Published: Saturday 15 July 2006

Mangroves misunderstood

Thank you for drawing attention to our research with your article 'Holes in the wood' (Down To Earth, May 15, 2006). I would like to suggest that our research has been misunderstood or misrepresented.

Firstly, Rajendran and Kathiresan criticise us for not collecting the research data ourselves. Science is not about being there -- we didn't have to collect data to re-analyse what the two had collected.

Further, in contrast to what they state in the article, the re-analysis does take into account the effect of mangroves on per capita rates of mortality. All three variables provided in the original paper were used in our re-analysis: area of coastal vegetation, hamlet distance from shore and hamlet height above sea level. This is what distinguishes our re-analysis from the original analysis of Rajendran and Kathiresan, who failed to take into account the correlation between the three variables that resulted in a spurious correlation between vegetation area and mortality.

Our re-analysis found that once distance from shore and height above sea level had been taken into account the mangrove area only explained an extra 1 per cent of the variation in mortality. V Selvan says our criticisms are unfair, and appeals to common sense when evaluating the "fact" that mangroves mitigate tsunamis.

Our quantitative approach can put a precise value on that mitigating effect -- 1 per cent of the variation in mortality among hamlets. While it may be a "fact", it is hardly reassuring. As we say in our paper, and as T G Jagtap, a scientist with the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa, points out in the article, the concept of vegetation reducing drag is neither novel nor profound. The pertinent question is how much protection can a given area of forest provide against a wave of a given height. In this particular instance in Tamil Nadu, the answer is: not very much.

Finally, the article ends with a tragic anecdote from Sri Lanka, which may or may not be significant. Data collected by Rajendran and Kathiresan suggests that there is likely to be some other, more important, difference between these two villages to explain the shocking difference in the number of deaths than whether or not they were fronted by mangroves -- like the distance from shore or the height above sea level.

We chose to publicise our work since we believe there is a genuine danger in overstating the protective value of mangroves because it may lead to a false sense of security.

The concept of a buffer zone to which the idea of natural barriers lends indirect support also has grave implications for social justice. I draw your attention to a Tourism Concern report (www.tourismconcern.org.uk/pdfs/Final%20report.pdf), which outlines in detail legislative and other impediments that governments of India, Sri Lanka and Thailand are using to prevent people rebuilding homes destroyed by the tsunami, and the moves by big businesses, in particular the tourism industry in Sri Lanka, to take advantage of the buffer zones being established.


Senior Research Fellow ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

Department of Marine Biology
James Cook University


Narmada debate

This is in response to '907 km from parliament' (Down To Earth, May 15, 2006). Water is in short supply in the country especially in Gujarat, where Sardar Vallabhai Patel dreamt of building a dam to solve the state's water problem. The Narmada dam is a must for the state as well as the country's economic development. Even the Supreme Court has ruled to increase its height.

Unfortunately, political parties in our country politicise each issue. Only a few so-called well-wishers of the poor, like Medha Patkar, hinder the country's progress.

As for people displaced by the dam who did not receive proper rehabilitation, strict action must be taken against those responsible for such lapses. This shows that the state government has failed to do its duty. But dam construction should not stop at any cost.


Polavaram problems

This is in reference to 'Court curb' (Down To Earth, May 31, 2006). I feel that government officials, ministers, engineers and intellectuals need to advise Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy on the hazardous environmental impact of the proposed Polavaram dam. Instead state officials and engineers are misleading the state, the Centre and the people. If the dam ever bursts it might kill around 45 lakh people in the Godavari delta.

In a democracy, public debate and participation in decision-making is important and it is the government's responsibility to initiate action in this direction.


Malaria syndrome

This is in response to 'Bad buzz' (Down To Earth, June 15, 2006). Scores of unattended victims of malaria, failing health care services and the politics of the blame-game are only too well known in our country. What angers me most is how senior officials claim the administration is working properly, even though ground reality proves otherwise. This poses the inevitable question: have we become so blind to people's pain and affliction that we choose to brush their troubles aside? Perhaps, yes.

Unfortunately, in India nothing works except vote-bank politics. It was shocking to read how governments in the north-eastern states do not have the political will to deal with malaria, which is claiming hundreds of lives every day.

Though it cannot be denied that natural factors like rain and humidity do give rise to the disease, we must ask what steps the government has taken to provide a sound health-care system? Have politicians and officials ever bothered to come out of their air-conditioned offices and visit affected areas? Your guess is as good as mine.

To a large extent we are to blame. Though we cannot fight natural factors, we can at least work towards an adequate infrastructure for treatment, but don't. Unless people at the top realise this, many people will lose their lives because of the system's apathy.


Common waste or commonwealth

I would like to share my concerns regarding the solid waste problem in Delhi. Last month I visited the city after a year's gap. What greeted me was more flyovers, new metro stations under construction and the usual chaos.

But I was pleasantly surprised to see green and blue dustbins all over the city in line with the segregated waste disposal system. The green dustbins are to be used for biodegradable waste like kitchen waste and the blue dustbins are to be used for non-biodegradable items like plastic, bottles and tin cans. I was glad to see that after years of talk of waste segregation, the municipal corporation of Delhi (mcd) finally took the pain to put up bins and manage waste more efficiently.

But my pleasure soon gave way to disappointment when I saw that people weren't following the colour code since they were clueless about the purpose of the coloured bins. mcd's investment in these bins is a waste if they do not sensitise people to its use. And maybe by the time the idea does catch on, the bins will be missing, broken or recycled.

Creating awareness is the key to solve the solid waste management problem in the city. With Delhi on its way to becoming an international city with the upcoming Commonwealth Games, it is time citizens become aware of their role in making their city beautiful, clean, green -- truly an international city.


Losing habitat centres

Industrialisation, but at what cost, is the big question. I have been travelling to Kumaon for more than 40 years now and still do so every month. Places where we saw tigers and other wild animals earlier now have pulp and paper industries owned by the Birlas. This has created havoc in the area with trees dying and harmful wastes being scattered along the roadside.

Adding to the problem, the Uttaranchal government has recently given a part of the Chorgalia forest land near Haldwani to a private builder to set up an industry unit.

Recently, I was in Belgium visiting farmers and zoos to learn breeding techniques, where I was shown an eco-duct, a passage for wild animals to cross the busy highway with ease. It was a simple and inexpensive method of safeguarding animals.

There is a need for similar structures in places like Haridwar and Dudhwa in our country where many elephants and tigers get killed regularly due to accidents on busy roads near wildlife habitats and protected areas.



Initiatives needed

I am deeply concerned about the state of the environment having lived close to it all my life. I lead a team of scientists under the Taralabalu Krishi Vigyan Kendra (kvk) in Davanagere, Karnataka. kvk works in the field of agriculture, social forestry, dairy and animal husbandry, medicinal and aromatic plants, and water conservation. It seeks to help farmers increase their income through farming and non-farming activities. I think more scientists should take such initiatives.

Devaranjan T N

Down To Earth welcomes letters, responses and other contributions from readers. We particularly welcome you to join issues and share your opinion with others. Send to Sunita Narain, Editor, Down To Earth, 41, Tughlakabad Institutional Area, New Delhi - 110 062. Email: editor@downtoearth.org.in ...

Pick of the postbag

Litiginous pests
I read the editorial 'Want to be fried', (Down To Earth, May 31, 2006) with great interest.

I too was taken to court for criminal defamation by the same people -- Raju Shroff and gang -- of the Crop Care Federation of India for writing an article that discussed the findings of a study done by a university in Wisconsin, usa , on the effect of a combination of pesticides on the thyroid gland. This study is only one of the several that talk of how continued exposure to pesticide affects children's thyroid glands, giving rise to violent behaviour.

The federation's representatives asked me to "say sorry" and threatened to harass every person or organisation in India that spoke against pesticides. They were intemperate, abusive and later followed it up with threatening letters.

The newspaper that published the article (or mutilated parts of it) was taken to court in a case of defamation. They retracted and published an article attacking me for "having misled them" and praised the pesticide industry, specially ddt. Another newspaper that had published the same article has also been sued.

None of their allegations will hold up in court. They are aware of this and have admitted as much. They only intend to intimidate people.


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