By Rishika Pardikar
Search operations are still underway to find those declared missing following the Uttarakhand disaster on 7 February 2021.
"As of now [18 March], we have found 74 bodies and 130 people are still missing," said Swati S. Bhadauria, district magistrate in Chamoli, Uttarakhand, India. Chamoli is the district where a hanging, ice-capped rock broke off from a glacier and fell into a meltwater- and debris-formed lake below. The lake subsequently breached, leading to heavy flooding downstream.
The disaster is attributed to both development policies in the Himalayas and climate change. And as is common with climate-linked disasters, the most vulnerable sections of society suffered the most devastating consequences. Among the most vulnerable in Chamoli are its population of migrant construction workers from states across India.
Of the 204 people dead or missing, only 77 are from Uttarakhand, and "only 11 were not workers of the two dam companies," Bhadauria noted. The two dams referred to are the 13.2-megawatt Rishiganga Hydroelectric Project and the 520-megawatt Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower Plant, which has been under construction since 2005. The flash floods in Chamoli first broke through the Rishiganga project and then, along with debris accumulated there, broke through the Tapovan Vishnugad project 5–6 kilometers downstream.
"Both local people and others from Bihar, Punjab, Haryana, Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh…from all over India work on these two [hydroelectric] projects," said Atul Sati, a Chamoli-based social activist with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation.
Sati noted that the local community suspects the number of casualties from the Uttarakhand disaster may be higher than reported because not all the projects' migrant workers—including those from bordering countries like Nepal—have been accounted for by the construction companies and their subcontractors.
The National Thermal Power Corporation is the state-owned utility that owns the Tapovan Vishnugad project. "NTPC has given building contracts to some companies," Sati explained. "These companies have given subcontracts to other companies. What locals are saying is that there are more [than 204] who are missing. They say there were [migrant] workers from Nepal."
NTPC and the Kundan Group (the corporate owner of the Rishiganga project) have not responded to repeated requests for comment.
No Early-Warning System
"NTPC did not have a proper early-warning system," said Mritunjay Kumar, an employee with the government of the east Indian state of Bihar. Kumar's bother, Manish Kumar, was a migrant worker employed with Om Infra Ltd., an NTPC subcontractor. On the day of the disaster, Manish was working in one of the silt flushing tunnels of the Tapovan project and lost his life in the flooding.
Mritunjay Kumar noted that it "would have taken time" for the floodwater and debris to flow from the meltwater lake to the Rishiganga project and then to the Tapovan project. "Even if workers knew 5 minutes in advance," he said, "lives could have been saved."
An advance notice "would have given [Tapovan] workers at least 5–6 critical minutes," agreed Hridayesh Joshi, an environmental journalist from Uttarakhand who reported from Chamoli after the disaster. "Many people made videos; they shouted and alerted people on site. If there was a robust early-warning system, many more lives could have been saved…even if not all, at least some would have escaped."
"It is true that this was an environmental, climate change driven disaster. But NTPC had not taken any measures to save their workers from such disasters," Kumar said. "They [NTPC] hadn't even installed emergency exits for tunnel workers. The only proper exit was a road which faces the river. If NTPC had installed a few temporary iron staircases, many people could have climbed out."
Kumar noted that the Tapovan project has been under construction since before the 2013 Kedarnath disaster, in which more than 5,000 people lost their lives as rainfall-driven floods ravaged northern India. "If they [NTPC] knew that such disasters will happen, why didn't they install early-warning systems?" Kumar asked. "Scientists have been warning about climate change and [dam and road] constructions in the Himalayas from a very long time. Obviously, NTPC was aware."
This story originally appeared in Eos and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
India's New Delhi has been called the "world air pollution capital" for its high concentrations of particulate matter that make it harder for its residents to breathe and see. But one thing has puzzled scientists, according to The Guardian. Why does New Delhi see more blinding smogs than other polluted Asian cities, such as Beijing?
To answer this question, scientists looked at the chemical composition of the region's smog and found that its density is likely linked to the burning of plastics. The specific chemicals released by this burning and other industrial processes are responsible for around 50 percent of the low visibility, the study authors wrote.
How did they reach this conclusion? The study, published in Nature Geoscience in late January, measured the chemical composition of the particulate matter in the cities of Delhi and Chennai. These are both cities in the Indo Gangetic Plain, a region blanketed in dense smog, particularly in December and January, a PTI story published by The Indian Express explained.
The researchers found that the smog in both cities, though particularly in Chennai, had high amounts of chloride. The researchers then looked at which chemicals also spiked along with the chloride, and found it matched what would be released by the burning of plastic, The Guardian explained.
"We realised that despite absolute PM2.5 mass burden over Delhi being much less than other polluted megacities around the world, including Beijing, the pollution and atmospheric chemistry of Delhi is much more complex to understand," lead author and IIT Madras Department of Civil Engineering associate professor Sachin S Gunthe told PTI. "This work put forward importance of measurements and modelling approaches to scientifically conclude that half of the water uptake and visibility reduction by aerosol particles around Delhi is caused by the hydrochloric acid (HCl) emissions, which is locally emitted in Delhi potentially due to plastic contained waste burning and other industrial processes."
The low visibility is a deadly and costly problem for New Delhi, the study authors wrote. It increases car accidents and flight delays. Particulate matter in general caused 12,000 excess deaths in New Delhi in 2017, according to one estimate. But the burning of plastics poses other, unique risks, The Guardian explained. It can release highly toxic dioxins that contaminate the food chain and react with smog to increase levels of ground-level ozone, which have been linked to crop yield reductions of 20 to 30 percent.
However, the study's findings have one bright side.
"Given that we find plastic burning as a potential cause of the reduced visibility, we hope these findings will help policy makers to efficiently enforce and implement policies that are already in place towards regulating open burning of plastic contained-waste and other potential chlorine sources," Gunthe told PTI.
Still, the problem of plastic waste is larger than two cities in India. Around 90 percent of waste in low income countries is either left in dumps or burned outdoors, according to The Guardian. The emissions from the burning of plastics can also contribute to the climate crisis. This means the ultimate solution needs to be a global one.
"Better waste management needs to be a priority but eliminating plastic pollution also requires a rethink of global plastic production and use," Gary Fuller concluded for The Guardian.
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The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
Global Outrage After India Arrests Climate Activist Over Farmer Protest Toolkit Shared by Greta Thunberg
By Jessica Corbett
Public figures within and beyond India are demanding the release of Disha Ravi, a climate campaigner accused of sedition for allegedly editing and distributing an activist "toolkit" in support of the ongoing farmers' protest that was tweeted by Fridays for Future founder Greta Thunberg.
A petition calling for Ravi's release has over 12,100 signatures. Activists, actors, politicians, and others have condemned her weekend arrest, which followed months of farmer-led demonstrations against agricultural reforms and other policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's right-wing Hindu nationalist government.
More than 50 academics, activists, and artists have released a joint statement denouncing Ravi's arrest as "disturbing," "illegal in nature," and an "over-reaction of the state," according to The Tribune, an English-language daily in North India.
#ToolkitsAreNotSedition #FreeDishaRavi Preparing toolkits that make it easier for people of other countries to unde… https://t.co/DOwR2hMy5E— Kavita Krishnan (@Kavita Krishnan)1613310833.0
Arresting the activist, in her early 20s, "is an unprecedented attack on democracy," tweeted Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. "Supporting our farmers is not a crime."
Indian MP P. Chidambaram, also responded on Twitter, declaring that "the Indian state must be standing on very shaky foundations if Disha Ravi, a... student of Mount Carmel college and a climate activist, has become a threat to the nation."
"India is becoming the theatre of the absurd and it is sad that the Delhi Police has become a tool of the oppressors," he added. "I strongly condemn the arrest of Disha Ravi and urge all students and youth to raise their voices to protest against the authoritarian regime."
The incident also caught the attention of American lawyer Meena Harris — the vice president's niece — who shared a Twitter thread from poet Rupi Kaur:
Indian officials have arrested another young female activist, 21 yo Disha Ravi, because she posted a social media t… https://t.co/j1dWkR7JRM— Meena Harris (@Meena Harris)1613325696.0
Delhi Police said in a series of tweets Sunday that Ravi — who co-founded a branch of the youth-led climate movement Fridays for Future in Bangalore — is a "key conspirator" in the "formulation" and "dissemination" of the toolkit. They also accused her of starting a related group on the messaging service WhatsApp.
The Guardian reports that Ravi "has now been charged with sedition and criminal conspiracy." According to the newspaper:
At a court on Sunday Ravi broke down in tears and said she had only edited two lines of the toolkit file. Police alleged in their statement they had technical evidence that Ravi's role in editing the toolkit was "many times more than the two lines editing that she claims." The court remanded Ravi to five days in police custody after police requested time to "unearth her connections with the Sikhs for Justice."
Previously, Delhi Police said the toolkit, a version of which is available on an encrypted site, "predates and indicates a copycat execution of a conspiracy behind" protests that turned violent on Jan. 26. The police added that "the call was to wage economic, social, cultural, and regional war against India."
The available toolkit, which does not advocate violence, suggests actions such as supporting Indian farmers on social media using the hashtags #FarmersProtest and #StandWithFarmers, calling and emailing government representatives, and organizing or participating in on-the-ground protests.
"Disha is a dedicated climate activist," a volunteer at the India chapter of Fridays for Future who declined to be named due to safety concerns told CNN. "It was difficult to wrap my head yesterday when I came to know about [her arrest], I was shocked."
"This leads to a lot of caution," the volunteer added. "We are asking for livable future... It is our right."
We know #climatechange is an existential threat. World desperately needs the passion and commitment of the youth an… https://t.co/hrEU9cZYH9— Sunita Narain (@Sunita Narain)1613359021.0
Leo Saldanha, a member of the Environment Support Group in Bengaluru, which organized the petition, told Reuters that Ravi's arrest is aimed at quashing dissent.
"This is their way of trying to scare away youngsters from raising their voice about anything," Saldanha said of the Indian government. "This sends a message to all young people out there that, you know, shut up and stay at home or this is what is going to happen to you."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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By T. V. Padma
Studies increasingly point to the presence of pharmaceutical and personal care products in urban stretches along the Ganges River, which originates pristine in the Himalayas but is heavily polluted with industrial effluents and domestic sewage when it empties into the Bay of Bengal.
Researchers from Doon University, Dehra Dun, India, have reported the presence of 15 pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs) in the Ganges near two Hindu pilgrimage cities. These pollutants include caffeine, anti-inflammatory drugs, common antibiotics, beta blockers, antibacterials, and insect repellents.
Over three seasons, Doon scientists studied the river waters of two cities in the rapidly industrializing Himalayan state of Uttarakhand: Haridwar, where the Ganges enters India's northern plains from the Himalayas, and Rishikesh, 21 kilometers away. Haridwar and Rishikesh, with a combined population of 400,000, attract an estimated 20 million tourists and pilgrims annually.
In particular, the scientists analyzed the water at its point of entry into the two cities and at sites before its entry into a sewage treatment plant and after sewage treatment. The study could provide useful baseline data for forecasting and evaluating the efficiency of future antipollution measures of the river basin restoration program, the authors added.
"Compared to previous studies that analyzed samples along various locations along the Ganges, this is the first comprehensive, intensive study in a particular city along the river," said Surendra Suthar, an associate professor at Doon University and one of the study's authors.
PPCP concentrations near the cities varied, with the highest measured concentration being 1,104.84 nanograms per liter. Researchers found higher PPCP concentrations at the lower, more populated reaches of the river. The concentrations, especially of anti-inflammatory drugs and antibiotics, were also higher in winter, possibly because of decreased biodegradation associated with lower temperatures and inadequate sunlight, the report said. The study also showed that PPCPs in the region were associated with a higher risk of algal blooms and a moderate risk to the health of river fish.
"The high load of PPCPs during summer and winter could be attributed to the excessive tourist visits for recreational activities and spiritual congregations during these seasons," according to the report, to be published in Chemosphere in April.
Paucity of Studies
There are few studies on PPCPs in Indian rivers. "Such studies are expensive, as they require sophisticated instruments," Suthar explained.
"Sewage, treated or untreated, flowing into the rivers is the main polluter," said Keshava Balakrishna, a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering, Manipal Institute of Technology. Sewage and effluent have long been associated with chemical pollution, as people flush medicines, cosmetics, and hygiene products down the toilet or throw them in the trash. The waste ends up in water treatment plants and landfills and then makes its way into water supplies such as the Ganges.
"Aquaculture, agricultural farms, and pharma industries can be other important sources," Balakrishna added.
In 2020, Balakrishna's team reported the presence of PPCPs in two tropical rivers in southwestern India, the Swarna and Netravati, which empty into the Arabian Sea.
A 2017 review by a team of scientists including Balakrishna in Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety found higher levels of pharmaceuticals in Indian water treatment plants compared with developed countries. The review also pointed out the paucity of studies in India on the fate of pharmaceutical products in water bodies and their impact on human health, "despite India being one of the world leaders in pharmaceutical production and consumption."
The 2017 review reported that studies from other countries indicated that PPCPs in rivers could accumulate in aquatic organisms and enter the food web. Antibiotic resistance among microbes is the main threat to human and ecological health, Balakrishna said. "Low doses of antibiotics in a river can be consumed by pathogens in the river, [which then] become superbugs, and multiply."
Suthar, too, cautions about both toxicity in the food web and the emergence of antibiotic resistance in pathogens contaminating river waters. "If we add up all the individual contaminant levels for 1 liter of water, the collective dose will be very toxic, especially if they bioaccumulate in organisms, including some rare species in the Ganges such as the Ganges dolphins," he said. "And microbes in the waters will become resistant to the drugs."
A 2019 global review of PPCPs in rivers reported that "no global legal maximum environmental concentrations exist for pharmaceutically active compounds," despite poor understanding of the combined acute and chronic effects of PPCPs on flora, fauna, and human health.
The global review went on to say that primary and secondary wastewater treatment plants "generally are unable to remove these pollutants, leading to their migration into drinking water supplies," and recommended advanced tertiary water treatment processes, such as oxidation and adsorption. It also suggested advanced methods for accurate and continuous monitoring of pharmaceuticals in the environment and strict regulations for effluent release.
In India, most antipollution efforts are directed at surface water treatment and focus on parameters such as chemical oxygen demand, biological oxygen demand, nitrates, and bacteria, said Suthar. "We need a policy that looks at PPCPs too."
The source of the Ganges is the Gangotri Glacier, high in the Himalayas less than 200 kilometers from Haridwar. The recent findings on PPCPs in the Ganges add to research documenting chemical and microplastic pollution throughout the mountain range, including the world's highest peak, Mount Everest, said Kimberley Miner, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and a research assistant professor at the Climate Change Institute, University of Maine. "Our team found PFAS [polyfluoroalkyl substances], DDT [dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane], and toxic metals on the mountain, suggesting that the chemical footprint left by trekkers may be as large as the visible trash and pollution footprint."
The new Ganges research also echoes recent studies tracing PPCPs on European glaciers, where researchers traced chemical pollutants to the use of perfumes in personal care products like soap. Perfumed soaps and ointments are also associated with PPCPs in Haridwar and Rishikesh, where mass bathing events are part of tourism and pilgrimage activities.
This story originally appeared in Eos and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
A piece of Himalayan glacier in the Indian state of Uttarakhand broke off and fell into a river Sunday, triggering an avalanche and floods that have killed at least 20 people so far, while nearly 200 remain missing.
"This looks very much like a climate change event as the glaciers are melting due to global warming," Dr. Anjal Prakash, a lead researcher with the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), told CBS News.
The collapse occurred after 10 p.m. local time when a piece of the Nanda Devi glacier broke off, sending flood waters cascading down the Dhauli Ganga river valley, CNN reported. The flood destroyed the Rishiganga Power project, a small 13.2-megawatt dam, and severely damaged a 520-megawatt dam under construction, trapping workers in tunnels. The flooding also forced villagers to evacuate downstream.
"It came very fast, there was no time to alert anyone," Sanjay Singh Rana, who lives in the riverside Raini village, told Reuters. "I felt that even we would be swept away."
Most of the dead and missing worked at the two hydroelectric projects. About 21 people are missing from the Rishiganga dam, and another 150 people are missing from the larger project, according to CBS News. Workers are trapped inside two tunnels at the latter, CNN reported. Rescuers freed 12 people from the smaller tunnel on Sunday, but are still trying to extricate 35 people believed to be trapped inside the larger tunnel.
"Some people inside the tunnel are probably alive or half alive, we are trying to rescue them," Ashok Kumar, Uttarakhand state's director general of police told CBS News.
Rescue workers were able to clear the mouth of the tunnel on Monday, according to CNN.
Every life matters, every hand helps! We carries out rescue operations in #Chamoli, Uttarakhand @Ashokkumarips https://t.co/Dpzbm5EsJX— Uttarakhand Police (@Uttarakhand Police)1612705345.0
Meanwhile, 20 bodies have been recovered from the region, Kumar told CNN. The flooding also knocked over trees and buildings and cut off around 2,500 people in 13 villages. However, rescue workers had reached all of the impacted villages by Monday afternoon, Kumar told CNN. Authorities also said on Monday that the threat of new flooding had ended, according to CBS.
The incident raises questions about developing a region that is vulnerable to climate change. The IPPC's Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere warned that glacier retreat could increase the risk of landslides, floods and cascading events in regions where these disasters were previously unheard of, the Times of India reported.
Despite this, there has been a push to build more dams in the region, which environmentalists in India have warned against.
"This disaster again calls for a serious scrutiny of the hydropower dams building spree in this eco-sensitive region," Ranjan Panda, a Combat Climate Change Network volunteer, told Reuters. "The government should no longer ignore warnings from experts and stop building hydropower projects and extensive highway networks in this fragile ecosystem."
At the same time, IPCC's Prakash called for more efforts to monitor climate change impacts in the region.
"[T]his event actually shows how vulnerable we could be," he told the Times of India.
The disaster comes about eight years after the "Himalayan tsunami" of 2013, when heavy monsoon rains triggered floods and landslides that killed nearly 6,000 people in Uttarakhand, Reuters reported. However, Sunday's incident did not occur during the rainy season, and the weather report for the region showed no record of rain or snow, Dr. Mohd Farooq Azam, assistant professor of glaciology and hydrology at IIT Indore, told the Times of India.
"There is no doubt that global warming has resulted in the warming of the region," Azam said.
By Mahima Jain
Over recent months Raja, a farmer in India's Tamil Nadu state, has had a change of routine.
Every few days, the 53-year-old leaves his 30-acre (12-hectare) farm in the Villupuram district — where he grows a patchwork of rice, sugarcane, coconut trees and vegetables — and joins a small group demonstrating outside government offices and main roads in his village.
New Delhi, the focal point of the outcry, has witnessed striking scenes of tractor rallies and sit-ins on its outskirts, escalating last week to violence and the storming of the Red Fort.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government maintains that the legislation, which loosens regulation and invites private investment in the sector, will help encourage growth and increase farmers' incomes.
Yet farmers say the market-friendly reforms leave them open to exploitation from large corporate actors and endanger their livelihoods.
"We are against these anti-farmer, pro-corporate farm laws," said Raja.
Farming in Crisis
Farmers and activists fear the legislation will exacerbate existing stresses in the agricultural sector, which has experienced stagnant growth for six years and decades of rising debt. The pressures are believed to have pushed thousands to suicide.
"There is so much uncertainty," said Raja, whose income hasn't increased for over a decade. "Before the software boom of the 1990s, I was earning as much as my engineer friends. Today, I am nowhere." He's been selling a 75 kg bag of paddy rice at around $13 (€10.70), less than the government's minimum price support, for over 15 years.
Raja worries that the new laws, which weaken price guarantees for certain crops, will leave farmers even more vulnerable.
The current laws push for contract farming, wherein farmers enter into legally binding agreements with large corporations and private players. Activists say this will place them in an unequal power relation, as a failure to deliver crops due to harvest loss could even mean loss of land.
A breakthrough in calming the months of protest initially appeared to come on January 12 when the Supreme Court decided to temporarily suspend the legislation. But it was not the victory many hoped for.
"Farmers movements are against the Supreme Court order," said Ashlesha Khadse, activist and volunteer with Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch, a women farmers group.
The court has appointed a committee to hold further discussions between protesters and government officials to help resolve the ongoing dispute. Khadse says farmers believe the appointed members are supporters of the laws and will continue protesting until they are fully repealed.
Ecological Roots of Crisis
She also argues the legislation fails to tackle the root causes of the sector's problems.
"The laws don't mention the environment," said Khadse. "But the farm crisis today has ecological roots."
She says that today's problems can be traced back to the 1960s Green Revolution, when the government supported industrial cultivation of specific crops and adopted modern technology to maximize output. India's food basket was homogenized as certain crops — mainly high-yield varieties of rice, wheat and pulses — were favored over others.
Land has been left depleted by monocultural cultivation of high-yield seed varieties, said Khadse. She believes the costs of inputs needed to keep producing has pushed farmers into a cycle of debt.
"The increase in agricultural productivity has come at a tremendous cost to the environment," said Thomson Jacob, a policy consultant at the Centre for Biodiversity Policy and Law in Chennai. Jacob says these include loss of soil nutrients, excessive irrigation, water scarcity, indiscriminate application of some nutrients and pesticides and loss of agrobiodiversity.
Farmers today are dealing not only with the legacy of the Green Revolution but the added impacts of climate change. Those working in the agricultural sector, which employs over 40% of India's labor force, grapple with drought and flooding.
Raja says a changing and unpredictable climate is affecting the yield on his farm. In late November last year, his crops were partially damaged as a result of Cyclone Nivar. Research shows that cyclonic activity in the Bay of Bengal, along which Tamil Nadu sits, has been rapidly intensifying due to rising temperatures.
Further Incentivizing Monoculture
Although cultivation practices have been intensified since the Green Revolution, today 82% of Indian farmers still have lands of less than 5 acres (2 hectares).
Karthik Gunasekar, an activist with Chennai Climate Action Group, believes a further deregulated market will add pressure to increase output.
"These new laws will push monocultural farming and unsustainable practices," said Gunasekar. He argues the laws should be repealed and that price protection should instead be offered for a more diverse range of crops to incentivize their cultivation.
Without the security of a base price and poor market linkage, India's indigenous crops — which are not high-yielding — have fallen out of favor over the years.
However, Jacob says that if farmers are given incentives to produce traditional seed varieties then the push for contract farming could be used to help reverse the decline engendered by the Green Revolution.
"If contract farming encourages organic products, it will enhance agrobiodiversity," said Jacob, adding this could be through export of traditional rice varieties and certified organic products.
Raja is less optimistic for the future. He feels disillusioned by the fact that instead of engaging with the farmers as equals, the government has left them at the mercy of courts and corporations.
"I don't want my children to enter this occupation, even though we've done it for generations," he says. "We farmers no longer trust the government."
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
The 56,000-year-old Lonar Crater Sanctuary Lake in the state of Maharashtra transformed from its usual blue-green to a reddish pink over the last few days, The Times of India reported Thursday. The lake, around 500 kilometers (approximately 311 miles) from Mumbai, is popular with tourists and scientists, and its transformation has sparked research and discussion.
"Sudden change in colour of water is strange. It might be because of microbial activities or could even be human interference. Research should be conducted before making any comments," Harish Malpani, who leads the microbiology department at RLT College of Science, Akola, told The Times of India.
From Green to Pink; Lonar Crater Lake has changed its colour. #LonarLake #LonarCrater #SaltWaterLake… https://t.co/4N558t8tXu— Maharashtra Tourism (@Maharashtra Tourism)1591800883.0
The lake was formed around 56,000 years ago when a meteor struck the basalt rock of the Deccan Plateau. It is the world's largest basaltic impact crater and the third largest crater of any kind formed less than a million years ago, according to The Weather Channel India.
The lake also has unique salt and alkaline properties that could be behind the color change, Times of India explained. These factors encourage the growth of a kind of bacteria called Halobacteriaceae, which produce a red pigment that converts sunlight into energy.
While the lake has turned reddish before, this year's transformation is especially dramatic.
"It's looking particularly red this year because this year the water's salinity has increased," local geologist Gajanan Kharat explained in a video posted on Maharashtra Tourism's Twitter feed, as CNN reported. "The amount of water in the lake has reduced and the lake has become shallower, so the salinity has gone up and caused some internal changes."
Here is a video by Mr.Gajanan Kharat, Geologist, explaining to us why the colour of #LonarCrater Lake has changed.… https://t.co/qMhQ4Q4QSd— Maharashtra Tourism (@Maharashtra Tourism)1591865820.0
Kharat also said the lake had gotten warmer, leading to an algae bloom.
"This algae turns reddish in warmer temperatures and hence the lake turned pink overnight," Kharat said further, according to AFP.
The exact cause of the color change will be determined by water samples sent in for testing by the state's forest department.
Another possibility is that lockdown measures implemented to control the spread of the new coronavirus, which returned blue skies and clean air to highly polluted Indian cities, could also be behind the lake's color change.
"There wasn't much human activity due to lockdown which could also have accelerated the change," Maharashtra's Babasaheb Ambedkar University Geography Department head Madan Suryavashi told AFP. "But we will only know the exact causes once our scientific analysis is complete in a few days."
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At least 100,000 people were evacuated along India's west coast as the country's financial capital of Mumbai awaits its first cyclone in more than 70 years.
"Everything we didn't want to happen right now is happening," one city official said on TV, as The Guardian reported.
Severe Cyclonic Storm "NISARGA" Visible Imagery from INSAT-3D (12:30-1257 IST of 03.06.2020) https://t.co/M9l0W3QBVV— India Met. Dept. (@India Met. Dept.)1591171025.0
The storm made landfall around 1 p.m. local time with wind speeds of up to 68 miles per hour, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) said, as CNN reported. Before making landfall, it strengthened over the Arabian Sea into to a Severe Cyclonic Storm in the West Pacific, the equivalent of slightly less than a Category 1 Atlantic hurricane. The biggest threat from the storm is likely to be flooding. It is projected to rain heavily and could produce a storm surge of up to 3.3 to 6.6 feet that could swamp parts of Mumbai, Thane and Raigad districts.
The storm made landfall in Alibag town, south of Mumbai. Alibag is "Mumbai's answer to Martha's Vineyard," a beach-side town where many of Mumbai's wealthy have vacation homes, The Guardian pointed out.
The storm is the first cyclone to hit Mumbai since 1948, when a storm killed 12 and injured more than 100.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that the Arabian Sea's surface temperature was rising. Tropical cyclones tend to form over waters 30 to 33 degrees Celsius, and that was around the surface temperature of the Arabian Sea when Nisarga consolidated.
IMD also noted that the sea spawned more storms than normal in 2019.
"During 2019, 8 cyclonic storms formed over the Indian seas. Arabian Sea contributed 5 out of these 8 cyclones against the normal of 1 per year, which equals the previous record of 1902 for the highest frequency of cyclones over the Arabian Sea. This year also witnessed development of more intense cyclones over the Arabian Sea," IMD wrote.
These changes are now likely to have real consequences for Mumbai and the surrounding region. BBC correspondent Janhavee Moole said it had been raining in the city since Tuesday.
"I can see the trees shaking violently," Moole said. "All beaches in the city are closed to the public and a police patrol van is making announcements, asking people to stay indoors. All safety precautions possible are being taken, but I do feel worried because the city is also in the grip of a pandemic."
(3/n) 🌀 #CycloneNisarga A ship caught in the cyclonic storm. https://t.co/A7hMgdqWQg— The Indian Express (@The Indian Express)1591171371.0
Coronavirus patients were among those evacuated ahead of the storm. Around 150 were moved from a newly-built field hospital to a place with a concrete roof that could better withstand high wind speeds, The Guardian reported.
In addition to Mumbai, the storm also threatens people living in shacks or shanties near the coast of the state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is located. More than 21,000 villagers were evacuated in the state's Palghar district.
The entire state is also the hardest hit in India by the coronavirus pandemic, CNN reported, with more than 72,300 cases and more than 2,400 deaths.
The storm also threatens the state of Gujarat, the Union Territories of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu. In Gujarat, more than 50,000 people living along the coast have been evacuated.
"In wake of the coronavirus outbreak all standard operating procedures are being followed at the temporary shelters which have been sanitised and instructions have been issued on following safe distancing," Arpit Sagar, an official in Valsad, Gujarat said, according to The Guardian.Cyclone Nisarga strikes about two weeks after Cyclone Amphan walloped part of India's east coast, as well as neighboring Bangladesh, killing more than 100, BBC News reported. Cyclone Amphan also intensified over warm ocean surface waters.
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The locusts spawned a swarm of social media posts Monday when they entered the city of Jaipur, as The Indian Express reported, but the crop-devouring insects have been wreaking havoc since May in an invasion that both began earlier and is extending farther than usual. Several farmers told The Wire that they hadn't seen an invasion this severe in their lifetimes.
"Even my father, who is 86, said he hasn't ever seen anything like this. Only heard about this in folk tales," 64-year-old Madhya Pradesh farmer Sooraj Pandey told The Wire.
Locusts are not uncommon in the northwest Indian state of Rajasthan, but this year they have also entered the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh for the first time since 1993 and the state of Maharashtra for the first time since 1974. They also do not usually move so far into Rajasthan from the border with Pakistan, according to AFP reporting published by Al Jazeera.
So far, the insects have devoured almost 50,000 hectares or 123,500 acres of agricultural land in seven Indian states, The Associated Press reported, putting pressure on farmers already struggling with the impacts of the coronavirus lockdown.
The government has responded with pesticides, drones and sprayers mounted on vehicles, while farmers have resorted to banging plates, whistling and throwing stones to drive the locusts away.
"These insects are giving us sleepless nights. We are more worried about them than the virus," Mandeep Singh, a cotton farmer from Punjab, told The Associated Press.
A swarm of 40 million locusts can cover the space of a square kilometer (approximately 0.4 square miles) and eat the same as 35,000 people in a day, according to UN Food and Agricultural Organization data reported by The Wire.
Unusually large locust swarms bred on the Arabian Peninsula in early 2019 following heavy rains and cyclones in the region, according to AFP. Those ideal breeding conditions were the product of the climate crisis, as warmer than usual temperatures in the western Indian Ocean fueled the storms.
"These warm waters were caused by the phenomenon called the Indian Ocean Dipole — with warmer than usual waters to its west, and cooler waters to its east. Rising temperatures due to global warming amplified the dipole and made the western Indian Ocean particularly warm," Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology climate scientist Roxy Mathew Koll told The Wire.
This time desert locust attack is severe. They have arrived earlier, in huge numbers & now reached till Panna in MP. The changing climate conditions are linked with locust growth in east Africa. The swarms has potential of eating everything & destroy the crops. This from Panna. pic.twitter.com/8aqLa8lA4O— Parveen Kaswan, IFS (@ParveenKaswan) May 26, 2020
The locusts have already caused significant damage in East Africa earlier in 2020 before migrating to India through Iran and Pakistan.
India's locust situation could get even worse, both this year and in the future.
In the short term, more locusts could arrive from Africa in June, according to AFP. There is also a concern that the locusts already in India could breed, The Associated Press pointed out.
"It is an alarming situation," KL Gurjar, a top official at India's Locust Warning Organization, told The Associated Press. "But we are more worried of their breeding. If that happens, it could be devastating for our farmlands."
In the future, climate change could also make locust invasions like this year's more common.
"Climate change may well play a role here, mainly because, according to forecasts by international climate researchers, precipitation will increase in the southern Arabian Peninsula and northern East Africa," University of Trier biodiversity scientist Axel Hochkirch told The Wire. "This means that there will be more frequent 'very humid' phases, such as we have had since 2018, and it is therefore possible that such swarms will simply occur more frequently."
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At least 84 people were killed when Cyclone Amphan walloped India and Bangladesh Wednesday, bringing "war-like" destruction to the city of Kolkata in the Indian state of West Bengal, The Guardian reported.
The response to the storm, which made landfall as the equivalent of a Category 2 hurricane, was complicated by the spread of the new coronavirus. While around three million people in India and Bangladesh evacuated to safety ahead of the storm, some villagers remained in place out of fear of contracting the virus in a crowded shelter, The New York Times reported.
"At one end there is this small Covid virus that is terrifying people," West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee said in a video conference reported by The New York Times. "This was another virus from the sky."
This is from my terrace this morning. Trees on both sides of the road all over. People now taking photos in horror.… https://t.co/GiusoiNvLJ— Boria Majumdar (@Boria Majumdar)1590022072.0
Causes of death included felled trees, downed electrical wires and collapsed buildings. In Bangladesh, Khanat Begum and her 13-year-old daughter were killed when a gust of wind uprooted their neighbor's tree and dropped it on top of their house.
For the survivors, the storm also brought devastation. Hundreds of thousands of people saw their homes destroyed, according to The Guardian. This could enable the spread of the new coronavirus as people are forced to remain in shelters.
"We have to rebuild those districts from scratch," she said, as The Guardian reported: "Area after area has been ruined. I have experienced a war-like situation today."
Staircase outside my flat now known as Kolkata Waterfall #CycloneAmphanUpdate https://t.co/iy53rTjbKg— Anushree Hamirwasia (@Anushree Hamirwasia)1589990442.0
At least 15 people in the city were killed, The New York Times reported. All told, at least 72 people died in West Bengal and 12 in Bangladesh, according to BBC News.
Bangladesh evacuated more people ahead of the storm than India, at 2.4 million compared with around 660,000, The New York Times reported. But the country was still hit hard.
"Even by Bangladeshi standards, this was a powerful storm," Save the Children in Bangladesh Humanitarian Director Mostak Hussain said in a statement. "We've received reports that more than 5 million people were disconnected from the electricity grid for their own safety as winds of 150kph smashed into power lines, destroying homes and uprooting trees. In some of the worst-affected areas there was a tidal surge of nearly three metres, causing dams to overflow and submerging low-lying villages and crops."
UPDATE: Our teams are assessing the damage in #India & #Bangladesh in the wake of #CycloneAmphan - the most powerfu… https://t.co/5W9QHt05eJ— sciasianews (@sciasianews)1590067696.0
For a period Monday night, Cyclone Amphan became the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal, with winds of up to 165 miles per hour, CNN reported. It weakened before making landfall, bringing sustained winds of 105 mile-per-hour winds and a five meter (approximately 16 foot) storm surge, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. But it was still the worst storm to strike Kolkata in 100 years, The Guardian reported.
Just in: The JTWC has upgraded Super Cyclone #Amphan to 145kt (270kph). Amphan is now the strongest cyclone ever r… https://t.co/xAF5sD3GCA— Eric Holthaus (@Eric Holthaus)1589826038.0
It struck the same week as a study confirmed that the climate crisis is making tropical storms more intense, increasing the chance that a cyclone develops into a Category 3 storm or higher by eight percent per decade since the late 1970s. Cyclone Amphan originally intensified after passing over water temperatures as warm as 88 degrees Fahrenheit, The New York Times reported.
"Sea surface temperatures are much warmer than normal in the Bay of Bengal right now," Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach told CNN.
By Lauri Myllyvirta and Sunil Dahiya
An economic slowdown, renewable energy growth and the impact of Covid-19 have led to the first year-on-year reduction in India's CO2 emissions in four decades. Emissions fell by around 1% in the fiscal year ending March 2020, as coal consumption fell and oil consumption flatlined.
The decline in emissions reflects the headwinds already affecting the Indian economy since early 2019, and increasing renewable energy generation. But our analysis of official Indian data across the nation's entire 2019-20 fiscal year shows the fall has steepened in March, due to measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic. The country's CO2 emissions fell by an estimated 15% during the month of March and are likely to have fallen 30% in April.
As with the global CO2 impact of the pandemic, the longer-term outlook for India's emissions will be shaped, to a significant degree, by the government response to the crisis. This response is now starting to emerge – as set out below – and will have major long-term implications for India's CO2 emissions and air quality trajectory.
Coal Bearing Brunt of Demand Crunch
As lower power demand growth and competition from renewables weakened the demand for thermal power generation throughout the past 12 months, the drop-off in March was enough to push generation growth below zero in the fiscal year ended March, the first time this has happened in three decades.
Over the preceding decade, thermal power generation grew by an average of 7.5% per year. As seen in the figure below, the dramatic drop-off in total power demand was entirely borne by coal-based generators, amplifying the impact on emissions.
Coal-fired power generation fell 15% in March and 31% in the first three weeks of April, based on daily data from the national grid. In contrast, renewable energy (RE) generation increased by 6.4% in March and saw a slight decrease of 1.4% in the first three weeks of April.
The fall in total coal demand extends beyond the power sector and is evident in data on coal supply. In the fiscal year ending March, coal sales by the main coal producer Coal India Ltd fell by 4.3%, while coal imports increased 3.2%, implying that total coal deliveries fell by 2% and signaling the first year-on-year fall in consumption in two decades.
The trend steepened in March, with coal sales falling 10% while coal imports fell 27.5% in March, meaning that total deliveries of coal to end users fell by 15%, in line with the reduction in power generation.
In March, coal output increased 6.5% even as sales fell by a record amount. Also, during the full year, more coal was mined than sold, indicating that the reason for the drop was on the demand side.
Oil Demand: From Weak to Negative
Similar to electricity demand, oil consumption has been slowing down since early 2019. This is now compounded by the dramatic impact of the Covid-19 lockdown measures on transport oil consumption. During the national lockdown, oil consumption fell 18% on year in March 2020.
As a result of low demand due to the coronavirus outbreak and already slower demand growth earlier in the year, consumption during the fiscal grew at 0.2%, the slowest in at least 22 years. Natural gas consumption increased 5.5% in the first 11 months of the fiscal year, but is expected to fall by 15-20% during the lockdown.
Crude oil production in India decreased by 5.9% compared to last financial year and a 5.2% drop has been observed in natural gas production during the same time. Refinery production – in terms of crude oil processed – also fell by 1.1% over the last financial year, compared to 2018-19.
Crude steel production dropped by 22.7% in March 2020 compared to the previous month and, cumulatively, the financial year 2019-20 saw a decline of 2.2% compared to last year, according to Ministry of Steel data.
CO2 Emissions Down 30% in April
Using the indicators above for coal, oil and gas consumption, we estimate that CO2 emissions fell by 30m tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2, 1.4%) in the fiscal year ending March, in what is likely to have been the first annual decline in four decades.
Annual emissions from fossil fuel use in India, millions of tonnes of CO2, 1965-2020. Figures for 2009 onwards correspond with financial years ending that March, with the 2020 number showing fiscal year 2019-20. Source: Analysis of Indian government data for this article and BP Statistical Review of World Energy. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.
Furthermore, emissions fell by 15% year-on-year in March and by 30% in April. The April estimate is based on power-sector emissions estimated from daily generation data. This assumes oil consumption falls as much in April as in March, which is very likely to be conservative as the national lockdown is continuing until the end of the month, and gas consumption falls 15-20% as projected.
While the current crisis is having a significant impact on India's CO2 emissions in the short term, it could also influence the longer-term trajectory of India's energy use and emissions.
Although the situation is only beginning to unfold, three possible consequences are already emerging:
- Post-crisis economic stimulus could be directed towards reinvigorating the country's renewable energy program.
- Plummeting electricity demand has brought the power industry's long-brewing financial problems to a head, necessitating bailouts with the potential for structural changes.
- Experience of exceptional air quality could add momentum to efforts against air pollution, resulting in strengthened targets and standards.
In each case, the crisis could act to catalyse, reinforce or accelerate the factors that have already been driving Indian policymaking in this area.
For example, the Indian government has already started talking about support for renewable energy as a part of the recovery, alongside similar statements by European leaders. One reason for this continued support is the fact that solar already offers far cheaper electricity than coal.
A recent auction secured 2,000 megawatts (MW) of new solar capacity at an average of 2.55-2.56 rupees per kilowatt hour (Rs/kWh, around $34 per megawatt hour). This result came despite the auction being held during the lockdown amid a period of severe uncertainty over the future market and financial situation.
In contrast, the average cost of a unit of electricity from India's biggest coal generator, the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), stood at 3.38 Rs/kWh in the financial year 2018-19 ($45/MWh). This figure will likely keep moving upwards with every passing year due to inflation, increasing operational costs and with implementation of stricter emission standards.
Another example of Indian government support for the renewable industry came in early April when it stressed the "must-run" status of wind and solar projects and called on distribution companies to make timely payments to power generators.
The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy also extended the timelines for renewable energy projects to be completed for the period of the lockdown and the following 30 days. This will safeguard renewable energy developers from penalties arising due to delays from their committed schedules.
The ministry has also written to various states in recent weeks to give a "major push" to domestic renewable manufacturing capacity. Increased domestic supply will strengthen the renewable energy program by strengthening supply chains and political weight for the industry, as long as it does not give rise to excessive protectionism.
Over the past year, CO2 emissions as well as air pollution levels have declined. More recently, the sight of blue skies during the national lockdown across the country has created a sense of optimism among the public as well as policymakers that the air in India can be cleaned, if appropriate steps are taken.
Since many of the major sources of pollution – transport, power stations and industry – are also responsible for significant shares of the country's CO2 output, any strengthening of air quality standards – or their implementation – would have knock-on effects on emissions.
Earlier last year, in response to building public pressure, the environmental ministry announced India's first-ever National Clean Air Programme. This aims to reduce particulate matter pollution levels across 102 cities by 20-30% by 2024.
The program also pointed out that India's national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS), dating back to 2009, need revision. The standards are much weaker than the World Health Organization guidelines and there is more evidence of health impacts of air pollution being reported even at low concentrations of pollutants.
The recent experience of cleaner air and the drastic drop in pollution levels due to coronavirus lockdowns have started these conversations to strengthen the NAAQS among public, research institutes and civil society organizations. As a result, any return of India's poor air quality and smog can be expected to trigger a stronger public response.
As demand for thermal power generation plummets, so too do the earnings of India's electricity industry. In this way, the coronavirus crisis has brought the long-brewing financial woes of the country's power sector to a head.
The sector was already struggling before the coronavirus crisis, making it a major source of bad loans and financial distress.
The reasons behind the chronic financial losses of the power industry and dependence on government bailouts are easy enough to see. Discounted electricity tariffs are offered for agricultural and domestic consumers, with farmers even being provided with electricity for free, and losses covered from industrial and commercial consumers and state budgets. There are major losses in transmission and theft of power. Distribution companies have committed to purchasing excessive amounts of power as a part of a push to expand thermal power generation, leading to the country's coal power overcapacity issue.
If the forthcoming government bailout allows these structural problems to persist then it could mean old coal power stations are able to continue operating, entrenching the country's dependence on fossil-fired generation. On the other hand, the bailout could be conditioned on reforms and restructuring, facilitating the achievement of national clean-energy goals.
There are already calls for a green recovery package in India. These questions — re-invigorating the renewable energy program, mitigating the rebound of air pollution and addressing the structural problems of the thermal power sector — will be at the heart of determining the outcome.
Reposted with permission from Carbon Brief.
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By Neil Carter
Tigers are one of the world's most iconic wild species, but today they are endangered throughout Asia. They once roamed across much of this region, but widespread habitat loss, prey depletion and poaching have reduced their numbers to only about 4,000 individuals. They live in small pockets of habitat across South and Southeast Asia, as well as the Russian Far East — an area spanning 13 countries and 450,000 square miles (1,160,000 square kilometers).
Today Asia is experiencing a road-building boom. To maintain economic growth, development experts estimate that the region will need to invest about US$8.4 trillion in transportation infrastructure between 2016 and 2030.
Major investment projects, such as China's Belt and Road Initiative — one of the largest infrastructure projects of all time — are fueling this growth. While roads can reduce poverty, especially in rural areas, many of Asia's new roads also are likely to traverse regions that are home to diverse plants and animals.
To protect tigers from this surge of road building, conservation scientists like me need to know where the greatest risks are. That information, in turn, can improve road planning in the future.
In a newly published study, I worked with researchers at the University of Michigan, Boise State University and the University of British Columbia to examine how existing and planned Asian roads encroach on tiger habitats. We forecast that nearly 15,000 miles (24,000 kilometers) of new roads will be built in tiger habitats by 2050, and call for bold new planning strategies that prioritize biodiversity conservation and sustainable road development across large landscapes.
Letting Humans In
Road construction worsens existing threats to tigers, such as poaching and development, by paving the way for human intrusion into the heart of the tiger's range. For example, in the Russian Far East, roads have led to higher tiger mortality due to increased collisions with vehicles and more encounters with poachers.
To assess this threat across Asia, we focused on areas called Tiger Conservation Landscapes — 76 zones, scattered across the tiger's range, which conservationists see as crucial for the species' recovery. For each zone we calculated road density, distance to the nearest road and relative mean species abundance, which estimates the numbers of mammals in areas near roads compared to areas far from roads. Mean species abundance is our best proxy for estimating how roads affect numbers of mammals, like tigers and their prey, across broad scales.
We also used future projections of road building in each country to forecast the length of new roads that might be built in tiger habitats by 2050.
More Roads, Fewer Animals
We estimated that more than 83,300 miles (134,000 kilometers) of roads already exist within tiger habitats. This is likely an underestimate, since many logging or local roads are missing from the global data set that we used.
Road densities in tiger habitat are one-third greater outside of protected areas, such as national parks and tiger reserves, than inside of protected areas. Non-protected areas averaged 1,300 feet of road per square mile (154 meters per square kilometer), while protected areas averaged 980 feet per square mile (115 meters per square kilometer). For tiger populations to grow, they will need to use the forests outside protected areas. However, the high density of roads in those forests will jeopardize tiger recovery.
Protected areas and priority conservation sites — areas with large populations of tigers — are not immune either. For example, in India — home to more than 70% of the world's tigers — we estimate that a protected area of 500 square miles, or 1,300 square kilometers, contains about 200 miles (320 kilometers) of road.
Road networks are expansive. More than 40% of areas where tiger breeding has recently been detected — crucial to tiger population growth — is within just 3 miles (5 kilometers) of a nearby road. This is problematic because mammals often are less abundant this close to roads.
In fact, we estimate that current road networks within tiger habitats may be reducing local populations of tigers and their prey by about 20%. That's a major decrease for a species on the brink of extinction. And the threats from roads are likely to become more severe.
Estimated road densities for 76 tiger conservation landscapes (colored zones), with darker red indicating more roads per unit area. Neil Carter / CC BY-ND
Making Infrastructure Tiger-Friendly
Our findings underscore the need for planning development in ways that interfere as minimally as possible with tiger habitat. Multilateral development banks and massive ventures like the Belt and Road Initiative can be important partners in this endeavor. For example, they could help establish an international network of protected areas and habitat corridors to safeguard tigers and many other wild species from road impacts.
National laws can also do more to promote tiger-friendly infrastructure planning. This includes keeping road development away from priority tiger populations and other "no go" zones, such as tiger reserves or habitat corridors.
Zoning can be used around infrastructure to prevent settlement growth and forest loss. Environmental impact assessments for road projects can do a better job of assessing how new roads might exacerbate hunting and poaching pressure on tigers and their prey.
Funding agencies need to screen proposed road developments using these tiger-friendly criteria before planners finalize decisions on road design, siting and construction. Otherwise, it might be too late to influence road planning.
There are also opportunities to reduce the negative effects of existing roads on tigers. They include closing roads to vehicular traffic at night, decommissioning existing roads in areas with important tiger populations, adding road signs announcing the presence of tigers and constructing wildlife crossings to allow tigers and other wildlife to move freely through the landscape.
Roads will become more pervasive features in Asian ecosystems as these nations develop. In my view, now is the time to tackle this mounting challenge to Asian biodiversity, including tigers, through research, national and international collaborations and strong political leadership.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.