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Quiet strangler

FARMING FOR DRINKING WATER: NITRATE POLLUTION OF WATER -- AN ASSESSMENT OF A REGULATORY REGIME Edited by Sue Elworthy Publisher : Ashgate Publishing Company Price : Not state

By Meera Iyer
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Danger fertilised: a harmless< (Credit: British High Commission)IS WATER pollution all about throwing rubbish and other unwanted things into the water? No. In fact, a harmless activity like farming could lead to something as insidious as nitrate pollution.

In 1989, England's National River Authority shortlisted 10 areas in the country which had high levels of nitrates in the groundwater. These were designated "Nitrate Sensitive Areas" (NSAs) under the provisions of the Water Act of 1989. A 5-year pilot study was initiated in these areas to examine the possibility of decreasing the levels of nitrate content in water by changing farming practices. The book assesses this study and tries to see whether it is likely to result in an effective regulatory regime for nitrate in water.

Rising nitrate levels have raised an alarm because of the possibility of adverse effects on humans and animals. Methaemoglobinaemia -- or blue baby's disease -- is caused by the reaction of nitrate with haemoglobin, the oxygen-carriers in the blood, producing methaemoglobin, which strangles the oxygen carrying capacity of the tissue. Some claim that nitrate can wear down the body's immune system while its derivatives may be carcinogenic. Nitrate also causes eutrophication, although in India and other tropical regions, it is thought that phosphates are more to blame for this asphyxiation of waterbodies.

The author further analyses the details of administrative loopholes which have added to the seriousness of the situation.There was a view in the House of Lords that the nitrate problem was all about a conflict between the basic needs of food and water. Elworthy argues that the conflict is due more to changing administrative operations and law. She briefly delves into history to look into the UK's policies regarding water and food production to locate the origins of the present crisis.

It is ironic to note that the very government which is coaxing farmers to reduce fertiliser consumption today was not so long ago actively promoting it. Following its experiences in World War I, which had massive food shortages, a worried British government in the '40s spared no effort in encouraging increased food production and bringing even grasslands under cultivation. The Agriculture Act of 1947, the basis of postwar arrangements, continued the trend. By the '60s, the adoption of modern farming methods emphasising the use of fertilsers was almost universal, and "maximum food production, by modern, efficient farming was believed to be an ultimate good".

Looking at the history of water laws, Elworthy concludes that "it is the law of food production and the law of water protection that are in conflict rather than basic needs". In the course of the analysis, the author allows us a fascinating glimpse into precedents in the control of pollution, referring to lawsuits dating back to the 18th century. For instance, in a 1705 lawsuit pertaining to contamination of a house by human waste from a neighbouring house, the final verdict read that "every man must use his own so as not to damnify another".

The book is a commendable effort because it deals with the nitrate problem in its entirety, recognising that the issue involves more than merely the structure and fertility of soil. The problem has its historical and social aspects. The apprehensions of the farmers in the NSAs, their lack of awareness about "this nitrate thing" and lacunae in the laws are well brought out.

The book tends to drag at times, particularly when it talks about British laws and European directives, and still more of the same. Charts, graphs or photographs that may have livened up the text are missing. It is unlikely to hold the interest of Indian readers since it pertains entirely to a specific programme in the UK. Those seeking concrete findings of the NSA study or trends indicated by preliminary findings may find it a little inconclusive.

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