Resources Research

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Posts Tagged ‘ecosystem

By lanternlight in rural Asia

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The Shivalaya Bazaar, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India

One of the magazines of the CR Media group of Singapore interviewed me about energy needs in rural Asia. My responses to some thoughtful questions have been published, although I don’t have a link yet to any of the material online. Until then, here’s a selection of questions and replies.

Do you have a case study or know of an innovative instance when an Asian country has broken the mould successfully in generating energy for its citizens in a way that is remarkable?

When you travel in rural South Asia you see that in almost every unelectrified village there is a flourishing local trade in kerosene and kerosene lanterns for lighting, car batteries and battery-charging stations for small TV sets, dry cell batteries for radios, diesel fuel and diesel generator sets for shops and small businesses and appliances. It’s common to spot people carrying jerricans or bottles of kerosene from the local shop, or a battery strapped to the back of a bicycle, being taken to the nearest charging station several kilometres away. People want the benefits that electricity can bring and will go out of their way, and spend relatively large amounts of their income, to get it. That represents the opportunity of providing power for energy appliances at the household level (LED lamps, cookstoves, solar- and human-powered products) and of community-level power generation systems (village bio-gasification, solar and small-scale hydro and wind power).

Household income and electricity access in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

Household income and electricity access in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

In areas such as western China, the South American rainforest or the Himalayan foothills, the cost of a rural connection can be seven times that in the cities. Solar power has spread rapidly among off-grid communities in developing countries, only sometimes subsidised. A typical solar home system today in South Asia provides light, power for TVs, radios and CD players, and most important charges mobile phones. At US$ 400-500, such a system is not cheap for rural Asia, especially when households are struggling with rising food and transport costs. But targeted subsidies and cheap micro-credit has made this energy option more affordable.

How can Asian countries cooperate to bring a new energy reality into Asia and balance development with conservation?

Let’s see what some authoritative forecasts say. The Sustainable World Energy Outlook 2010 from Greenpeace makes projections of renewable energy generation capacity in 2020: India 146 GW, developing Asia 133 GW, China 456 GW. These are enormous quantities that are being forecast and illustrate what has begun to be called the continental shift eastwards of generation and power. India dwarfs developing Asia the way China dwarfs India – the conventional economies today reflect this difference in scale. It’s important to keep in mind, while talking about energy, that Asia’s committed investment and planned expansion is centred to a very great degree around fossil fuel.

Factory and high-tension power lines, Mumbai, India

Certainly there are models of regional cooperation in other areas from where lessons can be drawn, the Mekong basin water sharing is a prominent example. But cooperation in energy is a difficult matter as it is such an essential factor of national GDP, which has become the paramount indicator for East and South Asia. Conversely, it is because the renewables sector is still relatively so small in Asia that technical cooperation is flourishing – markets are distributed and small, technologies must be simple and low-cost to be attractive, and business margins are small, all of which encourage cooperation rather than competition.

What could be immediately done to help alleviate energy shortage in South Asia for the masses, at a low cost? Do you have a case study of this?

Let’s look at Husk Power Systems which uses biomass gasification technology to convert rice husk into gas. Burning this gas runs generators which produce relatively clean electricity at affordable rates. Rice husk is found throughout northern, central and southern India and is a plentiful fuel. While Husk Power says that the rice husk would otherwise be “left to rot in fields” that isn’t quite true, as crop biomass is used in many ways in rural South Asia, but the point here is that this entrepreneurial small company has successfully converted this into energy for use locally.

Household income and access to modern fuels in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

Household income and access to modern fuels in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

I think it’s important that access to energy be seen for its importance in achieving human development goals. Individuals in governments do see this as clearly as you and I, but disagreements over responsibility and zones of influence get in the way. Responsible private enterprise is one answer. If you look at micro-enterprise funders, like Acumen, they recognise that access to electricity is also about healthcare, water and housing, refrigerated vaccines, irrigation pumps and also lighting in homes so that children can study.

What issues (externalities etc) do Asian governments do not factor in when they go for new sources of energy?

The poverty factor has for years obscured many other considerations. Providing energy, infrastructure and jobs has been the focus of central and provincial governments, and in the process issues such as environmental degradation and social justice have often been overlooked. That has been the pattern behind investment in large, national centrally-funded and directed power generation plans and in many ways it continues to shape centralised approaches to renewable energy policy.

Developing Asia is still mired in the legacy bureaucracies that have dominated (and continue to) social sector programmes, which for decades have been the cornerstone of national ‘development’. Energy is still seen as a good to be allocated by the government, even if the government does not produce it. And it still takes precedence over other considerations – ecosystem health, sustainable natural resource management – because of this approach. If India has a huge programme to generate hydroelectricity from the rivers in the Himalaya, there is now ample evidence to show both the alterations to river ecosystems downstream and the drastic impacts of submergence of river valleys, let alone the enormous carbon footprint of constructing a dam and the associated hydropower systems. Yet this is seen as using a ‘renewable’ source of energy.

At water’s edge in India

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Nearly 250 million people live within 50 km of India’s 8,000 km coastline. Eighty-seven cities and towns located in these coastal areas together dump 5.5 billion litres of wastewater into the sea every day. Less than a tenth of this water is treated, making the scale of pollution of our coastal ecosystems daunting.

India's coastal districts

India's coastal districts

Just as it is with worldwide species diversity, so it is with India’s coastal ecosystems and habitats — the growth in knowledge and understanding of both runs simultaneous with their destruction. Only from the early-1990s, when the oceanographic sciences became stronger in the country’s scientific matrix, and when multi-sectored studies and research began to be attempted as a means — perhaps the only way — of figuring out complex problems, has there been a general understanding of the large-scale dynamics of coastal circulation in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.

To understand our coasts, the physical sciences combine with social sciences. Both work together: the anthropocentric social science view of global change complements the geocentric natural sciences view. Coastal zones are important for both, and it is in the last decade that such a convergence of understanding has begun to be explained. The trouble is, this understanding has come at a time of widespread economic growth and industrial expansion, so that as knowledge of India’s coasts (and our human impact on them) increases so too does the intensity and scale of the impact.

The scale is daunting. Most of India’s 8,000-km-long coastal regions are low-lying and densely populated, with nearly 250 million people living within 50 km of the coast, many of them in the 130 cities and towns that together form the engine of India’s economy, including Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Goa, Surat, and Thiruvananthapuram (see map). Between 20-60% of the population in these individual settlement zones live in slums where they pursue their livelihood, and this section is automatically located in areas most vulnerable to natural disasters; areas that are already subject to periodic flooding.

At the same time, they are surrounded by a web of infrastructure that is becoming denser and more valuable every year: transport and freight networks, road and rail corridors, industrial zones and parks, maritime and port facilities, petroleum industries and refineries, import-based industrial and commercial domains — all located in coastal areas and competing for land and water with villages that have long depended on coastal resources for survival. That survival has always been relatively easy since coastal regions are home to a rich and varied biodiversity, they have had abundant rain-fed and groundwater resources, and they depended commercially on old trading centres. As the settlement mix changed, and as land use did too, India’s coastal talukas, tehsils and blocks either merged with a creeping mantle of urbanisation or warred with it. Either way, complex coastal ecosystems suffered.

Municipal wastewater constitutes the largest single source of coastal marine pollution. The Central Pollution Control Board estimates that 87 cities and towns located in India’s coastal areas in nine states together emit more than 5.5 billion litres of wastewater per day, which is almost 80% of their total water supply (the estimate in million litres per day, or MLD, which is the measure that water resource and pollution control authorities use, is 5,560.99 MLD).

This is a staggering volume of fluid, equivalent to a third of the total quantity of wastewater generated by 644 Class I cities and Class II towns in the entire country. It is also 2.5 times the volume of wastewater (about 2.2 billion litres/day) that the same 87 cities generated two decades ago. Of the 5.5 billion litres/day — less than a tenth (521.51 MLD) — is treated to any level before being released into coastal waters. The three states of Maharashtra (45%), West Bengal (26%) and Tamil Nadu (9%) account for the bulk of wastewater flushed into our coastal seas, while about 3.22 billion litres/day of wastewater flow into the Arabian Sea and about 2.33 billion litres/day flow into the Bay of Bengal.

The full article is part of the latest Agenda journal on coastal communities. Agenda is the theme-based irregular journal of Infochange India, which I write for regularly.

The race to own India’s water

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Image courtesy 'UN-Water Global Annual Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking Water (GLAAS) 2010', World Health Organization (WHO) and UN-WaterWater privatisation in India today comes in a wide range of what are called “solutions” by the votaries of public-private partnerships. There is water-related engineering and construction (such as earth-moving activities, alteration of river courses, artificial linking of rivers, building of dams and pipelines, etc), water and wastewater services, and water treatment, which affect both nature and communities. What remains outside the ambit of “solutions” – only until the victims can be persuaded to pay – are the impacts of the micro-scale geoengineering. Every impact damages people and the environment. Impacts can be categorised as: ecological (effects on natural ecosystems), social (related to rights of human beings and communities, health, cultural norms, attitudes, belief systems), economic (affecting livelihoods, well-being, and access to basic services) and even legal and institutional.

We are now seeing increasing pressure for private sector development in India – and the rest of Asia-Pacific. Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, an independent research unit concerned with water in India (they are based in Madhya Pradesh) says that this pressure is being mounted mainly by two influential international financial institutions: the World Bank and its regional partner, the Asian Development Bank. The World Bank gives funds, advice, training and technical assistance to governments and the private sector to implement privatisation.

Courtesy, The Economist, special report on water, 22 May 2010Four entities allow the World Bank to undertake various functions. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) lends directly to the private sector and can even purchase equity in private companies. The Public Private Infrastructure Advisory Facility (PPIAF) seeks to improve the quality of infrastructure through private participation. The Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) insures the private sector against commercial and political risk. The International Court for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) takes charge of disputes between investors and states. The Bank also has some other mechanisms that promote its activities in India including Water and Sanitation Program (WSP), Water and Sanitation for Urban Poor (WSUP), Water for Asian Cities (WAC) and others. The World Bank’s funding partners include the JBIC, AusAid, GTZ, USAID, DFID, UN-Habitat and the ADB.

More growth in large cities and towns, and urbanisation becoming a dominant land use pattern in more districts of India mean that the industrial, residential and municipal demands for water are rising quickly. India’s Central Pollution Control Board (an agency of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India) has released its ‘Observation on trend of Water Supply, Wastewater Generation in Cities and Towns’. Here are its main comments and highlights. I’ve left the language as it is – the import is what counts.

Courtesy, The Economist, special report on water, 22 May 2010

From The Economist's special report on water, 22 May 2010: Global water sources

“In decade of 90’s the growth of cities is observed is 33% while the growth of the decade in beginning of millennium is slowed down. Metropolitan cities is increased from 3 to 6 Nos. from 80’s to 2008. Class-I cities increase from 37 to 53 Nos. Class-II towns increase from 22 to 35. This trend indicates that all type of cities has grown in the decade of 90’s.”

Findings and Recommendations

  • Since the cities are growing, the population is enhanced from 30 million to 48 million.
  • Consequently water supply has been increased approximately twice in magnitude from 4,970 MLD (million litres per day) to 8,782 MLD.
  • Sewage generation has risen 38%.
  • Comparing the data of decades of 90’s to 2008, it is indicated that coastal cities and towns are not growing significantly.
  • Treatment capacity of sewage in comparison to decade of 80’s to until now has increased almost double (93%).
  • There are 498 Class-I Cities having population of 257 million and 410 Class-II Towns having population in India.
  • Total water supply including all class-I cities and class-II town in India is 48,093.88 MLD.

The CPCB says that wastewater generation from all class I cities and class II towns is 38,254 MLD whereas the installed treatment capacity is 11,787 MLD, which means that no more than a maximum of 31% of total sewage generated can be treated. (If the question is ‘where does the rest go?’, the CPCB answers that too in its report.) “This evidently indicates ominous position of sewage treatment, which is the main source of pollution of rivers and lakes,” warns the CPCB report. “To improve the water quality of rivers and lakes, there is an urgent need to increase sewage treatment capacity and its optimum utilisation.”

Image courtesy 'UN-Water Global Annual Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking Water (GLAAS) 2010', World Health Organization (WHO) and UN-WaterThe CPCB, which thankfully still has a reputation for straight talking, has advised India’s municipalities and town administrations to “set up a very thoughtful action plan to fill this gap in a minimum time frame”. The CPCB has suggested that large cities in which and from which the pollution problem is more severe, cities/towns whose effluents and sewage are polluting rivers and water bodies “will be required to be taken up on priority basis in first phase”. Why is the CPCB so insistent? Quite simply, it says there is an “urgency of preventing pollution of our water bodies and preserving our precious water resources”.

But even in the India of non-city and non-town landscapes, there are plans being hatched by the would-be water merchants. An indication of the mischief afoot comes from a report righteously entitled ‘Pro-Poor Financial Services for Rural Water: Linking the Water Sector to Rural Finance’. (If so many good deeds are ‘pro-poor’ nowadays how come the ranks of the do-gooders is only increasing?) Here is what it says: “Previous studies suggest that a considerable demand for pro-poor financial services for water in rural areas remains unmet. The number of potential microfinance clients in rural areas for investments in water supply is estimated to be 5.0 million in East/Southeast Asia, 10.3 million in South Asia, and 3.1 million in sub-Saharan Africa.” Those three numbers get to the heart of the matter.

The report continues: “Concerning microloans for rural sanitation, there are 17 million potential clients in East/ Southeast Asia, 30.8 million in South Asia, and 4.4 million in sub-Saharan Africa. In total, the potential demand for micro-loans in these three regions is estimated at US $ 1.5 billion in the case of rural water supply, and US $ 5 billion in the case of rural sanitation. The challenge is how to unlock this latent demand and turn it into an effective process.” The authors make no bones about it, the riches at the bottom of the water table is what they’re after. And who are the authors? The German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (well-known as GTZ in Asia, and which I was surprised to learn is a GmbH), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and of course the World Bank.

Courtesy, The Economist, special report on water, 22 May 2010

Cover of The Economist's special report on water, 22 May 2010

The water merchants have their cheerleading squad in place in the form of a pliant media, and The Economist has obliged by bringing out one of its typically characterless ‘surveys’, as it likes to call them. It is a special report on water (the 22 May 2010 issue) and the subject is dealt with in the sycophantic manner that the weekly reserves for the captains of industry. “Yet even if it takes two litres of groundwater to produce a litre of bottled water, companies like CocaCola and PepsiCo are hardly significant users compared with farmers and even many industrial producers.” (Hear, hear, who needs those pesky farmers anyway?) “PepsiCo has nevertheless become the first big company to declare its support for the human right to water. For its part, CocaCola is one of a consortium of companies that in 2008 formed the 2030 Water Resources Group, which strives to deal with the issue of water scarcity. Last year it commissioned a consultancy, McKinsey, to produce a report on the economics of a range of solutions.” This transatlantic weekly, once upon a time British, puts in a word for big dams too: “Dams and reservoirs certainly need constant repairs and careful maintenance and do not always get them, usually because the necessary institutions are not in place.”

Who are operating as water merchants and what do they want? There are several North American / West European companies now in India: Ondeo-Degrement, Veolia Environnement, Saur of France, RWE/Thames Water of Germany and the UK Bechtel, Enron (US), Compagnie Generale des Eaux (CGE). Indian companies are going to either compete with them, or join them – Tata subsidiary Jamshedpur Utilities and Services Company (JUSCO), IVRCL Infrastructures and Projects, Mahindra Infrastructure Ltd., IL&FS.

Surat, Gujarat, near the mouth of the Tapi river

Surat, Gujarat: Fishing boats near the mouth of the Tapi river

The foreign multinationals are involved in several projects across the country. Compagnie Generale des Eaux (CGE) is operating urban water supply project in Hubli-Dharwad in Karnataka. Veolia is operating water and wastewater plant in Nagpur in Maharashtra and it has also formed a joint venture with JUSCO. Ondeo-Degremont has won contracts to construct water treatment plants in Mumbai and Chennai and it is also operating a wastewater treatment plant in Delhi. Thames Water was involved in a leak reduction project in Bangalore while United Utilities and Bechtel are partners in the Tiruppur project. JUSCO has projects in Jamshedpur, Bhopal, Kolkata and Adityapur. IVRCL is working on a wastewater treatment project in Alandur, desalination in Chennai and solid waste management in Tiruppur. IL&FS is involved in various projects in Haldia, Tiruppur, Vishakhapatnam and municipal waste processing facilities in Delhi and Ajmer, Rajasthan.

The CPCB has outlined the water, sewage and pollution tasks for cities, but its worries are going to be transformed into “a challenge to unlock latent demand” by the multilateral lending organisations on the one hand and the global water merchants (together with their Indian partners). Already deficit in terms of civic infrastructure and struggling with yawning gaps in the provision of healthcare and education, India’s towns and small cities will pass the burden of water profiteering on to those who can’t afford it. They leave the rural districts to earn a living in the cities, when their water rupee gets squeezed down to the last drop, where will they go then?

The advance guard of climate change

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Winter sky over the Deccan plateau, India

Winter sky over the Deccan plateau, India

From late 2003 to early 2005 I was part of a small group in south Nagaland (in India’s north-east region) conducting a study on natural resource management and the prospects for tourism in the region. The study was funded by a Indian central government ministry, was ‘supervised’ by the state government and was made possible by the village community of Khonoma, in the Naga hills.

At around the mid-point of our study, when the time had come for the paddy seedlings to be transplanted, that the convergence of climate change and scarce labour resources became obvious. The seedlings were not ready to be moved at the time of year they were usually expected to be. By the time they were, the extra labour each rice farming family had mobilised in preparation for the hard work ahead, had their regular jobs and occupations to return to. The hill villages were in turmoil. Practically every single family that had a plot of terraced rice field to attend to was caught in a dilemma.

If they insisted that those who had come to the villages to help them – daughters, sons, cousins or aunts – stay back to complete the work, those helpful souls would certainly lose salaries and wages. If they let them return, they would have to look for very scarce hired labour, whose per day wage was high and which would certainly rise given the scarcity of hands available and time. It was for most families a Hobson’s choice, and by either reckoning only made the socio-economic cost of rice cultivation dearer. This was the most dramatic impact of climate change that I saw at the time, for the shift in transplanting season was considered very odd indeed by the villages, almost unprecedented.

Extracting riverbed sand in North Goa, India

Extracting riverbed sand in North Goa, India

We know now that local observations of direct effects of climate change by tribal populations and indigenous peoples corroborate scientific predictions. In a very real sense, indigenous peoples are the advance guard of climate change. They observe and experience climate and environmental changes first-hand, and are already using their traditional knowledge and survival skills – the heart of their cultural resilience – to respond. Moreover, they are doing this at a time when their cultures and livelihoods are already undergoing significant stresses not only due to the environmental changes from climate change, but from the localised pressures and economic impulses of global trade and movement of capital.

The United Nations University’s Institute of Advanced Study has just released an advance copy of what promises to be a goldmine of such observation. The volume is entitled ‘Advance Guard: Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, Mitigation and Indigenous Peoples – A Compendium of Case Studies’. The 402 case studies summarised in this densely packed volume mention a host of specific vulnerabilities and early effects of climate change being reported by indigenous peoples (and these include cultural and spiritual impacts): demographic changes, including displacement from their traditional lands and territories; economic impacts and loss of livelihoods; land and natural resource degradation; impacts on food security and food sovereignty; health issues; water shortages; and loss of traditional knowledge.

: Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, Mitigation and Indigenous Peoples

The cover graphic of the UNU-IAS compilation 'Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, Mitigation and Indigenous Peoples'

Impacts are felt across all sectors, including agriculture and food security; biodiversity and natural ecosystems; animal husbandry (particularly pastoralist lifestyles); housing, infrastructure and human settlements; forests; transport; energy consumption and production; and human rights. The entire range of effects on habitats and their biomes are supplied: temperature and precipitation changes; coastal erosion; permafrost degradation; changes in wildlife, pest and vector-borne disease distribution; sea-level rise; increasing soil erosion, avalanches and landslides; more frequent extreme weather events, such as intense storms; changing weather patterns, including increasing aridity and drought, fire and flood patterns; and increased melting of sea-ice and ice-capped mountains.

“In spite of these impacts,” states the UNU-IAS compilation, “indigenous peoples also have a variety of successful adaptive and mitigation strategies to share. The majority of these are based in some way on their traditional ecological knowledge, whether they involve modifying existing practices or restructuring their relationships with the environment. Their strategies include application and modification of traditional knowledge; shifting resource bases; altering land use and settlement patterns; blending of traditional knowledge and modern technologies; fire management practices; changes in hunting and gathering periods and crop diversification; management of ecosystem services; awareness raising and education, including use of multimedia and social networks; and policy, planning and strategy development.”

From Asia, I’ve picked out three cases which illustrate just how important it is to observe and learn from these responses:

BANGLADESH | Indigenous forecasting in Maheshkhali, using meteorological indicators and animal behaviour to predict cyclones. Maheshkhali Island is situated off the Bay of Bengal coast with an area of approximately 60 square km. Cyclones are the greatest disaster threat of coastal people. Research has revealed that certain indigenous prediction capacity possessed by the local people always helped them to anticipate cyclones and take necessary precautions. The indigenous cyclone prediction is even more important as it was revealed during interviews with the Maheskhali islanders that they do not understand the modern warning system with its different numerical codes (1-10) and elaboration on wind direction, as explained in the warning bulletins.

Buffalo at work, Kolhapur district, Maharashtra, India

Buffalo at work, Kolhapur district, Maharashtra, India

INDIA | Indigenous forecasting in India using meteorological indicators, plant features and animal behaviour. Researchers from Gujarat Agricultural University have evaluated eight indigenous forecasting beliefs between 1990 to 1998. For each year, the data was tabulated and analysed on the basis of Bhadli’s criteria. Based on the findings the researchers concluded that many of the beliefs are reliable indicators of monsoon. The study has helped to restore the people’s confidence in their own traditional knowledge and skills. As climate change occurs, these traditional forecasting indicators may change. Locals have to continue their observations and adjust their predictions accordingly to ensure that correct coping mechanisms will be applied.

INDONESIA | Customary Iban Community. This study examines the social and institutional practices of a sedentary Iban sub-tribe in the upstream part of the Kapuas system in governing their life. In 2008, the Sungai Utik community acquired a formal, recognition of their institutional capacity to live at the center of one of the most complex ecosystems that is the tropical rainforest of Kalimantan. The Indonesian Eco-label Institute provided the community logging practice of the Sungai Utik Ibans its “seal of ecological appropriateness”. The Sungai Utik life-space is part of the bigger climatic zone just north of the Equator that has been predicted to experience higher precipitation over the course of climate change in this century, particularly in comparison with the last three decades of the last century. It means that the community should learn to adapt to a transformed rainy season—the duration of which and the timing of its start and ending are also subject to change—for the crucial nugal (planting) rituals.


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