindh. Lari recently won the Jane Drew Prize for women in architecture — an award previously reserved, it was felt, for those who built more, better, higher. 

Where are we going next?

 The idea of less, of holding back, of creating space seems more salient than ever. Not just for how and why and where we build, but equally for how we live and begin to treat one another. In a world going online, with borders feeling more penetrating than ever before, location matters. Zain Masud, curator of the 2019 Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa, is one of many who continue to interrogate why and how art is placed in the context of history, climate, community. 

In an era of social justice movements, pandemics, and an almost complete loss of control on the next 12 months of our world, surely “art” should mean something to the places in which it is being physically situated and displayed. Leaning into the lessons these designers, thinkers, philosophers are bringing to the fore will serve us all well as we sit at the edges of a hazy and parched (or even possibly submerged) future.

 Suhair Khan works for Google and is currently based in London. Her work has mostly focused on the intersection of technology, creativity, culture and (recently) sustainability. She’s a visiting lecturer at the Architectural Association in London and founder of the Open/Ended design residency. Edited by Ambika Hiranandani

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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



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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Environmentally Speaking

Rajaji National Park isn’t just about elephants

Joydev Sengupta



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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