The goose that lays golden eggs…

When I was a little girl, I loved story time. There was no better way to spend an evening than to listen intently to my mom tell us magical tales of fairies and witches, dragons and princes. But those that stayed with me over the years are perhaps among the most loved across the world – Aesop’s fables. One in particular keeps coming back to me over and over again. The story of the goose that laid golden eggs.  

A farmer and his wife owned a very special goose.  It was special because it would lay a golden egg everyday. This made the couple very rich.

One day, the farmer’s wife said to him,  “Just think, if we could have all the golden eggs that are inside the goose, we could be richer much faster.”

“You’re right,” said her husband, “We wouldn’t have to wait for the goose to lay her egg every day.”

So, the couple killed the goose and cut her open, only to find that she did not have any golden eggs inside of her at all. What was worse was that they now had no more golden eggs…

There’s another story in the making.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, agriculture accounts for over 70% of the freshwater usage across the world. In some countries, this figure even goes beyond 90%. The implication is that unwittingly, farmers and their decisions have profound influence on the fresh water availability of the world. Their actions will govern the fate of many a region. Now when we say farmers here, it is really a broad term that includes not only the archetypal farmer who grows cereals, pulses, vegetables, fruits and cash crops such as cotton, sugarcane and the like but also those involved in the animal husbandry industry as well as corporate giants such as Cargill,  a privately held company that employs 142,000 people in 66 countries. They describe themselves as ‘an international producer and marketer of food, agricultural, financial and industrial products and services’ and have an extremely wide range of offerings such as grains, oilseeds, sugar, chocolate, sweeteners, starches, meats, eggs and poultry, salt, cotton, dressings, sauces and oils and also petroleum and fuels. So if you’re wondering where the problem lies, it is simply that, looking at it purely from an anthropocentric angle, i.e human perspective, freshwater, in its usable form presents many spatio-temporal issues. In other words, it is not always available where people want it and when they want it and in the quantities they want it. In order to overcome this problem, many resort to tapping a source of water that has been considered more reliable and of a better quality than surface water such as that found in rivers and lakes – groundwater.

We’ve mastered the art of abstracting groundwater from deeper and deeper sources but our understanding and appreciation of how groundwater comes to be, is just as rudimentary as aesop’s farmer’s understanding of golden eggs.  Before I talk about the larger problem, and the latest research, here’s an interesting primer on groundwater first.

UNEP’s global environmental alert service has issued a report in Jan 2012 about the impending crisis because of increasing global reliance on groundwater. It notes that ‘Intensive use of groundwater is a relatively recent phenomenon beginning in industrialized countries in the 1950s and reaching much of the developing world between 1970 and 1990’. The key to this phenomenon was the development of cheaper drilling and pumping technology. As a result, many aquifers across the world are now under threat because the rates of abstraction have gone way beyond the time taken to replenish the aquifers. (Perhaps I should rephrase that as the people of those regions are under threat.) Again, not all aquifers are replenished. So some regions are currently using what is known as fossil water.

So which are the specific regions where groundwater is extracted at unsustainable rates?

Scientists have made estimates based on available data. This has been further confirmed by NASA satellite images.

The most serious instances of overdraft occur in regions where there is intense agriculture – India, China, USA. In short, ICU (Medical terminology seems apt here ;-))

The report states that several studies have confirmed that the Indus River plains aquifer, beneath the India-Pakistan border demonstrates the world’s worst groundwater depletion. The Indian Ministry of Water Resources has classified a large proportion of northwestern India as ‘overexploited’ and the water tables in the region show significant decline. Some urban areas have reported a decline as much as 10 metres in a single year. (As far as India is concerned, several media reports too cover this issue of groundwater decline across the country. For examples see here and here.) A similar story unfolds in the North China Plain aquifer system and a developed economy like the US is no exception to the laws of nature. Large-scale irrigation in the west-central United States has proven quite disastrous for the region. Several counties in Texas are reported to have experienced declines of over 45 metres in the aquifer. A 2010 study estimated that ‘depletion of groundwater in the Texas Central High Plains area of the aquifer was ten times the rate of recharge.’ Similar over-exploitation can be seen right across the world.

What happens when we over-extract groundwater?

The UNEP report explains it well:

‘Even when abstraction does not exceed recharge, it can alter complex aquifer system dynamics, decreasing spring and stream flow and degrading water quality (12). In addition to undermining the sustainability of continued human uses, depletion of many aquifer systems in arid and semi-arid areas has been linked to diminished capacity for support of ecosystem functions and to environmental damage (12,13).’

‘Salinization often occurs in coastal aquifers where overexploitation of groundwater can stimulate recharge from more saline waters within the groundwater system and seriously degrade water quality (34,12). Several areas in North Africa have experienced this type of seawater intrusion, including Tunisia, Libya and the Nile Delta (34). Excessive withdrawal of water from some aquifers has led to significant land subsidence. This is of particular concern in urban areas where the damage can be substantial. A study in Mexico’s Toluca Valley estimated areas of subsidence up to two metres between 1952 and 2009 (35). On the Southern Yangtze Delta in China, subsidence from over abstraction of as much as three metres has caused cracking of buildings and failure of buried pipelines (36). Declining water tables can reduce stream flow, affect water quality in wetlands and lakes, dry up wetlands, diminish the capacity of rivers to dilute inflowing pollutants and change areas of groundwater discharge to areas of groundwater recharge (6,37). These changes can directly eliminate or degrade habitat and result in loss of biodiversity, and can indirectly cause repercussions throughout aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems (37).’ Shortage of water also leads to potentially unsavoury practices such as  land grabs in Africa where states such as China, India, South Korea and the Oil-rich gulf states are buying up water-rich land to secure their food supply.The current state of understanding and management in the UNEP report is well worth a read.

Is there hope yet?

Yes. In several pockets.  For instance, there is research being done on water, culture and identity in Balochistan. Ancient community owned irrigation structures such as Karezs  that have been ignored, if not discredited in the quest for ‘modernity’. Several sponsors in conjunction with the state, have been encouraging tube wells at the expense of the local society and the environment. However research reveals that protecting them could bring back not only lost livelihoods but also dignity to the rural poor. Another significant benefit would be that the entire community would be invested in protecting groundwater together and it wouldn’t be an ‘each for himself, God for all’ approach that private tubewells tend to propagate. Read more here.

Another example – In India, six thousand farmers in Andhra Pradesh have become ‘barefoot water scientists’. They have been trained by NGOs on groundwater management. As a result, they are empowered to manage their resources and cooperate with other farmers of the region. Watch this video.

There are several more examples, but they are currently only sporadic. The need of the hour is systemic change. So irrespective of  whether you and I are farmers or not, each of us is the protagonist of this story. Each of us needs to find a way to stay informed and more importantly get involved somehow. Some ways that come to mind immediately are researching, advocating, legislation, finding new technology, creating communities that understand the implications and demonstrate care, running private enterprises or social enterprises that can find innovative solutions to the problems listed above. After all, there is not a single person who can claim to not benefit from groundwater either directly or indirectly. If you think this is not your problem, take a look at this video.



How much water do you use everyday?

If your answer to the above question stops at the quantity you use for drinking, cooking, washing, it is incomplete. Even if you don’t quite know how much water you use everyday, through this particular blog, I hope to share how each of us benefits in daily life from far more water than meets the eye. I also hope to briefly explain the changing landscape of water. The answer lies in terms such as virtual water and water footprint. ‘What do Elton John, Bob Dylan, Marilyn Monroe and Virtual Water all have in common?’ asks Tony Allan in his book Virtual Water. The answer is simple enough. Tony tells us that ‘They all required a name-change to get noticed.’ He should know best. He coined the term after-all. In today’s digital age, thanks to virtual teams and virtual meetings, one may have a vague yet innate understanding of the term. It refers to ‘embedded water’. Not the water that is actually physically present but the amount of water required to produce anything and everything. It seems simple enough. Yet it was radical in its time. As cumbersome as accounting processes are, remarkably, water has never been considered as a factor of production in its own right even though economists do take land and raw materials into consideration. Water plays a pivotal role in the world economy yet has been ignored for the larger part of the century. But that’s changing, thanks to visionary academicians like Prof.Tony Allan, Prof.Arjen Hoekstra and their teams and other heroes from the non-academic world like the people of Plachimada (a tiny village in the state of Kerala, India) who help us see things anew.

There are many doom and gloom stories about water scarcity. It is important to note that the world isn’t running out of water per se. Far from it. It is just that we depend on freshwater far more than we realize. Not only are these sources being threatened due to rampant destruction of ecosystems but the pattern of availability is also changing due to climate change. Much has been said on this issue. But concepts such as virtual water and water footprint (as articulated by Hoekstra) help us separate the wheat from the chaff. We’ve all been told sometime or the other to turn off the tap while brushing our teeth, take shorter showers, put a brick in the toilet cistern to save water.  They are all important. More so when we realize how all our actions contribute to the whole picture of  local water security.  However, Tony adds a game-changing dimension to this when he informs us that most of the water we use at a personal level, comes through our food consumption. In the case of the US or Europe, the average non-vegetarian diet consumes about 5 cubic metres of water EACH DAY. To put that into perspective, it is roughly about 15 bathtubs filled with water. In comparison, a vegetarian diet consumes about 2700 litres of water per day. That is roughly about eight bathtubs. ‘Forget bricks in the toilet cistern’ he says,’ going vegetarian would save many lifetimes of toilet trips.’ The latest research from Hoekstra and team also reiterates this. ‘ Nearly one-third of the total water footprint of agriculture in the world is related to the production of animal products. The water footprint of any animal product is larger than the water footprint of crop products with equivalent nutritional value.’ See source.

Delve deeper into water footprints and you will find yourself  also being surprised when you realize how much water goes into producing stuff around us. Take for instance an A4 Sheet of paper. Its water footprint is 10 litres PER SHEET. Now, one ream of paper contains 500 sheets. So that means every ream of paper that we use, required about 5000 litres of water to produce it.  Using Tony’s analogy again, that is equivalent to roughly about 15 bathtubs filled with water.Take another example – leather. Of course we don’t purchase leather by the kilo but we certainly use enough of it in our leather sofas, shoes, bags, jackets, belts and other household items. The water footprint of leather is 16,600 litres per kg. If you care enough to actually trace the exact quantity of leather in such a household and do the math, soon you’ll be dealing with numbers that are beyond everyday comprehension/care. (You can download a nifty iPhone application  from this site. The application lets you learn about how much water our everyday food and beverages really consume.)

Yet we hardly stop and think about this. In itself, this usage of water is not a problem. It only becomes one when you fail to consider the context around where that water comes from, as the Coca-cola company learned from a very painful experience at Plachimada. A multi-national company with revenues in billions of dollars was forced to re-think its overall strategy and viability, because of what water meant to illiterate but determined farmers in the village. If you are unfamiliar with the plachimada case, more information is available here and here. Thanks to this emblematic case, today Coke takes great pains globally to demonstrate in reality and in PR, care of the local ecosystem and protection of the watershed, ie – the source of water at each of its plants. See the website for more information. But before we dismiss this as an isolated company trying to garner PR brownies, let’s stop and understand this further.  Water has made its way to corporate boardrooms where there are active discussions on the physical risk of the non-availability of water in the company’s operations/ supply chain. ‘No water, no barley, no beer’ is a pithy slogan but it contains more than a grain of truth in it and it could be similarly applied to several industries. As seen from the Coke case, the risk to a company’s reputation, regulatory and financial risk with regard to water are also factors that cannot be ignored any longer.  Even the guru of savvy investing Warren Buffet seems to have noticed the changing waterscape. According to this article, in 2009 his company ‘Berkshire Hathaway, became the largest shareholder in Nalco, a water-services, treatment, and equipment company that has no public profile but 12,000 employees and nearly $4 billion in revenue’. Water business is slowly but surely becoming big business…a market as big as $400-billion-a-year.

Speaking in general terms however, there are several examples of the disastrous consequences of taking water for granted. One  that is commonly known in academic discourse but is not as well known in popular circles is that of the Aral Sea. These are images of what confronts us today in a region that once used to be known as the Aral Sea.  (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Aral Sea from space, August 1985

Aral Sea from space, 1997

Aral Sea from space, August 2009

Simply put, this is largely attributed to the mismanagement of the region in pursuit of the cultivation of a very thirsty crop – Cotton. 11,000 litres of water are required for a yield of one kg of cotton.  Needless to say, a very thirsty crop in an arid region is a recipe for disaster. Merely reading what wikipedia has to say about the impact of this degradation on the environment, the economy and public health is enough to confound even the most indifferent person. All this could have been totally avoided. But that direction of thought is stuff of mere fantasy right now. Reality demands that we take heed of this example and act wisely to avoid similar situations in other regions of the world because the story of the Aral Sea is probably being repeated in several parts of world, especially in the developing world. Retail stores in developed economies offer fantastic discounts on ‘branded garments’, most of which are manufactured in the developing world. China and India are the world’s top two producers of cotton. Need I say more?

A ‘scarce’ symbol of abundance

I’m coming back to this blog after eons. Although there was no dearth of topics, did not write for a variety of reasons. The most important of which was that I was distressed by my latest research findings and I did not want to add to the gloom and doom literature on environmental issues all around us. Since it is the start of a new year, I begin afresh with faith in my heart that there is still hope. Today I write about a resource that is intriguingly and ironically perceived as being abundant yet scarce, quotidian yet precious. Much like breath that nourishes our very existence, but is rarely thought about, this resource has come to be the linchpin of modern life all across the globe. Yet, beyond a few select circles, we hardly ever pay attention to it. The resource I write about is – sand. Because I have so much to say on the topic, I intend on presenting this information in bite-sized chunks, so there will be a couple of pieces to this topic. Stay with me till the end…

‘I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore…’(Genesis)

Sand is a quintessential symbol of abundance for people of many faiths and cultures. In fact within popular discourse, the bounty of sand is deemed to be so large that it is considered impossible to count the number of grains of sand on Earth and by extension, it implies an infinite supply. Mathematicians at the University of Hawaii have tried to guess how many grains of sand there are on the world’s beaches. Their calculations pointed them to the following number: 7,500,000,000,000,000,000, or seven quintillion five quadrillion grains of sand (McAllister, 1994-2003). Definite as this number is, however, it only represents the sand on beaches and excludes sand found around rivers and on the ocean bed. Thus it does not bring us any closer to really understanding how much sand there is on this planet. For this reason, I was very surprised to read reports on scarcity of sand in various places particularly in the context of the construction industry.

Image courtesy – Kristel Anbu, my kind sister-in-law

Despite being commonplace and non-charismatic, sand provides the material basis for ‘development’. From uses such as glass-making to litter boxes for pets, sand is directly used in several familiar ways. The most astounding of these in terms of volume is the creation of ‘new land’ For e.g. Around 500 million m3 of sand was reclaimed (from the ocean bed) for the Palm Island II (Jebel Ali) and Waterfront projects on the coast of Dubai.. ‘This equates to a row of trucks encircling the Earth about 22 times‘ (Jan De Nul Group, 2009).

Image Courtesy – PRP International

I was amazed to discover the wide breadth of applications that sand has, ranging from the mundane to the miraculous :

  1. Construction mortar, concrete and in making bricks for commercial, residential, industrial, administrative, recreational buildings etc.
  2. Beach nourishment/ replenishment for eroding coastlines and land reclamation- extending coastlines, creation of new islands, port development
  3. Infrastructure such as roads, highway surfaces and walkways, parking lots, airport runways, bridges. Consider this example. In the United States, 85,000 tonnes are required in order to construct one mile of four-lane interstate highway and an average six room house requires 90 tonnes of aggregate (Kondolf et al., 2001)
  4. Glass for window panes, glassware, glazing for pottery, lenses, television tubes, mirrors, fibre glass reinforcement, lamps, stained glass art, lasers, insulators, telescopes, bottles and containers for alcohol, soft drinks, and food items like jams, pickles etc. (USGS, 2011)
  5. As a source of strategic minerals such as Silica, Garnets, Thorium and ores such as Titanium, Uranium, Zirconium, Ilmenite used in applications too numerous to list here. Two examples a) Titanium is used in production of ‘lightweight alloys, aircraft components (jet engines, aircraft frames), automotive components, joint replacement (hips ball and sockets), paints, watches, chemical processing equipment, marine equipment (rigging and other parts exposed to sea water), pulp and paper processing equipment, pipes, jewellery’ b) Zirconium is used in ‘Ceramics, refractories, foundry sands, glass, chemical piping in corrosive environments, nuclear power reactors, hardening agent in alloys, heat exchangers, photographic flashbulbs, surgical instruments’ (IIED and WBCSD, 2002). Heavy Minerals such as Rutile, Sillimanite and Monazite that find use in in the paint industry, welding electrodes, ceramics, foundry and also various applications like plastics, sun screen, food colouring and biomedical applications (Corpwatch, 2007)
  6. Industrial uses in metal foundries, industrial casting, sand blasting, sand paper(NISA, 2011)
  7. Semiconductors in electronics and IT Hardware. Semiconductors ‘serve as the essential component in almost every electronic device we use today, ranging from personal computers to notebooks to cell phones. Not even cars can do without semiconductors and electronics today, because semiconductors control the air conditioning, the injection process, the ignition process, the sunroof, the mirrors and even the steering (check out BMW’s Active Steering)’ (Tom‟s hardware, 2007)
  8. Sandbags for the first line of defense in military operations, railway ballast, fill material, grit on the pavements exposed to snow
  9. Hydraulic fracturing applications (, 2003-2010)
  10. Water filtration and purification (USGS, 2011)
  11. Recreational needs such as sand pits in playgrounds, artificial beaches, residential pool filters, horse racing tracks, greyhound tracks, football pitches, tennis courts and golf courses especially the sand traps and ball fields. (NISA, 2011)
  12. Litter boxes and building artificial habitats for animals (The Greensand Trust, 2010)

Interestingly enough, despite the significance of sand to modern life, one notices several glaring contradictions in the way this resource is treated:

Sand is classified as a ‘low value’ resource (IIED and WBCSD, 2002) and also a ‘minor’ mineral resource even in legislation (See MAC, 2007 for info on the Indian context). Mining operations of any sort are known to be disruptive and destructive in most cases, especially when not managed well. Sand in particular, is extracted at gargantuan rates and used in quantities that surpass popular imagination. In terms of sheer volume, aggregates of construction minerals (such as sand and gravel) account for the largest material volumes mined in the world where the global production as estimated in 2000, was estimated to exceed 15 billion tonnes per year (IIED and WBCSD, 2002). Yet, much literature explicitly states that sand mining is not as environmentally destructive as other kinds of mining. For e.g. The United States Geological Survey (2011) (USGS) states ‘Except for temporarily disturbing the immediate area while mining operations are active, sand and gravel mining usually has limited environmental impact.’ Strange. Don’t you think?

Is there evidence that establishes ‘Scarcity’?:

Yes – the scarcity is both real (i.e physical) and perceived. Unfortunately though, much of this literature is nonacademic and therefore may sometimes lack cohesion and power. It would be great to see this topic being taken up for further research and in-depth study that can then inform policy decisions. For now, I present what I found…

There are scores of examples of perceived scarcity of sand in varying coastal geographies across the world (Young and Griffith, 2009). Some other examples include Australia (Ratcliffe, 1997; Stoltz, 2011), Cambodia (Global Witness, 2010), Dubai (Palca, 2008),Ghana (Mensah, 1997), India (Hoering, 2008; Padmalal et al., 2008; Sekhar and Jayadev, 2003; Sreeba and Padmalal, 2011), Namibia (Hartman, 2010), Tanzania (Nyandwi, 2001), United States (Brynes et al., 2000; Brynes et al.,2004; Femmer,2002; Kondolf et al., 2001), Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay (Halweil, 2000), Bosnia (Clancy, 2004). Island states in particular feel the acute tension between „development‟ and the need to protect the coast. Numerous examples can be found in many of the Caribbean Islands such as Peurto Rico, Grenada, Tobago, Montesserat, British Virgin island and others (Cambers, 1997), Jamaica (Farrant et al., 2003), Sri Lanka (Gunaratne and Jayarooriya, n.d.), Indonesia (Kamis, 2011, The Jakarta Post, 2007), Maldives (PTI, 2008, Jacob, 2010).

From the creation of jobs (Young and Griffith, 2009) to the production of many material objects listed earlier, the many positive impacts of sand mining traverse a fine line between convenience and necessity. The negative impacts mentioned in the above literature are briefly elaborated in the table below.

Negative Impacts of Sand Mining Examples
Threat to water security Loss of groundwater storage due to lowering of alluvial water table. For instance „The Lake County (California) Planning Department (1992) estimated that incision from in-stream mining in small river valleys could reduce alluvial aquifer storage from 1 to 16 percent, depending on local geology and aquifer geometry.‟ (Kondolf et al., 2001, p54)As explained above, when the deep ‘sponge’ of sand that acts as a reservoir to charge groundwater wells and aquifers is removed, water is consequently no longer available at shallow depths and wells have to be dug deeper where the quality of water might be different. It also implies a significant rise in water costs and hence makes it accessible only to those who can afford it ( See Hoering, 2008)Mining of sand allows for intrusion of sea water and consequent salinisation of well water (Viswanathan, 2002)
Habitat loss including destruction and fragmentation of fragile, endangered ecosystems Mangroves, Coral Reefs destroyed (Myers, 1999)Sea grass beds (Global Witness, 2010)
Reduced species richness Sea Turtle Population Undermined (The Bajan Reporter,n.d.)Indian Otters endangered (Hussain, n.d.)A critically endangered species of crocodile – Gharial (also called Indian Ghavial), where „an estimated 200 breeding adult gharial left in the wild‟ further threatened. (The Gharial Multi-task force, 2006, p6)
Increased shoreline erosion rates Especially when mined unscientifically (Brynes et al.., 2000)
Threats to critical infrastructure such as bridges, roads, railway tracks and the like The costs of infrastructure damage directly attributable to gravel mining In the San Benito River, California, from 1952 to 1995 was estimated to be about $11 million, equivalent to about $3/ton of gravel produced (Harvey and Smith (1998) as cited in Kondolf et al., 2001)
Decreased protection from sea water , especially during ocean disasters Decreased protection from erosion by seawater for beachfronts after sand extraction (Myers, 1999)
Threat to construction industry of all kinds $1 Billion hotel development in Jamaica stalled because 500 truckloads of sand stolen from Coral Springs Beach, Jamaica (Young and Griffith, 2009)
Loss of livelihoods Tourism affected (Young and Griffith, 2009);Occupations such as agriculture, fishing Coir Weaving severely impacted (Viswanathan, 2002)
Changes in land use patterns Destruction of developable land for use in residential construction (which in-turn increases the pressure of urbanization on fertile lands) (Myers,1999)
Increased public health costs From unsafe mining practices (that could cause respiratory diseases like silicosis) (Myers & Muhajir I997)Damage to agricultural lands leaves pits that provide a breeding ground for mosquitoes and thus spread vector borne diseases such as Malaria (Mensah, 1997)
Several social issues Use of child labour and land ownership conflicts in Ghana (Mensah,1997)
Governance Issues Establishment of illegal activities and a mafia around sand mining (Gunaratne and Jayarooriya, n.d.)In India, a sand mine auction ban cost the Maharashtra govt Rs.800 crore (i.e Rs. 8,000.000,000) (Khapre, 2011)

In the next post, I will examine one particular case-study that was part of my research on the topic. For now though, in conclusion to this post, all I have to say is that the current milieu around sand mining / extraction is polychromatic and fiercely contested and definitely not as ‘unproblematic’ as some sources would have us believe.

Wildlife and you

Practically every other day, we are confronted with so many stories about vanishing species and yet, there are people who still doubt. Can human beings really impact the Earth? Isn’t nature all powerful? Hasn’t nature survived for millions of years? The answer is yes to all those questions. For better or worse though, human beings do have the power to affect the Earth as much as the Earth has the power to affect all of us. In 1992, Edward Wilson noted that human activities have increased ‘background’ extinction rates by between 100 and 10,000 times. ‘We are’, he said, ‘in the midst of one of the great extinction spasms of geological history’ (See source P 5). In 2007, as many as one in four of the world’s mammals, one in eight birds, one third of all amphibians and 70 per cent of the world’s assessed plants on the current list were in jeopardy. The list in question is the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™. The situation today seems just as grim across the world. One of the latest reports says “More than 40 species of marine fish currently found in the Mediterranean could disappear in the next few years. According to a study for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ on the status of marine fish in the Mediterranean Sea, almost half of the species of sharks and rays (cartilaginous fish) and at least 12 species of bony fish are threatened with extinction due to overfishing, marine habitat degradation and pollution.” It is heart-breaking to read reports such as this…BP Oil Disaster at One Year: Assessing Impacts on Marine Mammals.  The red tape seems to be getting worse though. The New York Times tells us that wildlife at risk face long line at U.S. Agency. “In February, the Obama administration declared the Pacific walrus to be at risk of extinction because its Arctic habitat was melting. But it declined to list the marine mammal as an endangered species, saying a backlog of other animals faced greater peril. “Read more here. At risk of extinction but cannot be listed as endangered. Such a shame!

Early this year, India released her own List of  Critically Endangered Species. “Critically endangered is the highest risk category assigned by the IUCN Red List to wild species. Critically endangered means that the natural population of a species has decreased, or will decrease, by 80 per cent within three generations, and all the available evidence indicates an extremely high risk of its extinction in the wild.” Decrease by 80% within three generations… In that list is a bird that had captured the imagination of so many generations through the epic tale of Ramayana.  Jataayu, the vulture who fought Raavan so valiantly now watches as his entire race is wiped off the face of this Earth through a combination of poisoning, and disease .  While you and I go about our business as usual, ignoring Jataayu’s peril at our own risk, the monster with 10 heads, Raavan finds life in people like us.

Is there any hope for these magnificent animals ?

In such a bleak atmosphere, however feeble, there is still hope. There are many high profile organizations working to save critically endangered species.  But hope can also spring from organizations working in ‘ordinary’ wildlife rescue at the grass-root level. In India, there are two that I’d like to highlight- Wildlife SOS and Vanamitra. Both are involved in numerous rescues and other work that is the need of the hour.  Each of the websites will give you more information about the organizations and their work. What I’d like to dwell upon here though, is how such organizations come to life through the courage of individuals. Many months ago, I received an email from a young person. A few lines from the mail read as follows:  “I have been reading a lot on sustainability issues.  The more I learn the more convinced I am that I should take it up as a full time career option. But whenever I discuss it with my family and friends I do not get a positive response to back my decision.” Like this person, I believe there are many out there who’d like to do a lot more but are afraid.

For such people, I’d like to share the story of one of the founder trustees of Vanamitra since I know him personally. He is a young, dynamic individual. I recently asked him why he had chosen to work in this field despite having an engineering degree that could get him a job in many prestigious MNCs (Multi-National Corporations).  In his own words :

“Coming to why I came into this field after engineering… Well this was pure passion. ‘Wildlife rescues’ is something that I have been doing for 11 years now. I was 12 when I rescued my first snake and I am just hooked on since then! Engineering was the “safety net” my parents and family wanted me to have as something to fall back on. 🙂 So the deal made was that I would do engineering to please them and then take up a full time career in conservation which would please me and so far it is going great! 🙂 ”

A snake rescue when he was only 12 years old! Such daring, you’d think comes easier to someone who did not live in cities i.e concrete jungles. But this person defies convention in many ways.

“The ideal scenario would be when you are exposed to various fields at a young age, you identify your passion and direct all your energy towards something that you like and are good at. That didn’t all happen in my case actually. Even though I had a passion for widlife, I was made to study engineering to have that degree as a “safety net”! I think I would have liked to study wildlife biology or ecology in my undergraduate course ideally.

I grew up in a completely urban environment actually. Been in Bangalore since birth. The skills to rescue that snake at 12 were definitely hard earned cause nobody was ready to teach me anything as I was too young. Snakes had always fascinated me actually. So I had spent a lot of time in just reading and understanding about snakes before I could actually handle one. There were few rescuers I knew around me who were doing an awesome job of it. So I started spending a lot of time with them observing how they do it and eventually I was able to handle them myself. After snakes, I learnt to handle injured birds and them mammals. Snakes still remain a personal favourite though. 🙂 I started working on reptiles as a whole from a biodiversity and habitat research view point along with researchers from IISc and other agencies and still continue to do so. I am looking to pursue Masters in Wildlife Science through distance education from a university in America. Hope that materializes soon. ”

I hope so too and wish him every success.  It is good to know that people can still work very closely with wildlife even if they were born and raised in a city. Such courage to trust your instincts and follow your heart is rare but highly rewarding and also the greatest need of the hour. In the event that you cannot/ don’t wish to do such work full-time, do get involved with organizations such as Vanamitra. From Nature Camps that help us appreciate wild life to Rescue and Rehabilitation programs, there are plenty of opportunities to learn and contribute.  Will leave you with just these thoughts.

The term ‘ecological crisis’ is used so commonly today that it often fails to evoke the desired response. Crises today are met with either paralysis through analysis, shock and awe or are completely ignored, hoping that that problem will go away on its own. To remedy the situation and turn it into inspiraction, we only have to realize that the word ‘crisis’ stems from a Greek word meaning ‘a time of decision’

Received as an Email Forward.

The Tale of the Tiger’s Travails

I recall a passionate debate that I was witness to sometime last year in India. A young man couldn’t understand the fuss about tigers and the need to “save” our national animal. In his opinion, all we had to do was “just choose another another national animal”. The solution was supposedly as simple, or should I say as simplistic as that. Agreed the human construct of a ‘national animal’ needs better scrutiny but the ease with which he spoke of animal extinctions makes me shudder. My very first blog was about animals on the brink of extinctions. The animal chart my friend and I made doesn’t even begin to cover the number of species that are imperilled.  I wonder what is it that makes us so smug about being humans? Is it sheer callousness or just deep ignorance? What makes many of us believe humans will survive long after our ecosystem crashes into oblivion? A shallow way of thinking can paradoxically be deep seated sometimes. Humans are just another species that are part of an ecosystem or in simple words as Disney put it, a  ‘circle of life’. Break one critical link and pretty soon, the entire circle comes unraveled. This problem has been creatively articulated by Free Range Studios through a spoof of a popular movie. Free Range Studios does a fantastic job with every video they make. Truly creativity with a conscience!

So coming back to the Tiger,what is the status on India’s ‘national animal’?

The Government of India recently announced an increase in tiger numbers. One may rejoice at the increase until one sees these lines in the article. “For the first time, tiger numbers for the Sundarbans has been released. The estimate has been put at 70, while it has been maintained all these years that it’s above 200.” Another gnawing cause for concern is ” though the tiger number is up, the tiger occupancy area has come down by as much 20,000 sq km.”

Noted Tiger expert Dr. Ullas Karanth makes some extremely valid and critical points as he says “The result of the national tiger estimation exercise conducted over the past couple of years has been released on 28-3-2011.  It reports an increase in adult tiger numbers to 1636 (1706 including Sunderbans), up from the previous estimate of 1411 tigers in 2007. This is an increase of 16% compounded over 4 years, suggesting that the previous decline of tigers has been reversed.  However, since full details are not yet available as to how these tiger numbers have been arrived at, it is not possible to give an expert opinion about the new numbers. However, since various threats faced by tigers do not appear to have diminished in last four years, it is difficult to explain the claimed reversal of the decline of tigers.”(Emphasis added) Read more here. Dr. Karanth is so right in the points he makes. How would it be if the house were on fire and the fire brigade came in every 4 days to check how the house was doing? It seems to me that the same logic is operating here. For a country that exports complex and fascinating technology to the outside world, it is a crying shame if we have to still rely on monitoring of tracks by forest guards to identify individual tigers and I am flabbergasted that even this procedure is carried out once in four years instead of  monitoring it year-after-year!

While I’m highly appreciative that a private company stepped in to create awareness about something so crucial, I’d hate it if it were only an advertising gimmick. I’d also find it unacceptable if the Government of India (GoI) doesn’t do what it must. What is worse is if you and I become mere mute spectators to a charade. Project Tiger is supposed to be a flagship conservation project of the country. But comparing these two websites, one that belongs to the GoI and the other set up by Aircell in partnership with WWF, would immediately give you a sense of ambition and entrepreneurship in one and bureaucracy in the other.

Source: Project Tiger Website

Source: Project Tiger Website

How can we expect our forest guards to protect anything when they are equipped with slippers and lathis (canes) while the poachers are equipped with guns and vehicles and high-profile lawyers to fight their cases? Most importantly, how can we expect them to be efficient if their wages are not paid on time? I assume that most of their wages would already be pegged at subsistence level and if even those wages are not given to them, I can’t see how they can be expected to protect themselves, let alone protect the Tiger. If you haven’t already watched this brilliant movie ‘The Truth about Tigers‘ by Shekhar Dattatri, you simply MUST. It is a no-nonsense take on the issue that not only is brutally honest but also tells us what you and I can do about the situation. Also watch this chilling video of an investigation of trade in skin and organs of big cats  by EIA and WPSI in 2005:

Here is another article on this trade. How can any animal survive such onslaught? What has the government done to address all these concerns? With no information on the aforementioned, how is the public expected to believe the statistics?

As always, the point of this blog is not government bashing but to take a fresh look at the situation and see if we can find ways to take action.  To explore how we can avoid turning a blind eye to something that is on the brink of disaster. Let’s then take inspiration from the maker of film ‘The Truth about Tigers’ Shekhar Dattatri.

Shekhar Dattatri Image Credit:

He is highly acclaimed in his field, yet he chose to step back and look at the big picture. In his own words: “In 2000, after producing and shooting yet another ‘blue chip’* natural history film for television, I began to question where I was going with my work. I had achieved my ambition of becoming a wildlife filmmaker, and loved every minute of it. But, after 15 years in the business, it was becoming more and more difficult to ignore the fact that, all around me, wild India was wilting under tremendous pressure. Globalization, corruption, ignorance and a lack of political will for conservation are all taking an enormous toll on the country’s last wild spaces. Today, less than 4% of India’s vast landscape is protected as National Parks and Sanctuaries, and even these tiny enclaves are under constant threat. I began to wonder whether, with all the beautifully crafted films I was producing for television, I was doing anything other than documenting disappearing wildlife and landscapes. Sure, some of the films had conservation messages in them, but were they making any impact on a predominantly passive television audience?

So what were the alternatives? Did I want to make gloom and doom films instead? Would anybody watch them? More important, would anybody fund or air them? Television was getting less serious, not more, and with an incredible amount of choice available, the average viewer wasn’t going to sit in front of the TV to be told that the world was going to hell in a basket.

If I wanted to make a difference I had to do something different…” Read more

Powerful words there. Words that speak volumes of the tumult he must have faced while making a decision to dedicate one full year to the making of this film. Thereafter he has been relentlessly travelling from one place to another spreading the word on the urgent need to act now.  His movie has been made available freely to all those who can get access though the internet, through DVDs etc.  His passion for this magnificent animal and the forests is contagious. He is currently hard at work forming a youth movement for conservation and is expected to launch it in a couple of months. India desperately needs direction from such gurus.

But as Shekhar himself points out, it is not enough to wait for one person to change the world. Each of us is called to action in our own little ways.  Each of us needs to step back from the rat race and try and find innovative ways to contribute. At the very least, it is critical that we find conservation organizations and support them with our time and/or money. Will share more information in forthcoming posts.  For now, this site is a good starting point…

Mighty Mushroom Magic Against Petroleum Pollution

Thought it would be appropriate to begin this post with a picture of  the humble mushroom as ‘Mighty Mushroom’, no less than a superhero who has the potential to save us all. The foe we’re up against is no ordinary enemy. It is an enemy that has stealthily pervaded every facet of our modern-day life and is wreaking havoc with systems that enable life to flourish, making such vibrant systems in need of life-support systems themselves. You may be all too familiar with the effects of plastic pollution and our dependence on petroleum. I have written about this in the past. Available here and here. When I read stories about climate summits and how they stumble forward at a pace that is painfully slow, it makes me realize that true change can never come from dependence on nation-states and policy alone. It especially hurts to read things like “Some deadlines for accomplishing these have already passed and it appears little of substance was accomplished in Bangkok, with that work being passed on to the next meeting set for June in Bonn, Germany.” So while the so-called decision makers jet-set their way from one picturesque destination to another, trying to negotiate over something that should have been a foregone conclusion, it is heartening to see social entrepreneurs and start-ups dive into the deep end and come out tops with radical solutions that can actually save humanity.

The latest buzz is about a start-up called “Ecovative Design” based in Green Island, New York. Ecovative was started in 2007 by two students with a wild idea; “to make materials better than Styrofoam out of… mushrooms!” Today this company led by Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre is replacing thousands of petrochemical based packaging parts with a renewable biodegradable alternative: EcoCradle™

They actually use mycelium (or mushroom roots in lay terms) and crop waste like rice hulls or cotton burrs to produce a new chitinous polymer composite material that performs like plastics but does not depend on petro-chemicals, does not take food away from hungry people, and uses little energy to manufacture plus is 100% bio-degradable and home-compostable at the end of its life. What’s more, this technology allows for creation of products that are fire resistant (unlike styrofoam), moisture resistant, vapor resistant, insulating and even those that absorb acoustical impacts! How cool is that?! No one says it better than Eben. Watch a video of his TED Talk here where he explains the technology and the spirit behind this innovation, sorry ecovation!

On the 5th of Apr,2011 Dell announced a pilot program where it has started shipping servers protected by EcoCradle™ products instead of foam. Oliver Campbell, Procurement Director announced “We’ve tested the mushroom cushioning extensively in the lab to ensure it meets our same high standards to safely protect our products during shipment – and it passed like a champ.  Now we’re ready to take the next step and we’re proud that Dell is the first technology company to start pilot shipments.” Way to go Dell!

Ecovative has also teamed up with Ford to manufacture partially compostable cars! Now let’s make that a little more specific. What they have teamed up for is to use Ecovative’s mushroom-based foam as a key component in bumpers, side doors, and dashboards. Ford hopes to replace 30 pounds of each car’s petroleum-based foams with more environmentally sensible alternatives. More information available here.

Drawbacks to mushroom based packaging: This site says these products are denser and therefore heavier than styrofoam and that might in turn affect shipments. If that is true, I do hope they find a way to make it comparable. All else being the same, in comparison to foam, my vote would still go to this product any day! Also in question is that fact that some of the products deemed agricultural “wastes” are  already used as animal feed or as a component of fertilizer. Maybe true, but I guess it is then up to us to choose feedstock that is not already being used in this manner. There’s another drawback, business is pouring in so rapidly that the company is finding it a challenge to meet demand! But that is always a good problem to have. Isn’t it? 🙂

It is very exciting to learn of such developments. This company has approximately 30 employees, has received a total of $4 million in grants and other funding for their research and development activities. I hope their story inspires many more to start their own ecologically sensitive venture. After all, what’s good for the Earth, is good for us and the reverse need not always hold true.  With products that are over-packaged today, this company’s venture is the need of the hour. The IMF has issued a warning that the global economy is entering a period of scarcer oil that could drive prices up rapidly. If this article is right, the  global packaging industry is worth US$ 424 billion and out of this Europe has US$127 billion, Asia has US$114 billion, North America has US$ 118 billion, Latin America has US$ 30 billion, and other countries have $US 30 billion. Irrespective of the statistics, there is HUGE potential for companies with the right products to make an immediate difference to the world we live in and profit from it too.

Those of you who are familiar with mycology, and also those who are excited about mighty mushroom magic,  listen to this exciting TED talk by Paul Stamets on 6 ways mushrooms can save the world and you will get many more ideas for many different kinds of companies that can be great for the world and you. It gets a bit technical in a few places but the overall message is very accessible.  Even if we don’t start a company like this ourselves, let’s try our best to support people doing such pioneering work that can benefit all of humanity!

Fossil-Fuel Free Future. Impossible? Think again…

Haven’t written in quite a while and this is going to be a long post. So brace yourselves. 🙂

Change they say is the only constant. But some people will not accept a proposal for change until they can see a ‘pilot study’ or a prototype of sorts. It is very educational to observe how different countries are reacting to the ‘peak oil’ crises. Peak oil as the term implies is the point in time when the rate of production reaches it’s maximum and then enters terminal decline. Some people don’t believe in the concept of peak oil, they say it has been predicted hundreds of times but the predictions were always wrong. That may be right. But even the best astrologers whose main job is to make predictions find it hard to get them right consistently. So it is beyond me to understand why scientists are expected to be astrologers . Nonetheless, WikiLeaks may have just confirmed that Peak Oil is Imminent. Saudi Aramco’s Oil Reserves may have been exaggerated by  as much as 300 bn barrels. Saudi Arabia is the world’s leading exporter and wikipedia says it is a swing producer.  Think that is a misnomer. The country can never ‘produce’ oil. The Earth does. Companies, countries merely EXTRACT these resources. So they should perhaps be called ‘swing extractors’. But I digress.

Peak oil is not the same as oil depletion. But there is no questioning the fact that at some point in time, the economy will finally reflect the high price of oil that we already see in environmental and social terms. Just as it has done for millions of years, the earth may continue to produce petroleum but for all practical intents and purposes, such a resource will not be commonly available to us. Bearing this in mind, we can look at responses in a new light.

As Saudi’s reserves continue to fall, the US searches for newer sources such as the Federal Outer Continental Shelf, the 1002 area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska, and the Bakken Formation.

Image courtesy Wikipedia

Many of these chosen sites are classic cases of  ‘Is man is more important than any other animal?’ kind of debates. Alaska, for instance is prime polar bear territory. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the group that sued to protect polar bears says that there is considerable evidence of a decline in polar bears in Canada and Alaska — with some of the animals starving, turning to cannibalism and drowning — and that most scientists believe the drop-off is directly related to the loss of sea ice. This site says “The noise associated with building oil platforms and high levels of human traffic would affect the animals and their environment, possibly driving away the members of this endangered species that reside there.” One would think that is common sense, but…

Image: Polar bears in Alaska

Image courtesy MSNBC

Finding new territories for ‘production’ of crude oil is not the only contentious concept. The concept of  unconventional sources is even more so. Tar sands/ Bituminous sands and oil shale top the list of  such ‘alternate’ energy sources. ‘Tar sands’ is actually an incorrect term since tar is man-made while bitumen is made by nature over time.

tar sands before after national geographic march 2009

Before and after?: a forest in northern Alberta staked out by tar sands prospectors and the Suncor Millennium tar sands site, Alberta in the March 2009 issue of National Geographic (Photo: Peter Essick) - Via Tree Hugger

There are some excellent videos on this topic. But for a quick primer, watch this

If you’re interested in learning more about this dirty, dirty source, explore these sources:

  • Brilliant Piece by National Geographic.  Love how it says “It’s a struggle to balance the needs of today and tomorrow when you look at the environment we’re going to live in,” he says. In northern Alberta the question of how to strike that balance has been left to the free market, and its answer has been to forget about tomorrow. Tomorrow is not its job.”
  • Watch the animation of  H2Oil here. I was amazed that the oil industry refers to the earth as ‘overburdened’ as if they are saviours who will lessen the burden of the earth by stripping it of ancient forests and scarring the land with toxins that can be seen from space! Such arrogance!
  • Watch this video by Greenpeace to understand how the Alberta Tar Sands is contributing to Climate Change.
  • For those of you who have the stomach for it, check WWF and the Co-operative Bank’s super comprehensive report titled “Unconventional Oil – Scraping the bottom of the barrel?” WWF challenged Shell’s greenwash where it advertised tar sands as ‘sustainable’ and WWF won.
  • Perhaps one of the most compelling ways of describing this mess is how the UN Water Advisor did. She likened Canadian Tar Sands to Tolkein’s Mordor (doesn’t the word sound remarkably like murder? The man was a genius!) where steam rises from the grounds and no birds fly above. Now how I wish the trees of the boreal forests would walk to their mordor and destroy their Isengard. But that’s fiction and this is reality where you and I are in-charge and no Ents are coming to save us. We can at best take inspiration from Frodo’s question to Aragorn and imagine the Earth is asking us this intense question that begs an answer, ” Can you protect me from yourself?”
  • Here’s information on something that is about to happen 3 days from now, on Apr 6th, 2011. Not so much a prediction as being connected to the right media sources. On April 6th , Alberta’s largest daily newspaper, Edmonton Journal, will carry this message from the Norwegian Grandparents’ Climate Action to the citizens of Canada: Read it here.

But the point of this post is not to go on and on about how terrible all development is. It is to inspire you and me to look for the right alternatives, in a sense to set the right goals. Before we get to that part though, I’d like you to watch Anthony Robbins talk about Goal Setting.

So are all countries caught up in this mad race? One country comes to mind as a shining beacon of hope. Sweden.

Prime Minister Göran Persson announced a national goal of making Sweden fossil-fuel free by 2020. More Information here and here. Now that is what I’d call a Goal! Imagine thousands and thousands of people putting their minds together to achieve this seemingly impossible goal. They may or may not get there by 2020. Some sites give us varying dates such as 2030 and 2050. They even point out quite correctly that to be truly fossil fuel free means there will no longer be any gas stations that sell fossil fuel based fuels, plastic bags, or fossil-fuel grown food. But the point is, they’re moving in the right direction and will be far ahead of other countries when peak oil does hit, if it hasn’t already.

All of this didn’t start overnight though. The book Eco Barons by Edward Humes gives some illuminating details about many more people and places. Check my previous post to know more about the book. Coming back to Sweden, it all started in 1990 when a renowned Swedish Cancer Researcher, Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert, joined by fifty other scientists, developed a four-step program explaining how a country could be transformed to embrace sustainability in every sector – business,government, industry and the daily lives of ordinary citizens. Dr. Robert called this plan “The Natural Step”. An NGO by the same name carries forward this mission today. In Sweden’s case, the king embraced the idea and it was launched nationwide as the goals the nation should aspire to achieve, through rigorous emissions controls on cars and through the use of alternate energy. The results have been spectacular. Sweden has become the most sustainable nation on the planet. It has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 9 percent below 1990 levels, an achievement that far exceeds the mandates of the Kyoto treaty whereas the rest of the world has continued to increase emissions. The book says that so far, Sweden has achieved a 70% reduction in the use of oil for home heating and has held industrial consumption at 1994 levels. While the major challenge remains transportation, almost one-third of Sweden’s energy comes from renewable sources. From my research, it is clearly not just the pet project of a few elites. It is the result of many ordinary people and many municipalities setting goals for themselves towards this end, vying to outdo one another in becoming the most sustainable city first. Watch this video about one such municipality. Warning – certain sections of the video are a bit distasteful if you are vegetarian/vegan. Another very interesting video available here.

So clearly, it is possible as long as there is a will to accomplish the goal. Sweden makes for a FANTASTIC pilot study. But the time has now come for the mission to go beyond one country. I’d like to end with two quotes from Eco-Barons:

Consider this: all the ants on the planet, taken together, have a biomass greater than that of humans. Ants have been incredibly industrious for millions of years. Yet their productiveness nourishes plants, animals, and the soil. Human industry has been in full swing for little over a century, yet it has brought about a decline in almost every ecosystem on the planet. Nature doesn’t have a design problem. People do.

– William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle, Remaking the way we make things

I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.

-Thomas Alva Edison, 1931, shortly before his death, to Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone