Published: Saturday 31 May 2003

Pick of the post bag

Recharge the aquifers
During the last decade, in the field of natural resource management, there have been numerous slogans in the name of watershed management, water harvesting, sustainable agriculture and groundwater recharge. As a scientist, I find that today groundwater recharge is the most delicate issue that any country can afford to make haste about.

Nature has provided us with something unique: a groundwater reservoir environment. Slow and steady recharge processes through soil profiles from the rivers, ponds, lakes, streams, nalas, catchment areas during the monsoon period is the safest way for water filtration to take place. I believe this natural process is yet to be understood and known, and appropriate research too is yet to begin.

I also wish to caution enthusiastic friends promoting groundwater recharge through the quick process of injecting runoff water, be it rooftop or from land surface. Such water contains pollutants deposited from air-borne transport. Various kinds of effluents too mix with the runoff water during the rains. We should, therefore, encourage traditional or natural ways of groundwater recharge. Traditionally, with the problems of groundwater, people adopted multipurpose pond culture, which is the only safe way to promote groundwater recharge.

In recent years the technologies developed by the groundwater management agencies for recharging the aquifers raises questions about maintaining the safety of our groundwater. According to these agencies "proven techniques should be used with care". However, the agencies are silent about the nature of the techniques. This is particularly true when large volumes of water has to be injected through bored holes in the soil profile. Reports have also started pouring in on contaminated groundwater (The Times of India, July 13, 2000; The Hindustan Times, April 9, 2002).

Groundwater recharge is too complex a technique, and we must realise that without research support, it may prove disastrous. Why can't the elites of the city be educated to store rainwater in ponds created on their lawns, open compounds, grounds in public places? In this way they can have the advantage of a natural available filter of land mass for promoting groundwater recharge, and can also save scarce financial resources that would be required for developing and maintaining filter injectors.

Senior scientist
Water Technology Centre
Indian Agricultural Research Institute
New Delhi

Green soldiers

The past decades have witnessed unrestrained commercial exploitation of the forests and mineral wealth in the Himalayan slopes, which has resulted in widespread denudation of the forests. These bared hill sides are not only an ugly sight today, but have also led to soil erosion, landslides, plummeting water tables, low rainfall and snowfall, and related climatic changes in the region.

It was in the early eighties that some environment-conscious citizens of the once pristine 'Doon valley' discovered that the mountain slopes of Mussoorie overlooking Dehradun city were robbed of their tree cover. Large-scale and indiscriminate stone quarrying in the area gave way to severe soil erosion and land slides.

Keeping in view the orders of the Supreme Court, the state government decided to entrust the responsibility of restoration of the ecologically devastated areas to the army. Subsequently, the 127 Infantry Battalion of the Territorial Army (ta) took the form of a dedicated ecological task force.

The unit was first assigned the task of afforestation in the Mohand area of the Shivalik hills in the vicinity of Rajaji National Park, Dehradun. In this area the ta personnel planted nearly 3,20,000 saplings covering an area of 700 hectares (ha). In addition to this, they built 207 rock filled check dams, dug trenches to stop soil erosion and constructed 69 kilometres of tracks in the area.

After the Mohand forest ranges, the battalion took over restoration in the mountains of Mussoorie. Here they undertook large-scale afforestation, soil conservation and constructed 4,608 check dams and reclaimed 23 large stone quarries on 3,400 ha of land in the Kairkuli micro catchment area on the southern slopes of Mussoorie's hills. It took the unit almost a decade to accomplish the task of bringing back Mussoorie's naturally salubrious environs. As a result the hill resort received its first snowfall in 1997 after a gap of 17 years. The city also began receiving more rainfall during the monsoons.

At present, this dedicated group of ta personnel are engaged in the ecological reconstruction of the Aglar watershed. This watershed falls in the catchment area of the Aglar river, a tributary of the Yamuna. Due to ceaseless cutting of trees and fodder collection, the hill area is barren. It also receives scant rainfall. So far the unit has planted 22 lakh saplings on 2,800 ha of land.

Similar ecological task forces have been at work in Jammu and Kashmir, in Rajasthan along the Indira Gandhi canal, Chambal ravines and Pithoragarh district in Uttaranchal. This success of the ta unit is an example for other state governments to emulate and adopt such joint ventures involving the army. After all the very concept of the ta is not only to involve the citizenry in nation building activity but also in creating a dependable reserve force to assist the army in times of crisis.


A safer alternative

I represent the Netherlands-based International Rainwater Catchment Systems Association. The cover story on arsenic and fluoride poisoning in (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 22, April 15, 2003) is excellent and provocative. Such articles are required to make people aware that arsenic and fluoride poisoning of the groundwater is a serious threat, and that it is prevalent in many countries.

We should, therefore, promote the use of rainwater stored in rooftop tanks, which is purified before usage as a safer alternative as compared to water from pumps. Nevertheless, wells replenished by rainwater could still bear the risk of arsenic pollution, which should be avoided. The issue of purified rainwater as a safer alternative should be highlighted in Down To Earth.


Arsenic research

The cover story on arsenic poisoning in (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 22, April 15, 2003) is commendable. I congratulate the writers for the content. I would also like to put forth a few pointers about my model on the anthropogenic source of the element. In 1991, when I visited the Centre for Man and Environment, Calcutta, I was given an aquifer sample from the endemic zone sediment. I examined the sample at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai and found that the coating on the aquifer grains was hydrated iron oxides carrying 2.0 per cent arsenic. I was then developing the model.

My observations were presented in 1999 by the director of geochemistry of the Imperial College of Science, London, who happened to attend a conference at Seattle, the us. In 2001, a environmental newsletter published by Society for Direct Initiative for Social and Health Action (Vol 11, No 1) carried my concept of anthropogenic source of arsenic. In 2002, the concept was published in a key paper at the Indian Science Congress in Lucknow. Further in the same year, it was published by Current Science .

The basis of my argument is that, while the management of the disease and management of groundwater are necessary, they are mere aftermaths of the cleaning process. The responsibility of the current situation lies solely on the attitude that we can get away from nature's checks and balances. The present tragedy is not a natural disaster, but a man-made one.

Powai, Mumbai...

Finding solutions

This is with reference to the cover story on arsenic and fluoride poisoning of groundwater (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 22, April 15, 2003). The need of the hour is to devise strategies to ensure that extraction of groundwater does not exceed the recharge of the aquifers. To ensure this, stress should be laid on rainwater harvesting, rebuilding community water systems such as ponds, tanks, stepwells.

But our challenge today is how to provide water to regions, which receive minimal rainfall or have no access to rivers. At the recently held 18th Annual General Meeting of the National Water Development Agency (nwda), the Union Minister for Water Resources said: "Inter-basin transfer of water in different regions of the country is the only permanent solution to tackle drought and floods in the face of growing water demands." I fully agree with the minister's statement.

While European countries are talking in terms of transferring water from one country to the other (for instance France and Spain), India is still unsuccessful in being able to capture more than 50 per cent of water that flows into the Arabian sea during the monsoon as surface run-off.

But such solutions are site-specific. In Rajasthan this method will not work because there is no basin nearby like the Western Ghats, which receives such high rainfall. But here interlinking of the rivers from the north can irrigate the land in Rajasthan. We have the will, technology and manpower (and resources). Once water is kept out of politics, all such problems can be put to rest permanently.

Today most of the hard-rock aquifers contain old water, which is not flushed out. Even if the freshwater is extracted from hard-rock aquifers rich in fluoride-bearing minerals, fluoride levels in groundwater will be below than that in drinking water.

Causes of fluoride pollution in groundwater are also anthropogenic in nature. For instance in places such as Hunugund and Ilkal in Karnataka, granite mining is a flourishing business. The granite powder is dumped in open pits or discarded on the ground. Due to the large surface area of the grains, even a little rain can carry large amounts of fluoride into the aquifers. There are methods, which enable both the granite industry and good quality groundwater to co-exist, provided a small percentage of the profits from the industry is spent on creating a sound infrastructure.

"There is clear cut politics in supplying water to villages." It is a common and unfortunate feature that certain villages are not covered under the scheme and water is first supplied in villages which have political patronage. Even politicians will not deny this truth.

It is a shame that states do not have a technology to ascertain the extent of fluoride content in groundwater. What is crucial is who heads the policy and mission committees. Today, India needs low-level committees with members of high intelligence, rather than currently standard high-level committees with members with low intellect.

Defluoridation through the Nalgonda technique was "made popular" and it was not cost effective. There are methods available to reduce fluoride levels in groundwater through locally available products such as tamarind seeds, drum sticks etc. We can further refine such methods and provide a cost- effective way to fight fluorosis. But again it is important to note that this will prove to be only a temporary measure as the extracted fluoride will get back into the groundwater, when not disposed properly.


Urban garbage

One of the biggest problems facing urban areas in the country today is collection and disposal of garbage. Civic authorities have failed miserably in handling this issue satisfactorily. While garbage collection remains a problem, disposal of it, is a much bigger crisis. This is true especially in view of the fact that dumping grounds are overloaded and even people who live near these dumps object to the indiscriminate dumping of garbage, which is often set on fire.

Speaking about the ordeal of those living near such burning dumps is unexplainable. The state governments too have ignored such health hazards posed to its citizens.

There is 'gold in the garbage' if only handled scientifically. Large private companies should be involved in collection and disposal of garbage, which should have a financial interest in doing so. The civic authorities and the state governments should make such a venture profitable to the private companies. Bagging after segregation of garbage from each household should be made mandatory. The garbage should be processed in or outside each big city.

Materials that can be recycled such as metal, paper and plastics should be kept separately for commercial use. What cannot be recycled or made into compost should only be burnt in incinerators to generate power through steam turbines / generators.

Where there is a will there is a way! It's time for the Union and state civic authorities to treat, handle and dispose garbage on a war footing.


For a holistic approach

It's a poisonous cocktail of lax regulations in our nation today. I am worried about how things are evolving. My view is that we try to refrain ourselves from a holistic approach. Holism refers to the need to view various dimensions of a problem together and to avoid 'externalising' the problems to other sectors and beyond the borders of the research theme and scientific discipline.

Knowledge has a threefold-dimension: critical, reflective and holistic. The Centre for Science and Environment's (cse) study of pesticides in bottled water has very well taken into consideration first two dimensions (the report is critical and it reflects the complexity of the problem). We have to work hard on the third aspect: the holistic approach.

While doing my doctorate I learnt how to see and analyse environmental problems through a multi-perspective and multi-dimensional approach. I wish you all the very best in your endeavours in promoting solutions for a clean and safe environment.


Under threat

Keibul Lamjao National Park in Loktak lake, Manipur has the credentials of being our country's only floating national park. The lake is one of the most important Ramsar sites of our country. But unfortunately the park has been encroached upon. And this poses a serious threat to the habitat of the endangered species Sanghai (Cervus eldi eldi). A special team from the Centre for Science and Environment should be sent to the lake to survey the present scenario of the park and of the Sanghai, which is now listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources' red list of endangered species.


Your attention, please!

Ever since it hit the Indian markets, I have been using the liquid mosquito repellent 'All Out'. But now it is ineffective, even when combined with the tortoise coil. To take advantage of the mosquitoes' feeding habits, we open all doors and windows in the evenings and leave the rooms until it is dark. However, this has not made a difference. I have avoided spraying Baygon for various reasons. We have dogs, I have allergies and hence, would like to avoid chemical sprays. Please help by suggesting alternative and effective remedies to control mosquitoes.


We publish this letter in the hope that readers will write in suggestions and advice for Anuradha Mubayi.

-- Editor...

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