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Chennai Floods: Wake up call for saving disappearing water bodies

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By Nithin Sridhar

The Chennai flood situation has once again brought forward the ugly results of mindless urbanization that is driven by greed and have no regard for environmental concerns.

Chennai has recorded the highest rainfall in the last 100 years. The houses, buildings, and the streets have all been flooded with water. There is a huge loss to life and property. But, much of this could have been avoided if only the city planners and builders had given proper consideration to the environmental impacts of rapid urbanization.

According to the press note released by the Centre for Science & Environment (CSE), unregulated urbanization and climate change-induced extreme weather are the reasons behind the crisis in Chennai. It further states that rapid urbanization leads to the destruction of natural drainage systems, thus increasing their vulnerability to flooding.

CSE Director General Sunita Narain said: “In Chennai, each of its lakes has a natural flood discharge channel which drains the spillover. But we have built over many of these water bodies, blocking the smooth flow of water. We have forgotten the art of drainage. We only see land for buildings, not for water.”

Thus, the CSE press note clearly links the Chennai flood situation with the disappearing of natural water bodies, which in turn is caused due to urbanization.

Natural water bodies play a very significant role in not only fulfilling human needs for water but also in keeping ecological balance. Urban water bodies, be it lakes or tanks, supply water for various domestic and industrial activities. The tank water also penetrates through the soil and recharge the groundwater. They are the major sources of fresh drinking water. And lastly, as they link to rivers and canals, they help to carry excess water during heavy rains.

But, in the absence of these tanks and lakes that act as a natural drainage system, the runoff water from the rains have no place to go, thus causing flooding of the cities. Further, lack of water tanks results in the scarcity of fresh water.

Rapid urbanization with complete disregard for ecological concerns is the single most important factor that has resulted in the disappearance of water tanks.

Consider the case of Chennai, in the 19th century, the Madras area had at least 43,000 functioning water tanks. Just two decades ago, there were at least 650 water bodies. But, today only a fraction (less than 30) of them remains.

The situation is more or less similar in other cities as well. Bengaluru had around 262 water bodies in 1960. But, today there are only 81, out of which only 34 can be recognized as live lakes. Ahmedabad had 137 lakes a decade ago out of which 65 lakes have already been built over. In Delhi, a survey last year identified 611 water bodies, out of which 274 already dried up and another 190 that cannot be revived.

This rapid depletion of water bodies is being caused due to various urbanization activities like drying of tanks for constructing buildings, encroachment of dried tank lands, deforestation that results in loosening of soil, dumping of garbage, sewage, and industrial wastes, and growing of weeds that makes the water tanks useless.

Thus, Narain comments: “If you ask the obvious question of how construction was permitted on the wetland, you will get a not-so-obvious response: Wetlands are rarely recorded under municipal land laws, so nobody knows about them. Planners see only land, not water and greedy builders take over.”

Hence, unless and until the state governments, city corporations, planners are not sensitized towards the environmental aspects of the issue; greedy builders are not restrained, and environmental rules and regulations are not strictly implemented, Indian cities and other urban centers will continue to be exposed to severe natural calamities.

(Photo: liveonindia.com)

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Urban Garbage Disposal Crisis and Ways to Tackle it Effectively

Garbage heaps without proper exposure to air take decades to slowly decompose, continuously releasing methane and leachate

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garbage filled canal in India
The less beautiful side of India. This canal running through the heart of Kancheepuram town overflows with garbage and pollution. Pollution remains a growing and significant issue in both rural and urban areas. Wikimedia

– by Gaurav Tyagi 

New Delhi, Sep 11, 2017: Rapid urbanization globally has led to large scale migration of people from rural to urban areas. This has resulted in huge waste disposal problem all over the world.

Ideally, food discards should be returned to the soil. Food leftovers fed to animals and the cattle shed waste put in a pit to decompose. It can then become a very good source for the planting season as NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium) nutrients and micro-nutrients for the soil resulting in healthy crops.

The advent of plastic has led to a major problem. People throw the kitchen waste in such plastic bags. This mixed waste when put in the fields, results in the non-bio-degradable plastic film preventing the rain from entering the soil and stop seeds from germinating through them.

This assorted mixed waste presents a serious challenge for the city authorities. The municipalities usually dump them outside the city limits thus creating mountains of mixed waste.

These hills of garbage are denied oxygen from the air. They emit methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulphide and produce leachate, a black liquid oozing from the waste; for example, if a rotten tomato is left in the open air, it would dry to powder within days but the same tomato in a plastic bag would turn into a smelly liquid therefore, it is vitally important to aerate the garbage heaps.

Also Read: Garbologists find roots of modern waste by digging through Victorian-Era garbage 

Garbage heaps without proper exposure to air take decades to slowly decompose, continuously releasing methane and leachate. This leachate seeps into the soil and contaminates deep natural water channels.

The segregation of waste at source into wet (compostable), dry (recyclable), sanitary (disposable diapers as well as sanitary napkins) and hazardous domestic waste should be made compulsory in every nation.

The city authorities should ensure strict 100% compliance of the aforesaid norms with provisions of strict fines, for residents not adhering to these measures.

Once every household segregates its waste into separate categories, then it becomes very easy for the city councils to pursue scientific garbage management.

The dry waste can go for recycling. The hazardous material disposed of safely.

The food waste collected by the authorities must not be dumped in high heaps instead the pattern of windrows should be followed.

Windrows are long, low parallel heaps of waste not more than two meters high. They are designed to achieve the optimum conditions for aerating the waste.

The dumping trucks unload their waste load in a long row. Enough space is left between rows for a lifting tractor or an earthmover to drive through and periodically turn the waste.

The outer aerated waste forms the inner core of a new window and the airless centre of the old heap goes outside. A weekly turning of the waste repeated 3-4 times ensures that all parts of the waste get fully decomposed like leaves on a forest floor, turning dark brown with a sweet earthy smell.

This process can be further accelerated by adding composting bio-culture like fresh cow-dung. Fresh waste windrows heat up inside to about 55 degrees – 60 degrees Celsius in 3-4 days. After 4 turnings, there is about 40 % weight loss as the moisture content declines and also approximately 40% volume reduction.

After this, no leachate, methane and smelly gases get released. This fully stabilized waste turns into compost, which is rich in microbes as well as humus. Both of which are excellent for soil vitality.

This can be used as organic manure in agricultural fields thereby eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers for farming.

City authorities can ensure long term use of the same landfill site by following this approach for waste processing rather than continuously looking for new waste dumping grounds.

Poor homeless people in the cities can be trained and employed at such landfill sites thereby making them valuable contributing members of the society.

By strictly implementing this course of action globally; governments could easily ensure a healthier, cleaner, pollution-free planet thereby, effectively tackling the menace of ever increasing garbage in an environment- friendly sustainable manner. These measures would also greatly assist in urban poverty alleviation.

The author is a Master Degree holder in International Tourism & Leisure Studies from Netherlands and is based in China


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Ancient Temples can be Inspiration for Water Conservation:  Here is Why!

Tamil Nadu’s temple inscriptions can provide some key points on drought-management and water conservation

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A temple in Tamil Nadu
A temple in Tamil Nadu. Pixabay

Chennai, July 30, 2017: The droughts that affected the civilizations centuries ago can tell us about ways to handle the present ones.To have a better understanding, we need to look at the walls of temples in Tamil Nadu.

Today, temples or any religious monuments are occasionally visited for spiritual significance attached to it, their art and architecture. But, in the past, the walls of it were used to serve as record keepers. Inscriptions on Tamil Nadu’s temples are a record of administrative and social decisions made from a time when what was written on them was controlled by the local community.

Tamil Nadu is divided into two broad zones, the Cauvery delta and the Tamirabarani delta as per inscriptions on irrigation. The Cauvery delta was more fertile and larger with more tributaries still, the number of drought-related inscriptions here is more in number than the Tamirabarani delta. About 1,000 years ago, during the peak of the Chola power, irrigation in the Cauvery delta was through the many tributaries of the river and smaller canals.

The Tamirabarani region was much more water-starved and gives us a surprising data on what we need to do. There are Inscriptions from as old as 700-1,000 years ago, about various ways to conserve water in temples at places like Mannarkovil, Cheranmahadevi, Tirukurungudi, Kovilpatti, and Pudukkottai, indicates few aspects.

Temple inscriptions also included documents connected with the sale, transfer, and maintenance of irrigated lands. Today, we look at water as a right but in the older times, it was a representation of God and it was the duty of residents to protect and conserve it. Further, the respect for water reached the public sphere and became part of individual homes as well. In the 1970s, when the older women drew water from the wells, they poured the first pot back into them.

Water is precious. Pixabay

During the reign of Pandya Empire, water conservation was a completely local affair. The entire community, through the elected temple Mahasabha, managed it. The responsibility of constant supervision and monitoring was on local bodies. All systems and processes sustained due to an emotional connection with the resource.

Water from the Tamirabarani and the Vaigai rivers in Tamil Nadu was taken through channels into formations like small lakes called Eris and bigger lakes called per-eris. These channels created square parcels of lands called sadirams and they were subdivided into smaller padagams of land, all of which had numbers. There were around 20-24 padagams in a sadiram. They were taxed on the basis of their fertility. A system far more complex and farmer-friendly than today!

Every tank had multiple weirs to drain out excess water, built in agreement with the local terrain. Using these, farmers irrigated the fields. There were complex calculations on allocation by turns (murai) and hours of supply (nir naligai). The interests of the boatmen in the lower estuaries and ports were also taken care of so that there was enough water there to permit them to bring boats up the river. The higher number of large tanks was in upper reaches which fed water into the smaller tanks and ponds before it finally drained into the sea. The result of it was- during floods, the limits were rarely breached, and during droughts, each tank had water.

Maintenance of the tanks was done through desilting process, enlargement, building, and maintaining of new canals, it was a continuous process. More than a hundred inscriptions across the region dealt exclusively with this. Fishing rights for the lakes helped to cover maintenance costs. Revenues were good enough as the excess profits were used in building larger halls in temples that could be used for public functions.

In Srivilliputhur, Tamil Nadu, every able-bodied man was expected to participate in such water conservation methods or operations. Some inscriptions indicates-maintenance was a local responsibility and not that of the king. In fact, many capital-intensive projects were funded by the dancing women of temples.

Many inscriptions talk of tax concessions provided following natural disasters (and after a disaster, the community used to quickly act together to set the system right) and a note of reclaimed lands.

It is true that the inscriptions don’t paint a utopian world. They also talk about disputes related to water sharing and taxes; deaths that happened during desilting; and fights over excess water for more rounds of crops. But such disputes were quickly resolved and the river or tank was respected.

Today, we may have advanced in terms of technology but we could still pick some of the best practices from earlier times.

prepared by Kritika Dua of NewsGram. Twitter @DKritika08


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First Pollution early Warning System Aims to reduce Health Impacts and Deaths from Air Pollution

Ahmedabad was among the five most polluted cities in India in terms of PM 2.5, according to the WHO's 2014 Ambient Air Pollution database

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Air pollution, (Taken from VOA).
  • Ahmedabad was among the five most polluted cities in India in terms of PM 2.5
  • PM 2.5 is particulate matter finer than 2.5 micro-metres, or about 30 times finer than a human hair
  • The AMC had drafted a comprehensive Air Action Plan to combat pollution from construction activities, vehicular emissions, and industries in 2016

Ahmedabad, May 31, 2017: The first monitoring and early warning system in India was launched on May 12 in Ahmedabad, with the hope that it will reduce the health impacts and deaths from air pollution, a growing problem in a country with nine of the world’s 20 most polluted cities in 2016.

Eight new air quality monitoring sites across Ahmedabad will produce a daily air quality index (AQI) that will be accessible to citizens through 11 LED screens, as part of what is called the Air Information and Response (AIR) plan.

An early warning system will notify people of excessive pollution days as part of the response plan, while medical professionals will be trained to respond to air-pollution emergencies in the city of over 5.5 million people.

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Ahmedabad was among the five most polluted cities in India in terms of PM 2.5, according to the WHO’s 2014 Ambient Air Pollution database.

PM 2.5 is particulate matter finer than 2.5 micro-metres, or about 30 times finer than a human hair. Inhaled deep into the lungs, they can cause heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer and respiratory diseases, and are known to pose the greatest risk to human health.

People living in more polluted areas die prematurely after long-term exposure to air pollution, and inconsistent monitoring makes it difficult to assess the threat posed by ambient air pollution.

The AIR plan is a collaborative effort between the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC), Indian Institute of Public Health (IIPH), Natural Resources Defense Council, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology and the Indian Meteorological Department’s System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR) network.

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The monitoring and warning system will be tried for the first time in India, but follows the successful example of Beijing, that started the programme for issuing colour coded pollution alerts in 2013.

The AMC has set aside a budget of Rs 30 lakh for 2017, Chirag Shah, nodal officer of the AIR plan and the Deputy Health Officer of the West Zone at the AMC, told IndiaSpend.

‘All the recurring costs, such as the maintenance of screens and stations, issuing advisories and initiating programmes to increase public awareness will also be borne by us,’ said Shah. SAFAR has invested about Rs 20 crore to install 10 AQI monitors — two in the adjoining city of Gandhinagar.

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The AMC had drafted a comprehensive Air Action Plan to combat pollution from construction activities, vehicular emissions and industries in 2016, its second such plan since 2002, but it is yet to be implemented.

‘If people don’t go to the highly polluted areas and follow the health advisory to minimise exposure, then symptoms will be reduced and there will also be a cost saving for citizens,’ Dileep Mavalankar, Director of IIPH told IndiaSpend. ‘So, it depends on how effectively we are able to communicate to patients and the people who are vulnerable to avoid exposure.’

As part of the AIR plan, the AMC will issue a health alert when the AQI forecast for the next 24 hours is ‘very poor’ (301-400). When the AQI forecast rises to ‘severe’ levels (401-500), a health warning will be issued.

Under the health alert, the nodal officer of the AIR programme will ‘inform urban health centres as well as private medical practitioners including pulmonologists, paediatricians to alert them to expect and be prepared for more cases of respiratory health effects’.

If the AQI exceeds 401 (severe), the nodal officer will inform urban health centres, the local ambulance service, transport, traffic police, the government radio station, schools, colleges, and the estate department — which handles permissions for real estate — in order to control road dust and construction work.

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‘Major contributors to air pollution are population, industries and vehicles. Rate of urbanisation and industrialisation leading to growth of vehicles make cities like Ahmedabad, Surat, Vadodara and Rajkot the hot spots for air pollution,’ according to a report by the Gujarat ENVIS centre.

Ambient levels of PM 2.5 from transport sources alone are expected to double by 2030 if no action is taken, according to a 2015 report by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

Between 2000-01 and 2010-11, Ahmedabad’s vehicles more than doubled from 1.2 million to over 2.6 million. As of 2014-15, there were 3.4 million vehicles in the city. Ahmedabad also had more than 2,000 industrial air-polluting units as of May 2012, the report stated.

In Ahmedabad pollution comes from a variety of sources, including power plants and brick kilns. The city has two thermal power plants and more than 300 brick kilns.

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The Air Action Plan, if implemented, will reduce pollution from these sources through various measures such as improving fuel quality, phasing out commercial vehicles over 15 years old, traffic management, installing pollution control measures in industries and reducing pollution from thermal power plants.

In 2015, 153 of 168 days (93 per cent) monitored for air quality in Ahmedabad remained ‘good’, according to the national air quality index (AQI).

However, in 2016, the annual PM 2.5 average in Ahmedabad was 183.35 �g/m� (microgram/cubic metre), over 4.5 times the national ambient air quality standard of 40 �g/m� prescribed by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). In 2017, the monitor installed by the CPCB in Maninagar to provide real-time air-quality data has been working intermittently.

India Spend analysed air quality data from its monitoring systems, collectively called #Breathe, for two devices located in Ahmedabad for the duration March 14 to May 14, 2017, when CPCB data were unavailable.

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Of the 62 days that India Spend analysed, only six days (9.6 per cent) fell within the WHO guideline of 25 �g/m�. However, only three of 62 days were over the national standard of 60 �g/m�, meaning that 95 per cent of the monitored days fell within the permissible Indian standard for PM 2.5. The most severe air-pollution levels occur during the winter months of November, December and January. (IANS)