Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Kerala Floods: Will The Last Words Ever Spoken Be Why? Why? Why?

"This year, we have seen the terrible flooding in Kerala in India, savage wildfires in California and Canada, and dramatic warming in the Arctic that is affecting weather patterns across the northern hemisphere. The trend is clear. The past 19 years included 18 of the warmest years on record, and greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere continue to rise.” – UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

In August 2018, Kerala experienced once-in-a-lifetime rainfall of 2,378 mm. over 88 days, four times more than normal. The Indian Met Department (IMD) pegged the rainfall in the first  20 days of August at 164 per cent above normal.

Almost all 41 west-flowing rivers originating in the Western Ghats were in spate. The reservoirs of all 82 dams on these rivers were at maximum capacity by August 10, 2018.  Shutters of 54 dams had to be opened by August 21, and the gates of 35 out of these 54 dams were opened for the first time in history.

The rivers already filled to the brims, broke their banks with the release of reservoir water and swept everything in their path – roads, bridges, vehicles, buildings and humans.

The iconic Idukki dam and its reservoir received 811 mm. of rain and when the controversial Muallaperiyar dam began to overflow into the Idukki reservoir, all five gates had to be opened for the first time in 26 years. The resultant trail of destruction from Cheruthoni to Aluva, forced authorities to shut down the Kochi airport. Paddy fields and entire villages in the 900 sq. km. delta of Kuttanad, the backwaters of Vembananad lake, some lying two to three meters below sea level, were completely submerged.

The human casualty was terrible. According to the Kerala government, one-sixth of the total population of the state was directly affected by the floods and its collateral impact. As of September 7, 2018, the death count was 483, with 14 missing. Over a million people were evacuated and are only now, slowly, returning to their homes and their lives.

Continue reading this report on Sanctuary Asia website.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Climate change altering farming in Spiti

The retreat of glaciers in Spiti valley due to climate change has reduced water availability in summers but farmers are adapting by planting apple orchards and growing crops new to the region.

In the short summer of Spiti valley, when the snow melts on high peaks, there is a spurt of intense agricultural activity around the sparsely populated villages in the cold desert of Himachal Pradesh – for four months between May and August every year.

Spiti, the ‘middle land’ between Tibet and India, is classified as a sub-Himalayan desert that is mostly inaccessible for the rest of the year when snowfall blocks the mountain passes. Due to its extreme and inhospitable conditions, Spiti valley is one of the least populated regions of the world, home to just 13,000 people living on 758,000 hectares of land.

When not snowbound, the stark sub-Himalayan landscape supports very little life. Being in a rain shadow region, there is negligible rainfall, leaving the mountains devoid of any vegetation. The climate is marked by sharp turns in temperatures, high-speed winds, high altitude atmosphere and low humidity, all of which makes the soil dry and almost devoid of organic matter.

Despite these handicaps, Spiti valley has been made habitable and productive by sheer human cunning, doggedness and use of ingenious techniques to cultivate crops like barley, black peas and potatoes, the staple diet of locals, and more recently, green peas and fruits like apples and seabuckthorn.

See the rest of the photo feature on India Climate Dialogue.

Friday, September 14, 2018

How villagers in Bhutan and India came together to resolve a water-sharing tussle

There are 56 rivers that flow down from the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan to the eastern state of Assam in India to meet the Brahmaputra River. The hills of Bhutan are covered with lush forests, but on the Indian side of the border there are vast tracts of dry plains with occasional patches of severely denuded forests. Not very long ago the forests were contiguous across the borders but internal migration, poverty and increasing demand for fuelwood changed the landscape drastically on the Indian side of the border.

Due to climate change all the rivers flowing from Bhutan to India have changed their behaviour dramatically in the last decade – with long periods of dryness, shallow flow and then repeated flash floods, followed by massive amount of silt, sand, sediments, stones and boulders hurtling downstream across the border into India, constantly altering the river’s course. This has caused hardships and misery to people on both sides of border.

A large share of Bhutan’s revenue comes from hydropower projects, although it has been declining over the years, from 44.6% in 2001 to 20% in 2013. Most of these hydropower projects have been developed in cooperation with India. Bhutan currently has an installed hydropower capacity of 1,488 MW, although it hopes to increase this to 20,000 MW.

Due to climate change all the rivers flowing from Bhutan to India have changed their behaviour dramatically in the last decade – with long periods of dryness, shallow flow and then repeated flash floods, followed by massive amount of silt, sand, sediments, stones and boulders hurtling downstream across the border into India, constantly altering the river’s course. This has caused hardships and misery to people on both sides of border.

Downstream communities in Assam have regularly raised the alarm, attributing these changes to dam building upstream in Bhutan. They are worried that the plans to build more dams in Bhutan will lead to more flooding, erosion and more destruction than good. The Bhutanese government and their Indian dam consultants have dismissed these objections in the past, but the recent erratic weather patterns have upset all predictions and is now shaping the future flow of the river and Bhutan’s relationship with India.

Read the full report on scroll.in  or on The Third Pole

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Defying Climate Change - My new report for UNICEF and CANSA.

With global heat records reaching new highs, extreme weather events and other natural disasters becoming more deadly, everyone is equally vulnerable to climate change. But it’s the poorest of the poor, especially women and children in remote and fragile environments, that bear the brunt of increasingly frequent climate induced disasters.

Defying climate change, a new report from Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA) and UNICEF India, introduces some of the most effective and innovative women and child centric resilience building projects being implemented across climate hotspots of India.

The focus of the ongoing partnership between UNICEF India’s Disaster Risk Reduction Section and CANSA is to assist state government policy makers and practitioners to convert existing climate action plans into actionable work plans for relevant departments like health, education, drinking water, etc.

This report is an attempt to identify recently tested and innovative Community Based Adaptation projects and practices that benefit women and children directly or indirectly and can be used as models to develop and promote women and child centred adaptation and disaster risk reduction best practices on a national scale.

Community-Based Adaptation (CBA) to climate change aims to allow local people to determine the objectives and means of adaptation practices by including affected people in the design and implementation of adaptation projects and practices. The CBA projects featured here demonstrate the importance of locally appropriate solutions, community ownership and multi-stakeholder partnerships in building resilience of the most vulnerable communities.

The methodology applied for shortlisting projects for the report required the projects and practices to fit into the following matrix of the following 9 minimum requirements to reach the most vulnerable and poor.

Directly benefits women and children
Is an innovative practice, technology or method of implementation
Adopts clear monitoring and evaluation strategies
Involves diverse stakeholders, including local self governments and other NGOs
Is participatory, people-driven with community buy-in and social acceptability
Is sustainable and incorporates sustainability strategies with identified resources and potential for replications
Is cost effective and doable using indigenous adaptation knowledge and materials where possible
Demonstrates transparency and accountability
Has a clear mechanism for knowledge sharing and knowledge building beyond the immediate locality.
The report features initiative the success of Swayam Shikshan Prayog in ‘Women led climate resilient farming’ in the drought- hit districts of Maharashtra, the first carbon neutral panchayat in Kerala, unique pond water filtration system from Odisha rissa and Ice Stupas of Ladakh amongst others.

Download the report at: https://goo.gl/JsM7cW

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Narmada Bachao Andolan - 30 years of India's greatest people's movement for environmental justice

To mark 30 years of Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA)'s resistance to the hydro dam projects in the Narmada valley, I dug up this image of the Narmada Jan Vikas Sangharsh Yatra of December 1990, that first appeared on the front page of the now defunct 'The Independent', that was launched and edited (for a very short time) by Vinod Mehta.
I was assigned to cover the week-long march and joined thousands of anti-dam protestors led by Baba Amte and Medha Patkar on their march from Barwani in Madhya Pradesh to Ferkuva on the Madhya Pradesh–Gujarat border.

This is where I first met activists like Medha Patkar, Shripad Dharmadhikary, Rohit Prajapati, Himanshu Thakkar, Arundhati Dhuru, Simantini Dhuru, Alok Agarwal, Ashish Kothari, to name only a few of so many more in the following years, who have shaped and influenced my understanding of the greatest people's movement for environmental justice in modern India.

25 years later, the people’s demands for suitable rehabilitation have not been met and neither has the promise of delivery of Narmada waters to the villages of Kutch, but worst of all no lessons have been learnt and the people have come together again to save their homes, villages and forests. "Narmada ki ghati me ab ladai jaari hai" - The slogan I heard first time on this march is ringing again in the valley since last week.

In August 1993 I posted this report for Frontline Magazine- Manibeli's woes .

Monday, July 25, 2016

Glacial lake threatens Sikkim’s heritage village

“Mosquitos and tourists!” Chokdup Lachenpa shouts at no one in particular as he takes a long sip of Tongba (hot beer) from his bamboo mug.  As if on cue, the children chorus, “The first is because of climate change and the second is the cause of climate change,” causing much mirth and laughter among the customers.

We are sitting at Chokdup’s daughter’s tiny teashop-cum-bar in Lachen, a small village perched 2,750 metres above the mean sea level (MSL) on the right bank of the Lachen Chu river in North Sikkim. Outside, in the foggy twilight, across the Himalayas, we can see the headlights of a cavalcade of vans and jeeps that will soon bring hundreds of tourists to Lachen for a night’s halt.
Situated on a grassy mountain slope, surrounded by snow-capped peaks and forests of rhododendrons and conifers, Lachen is so beautiful it has been declared a “heritage village” by the Sikkim government. And that is its problem. The tag is accompanied by “eco-tourism homestays” pushed strongly by bureaucrats.

It is the last stop for tourists going to Gurudongmar Lake, 5,430 metres above sea level. Buddhists and Sikhs consider the lake sacred. Now, tourists from Maharashtra and Gujarat seem to be competing with the peripatetic Bengalis to make Lachen the number one tourist attraction in North Sikkim.

What most of the tourists won’t know is that Lachen valley is facing a massive climate crisis. Behind those welcoming smiles, the Lachenpas – the local residents, an indigenous tribe of the Bhutia community – are a worried lot. Reduced snowfall, unseasonal rains and the forest fires of last summer have made them all very anxious.

To make matters worse and potentially dangerous, Lachen is in the path of the streams flowing down from the growing Lake Shako Cho. The lake at the snout of the glacier by the same name is growing because the glacier is melting faster. It is identified to be at high risk of causing a glacial lake outburst flood, a type of flood that occurs when the gravel holding in such a lake collapses.

Continue reading the full story on thethirdpole.net . 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Sonam Wangchuk's Ice Stupas Are Firing Up Interest From Ladakh To The Swiss Alps

"The possibilities are endless." Sonam Wangchuk could be talking about any of the many ideas he has thrown at me in the last hour, but in this case he was referring to the "ice stupa", a conical two-storey-tall artificial glacier that was drip-releasing frozen water in the middle of a very hot and dry May, irrigating 5000 poplar and willow trees on the outskirts of Phayang Monastery in the mountain desert of Ladakh.

The applications of ice stupas range from irrigating dry and arid mountain deserts to mitigating dangers posed by glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFS). Most of all, Sonam is excited about reviving the rural economy of Ladakh by promoting ice stupas as a winter attraction for tourists.

The Swiss want to expand the project to build more ice stupas in 2017, mainly to counter the phenomenon of fast-melting glaciers...
This is an idea that has already been lapped up by the tourism authorities of Switzerland. Sonam Wangchuk has been invited by the president of Pontresina, a municipality in the Engadine valley near the winter sports resort town of St. Moritz, to build ice stupas to add to their bouquet of winter tourism attractions. After this prototype is built and tested, the Swiss want to expand the project to build more ice stupas in 2017, mainly to counter the phenomenon of fast-melting glaciers in the upper reaches of the Swiss mountains.

"In exchange for the ice stupa technology, the Swiss will share their expertise and experience in sustainable tourism development with the people of Phayang, to revive the dying economy of the village," says Wangchuk.

Read the full story on Huffington Post India

Letting go a precious resource

Union Minister for Water Resources Uma Bharti claims that her Ministry is already promoting rainwater harvesting and artificial recharge measures in the country. A Master Plan has been drawn and circulated to all state governments for harnessing surplus monsoon runoff to augment ground water resources.

Unfortunately, going by the actual financial allocations and institutional directives, rainwater harvesting is clearly not high on the minister’s agenda either. It is a state’s problem after all, is the constant refrain heard from the central corridors.

Here we are dealing with a full blown disaster and our only hope is to somehow survive next two months, most likely hotter than this April, and most certainly the hottest years in hundred years, after which we may have a good monsoon, as per Indian Met Department’s predictions. A monsoon that most likely will be wasted again because we forgot to fix our ancient rainwater harvesting bodies, the tanks, the ponds, the lakes, the backwaters, the rivers and the bunds.

Apathy, India’s biggest environmental threat; corruption, India’s biggest development roadblock; and greed of corporate stakeholders are at the core of the failure of implementation of rainwater harvesting policies in most cities across India.

The way forward requires a paradigm shift in water governance and the first step to achieve that is to identify, strengthen and provide legal validity to local institutions and empowerment of local communities, for ensuring equitable and sustainable use of water within ecological confines.

Both persuasive and legislative measures to involve local communities and stake-holders in the creation and maintenance of existing rain water harvesting bodies is a must and for that if criminalizing and penalizing non-conformance is the only way, then so be it.

Read the full article on Governance Today.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

No deal in Paris ?

On the cold morning of December 12, 2015, Aurora, a giant animatronic polar bear, stood forlorn and forgotten outside the temporary convention centre set up in the Le Bourget Airport, the venue of the Paris Climate Summit. Inside, it was the last day of the 21st session of the Conference of Parties (COP21) of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

As expected, the conference had run into extra time of one entire day. After 21 years of haggling, another 21 hours didn't seem to bother anyone, and red-eyed delegates who had stayed up all night helping their governments negotiate tricky text options were seen huddled around the coffee booths. All of them aware of the burden of the failed Copenhagen Climate Summit that must not be repeated. Climate change had already unleashed runaway disasters in the four years since that last attempt to bring the world together to take action. All hopes of an outcome, good or bad, were now upon Laurent Fabius, the President of COP 21, who was shepherding the world’s governments to finalise a treaty that will have grave impact on the future of the planet as we know it.

For the first time in 21 years of knowing that they had to deal with the phenomenon of global warming, nearly 200 nations were on the verge of “recognising that climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet and thus requires the widest possible cooperation by all countries, and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response, with a view to accelerating the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions and also recognising that deep reductions in global emissions will be required in order to achieve the ultimate objective of the Convention and emphasising the need for urgency in addressing climate change .”

Finally when Laurent Fabius struck the specially designed green gavel, the most memorable achievement of the Paris agreement was that “it aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.”

- Read the whole comment on Sanctuary Asia

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A beginner's guide to what transpired at the Paris climate summit

What did you bloody greenies do ? What is this Paris climate deal?
After 21 years of haggling and delays, governments of the world collectively agreed to take action domestically and internationally to tackle climate change by cutting their carbon emissions/ The “Paris package” to which the legally binding instrument – the “Paris agreement” – is annexed aims to contain the increase in the global average temperature to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels” – a more ambitious goal than had been expected. This new climate deal will come into force in 2020.

Meaning how, exactly?
Mainly by boosting clean energy investments while conserving and enhancing forests and other ecosystems. Boosting clean energy investments means more finance for research and deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency, with the hope that burning of fossil fuels will be phased out by end of the century. However, nowhere in the text are the words fossil fuels, coal or oil used. Conserving and enhancing forests should mean more “predictable, sustainable, large-scale pay-for-performance finance”. Right now, the cash box is more or less empty, but hopes are tied to private financing.

Is renewable energy really ready for all this?
I caught a plane from Kochi airport, the world’s first fully solar-powered airport. I think it is.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Tourists From The Dark Side

August 15, 2015, Periyar Tiger Reserve, Kerala: The elephant turned his head around as soon as the mobile phone rang. Incredulously, the young man ignored the loud caller tune and continued taking pictures of the glaring pachyderm. His wife also turned her attention and phone towards the elephant to nonchalantly shoot a quick succession of pictures using her camera flash. The driver started the jeep and could be heard cursing the couple as he reversed and swiftly drove away.

Ajayan, the upset jeep driver, told me later that he had informed the young honeymooning couple very clearly before the trip that “they are not allowed to use camera flash, that phones must be on silent, they should not wear bright colours and if they did not follow rules I could not guarantee their safety. But the two of them were ‘hopeless’ and broke every rule. I had to leave in a hurry not because the elephant had shown any signs of discomfort or displeasure, but because I know even elephants have limits to their patience.”

On January 20, 2015, not very far from here, allegedly provoked by a camera flash, an elephant lost his patience and killed Bhupendra (52) and Jagriti Ravel (50) in the Gavi forest of the Periyar Tiger Reserve. The forest guide accompanying them was forced to abandon the couple after they failed to heed his warning to stop taking pictures and run. This is not an isolated incident but typical of the rising animal-tourist conflict unfolding in our parks. (See box: ‘The Last Selfie’)

-Continue reading the covers story in Sanctuary Asia magazine.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Run Gibbon Run!

With dilution of environmental laws on anvil, a wildlife board at the beck and call of profiteering corporations and a government hell bent on allowing polluting projects around forest areas, I despair wondering about the future of this Hoolock Gibbon and other endangered species in the last remaining forests of India. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Brahmaputra and the temples of doom

The boat lurched dangerously. A sudden change in the water current slapped us around for a few minutes, and the river began rising rapidly, unexpectedly. There were no clouds in the sky, no signs of an impending storm, no radio reports of rains upcountry. In fact the weather forecast promised a clear and sunny day in the entire region when we began our journey upriver in the morning.

“These days the Brahmaputra needs no rain, rhyme or reason to swell suddenly like this,” says Jadav Payeng, aka Mulai, a Mishing cowherd now famous as the Forestman of Assam. “As if the deadly floods caused by the monsoon downpour between June and September every year are not enough, since the last few years we have seen floods in the  Brahmaputra, with or without rains -- in summer, monsoon, winter. It is like someone is controlling the water flow but is not very good at it. I am certain the dam-building activity upstream is responsible, either dams in Arunachal Pradesh or Tibet, with Indian or Chinese  control. Whoever is responsible is blind. They don't know what they are doing to the thousands-of-years-old civilisation and still undiscovered biodiversity wealth downstream.”

He exchanges a quick, decisive glance with the other oarsmen and changes the course of the boat to drift back to the northern bank where we will wait on higher land till this bout of unseasonal flood passes. Jadav Payeng has lived on the river all his life; he criss-crosses it every day to go to his home island Aruna Sapori, where he single-handedly planted a 1,360-acre forest over 30 years, now named the Mulai Kathoni after him. He has observed the cycle of floods and erosion of the tempestuous Brahmaputra from close quarters. His forest, like so many others along the river, has been sustained by these seasonal, life-giving floods of the river and its many tributaries.

Continue reading on Infochangeindia

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Troubled Dibru Saikhowa

Three of India’s eastern-most rivers, Siang, Dibang and Lohit, meet the mighty Brahmaputra river at a unique tri-junction near the borders of upper Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Located at this confluence, on an island about 12 km. from the tea town of Tinsukia, is the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and Biosphere Reserve. Spread over 765 sq. km., of which 340 sq. km. form the core of this magical land, this park is a complex of wetlands, grasslands, littoral swamps and semi-evergreen forests, including the largest salix swamp forest in Northeast India.
Walking from Kundaghat to the Balijan forest check post inside the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park on a wet day in April 2013, I spotted Citrine Wagtail, Sultan Tit, Common Stonechat, Indian Roller, Yellow-bellied Prinia, a silhouette of a hornbill that swooped overhead and finally a Jerdon’s Bushchat, a black and white sparrow-sized bird that had not been seen in these parts for over two years. Winter, when the many rivulets and rivers crisscrossing the park have dried up, is the only time when the trek is possible. When the rains pour down, and even for several months after that, access is by boat alone.
In the distance I heard Hoolock gibbons singing their strange songs high up in the canopy of silk cotton, Indian lilac and red cedar trees. I also saw macaques scampering along the branches of a shisham tree and followed a wild hare through my field glasses as it made its way across a clearing in the grassland. Toward the edge of the grassland, a herd of elephants had rested the night before and I could see tell-tale evidence of their fruit-feast from the Outenga (elephant-apple) tree. Around me was a virtual wonderland. I saw willow trees… the ones that make such great cricket bats and hockey sticks. Also what locals call kappofool, the gorgeous pink orchid, in full bloom that heralded the Assamese spring festival of Bihu. 
On the boat back to the mainland, Gangetic river dolphins surfaced near us as they fed from waters that also supported Spot-billed Ducks, herons and an amazing diversity of other waterfowl. In the distance, on the banks of one of the chaporis, I spotted a herd of wild buffaloes retreating into their forest.
Dibru-Saikhowa in spring teems with life of all descriptions, like a virtual showcase of the incredible biodiversity that Northeast India harbours. In my book, Dibru-Saikhowa is up there with Khongchengdzonga and Kaziranga, but as I soon discovered, there is trouble brewing in paradise.
- for full story continue  reading on Sanctuary Asia

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The strange Obsession of Jadav Payeng

Jadav Payeng in his forest

In 1979, Jadav Payeng, a.k.a. Mulai, a cowherd, started planting trees on a desolate, barren island formed by the ever-shifting sands of the Brahmaputra river, near his island home of Aruna sapori in the Jorhat district of Assam.

Payeng of the Mising tribe of Northeast India, previously known as the Miris, the second largest ethnic group in Assam after the Bodos, was hired as a labourer for an afforestation project undertaken on 200 ha. of land on Aruna sapori by the Social Forestry Division of Golaghat district in 1979. The five-year project was abandoned in three years and while the rest of the workers packed up and disappeared into government files, Payeng, who had nowhere else to go, continued to plant more trees, while nurturing the existing vegetation, on his own.

For almost 30 years, off everyone’s radar, without support or subsidies, without fear or favour, without Forest Department or foreign hand, Payeng, almost obsessively, continued to expand the forest and the fruit of his labour is now being celebrated around the world.

Read the whole story online Sanctuary Asia