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Five worst-case scenarios and how we could avoid them

Five worst-case scenarios and how we could avoid them
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First Published: Thu, Jun 04 2009. 11 17 PM IST

On guard: Police monitor water distribution in Bhopal to avoid a riot breaking out over the limited supply. Hindustan Times
On guard: Police monitor water distribution in Bhopal to avoid a riot breaking out over the limited supply. Hindustan Times
Updated: Thu, Jun 04 2009. 11 17 PM IST
New Delhi: Riots erupt in Madhya Pradesh over it. Whole familes are slain for it. Armed security convoys have been hired to protect it. But in spite of having government policies and targets in place to provide water for all its households, India is rapidly running out of the precious resource. The coverage of people who have access to water in their home has dropped at a startling rate—from 95% rural coverage in 2005 to only 67 today according to Bharat Nirman programme data. Richard Mahapatra, the national coordinator of WaterAid India, an NGO that works with drinking water and sanitation, says, “Ideally India should have covered all villages with drinking water provisions but nobody took note of it.” Now, the government has set a fifth deadline of 2012 for universal rural water supply. “It is anybody’s guess whether we would make it to that,” says Mahapatra.
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The worst that could happen: Already on a dangerous path to becoming a water-stressed country, India now has three times less per capita water availability than in 1955. “India made a perilous switch over to groundwater from a mix of both surface and groundwater in the 1960s,” says Mahapatra. Today 90% of our water needs are met through groundwater sources, half of which are woefully over-exploited. Unmanaged urban water supply utilities too are reeling under crumbling infrastructure and burgeoning demand. Without serious reform India’s water demand will go through the roof
On guard: Police monitor water distribution in Bhopal to avoid a riot breaking out over the limited supply. Hindustan Times
while supply trickles to a drop. This won’t just mean everyone goes a little thirsty. Some social scientists predict battles, far worse than the water riots, to break out over the control of clean water access points. It took James Bond himself to save rural Bolivia’s water supply in Quantum of Solace by crushing a global conspiracy.
The best we can do: Simple steps such as rainwater harvesting for all buildings can push down demand drastically. The Delhi state government has already mandated rainwater harvesting for large housing complexes, but this needs to be required for single homes and older buildings as well. Also, a huge amount of water is lost simply due to spills and leaks. Average distribution loss ranges from 20-30%. Simply plugging the holes in the supply chain would be a huge step in the right direction.
Man vs animal: no monkey business
Housewives in Lucknow are learning to wield air rifles to protect themselves against bands of monkeys. The monkeys steal, attack, maul and—in the most high profile case yet of its sort—caused former Delhi deputy mayor SS Bajwa to fatally topple off his house terrace when he was trying to shoo some away. A rapidly urbanizing India is encroaching on traditional animal habitats, and large tracts of forest are being hived off for agriculture, pitting animals against humans for food and resources. “It’s we who are encroaching on their homes,” says B.P. Pati, a scientist at the Maharaja Sayaji Rao University of Baroda, Gujarat. Unlike melting glaciers and depleting groundwater levels, man-animal conflict is still an under-recognized environmental “problem” in India, says Pati, who tracks incidences of lion and leopard attacks on humans in Gujarat.
The worst that could happen: Rural settlements will be thrown into chaos when plants and lifestock are injured. In cities property damage and theft could cost lakhs of rupees. But far more grievous is the loss of life—on both sides of the conflict. Leopards have increasingly accounted for mauling and killing villagers. And though protected at present, the animals are also at risk. Lucknow residents have lodged a case requesting the government to grant them the authority to move from air rifles to real ones.
The best we can do: The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore has begun a project to accumulate instances of man-animal conflict involving elephants, monkeys, leopards and the neelgai. R. Sukumar, the coordinator of the project expects to finish in two years. “Hopefully, its findings could help us suggest policy measures to contain such conflicts.”
Planet of the apes: Monkeys have become much more aggressive towards humans. Manpreet Romana / AFP
Pati says there are plenty of strict forest laws to protect animal land, but there is not enough manpower to enforce it. The Gujarat state forest department plans to electronically tag leopards via microchips. Offending leopards will be tranquillized, have a chip inserted and continually monitored. Others suggest relocating animals to less populated regions. The MCD in Delhi recently tried to relocate the monkey population to Madhya Pradesh, but the Madhya Pradesh government refused to take responsibility for the animals.
Loss of biodiversity: invasion of the plant snatchers
In the 1800s a nameless British regimental officer thought it would be nice to plant some pine trees, shipped in from his faraway home in the English hills to his station in India. Two hundred years later, the plant has spread, weed-like across the mountains of Uttarakhand, strangling the native oak and rhododendron. According to conservationists at Shakti Himalaya, an eco-tourism group, the trees have eroded the soil, sucked up all the ground water and harmed the livelihood of the villagers who feed their cattle on the oak trees. Dozens of invasive species—plants and insects, not native to a region, but which rapidly proliferate at the expense of local varieties—have spread out across the country. “Lantana, a hardy plant, was brought to India by the British in 1807 as an ornamental plant for the Calcutta Botanical Garden. It has spread to all areas of India except the Thar desert,” said Uma Shaanker, an ecologist at the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore. An environment ministry report made public in May says invasive species is the second biggest threat to biodiversity after deforestation.
The worst that could happen: The last study ratified by the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization in 2001, says India annually lost $116 billion, to damages by invasive species.
“It’s hard to put a number to the economic impact of invasive species,” said S. Subramanian, of the National Research Centre for Weed Science, “but if you account for the amount of fertilizer, labour and water consumed, eliminating even one weed, over a small 1 acre plot could cost at least Rs10,000 every season.” The most effective method of killing the invasive plants—pesticides—further damages the environment.
The best we can do: Experts say it’s a catch-22 situation. Certain plant species, such as soya, rice and wheat, are widely cultivated over a region because they are financially viable or produce food products. But they can kill biodiversity and cause long-term environmental damage. For instance, a research paper published in the journal Science says that the many rubber plantations spread across South-East Asia could be blamed for increased soil erosion, and a decreased capacity of trees cleaning the carbon out of the atmosphere. The solution needs balancing of the demand for crops with the need for biodiversity. Farmers could allot tracts of land to indigenous plants and cities could build micro reserves where native plants could flourish.
Energy outage: too many roofs over our head
No electricity. No running water. This is not an illegal settlement on the outskirts of a city. This is the upscale neighbourhood of Vasant Vihar where blackouts and water shortages are common occurrences. Despite the inability of electrical grids to support the building boom, houses continue to come up. Sachin Sandhir, managing director of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, a global certification group for the real estate industry, says the development happening now has completely overlooked local climatic conditions. And despite tropical temperatures architects use huge amounts of insulation; construct with steel, a material that soaks up heat; and build the exterior all in glass, a massive energy waster. Forty per cent of the total energy consumption in India comes from buildings and homes and about 61% of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by the generation of this power.
Natural cooling: The Bahrain World Trade Center and the three wind turbines in Manama, capital of Bahrain. Adam Jan / AFP
The worst we can fare: “It’s a blame game,” Sandhir says. Developers say consumers are not willing to pay for the extra price of green building materials. Consultants say developers are not willing to put in the effort to explain long-term benefits. Architects say the material is just not readily available. Given this status quo the wasteful home building spree will continue and contribute to massive shortfalls in power, waste disposal and water supplies.
The best we can do: Sandhir says just a few small steps can begin a trend reversal. Office buildings should concentrate more on natural cooling techniques, which entails a rollback to the old-fashioned shaded style of Indian buildings.
To take it a step further, people can install solar panels and water harvesting systems. A major untapped source of energy resides in small wind turbines. Already in Bahrain, the World Trade Center produces between 11% and 15% of the building’s total electrical consumption.
Sandhir says within the next two decades, architects could build homes that are 100% energy efficient, acting as small power stations, instead of being power sinks. If a few of these standards are made regulatory by the Indian government the yearly expenditure of energy can be cut by 5-3 billion kilowatts.
Mining: digging ourselves into a ditch
Bleak moonscapes of rocky barren land, steaming pits and dust-covered labourers: Welcome to mining in Aravallis. According to a recently released report, “Rich Lands, Poor People” by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), soil erosion is rampant; slurry from the mines has drained into riverbeds and choked groundwater reserves; and dust clogs the air. Rajasthan has 31,426 leases for mining and quarries. In the Bijola area, dense forest dropped from 23,800 hectares in 1971 to only 2,700 hectares in 1991. Not only does it destroy the environment, it destroys people. Thousands of illegal mines and small quarries manage to escape government regulation and ignore workers’ rights. Every day one person dies in the Makrana mines and three people die from illnesses contracted in the mines, according to Jodhpur-based Mine Labour Protection Campaign (MLPC). Some mining companies relocate tribals in order to take over their land. And now labourers and tribals are striking back with violent protests.
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The worst we can fare: The government’s new mineral policy announced in 2008 boils down to this: more, more, more. More mining. More international investment and more leases. According to the CSE report co-author, Monali Zeya Hazra, two outcomes are almost certain: more violent clashes and more “devastation in terms of the environment”.
Hard labour: An Adivasi woman, who works as a contract labourer, carrying lumps of iron ore on her head at a mine in Keonjhar, Orissa. Adam Ferguson
The best we can do: Hazra says mining is inherently unsustainable, but that minerals are still necessary. The only way to move forward is to make mining as evniornmentally gentle as possible. A major problem lies in the lack of government pressure. The mineral policy announced in 2008 had an environmental addendum, but imposed only voluntary compliance. “You need a concrete plan and a legal push for ensuring the protection,” Hazra says. Already 500 mines, a figure Hazra calls “conservative”, across the country are officially “orphaned”—abandoned without any attempt to restore. Companies must return part of their profits to the regions they work in to compensate the people living there. And in Rajasthan, where small mining and quarries fall under state regulation, much more government control needs to be put into place to block illegal mines.
Graphics by Sandeep Bhatnagar / Mint
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First Published: Thu, Jun 04 2009. 11 17 PM IST
More Topics: Go green | Water | Monkey | Oak | Energy |