Sunday, 26 March 2017

Regenerating sholas and grasslands

In 1981, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) had started an innovative programme. They called it Socially Useful Productive Work (SUPW). We called it Some Useful Periods Wasted. In our adolescent irreverence, we did not quite enjoy the labour involved in digging the soil of the Nilgiris upper plateau to plant saplings of eucalyptus. But then there was the desire to contribute to the larger purpose of afforestation of the hills that had hosted us for our school life.

This week, I was back at the Lawrence School, Lovedale, to watch students plant grassland species from the native shola-grassland ecosystem of the Nilgiris in a patch near the main water stream that supplies the institution. The students worked with gusto.

The students of Lawrence School, Lovedale plant native grassland species.
Having lived through a dry 2016, they were aware that the shola-grassland ecosystem provided the lifeline of water. Within the limited understanding of teenagers facing multiple pressures, they were aware of the linkages. In the Whatsapp group that links my classmates, there were jokes asking whether it was Shola aur Shabnam, caricaturing the name of a 1992 Bollywood movie starring Govinda and Divya Bharati.

It is not as if we did not live through weather-related highs and lows during our period in school. In 1979, the Nilgiris faced the brunt of a cyclonic storm. Strong winds whistled through the valleys and it rained heavily for days. There were landslides in different parts of the hills. Many of the highway culverts that were rebuilt after the storm had the ‘For 1979’ painted on them for years. The bund that impounded the water of the Lovedale Lake breached, turning the lake back to what it was originally – a wetland. There was also a dry period, when water in taps had run dry.

Even though we trekked extensively in our campus and in other parts of the hills, we mistook the eucalyptus, wattle and pine stands to be the original forests of the Nilgiris. So much so, that when the then headmaster announced a project to extend the girls school building, one alumnus protested the deforestation that would cause. In fact, the extension project would have removed a few eucalyptus trees – a native species from Australia.

The Nilgiris had not yet felt the resource pinch. Living in a period of low population and a rich natural resource base, nobody told us that what the eyes saw was not reality. We did not know of the process that was already underway for converting grasslands into softwood plantations and shola forests into tea plantations.

This was an institutionalised process that had begun in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Tamil Nadu Government in its push for promoting industrialisation had started the process of systematically planting pulpwood trees on grasslands, which were deemed to be wasted lands. Eucalyptus and wattle were grown, harvested and sold to rayon and paper mills in the plains. The branches from these trees were also good as firewood for the local population.

The second prong of the institutional attack on the environment was when shola forests were converted to a tea corporation, to employ the Tamil tea workers repatriated from Sri Lanka after the accord signed between Lal Bahadur Shastri and J.R. Bhandaranayake in 1966.The State’s actions signalled a go-ahead for everybody else.

We did not know in our school days was that the Nilgiris was home to the unique shola-grassland ecosystem in the upper plateau, which constitutes 1,800 out of the total 2,400 of the district. This ecosystem is found only in the higher reaches of the southern Western Ghats and works in combination with each other. There are grasslands on the hills and the evergreen shola forests in the valleys and groins of the hills.

A typical shola-grassland ecosystem of the Nilgiris.
The sholas and grasslands are climax vegetation types, i.e. they have reached the logical conclusion of their evolutionary process. It is believed that it is because of the ground frost in the upper plateau of the Nilgiris no native tree species grow on the grasslands. Trees grow only in the protected valleys. 

While the grasslands let the rainwater and the moisture in the fog run off, in the valleys the sholas hold on to this water in black, peaty soil formed from centuries of decaying leaf litter. Like a sponge, the peat bogs release water all through the year in the Nilgiris.

If the water reservoirs in the Lawrence School at Lovedale have water for the local needs, it is because of water flowing in the stream that feeds it all through the year. The stream, in turn gets its water from the shola patch upstream. It is estimated that there are around 1,100 streams in the Nilgiris, originally starting from the shola-grassland ecosystem of the upper plateau. In turn, they join to form four rivers – Bhavani, Moyar, Kabini and Chaliyar. While the first three join the Kaveri, Chaliyar flows west from the Nilambur forests to meet the Arabian Sea near Kozhikode.

Rivers, after all, are drainage channels. They carry the water that fall in their catchments into the sea. More rain, more flow; it is as simple as that. It is the ecological health of the forests in the catchment that determines whether a river will be perennial (flow throughout the year) or seasonal (flow only when it rains).

Thus the stream originating from the shola forest patch in Lovedale has an importance beyond meeting the local needs – it helps provide (in its minor way) the Kaveri its perennial water flow. In addition to fighting with Karnataka for not releasing enough water in the Kaveri during dry years, Tamil Nadu can strengthen the flow in the catchments originating within its boundaries. The shola-grassland ecosystem holds the key for this. 

The sholas and grasslands also regulate the temperature regime of upper plateau along with its water flow. Shola patches are a few degrees cooler than the adjoining patches. It is not so under eucalyptus, wattle and pine stands. Even though located within the tropical latitudes, the upper plateau of the Nilgiris provides a temperate climate. It is a sky island protecting a unique plant and animal life.

If the temperate climate changes into tropical, the Nilgiris will lose its sky island status. Some of the flora and fauna in the upper plateau have their closest relatives in the Himalayas. For instance, the Nilgiri Tahr is a cousin of the Himalayan Tahr. The Nilgiri Rhododendron also shares a similar relationship with the Himalayan Rhododendron.

The Nilgiri Rhododendron is a cousin of the Himalayan Rhododendron.
The high altitude of the plateau is only partially responsible for the temperate climate profile. If it was the only factor, the Nilgiris would have continued to be cool all through the year. Instead, it is warmer during most of the years and bitingly cold during the winter months. These extremes could be an indication for climate change in the hills. The impacts of the global-scale climate change are aggravated by the destruction of the sholas and grasslands.

A combination of changing land use patterns and the changing climate are changing the man-animal interface on the plateau. We did not have monkeys and gaurs in school during our time in school.

The idea of regenerating the shola and grassland in a small patch within the school campus originated from a batch of alumni who completed their course in 1981. The group provides core funding and guidance for the project. Headmistress Sangita Chima, a few teachers and students enthusiastically support the work. During their free hours, the students work in the field planting the grasses.

Unlike us, these students are leaving school with an understanding of what the shola-grassland ecosystem is, and how it contributes to conservation of the Nilgiris environment and from there adjoining parts of peninsular India. They would opt for different careers in their lives. But somewhere this understanding will form a foundation layer on which they will build other domains of knowledge and expertise.

In 1981, we were right and the eminences at the CBSE were wrong. The time we spent planting eucalyptus saplings were, after all, some useful periods wasted.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

For sustainable development

If environment sustains life, economics runs it. The ever-continuing environment-and-development debate and discussion centre around the question of what the economic value of nature and its environmental services are. MORE ...

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Changing climate inflicts drought on Tamil Nadu

Within a period of 15 months, Tamil Nadu had to face the 2015 floods, Cyclone Varadah and now the drought. Are these indications of climate change? MORE ...

The queue of trucks at a water filling station is going to grow in the coming months.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

The city that the Powerful King built

As I stood atop the six-storeyed apartment building in which my mother had bought a flat, it was easy to see the wisdom of Rama Varma Kunjhipilla Thampuran (1751-1805). This King of the Cochin State, more popularly known as Shaktan Thampuran or the Powerful King, had moved his capital from Kochi to Thrissur. His wisdom in moving his palace from the coast to a location in the midlands of Kerala was strategic – reducing his exposure to raids from the sea by the colonial adventurers of the days. Thrissur, however, may not have grown into a city today had Shaktan Thampuran not made this move.

From the top of the multi-storeyed building, I was seeing Thrissur from a height for the first time. The canopy of the coconut palm crowns below the terrace did not hinder the view up to the Kuthiran hills, as they stretched back into the Nelliampathies and the Anamalai mountain block. Towards the foreground, the Kuthiran hills wrapped around the northeastern fringes of the city and lost their height towards Wadakancherry. In the west, the sole Vilangan hill stood like a sentinel. Historically, it has been used as a watchtower, for its line of sight up to the Chettuva estuary leading into the Arabian Sea.

In the western fringe, I could see the blue-green band of the Kole wetlands and paddy fields. Fed by rivers from the Western Ghats, this large patch of wetland in Thrissur district, is an interface between fresh and estuarine waters as they meet with the sea. In addition to paddy cultivation, the Kole wetlands support multiple livelihood options for those living around it.

Though I had grown in Thrissur (and those days Thrissur was still a town and had not been upgraded to a city), my view of the city was always from the ground. I had grown in a single-storey cottage and we could not see anything higher than the leaves of the coconut tree. It was decades later, after my father’s death, my mother moved into a smaller house in a taller building.

If my father was alive today he would be surprised hearing about drought and water shortage in Thrissur. During the lifetime of my father, and his father before him, in the city that the Powerful King built, water scarcity would have been the last of all concerns. With perennial rivers flowing by and innumerable water bodies and wetlands in an around the city, the wells may never have dried. If that was not enough, there was copious supply flowing through the pipes from the Peechi dam reservoir near the Kuthiran hills.

The irrigation cum drinking water supply Peechi project was among the earliest projects inaugurated after the Kerala state was formed in 1956. It symbolised the aspirations and dreams of the young state. In 1976, when my father bought the house and compound in Punkunnam, which became our home for decades, we had enough water in our laterite-lined well. As a backup we had water supply from Peechi reservoir. 

The situation is different today. Wells are running dry. Peechi water supply does not reach many in the city. Even if it is does, it is not of good quality. Borewells – unheard of in Thrissur during my growing years – are going deeper. The situation may worsen by summer, which in Kerala is from March to May. The Kerala Government already declared the state as drought affected in October. The southwest and the northeast monsoons were deficit by 39%, and even  after adding the smattering of winter and pre-monsoon rains Kerala received only 1869 mm, the lowest rainfall since 1951.

Annual rainfall in Kerala from 1951 to 2016 (Source: IMD)

But is it merely the drop in rainfall that is causing the problem? A look at Kerala’s historical rainfall data from 1951 (see graph) shows that there have been years with low rainfall, though not as low as 2016. Even 1800 mm is higher than what most parts of the country receive. For a state with 44 rivers, breaking into estuaries in the coast, there should have been some water in the reserve. Reducing forest cover, changing land use, decreasing ecological health of rivers, land filling of estuaries, increasing urbanisation and conversion of paddy fields, all ensure that the water that falls flows into the sea quickly, thus reducing the water availability in all parts of the state. This trend has been worse by the increased disregard for the environment in the recent years, and thus the impact of reduced rainfall in 2016 is likely to be felt drastically in the summer of 2017.

Interestingly, Thrissur district had the second-highest rainfall deficit during the southwest monsoon, the main rain bearer for the state. For Thrissur city this is being compounded by the fact that its needs have risen. Recently, I was surprised to see the name of Thrissur on top of a list of urban agglomerations that recorded highest population growth between 2001 and 2011. Ulka Kelkar, fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE) in Bengaluru, had compiled this data from the census data of 2001 and 2011. Even though partially this can be explained by the fact that Thrissur got upgraded from a municipality to a corporation in October 2000 and therefore adding adjoining local bodies to the urban agglomeration, there is no escaping from the fact that Thrissur’s population has grown dramatically in the past decade and half.

The population of Thrissur urban agglomeration has grown dramatically between 2001 and 2011
(Source: Ulka Kelkar, ATREE, from Census data).
The rapid growth in population in the Thrissur urban agglomeration has been at the cost of its natural water sinks. When my father bought the house in Punkunnam, there were large paddy fields not very far from our house. Over the years, these fields were recovered acre by acre and turned into housing plots. The huge filtration bed disappeared in less than a few decades.

Similarly, the covered surface increased with most of the houses paving most of their homesteads. Rainwater flows out quickly from the city. If some of this running water could be made to walk, then irrespective of the drought the inadequacy of water availability could have been dealt with. 

Drought in Kerala is counter-intuitive news for the rest of the country. For the state promoted as “God’s own country” with images of backwaters and monsoon tourism, the idea of drying wells and dysfunctional taps do not fit in with the larger picture. The Powerful King who built the city, could not have thought an answer for this one.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Kerala fights drought with recharged wells

In October, Kerala's Government declared the state as drought affected. For a state that receives the first onslaught of the southwest monsoon, the year 2016 has been bad. While the southwest monsson was deficient by 34%, the northeast was deficient by 62%. The state has only received 1,532.5 mm of rain till December 14, whereas the average annual rainfall is 2,508 mm, which could man a deficit of 39% during 2016. The State Government has decided to upscale the Mazhapolima (rain bounty) scheme of well recharge found successful in Thrissur district to all parts of the state. MORE ...

Jos Raphael of Mazhapolima (right) talks to the officials of a public health centre. 

P.P. George and Theresa George near their well with recharge system in Arimbur village.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Cyclone Vardah tests Chennai's climate resilience

The high intensity Chennai floods of November-December 2015 and the very severe Cyclone Vardah of 12 December 2016 seems to be strengthening the prognosis made in the Tamil Nadu State Action Plan on Climate Change that the state's coast could face climate-related events of increasing intensity. These events tested the Chennai's climate resilience and preparedness, and found them to be inadequate. MORE ...

Falling trees have left a trail of damage in Chennai.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

W(h)ither Kerala's mangroves

With mangroves in Kerala reducing to 25 from 700 in 1957, the efforts by a group of citizens to get remaining patches surveyed and government lands identified holds promise. More than half of the state’s mangrove patches stand on privately owned lands, and thereby conservation is difficult. While the private owners do not have an immediate economic benefit from conservation, the government finds it difficult to deal with private lands. However, even after the citizen’s group has helped government identify mangroves on their lands, the state machinery has not moved towards conservation. MORE … 

The mangrove-encrusted island in the Chettuva river.