Posts tagged environment
First published: Biodiversity of India
The states of Punjab and Sindh in Pakistan and Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat in India had a great river named Saraswati (now the Ghagra Hakra river) flowing through their lands, four thousand years ago. The world’s first large civilization – the Indus Valley Civilization – arose on the banks of the Saraswati and the Indus rivers. At its peak in 2000BC, cities of the IVC such as Harappa and Mohenjo Daro housed over two hundred thousand people. The civilization was thriving – it had culture, a symbolic language, trade, city planning and a central rule of law. However, the civilization mysteriously vanished around 1500 BC. Hundreds of thousands of people disappeared, cities were lade bare and large swathes of land turned into deserts. Very few traces of this civilization are to be found in the next stage of India’s history – the Vedic civilization. What happened to all the people of the IVC? Why did such huge cities crumble to dust? Although several hypotheses have been proposed to address one of the biggest historical mysteries of all times, one leading explanation involves the role of climate change.
Many experts today believe that the IVC disintegrated after the Saraswati river started turning dry. Satellite imagery of the region along the Indo-Pakistan border clearly shows existence of vast underground channels where the mighty Saraswati once flowed. Most currently known sites of the IVC line perfectly along these channels, suggesting that these massive cities propped up along the banks of Saraswati. It is also believed that there was a general weakening of the monsoon system around 1500BC. It is believed that hordes of people migrated from the IVC and went towards the Gangetic plains or to Central Asia. Research has also shown that the new centers of activity arose east of the Saraswati a few hundred years after the Saraswati dried up.
Human civilization has existed in India for the past fifty thousand years – ever since the first pre-humans migrated out of Africa and proceeded towards the southern coastline of India. Millions of migrants and conquistadors have since entered India through the northwestern frontier. Most decided to stay here – the country had plentiful rivers, a beautiful landscape, fertile soil and an amazing biodiversity. The cultural evolution over the past two thousand years saw much of this nature get integrated into the lifestyle of the people. Right from having gods bearing pythons and elephant heads to finding medicinal uses of leaves and roots, from worshiping the rivers as deities to considering the earth as the Mother (Dharti Mataa), India’s nature got richly integrated into its culture. India, not just the country, but also the concept, exists because of its nature. As the example of the IVC shows, you destroy India’s nature and you’d have disintegrated its civilization.
This scenario is no longer a historical, or for that matter, a futuristic one. It is very much a problem this generation and the generations to come have to deal with. Climate change today is a reality. According to several scientific reports, India and its 1.5 billion people and countless species will be among the worst affected by climate change. Himalayan glaciers, for example, provide water to one third of the world’s population. These glaciers are the sources of our rivers like the Ganga, the Indus and the Brahmaputra. What happens when the water starts running low? On the other side of the country lie the mighty Western Ghats. Rivers like the Cauvery and Krishna have their sources in the Western Ghats. These megadiverse ranges are the most human-inhabited biodiversity hotspots in the world. Predictions suggest that changing patterns of the monsoon winds will significantly change water availability and the ground water table in these regions. What will that mean for the people living in these areas? How will it affect the rich flora and fauna?
Questions like these are no longer hypothetical but very much a reality. This is no longer a time to take petty, superficial actions and put a plaster over the developing cracks. We are no longer dealing with petty issues like bringing CO2 emissions down to pre-1990 levels or signing nominal accords with foreign countries. We are certainly not dealing with petty divisions of language, caste and religion. We are at one of the biggest crossroads of the Indian civilization today. The scenario is much the same as what the people of the IVC faced four thousand years ago. We can either let the India of today degenerate into chaos or we can take bold actions with a sense of urgency. The kind of India our children inherit tomorrow is very much dependent on what action we take today. That is what we must all realize.
I read an obnoxious article on Tehelka.com recently on the River Ganga (Ganges). The investigative report found that Ganga today is more polluted than when the Ganga Action Plan was launched in 1985 to, ironically, reduce the level of pollution in the river. Just how polluted is the river?
- Near Haridwar, coliform bacteria, which cause diseases like gastroenteritis and diarrhoea, are present at a concentration of 5500 mpn/100ml. The permissible levels are 50mpn for drinking, 500mpn for bathing and 5000mpn for agriculture. Such high concentations are because the 12 municipal towns located on Ganga’s banks from Gangotri to Haridwar release around 90 million litres of sewage, urine and faeces into the river every day.
- Near Kanpur, the river turns toxic due to industrial sewage disposal. Despite repeated awareness campaigns against tanneries, they release about 40 million litres of effluents/day of which only 9 million litres is treated. These effluents contain chromium at a concentration of 248 mg/litre, when the WHO limit for drinking water is 0.05 mg/litre, a shocking 5000X higher concentration!! Chromium toxicity can cause a wide range of problems, from allergic reactions and dermatitis to cancer and dementia.
- Near Varanasi, around 300 tonnes of half-burnt carcasses, corpses and ashes are thrown into the river each year. Coliform bacteria are present at 2 lakh mpn/100ml. Of the three sewage treatment plants, two are not operational.
- Near Patna and Kolkata, the situation is the same – extremely high amount of coliform bacteria, huge volumes of industrial effluents and skyrocketing concentrations of toxic compounds!
This is a shame, and we all know it. This seems even more bizarre in the context of the current leadership in Uttar Pradesh – Akhilesh Yadav, the state’s Chief Minister, studied Civil Engineering and Environmental Engineering! What is the use of these degrees if, even after almost being the KING of the state, one cannot hasten the process of purification of the most sacred river in the country! Alas, the political parties in the state can spend millions of dollars building statues and parks but not for developing a robust system to curb the pollution of Ganga. (Note: The Ganga Action Plan, conceptualized in 1985 as “the largest single attempt to clean up a polluted river anywhere in the world.” has been termed a colossal failure, despite spending Rs.10 billion up until 2000)
What are the implications of Ganga’s pollution? Here are a few facts:
- The Gangetic basin is the most heavily populated basin in the world, supplying water to 400 million people!
- Ganga provides water to 40% of India’s population in 11 states. This water is used for everything – cooking, drinking, washing clothes, agriculture, bathing…everything!
- A study found that 66% of the families near Varanasi were affected by diseases like cholera, dysentery, Hepatitis-A, Typhoid etc.
- The pollution has threatened more than 140 fish species, 90 amphibian species and the Gangetic River Dolphin. The latter dolphin species, which is considered the vehicle of Goddess Ganga, is almost extinct.
Hindus believe that bathing in Ganga will wash away all your sins. “Ganga consumes all your sins and still remains pure…that is why it is divine”, they say. I would suggest forcing numb-nuts who make such arguments drink the water of Ganga for a week. Such capital punishments should also be meted out to owners of industries which release effluents in the river. Without a few strong, well-publicized cases of repugnant action, we will never be able to bring Ganga back from the dead. No amount of awareness campaigns will work. Ganga has soaked our sins for the past four thousand years, however, we have effectively managed to KILL IT in the past fifty years alone!
A new study funded by the Koch group seems to have come to the conclusion that global warming is real and is caused by human activities. The Koch Industries, owned by the Koch family, has annual revenues of $100 billion and has a broad product base, comprising from oil and gas to fertilizers and paper pulp. Almost all of these products are dependent on exploitation of natural resources and hence, it is quite natural that the Koch family was one of the biggest supporters of anti-climate action in the US. Since 1997, the Koch family has spent over $100 million lobbying against climate-change actions in Washington and supporting the agenda of other fossil-fuel companies. But this study, funded in part by the Koch group and with two strong climate-change skeptic scientists in the team of seven lead investigators, seems to have landed a bombshell in Koch group’s business interests.
CALL me a converted skeptic. Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.
What does this mean for the politics of global warming? Surveys indicate that less than half of the US citizens think global warming is due to human activities (In India, less than half KNOW what global warming is). Will this study help bring some of those skeptics on board? Or will it be politics as usual again? In his NY Times post, Muller also says:
Hurricane Katrina cannot be attributed to global warming. The number of hurricanes hitting the United States has been going down, not up; likewise for intense tornadoes. Polar bears aren’t dying from receding ice, and the Himalayan glaciers aren’t going to melt by 2035. And it’s possible that we are currently no warmer than we were a thousand years ago, during the “Medieval Warm Period” or “Medieval Optimum,” an interval of warm conditions known from historical records and indirect evidence like tree rings. And the recent warm spell in the United States happens to be more than offset by cooling elsewhere in the world, so its link to “global” warming is weaker than tenuous.
Will the political skeptics harp on this statement rather than the science? Obama has followed an “all of the above” approach for energy in the US. He’s opened up offshore drilling and expanded shale gas explorations, leading to a significant stability in oil prices in the US despite Libya and Syria and collapsing of the European economy. He’s also invested in several clean energy projects. However, US still ranks second in terms of global CO2 emissions and releases ~17 tons CO2/person/year, compared to 6.2 tons in China, 1.7 tons in India, 9 tons in Japan and Germany, 8 tons in UK and 5 tons in France. There is an enormous scope for improvement in the US which the second term of Obama should address on a war footing!
Seven steps to energy stability
Over the last two weeks (see Part 1 and Part 2 of this series), I reviewed various sources of energy which form the backbone of India’s energy policy. However, what remains to be discussed is where do we go from here? Our country has millions and millions of poor. While cutting back on energy use to stem India’s environmental degradation, we also have to think about lifting these millions out of poverty, providing the children of India a better life with better opportunities. How do we balance economic development with environmental conservation? In this part, I will lay out salient features that, I think, should be an integral part of India’s energy policy.
1) We need to increase access to energy
Out of the 1.6 billion people in India, 400 million have little or no access to electricity. How can we educate people, teach them computers, provide them good health and good food, make them better-informed citizens without electricity? We need to get out of the medieval age and fast. The 21st century is no place for laggards. India’s energy requirements are supposed to double by 2035. I feel that without (atleast a few) visionary and honest people in state and central power boards, this is a very tall order to achieve. The fact that the Ministry of Power and the Ministry of Coal ends up being embroiled in so major corruption cases (Adarsh scam/Coal mining scam) does not give much confidence.
2) Reducing transmission losses and power thefts
According to Central Vigilance Commission, as high as 50% of the generated power never reaches the customers, due to theft and transmission losses. Shockingly, 30% of the loss occurs as theft in connivance with Electricity Board employees. Central and State governments have tried various measures – from using smart meters to awareness campaigns to increasing degree of punishment. But thieves rarely get caught. One solution to this conundrum is massively privatizing the electricity sector (currently at 21% of total capacity). Experience suggests that privatization of utilities (eg: telephone) significantly reduces corruption in that sector. In addition, technological innovations like Smart Meters can help alleviate the theft of electricity.
3) Reducing reliance on fossil fuels
This goes without saying. NGOs all over the world are campaigning governments to go green but in India, the voice is quite subdued. India contributes 4% of world’s CO2 emissions and is the world’s THIRD LARGEST emitter. In March 2010, India’s energy mix consisted of 53% coal, 23% hydroelectricity, 11% natural gas, 3% nuclear, and 10% renewable-energy sources. India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change aimed to bring up the renewables to 15% by 2020, however, that is too low. We need to satisfy at least a quarter of our energy needs through renewable sources. Government subsidies and private sector investments are needed in the renewables sector if we are to make a mark in this market around the world. Nuclear energy is a good option but needs to be used with great care, especially given our cultural history of “Chalta hai” attitude, bribery of pollution control board officials and lax implementation of punishments.
4) More money for R&D
India spends abysmally low on research on energy efficiency and alternative energy sources. US, for example, spent an average of $3.6 billion on energy research between 1993 and 2006. That’s just federal money. Hundreds of private enterprises likely will have added a few more billions to that amount. On the other hand, India’s budgetary allocation for ENTIRE higher education in its 2002-2007 five year plan was around $800 million!!!
It is unlikely that India will match this amount in the near future, but the government as well as the private enterprises in India should be spending more on focused research on biofuels, increasing fuel economy, making our coal plants cleaner, making our nuclear plants safer, solar energy and wind energy. Almost all of the innovations in these fields come from the perceived leaders – US, China, Japan, Germany, France, UK.
5) Local energy to reduce costs and transmission losses
The Gujarat government initiated an excellent project for tapping solar energy – they put solar panels on the Narmada river canal. Not only does that provide solar energy to the farms nearby thereby reducing transmission losses, but it also prevents loss of 90 lakh litre of water from the canal due to evaporation annually. Similarly, asking buildings to harvest rainwater, mandatory installation of solar panels, using biogas for heating/cooking should be encouraged through active policy making.
6) Learn from experiences of states
It is important to realize that the Central Government can only do so much. Experiences in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu have shown that efforts of each state in this field can serve as a learning experience for other states. Gujarat’s expertise in Solar and TN’s expertise in wind can be transferred to other states. Plus, each state is different in geographical and socioeconomic aspects. Kerala, West Bengal and the north-eastern states, for example, can afford to focus on hydro-electricity. MP, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan need to focus on solar and wind. Nuclear power is dangerous in Gujarat, which lies on the intersection of two tectonic plates, however, can be effectively implemented where probability of earthquakes and density of people are low.
7) A collaborative effort between government, private sector and common man
In Pune, many new buildings come with installed solar panels. If we mass market such panels (as well as mass produce instead of importing from China), we can get the cost of solar significantly down. At the same time, big companies like ONGC, Reliance, Adani must be made to spend more on alternative, non-polluting energy. Offsetting carbon is just one way to alleviate problems created due to pollution. These companies need to make their installations greener and need to contribute more towards bringing down our energy costs through non-polluting means. Programs like Centre for Science and Environment’s Green Rating Program should be implemented with more gusto. These companies should also be made to contribute more towards conservation of our forest-lands.
Once the government efforts are aided by the private sector as well as the common man, India can effectively move towards forgetting the days of load shedding and burgeoning energy deficits. We will be superbly positioned to satisfy our energy needs as well as take care of our environment. Let’s hope such a day comes soon!!
Do you have any more suggestions? Let us hear them in the comments!!
Part 1 of this three-part series (Read Part 3 here) dealt with the traditional sources of energy – Coal, Oil, Natural gas, Hydroelectric and Nuclear. In this part, I will review three other sources – Solar energy, Wind energy and Biomass. Of these, Solar and Wind technologies are just rising while biomass, as an energy source, has been used for centuries by people. While burning biomass leads to carbon pollution, it is still the most popular source of energy in India. Its local use and possibility to develop clean energy from it may make it an attractive source of energy.
The numbers associated with solar energy are mind-boggling. The amount of solar energy reaching the surface of the planet is so vast that in one year it is about twice as much as will EVER be obtained from all of the Earth’s non-renewable resources of coal, oil, natural gas, and mined uranium combined. India receives 600 terawatts of energy every year and states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are superbly positioned to harvest this energy. Given we have most of energy coming from coal and other dirty fuels today and given most of India experiences frequent load-shedding, solar power would be a boon for a country like India.
So whats holding us back? Turns out that solar panels are expensive. According to U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal costs 7 cents/watt while solar energy costs 22 cents/watt. In a country like India where 40% of the population lives below $1 a day, it is difficult to justify such expense. However, in recent years, the costs for solar panels have dropped significantly due to a ramp in production by China and the US. Several companies in India – Reliance, Adani, Moser Baer, Tata, Mahindra & Mahindra etc. – are getting into the solar business. The government has pledged to invest $19 billion in solar power through 2020 through the National Solar Mission. All of these choices literally make the future for solar power bright in India.
In 2011, India had an installed capacity of ~16000 MW of wind power, which is a minuscule 1.6% of the total power generated. It is estimated that the total power that can be generated through wind energy is ~65000 MW. Wind energy is abundant in India, however, it is hardly tapped. As compared to India, China, which is the world’s leader in wind production, produced 62,000 MW, of which almost all of the capacity was installed in the last five years. As compared to that, since 2005, India has added only ~10,000 MW of wind capacity.
One reason why China raced ahead in the wind game is because the wind turbines are manufactured in China at extremely low costs and are shipped to other countries at a profit. However, the policy paralysis in India and lack of incentives to clean, renewable power generation has significantly stunted the Indian wind industry. For example, Suzlon, a wind-turbine manufacturing Indian company is facing economic woes due to competition by China. Also, in 2008, wind power in India cost Rs. 3.5/kWh as compared to Rs 1.5/kWh for coal, thus making it almost twice as expensive.
However, with enough government interest, more efficient turbine designs and cheaper manufacturing, India can indeed move to harness wind power in a greater way than so far. A prime example in this case is Tamil Nadu, which has made enormous progress in tapping its wind energy potential. At certain times of the year, up to 40% of the power grid is fed by its massive wind farms. This proportion is next only to Denmark, the world leader in wind energy.
Biomass use is not considered “installed capacity” because most of the biomass use occurs in villages and on a very local scale. People burning leaves and wood for heat, using cowdung-cakes for cooking, biogas for energy are all examples of how biomass is used in India. By some estimates, almost a third of the energy in India comes from biomass (56% of biomass-energy comes from wood). The biggest advantages of biomass are its cost – its almost always made from natural waste – and its local generation, which gives the power to control it in the hands of the people.
Both of these issues are also what make biomass unattractive in its current form. Since biomass is largely carbon, burning it releases toxic fumes and greenhouse gases. Also, since the production is not regulated, the process is highly inefficient, and a lot of biomass in the fuel is left underutilized. Finally, biomass use in ecologically threatened areas can lead to wildfires or environmental degradation.
Current challenges, however, call for a redrafting of the biomass-energy strategy. Biogas plants, for example, are an attractive source of local and community energy. The biggest biogas plant in India is in the Patan area of Gujarat. The plant is continually fed by cowdung of the large number of cows in the nearby villages. Large biogas plants are also being set up in Haryana and other states, however, a significant interest by the Central Government is needed in this area.
Another source of biomass-energy thats piquing interest worldwide is biofuels. Plants like corn, switchgrass, jatropha etc. as well as unicellular fatty-acid producing algae are being actively researched for biofuel production. Research on biofuels is abysmally low in India. These fuels can help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil as well as help us reduce our carbon footprint.
The final part of these three part series will try to synthesize the two parts of this short-essay and will try to build a coherent picture of the energy policy in India. Stay tuned!