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Wednesday, 16 August 2017

In a drought hit country, sacred groves are crucial for climate resilience

Facing the yin and yang of drought and flood years, sacred groves in the country can provide climate resilience. MORE ...

Even during the peak of summer in 2017, this stream inside a sacred grove in Kerala had water flowing in it.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Rivers, waterfront and public spaces

Waal is a mighty river. It gets its water all the way from Switzerland, through the industrial heartland of Germany. As the river Rhine crosses from Germany to the Netherlands, it breaks into two. The bigger and broader one is called Waal, as it passes Nijmegen, the city in the Dutch side of the border and more than 100 km later joins the North Sea.

River Waal takes a turn at Nijmegen. It also faces a constriction. Mighty rivers do not like bottlenecks. Thus at the point the river used to flood frequently. The Dutch Government and the city of Nijmegen decided to make more room for the room for the river. They dug a parallel channel on the inner side of the curve.
The new channel parallel to River Waal has public spaces built along its banks.

This was not easy though. The difficulty was not a technical one for the Dutch who had otherwise mastered the art of flood control and built a network of dykes, but to get social acceptability for the project. Andrea Voskens, who was the stakeholder manager for the project since its inception, says that with different people having different interests it took six years for the project to materialise from the drawing board.

Swimming in River Waal.

Interestingly, the people of Nijmegen also found uses for the river front system that the project had not planned for. They use the bridge for diving into the river, avoiding the lounge chairs that were specially designed for them to soak the sun.

Closer home in Chennai, the story of a river flooding because of its sides being hemmed in is not a new one. When from November 8 to December 4, 2015, rains came in five heavy bouts, the Adayar river could take no more. It flooded deep into the city. However, what had constricted the Adayar was unplanned development and not a natural cause.

Unlike in the case with Waal, the Adayar flood had happened because the people of Chennai had systematically turned their back to the river, rather than face it and live with it. How the water of a river or lake, and the waterfront is built into public spaces is an important first step in its conservation. When people of a city look at the river and spend time on its banks, they build links to it. When they turn their back to it, the river becomes a drain.

This statement is more or less true, but not universally so. Ganga is deeply ingrained in the Indian consciousness and lives, but still remains polluted. But the point here is that there have at least been Ganga action plans (though in the recent case it has been more on rhetoric and less on action). 

Yamuna, interestingly, though equally mentioned in social history, did not evoke much interaction. As a result, Delhi had turned Yamuna into a drain long ago. In Chennai, there have been many plans in the past to clean the Adayar and Cooum rivers. They have mostly been engineering exercises that had a minimum impact.

Not very far away from Chennai city, the Palar river goes deeper into people’s consciousness. It is even so today, when Palar is dry most parts of the year, and carries water only when it rains. Possibly, one time in history, Palar had a far more copious flow than it has today, and people’s lives were intertwined with its water. The Pallava empire, which flourished between the Sixth and the Ninth Century AD, would have drawn its sustenance from its copious flow. Otherwise Kancheepuram would not have grown into a city of such historical importance that there was no visitor, in the halcyon days of the empire, who did not pass the region without visiting the city.

Chennai, on the other hand, grew along the sea. The British part of the present-day city started in 1639 as a trading and military-administrative enclave. The colonial inhabitation was in and around Fort St. George. The Indian villages were in different parts, but with no special preference for the rivers. They were happy with their proximity to the local lakes, and also the sea.

This preference is seen even today – the only two important public spaces relating to water are the Marina and Elliots beaches. In fact, these two beaches are among the only public spaces that the city has today. The scarcity and people’s yearning for public spaces is so severe in Chennai that when the government-owned Aavin started a few ice cream parlours with small parks around, the local residents rush to these spots in the evening to catch the breeze.

Lakes and the other enclosed water bodies, however, disappeared from the public consciousness, and gradually got built over. Thus the end-2015 flood was as much along the non-existent lakes as along the rivers.

The rivers also were not perennial, coming from drier hills and supported by small catchments. After the reservoirs were built upstream to tap the river water for supply to the city, they dried even before they entered the city. When the ungrateful city turned their backs to the Adayar and Cooum, they became drains.

Chennai has to turn its face to the Adayar and Cooum rivers, for them to come back to life. It is not enough to have technological solutions to deal with their pollution. Yes, those interventions are necessary. But they by themselves cannot give sustainability to river restoration. Just as how the residents of Surat realised the importance of keeping their city clean after the Plague epidemic, Adayar and Cooum will come back to life only when Chennai residents find resonance with them.

It is here that the importance of public spaces comes in. When public spaces are designed and built along the rivers, people will interact with them. Art installations, museums, parks, street food and recreation bring people to the waterfront. They slow down and appreciate the sights, sounds, smells and the breeze on the face. They will have a stake in keeping the river clean.

In Hamburg there is a museum that commemorates the history of the city’s water supply and waste disposal systems. Set under an old water tower, it tells the story of how lives of the people in the second biggest German city changed when water started coming into people’s households. A well-curated museum can change people’s understanding; also perspective.

A river can soothe the jackboot rhythm. Militarism can also disturb a river. Thus, during the Cold War years, Spree flowing through Berlin did not have people turning their face to it. It was too close to the Berlin Wall, and the emotion it evoked was of trauma and fear. It is said that before World War II, this very river had many public swimming pools on its banks.
River Spree flowing through Berlin.

As an aspiring, young and impatient India grows, its public spaces are getting co-opted for development projects. Even the spaces that remain are losing their public nature, with restrictions being put on what they can be used for. There are less real meetings between individuals and more virtual meetings on social media.

When aspirations are not met – partially or wholly – there is frustration, anger and violence. In public spaces along water bodies, these negative energies can be dissipated constructively. Nuance will return to our understanding and articulation. Even an impatient nation needs time and space to contemplate.

[The idea for this story fermented during discussions with a group of experts during walks along the banks of the Waal, Emscher, Elbe and Spree rivers. In July we were part of an Indo-German visitors’ programme.]

Friday, 28 July 2017

A deity is saving Kolli Hills from being lost to industrial agriculture forever

The sacred groves of Kolli Hills are critical for the communities to stay self sufficient. It is the fear of the divine that is protecting what is remaining of them. MORE ...

P. Arapalli in front of Chinnamal Sholai.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Sacred groves of Kodagu: How faith is helping conserve Karnataka's protected forests

Water for the Kaveri and bees for pollinating coffee plantations, the ecosystem services of 1,214 sacred groves of Kodagu is immense. Even though Kodagu groves are protected forests under the Indian Forest Act, they also face pressures similar to the other forest patches in other parts of the country. MORE ...

The oracle at the Manil Ayyappa sacred grove.


Thursday, 1 June 2017

Saving the sholas: To overcome drought, Nilgiris' forest communities return to traditional wisdom

The drought caused by the failure of the southwest and northeast monsoon of 2016 has led to introspection and action in the Nilgiris to conserve the native shola-grassland ecosystem. MORE ...

Toda elder Poofsed in Artawl Mund.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Kole farmers of Kerala reel under unprecedented drought

The Kole farmers of Kerala are facing a double whammy. The drought means less freshwater is coming into the wetlands from the rivers. Also, more saline water is getting into the agricultural fields from the tail end estuaries. MORE ...

The Kole farmers of Kerala have been hit with a double whammy.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Andaman crisis

While India was colonised once, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were colonised twice. They continue to be colonised. MORE ...

Thursday, 4 May 2017

How Chennai improvised resilience after the end-2015 floods

Chennai improvised with informal information networks and enterprise during the end-2015 floods. These structures have remained with the city for future extreme weather and also political and social crises. MORE ... In the New Security Beat and Circle of Blue.

Pradeep John, who goes by the popular name of Tamil Nadu Weatherman (Picture by Dhruv Malhotra for CoB)

Friday, 31 March 2017

Mangroves: Do they make economic sense?

While the environmental value of conserving mangroves is well understood, a recent study shows that there is economic rationale for protecting them from destruction. MORE ... 

There are 75 sq.km of mangroves in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai.

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 sq.km out of the total 2,400 sq.km 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.