Published: Sunday 29 February 2004

Pick of the post bag

Sans bias
The emotive and unbalanced reporting in The Ecologist caused me to stop the subscription last year. The final straw was the cover story 'Eat shit or die'. The need of the hour is to provide a magazine that is accessible and fair. The Indian magazine Down To Earth carried a campaign against pesticides in their recent issue. The cover story 'Defining Safety', (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 15, December 31, 2003), is a model of forensic campaigning and responsible journalism.

Coffee Projects Coordinator
CABI Commodities

Stop sensationalism
Under the sub heading 'Monocrothophos mayhem' in 'Defining Safety' (Down To Earth, December 31, 2003), the estimated exposure to this pesticide for an adult and child is stated. A large number of poor farmers have been using Monocrotophos, as it is most cost effective.

Although a toxic, there have been no health hazards or side effects so far. Several universities have found it to be safe. Down To Earth is supposed to be a responsible magazine, but the diet study about the daily intake appears dubious. People in the agro business know that researchers do not know how to analyse. Where did the scientists get the information on dieldrin and aldrin plants when these have been closed for over 25 years?

Today, the press is interested in sensationalising news without confirming scientific facts. Currently, Down To Earth is a popular magazine, but beware of the future. When the public are better informed, you would then certainly loose the goodwill of the people.

Executive Director,
Crop Care Federation of India
New Delhi

It's all in the mind

The editorial 'Only look for answers' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 17, January 31, 2004) questions the possibility of moving from partial water treatment to full treatment in places such as Udaipur. We see cities such as Singapore reusing wastewater. But can there be methods by which clean water need not be mixed with wastewater?

We have an available model in China's EcoSanRes programme. A pilot project in Inner Mongolia's Dongsheng City, an ecotown is being created in Erduos Municipality. There would be four-storey blocks of flats, two-storey terrace houses and one-storey courtyard houses, which would accommodate 1,700 households. Construction is scheduled for April, this year. The 'sanitation without water' concept would prove that such a conservation technique is possible in urban areas, too.

The kind of full treatment mentioned in the editorial exists in a number of places. Professor Saburo Matsui of Kyoto University, Japan estimates that over 300 million people around the world have benefited from this water recycling programme. But many cities in Europe still discharge raw sewage or sewage after primary 'treatment' (mechanical screening only).

Udaipur would be an ideal place for the eco-san concept. The obstacles are not so much technical or economical as they are culturally and administratively rooted.


'Only look for answers' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 17, January 31, 2004) prompted me to write about our work in Kheda district, Gujarat, known as the Water First project. We worked with villagers to restore watershed systems by harvesting rainwater that would be stored in aquifers. The motive was to replenish traditional wells and tanks. We discovered in the first year of the project itself that the villagers have an innate knowledge of maintaining clean and fresh water, coupled with practical experiences of the past.

Modern water supply facilities are a matter of trust; one cannot tell if the water we get in our homes is pure and clean. In rural areas, the situation might be still worse. Even in my country, New Zealand, rural water supply can be hazardous to human health. Quality of rainwater coming into aquifers and in-ground seepage to wells and waterways can be compromised. There are chances that watershed systems are contaminated with agricultural poisons, for land systems have been inappropriately used and polluted by toxic effluents.

India and China have traditional water supply systems based on time-tested principles of protecting the environment. Aquifers are a reliable and cost-effective method of water supply. Quality aquifers are effective in eliminating pathogens, once the recharged rainwater to groundwater is stored and processed. Since resource management degrees do not lay emphasis on aquifers and rogolith ecology, one has to return to the cultural intelligence of people in villages for whom icons, rituals and ceremonies are part of their relationship with the environment.

Much of the significance of traditional wisdom in maintaining fresh water is submerged under wrong advertising and lack of factual scientific detail. It is appalling to see how science is abused for commercial gain. I am witness to the heinous action of companies in Kheda district, who use village wells for promoting their pesticides, causing contamination in the village water supplies. A solution could be to stick posters of the Centre for Science and Environment besides those of the pesticides to tell people about the pollution. The other, is to include subjects such as watershed ecology and environmental health into the curri.

Homegrown remedy

Ecological toilets are the antidote to sewages. Responsible water usage can reduce grey water outflow. In most homes, one-third of the water consumption is for toilet flushing.

EcoSolutions in Kerala have been networking with government bodies and non-governmental organisations in the area of ecological toilets since 1994. We at EcoSolutions have proved that there are solutions to sanitation problems. Many homes in Kerala today have ecosan toilets. The apparent inertia of the policy makers has slackened the pace of large-scale implementation.

Primarily, it's a change in mindset that is required. People cannot imagine a change in toilet habits. In Kerala, there are over 250 urine diverting toilets operating, some of which started in 1995. This pioneering work was also conducted in Sri Lanka where the government was receptive and cooperative. The waterless toilet designs of EcoSolutions can work inside or outside a house, on the top or ground floor of a building.

We have spent ample time researching the basics, its time to start putting them into use. Why do we need to wait for a governing body to tell us to stop defecating into rivers and that aquifers are good for health?

Over 7,00,000 children are dying each year in India for want of clean drinking water and safe sanitation. Water flush toilets to pits and septic tanks are categorised as safe sanitation, but nobody questions where the daily effluent flows. It is ironic that many dry pits toilets the government has banned, and insists that these be converted into water flush technology are actually closer to being a safe technology, than toilets connected to sewers or waterlogged pits. If everyone harvested rainwater, used an ecological toilet, planted a tree and helped their neighbour, India would surely be a land of plenty.

EcoSolutions, Trivandrum...

Distorted facts

I wish to draw your attention to the article 'Stop gate crashing' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 10, October 15, 2003). The article says, "V Krishnamurthy, director of Krishnamurthy Institute of Algology, Chennai asserts, 'K.alvarezii has prospered in Hawaii, but didn't spread to other sites'." This is part of a sentence I had written in a letter to the Indian Express. I had mentioned that M S Doty had introduced K.alvarezii in Hawaii, where it flourished but had not spread to localities other than the site where it was introduced. Doty provided this information in a published paper. He also said that floating fragments of the alga can never attach themselves to new substrates and so drifting fragments are not a danger to the ecosystem.

The article gives greater credence to the statement of a marine biologist from the Chennai-based non-governmental organisation, both not named, that 117 species of seaweeds found in the Gulf of Mannar would vanish if K.alvarezii overtakes. My experience in marine algae and their biology tells me that this will not happen. References to Prosopis, Lantana and Eicchornea are irrelevant.

I object to another statement: "However, for some, the lure of some bucks is enough to give a clean chit to Pepsi Foods Limited (pfl)". I have not attempted to give a clean chit to pfl but only stated my opinion on Kappaphycus alvareii and its effect on the ecosystem.

Please do consult experts in the field to avoid propagating a false idea.

Krishnamurthy Institute of Algology, Chennai

Don't nip at the bud

The article 'Bamboo Shock' (Down To Earth, Vol 10, No 6, August 15, 2001) and 'Bamboo flowering' (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 3, June 30, 2002) mentions the chances of famine striking Mizoram in 2003-2004. A letter to the editor by Ranjay K Singh (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 6, August 15, 2002) suggested a change in the growing process by planting crops that are rat-resistant during the flowering season. It is a known fact that the bamboo flowering season is also the harbinger of famine in the land. Government policies seem to neglect the long-term ecological suicide they would do to the plants if the bamboo were harvested before its flowering period. What needs to be countered is the rat menace.

Two retired foresters, Manohar Savur and A R Maslekar, have warned about this wrong approach. Savur later, in the next issue of the weekly, blamed the United Nations (un) bodies such as the Food and Agricultural Organisation (fao) for having already destroyed our bamboo diversity in southern and central India in the 1960s. He, too, advocated anti-rodent measures. Maslekar in the subsequent issues condemned the harvesting of bamboo prior to flowering. He said the government had marginalised India's foresters and were consulting other international bodies such as the un.

One may not know that the insurgency in Mizoram in the 1960s was due to the mismanagement of bamboo flowering. We are faced with a similar issue, many years later. Even with technological explosion in this era, we are still in a dilemma concerning this ecological cycle. While the government is interested in short-term solutions, people of the hills worry over the wrong approach to the problem.

More pressing than the us walking out of Kyoto protocol and Russia following suit is the need to take stock of the impending anthropogenic mess that we are about to create on the subject of bamboo.


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