Monday, December 20, 2010

Political activism

For those who may be interested, I've blogged about the recent talk by singer and political activist Bob Geldof (Founder of the Live Aid) at the Hay Festival, Trivandrum last month.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Poll result: What MOST bothers you about the effect of lead ammunitions on fauna and humans?

100% is bothered most by Lead poisoning in birds and mammals which feed on carcasses of hunted game animals.

No responses to the options of 'Lead poisoning in humans who ingest hunted game animals', 'Lead ammunitions do not cause any such effects. Ergo, this is all hogwash', and 'This issue is irrelevant and of no concern to me'.

Kissing the mistletoe goodbye?

Kissing under the boughs of mistletoe is an oft-observed Christmas tradition, especially in the UK and the US. But, according to the UK’s National Trust, the years are fast approaching by when we may be kissing the UK mistletoe goodbye.

The parasitic European Mistletoe, Viscum album, thrives on fruit trees such as the domestic apple tree and also other hosts such as lime, poplar, and hawthorn. Its heartland is the counties of Somerset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, and Worcestershire. However, since the mistletoe’s main habitat, the traditional orchards, have declined dramatically in the past 60 years, there is a looming threat that, in twenty years, yuletide revellers would have to import mistletoe from mainland Europe (a trend which has been, nonetheless, slightly increasing over the past few years). The solution offered by the National Trust is to purchase mistletoe from ‘sustainable home or local’ sources. The charity, in association with Natural England, had also launched a project last year which aims at restoring traditional orchards supporting small cottage industries. It must be mentioned that a common end effect of mistletoe infestation (apart from reduced growth) is death for the host and it remains to be seen how many traditional orchard owners would be keen on not excising the mistletoe bunches in their trees.

Mistletoe has a degree of ecological importance for it is an ecological keystone species (Watson, 2001). Since the plant provides food (especially during winter) and habitat for wildlife, it could be considered as having a positive effect on biodiversity.

The plant is also believed to have medicinal properties: lowering blood pressure and heart rate, easing anxiety, relieving headaches, improving concentration ability, and in the treatment of cancer (Ernst et al, 2003). In Germany, more than US $30 million is spent on mistletoe extracts, with a yearly sales increase of 20%.

Mistletoe’s anti-cancer properties remain a bone of contention (Ernst et al, 2003; Horneber et al, 2008). For instance, there are positive results (such as Hajto et al demonstrating that mistletoe’s ß-Galactoside-specific Lectin activated monocytes in the peripheral human blood, resulting in the secretion of Tumor Necrosis Factor a, Interleukin 1, and Interleukin 6, all of which can inhibit tumour growth; or, Büssing et al’s results which suggests that it could be used in the treatment of lymphoma and lymphocytic leukemia due to its property of inducing apoptosis in human lymphocytes), as well as negative (Steuer-Vogt et al, 2001; Gabius et al 2001). An exhaustive review of all randomised clinical trials (Ernst et al, 2003) illustrated that the published work had failed to demonstrate the efficacy of this therapy in cancer patients –in fact, it even had the potential to cause harm (as seen in Gabius et al’s study in which clinically relevant low doses of mistletoe lectin where shown to stimulate tumour proliferation in cell lines and histotypic cultures). Furthermore, there are grave concerns since lectins tend to sediment the erythrocytes.

Reverting to the gist of this post, our mango trees (here in Trivandrum, Kerala) have mistletoes (Loranthus sp) as well. And despite the unwelcome visitor’s virtues, we tend to care more about the potential mangoes, and hence excise the sprigs- and never fail to admire its tenacity when it springs back to life. In any case, due to the lack of a market for mistletoes in the country, there isn't any utility in retaining/cultivating these except during the Advent tradition of hanging up the mistletoe (and are probably a minority in following this tradition in the region). Ergo, I would to like to know the stance of the ‘traditional orchard’ owners. And, admittedly, during my years in Oxbridge (+London), I've noticed far more mistletoe in other trees than in apple.
Nonetheless, one does hope that the National Trust’s information on the mistletoe’s impending doom in the UK isn’t a case of crying wolf. Or is it indeed a legitimate concern?

Photo credit: sumeja


Horneber MA, Bueschel G, Huber R, Linde K, & Rostock M (2008). Mistletoe therapy in oncology. Cochrane database of systematic reviews (Online) (2) PMID: 18425885

Ernst E, Schmidt K, & Steuer-Vogt MK (2003). Mistletoe for cancer? A systematic review of randomised clinical trials. International journal of cancer. Journal international du cancer, 107 (2), 262-7 PMID: 12949804

Gabius HJ, Darro F, Remmelink M, André S, Kopitz J, Danguy A, Gabius S, Salmon I, & Kiss R (2001). Evidence for stimulation of tumor proliferation in cell lines and histotypic cultures by clinically relevant low doses of the galactoside-binding mistletoe lectin, a component of proprietary extracts. Cancer investigation, 19 (2), 114-26 PMID: 11296616

Steuer-Vogt MK, Bonkowsky V, Ambrosch P, Scholz M, Neiss A, Strutz J, Hennig M, Lenarz T, & Arnold W (2001). The effect of an adjuvant mistletoe treatment programme in resected head and neck cancer patients: a randomised controlled clinical trial. European journal of cancer (Oxford, England : 1990), 37 (1), 23-31 PMID: 11165126

Watson, DM (2001), Mistletoe-A Keystone Resource in Forests and Woodlands Worldwide, Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 32, pp.219-249.

Büssing A, Suzart K, Bergmann J, Pfüller U, Schietzel M, & Schweizer K (1996). Induction of apoptosis in human lymphocytes treated with Viscum album L. is mediated by the mistletoe lectins. Cancer letters, 99 (1), 59-72 PMID: 8564930

Hajto, T., Hostanska, K., Frei, K., Rordorf, C., and H-J Gabius (1990). Increased Secretion of Tumor Necrosis Factor a, Interleukin 1, and Interleukin 6 by Human Mononuclear Cells Exposed to ß-Galactoside-specific Lectin from Clinically Applied Mistletoe Extract1. Cancer Res 50, pp. 3322

Monday, September 20, 2010

One flood. Three days -> One canyon. We often get glimpses into the overwhelming power of nature. One such was in June-July 2002 in Texas: Fearing the worst during torrential rains, the waters of Canyon Lake (a reservoir on the Guadalupe River) were diverted into an emergency spillway. The consequential flood event, with a flow rate of over 1450 cubic metres per second and duration of six weeks, destroyed a bridge and trees, and carved a 2.2 km long, 7 m (average) deep canyon into the limestone bedrock. This new Canyon Lake Gorge is highlighted by Michael Lamb (Caltech) and Mark Fonstad (Texas State University) in their paper published in Nature Geosciences on the ‘Rapid formation of a modern bedrock canyon by a single flood event’.

Deep river canyons are considered to have formed gradually over the millions of years as a result of moderate and recurring flow of water. Megaflood events too results in similar canyons and channels, except that these are formed more rapidly, as in the case of the Canyon Lake Gorge. In this event, it is undeniably known that the erosion happened during the flood and the more destructive episode happened over a time span of just three days.

Using pre and post data and techniques (aerial photographs/images, models, flood measurements) Lamb and Fonstad analysed the formation of the canyon, identified the characteristics, and reconstructed the hydraulics of the flood. The important findings are:

- The rate of gorge erosion/formation was rapid, limited only by the amount of sediments carried by the floods. About 460,000 cubic metres of materials were dislodged, almost half of which were rocks. Even boulders with a size of 1m were plucked and moved downstream.

- The very creation of the canyon was dependent on the nature/characteristics of the bedrock. For instance, the aforementioned plucking of the 1m limestone boulders was facilitated by the fractures (horizontal bedding planes and vertical cracks probably due to tectonic movements) which were already present in the layered limestone bedrock.

- The rock type determined the resultant morphology of the canyon. The first part features 10-12m high waterfalls, channels, and terraces due to the plucking of the boulders. The latter part features sediment islands which are considered to be characteristic of large flood events.

Caveat: Is this a really megaflood (floods with a flow of1 million cubic metres per second) per se?

Lamb, M., & Fonstad, M. (2010). Rapid formation of a modern bedrock canyon by a single flood event Nature Geoscience, 3 (7), 477-481 DOI: 10.1038/ngeo894

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Gossamer Webs 1.5

How acidic oceans are posing problems for fishes by affecting their ability to smell:

Is climate change affecting phytoplankton?- Review of 'Global phytoplankton decline over the past century' in Nature (Daniel Boyce, Marlon Lewis, and Boris Worm of Dalhousie University)

The effect of acidification in the lakes of Adirondack mountains of New York State- Review of ‘Acidification in the Adirondacks: Defining the Biota in Trophic Levels of 30 Chemically Diverse Acid-Impacted Lakes’ (Sandra Nierzwicki-Bauer, Charles Boylen, Lawrence Eichler and James Harrison) published in Environmental Science and Technology

The Horton Plains Slender Loris is not extinct after all!

EU and ‘clean driving’:

Poll result: Which of the following game (if any) have you eaten?

The options provided were deer/venison, boar, quail, pheasant, partridge, ptarmigan, grouse, woodpigeon, woodcock, snipe, plover, goose, duck, rabbit, hare, squirrel, elk, and frog.

100% of the survey participants had consumed deer/venison, 75% had eaten duck, 50% had consumed quail, and 25% had partaken boar, pheasant, partridge, goose, rabbit, and hare.

New poll added.

On a sidenote, I wouldn't be surprised if the quiet countryside of England and the formal halls of Oxbridge contributed to the results above :p

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The modest Vetiver

Bountiful Nature certainly holds the antidote to many anthropogenic and natural problems. One such is Vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanioides), formerly known as Vetiveria zizanioides, a xerophytic and hydrophytic perennial clump grass of the Poaceae family with fast-growing tough root system and the ability to grow very tall with rigid stems and leaves. Since it is native to India, we tend to be quite familiar with its myriads of uses as listed below.

Vetiver roots’ aromatic and cooling properties
Vetiver’s roots are highly aromatic, with a pleasant, cool, refreshing, and earthy smell.
1. The roots are added to water in earthen pots in order to impart a distinctive flavour as well as a cooling effect.
2. The roots are kept in cupboards so that the clothes have a ‘fresh’ smell (similar to how we use sachets of lavender).
3. The fragrant essential oil from the roots is widely used in perfumery.
4. Mats and fans made of woven Vetiver roots are used to cool rooms during summer.
5. Other handicrafts made of Vetiver roots are popular due to the subtle aroma.

Medicinal property
Vetiver is often used in Ayurveda, the traditional (and viable) Indian system of medicine.
1. Water is purified by adding the roots.
2. Infusion of the roots can help in allaying fever, inflammation, and tummy problems.
3. It is effective in normalising, moisturising, and rejuvenating the skin. Apparently, it is also effective in removing acne and can be applied on irritated, wounded, and inflamed skin for speedier healing.
4. When applied regularly, the oil can prevent stretch marks (especially during pregnancy).
5. Due to its beneficial effects on the central nervous system, applying the oil also helps in psychological and emotional balance- i.e. helps in overcoming depression, stress, tension, anxiety, nervousness, and even insomnia.
6. When applied locally, it is effective in countering rheumatism, back pain, headaches, and sprains.
7. And apparently, the oil is also an aphrodisiac.

Vetiver roots’ decontaminating property
1. Vetiver decontaminates the polluted/contaminated soil.
2. As mentioned before, the roots have the property of purifying water. Being a hydrophyte, the plant can be used in treating wastewater.

For addressing environmental problems
Vetiver’s roots are unique- these grow very deep downwards and are thick with high tensile strength. As a result, it has the following uses:
1. For controlling erosion: Vetiver is very effective in preventing soil erosion when planted on the boundaries of agricultural lands, dikes, bunds, embankments, slopes, or on stream and river banks.
2. Runoffs are mostly blocked and spread in the surrounding areas. As a result, not only are the soil, sediments, and agricultural fertilisers trapped (thus enriching the land), but the soil moisture is also conserved (which the plants use during times of water scarcity).
3. Groundwater recharge- apparently, groundwater levels have increased in areas where vetiver is widely used.
4. Since Vetiver grows in clumps, weed invasion is prevented.

Vetiver requires minimal maintenance and has very sturdy characteristics. It is highly tolerant of adverse climatic conditions and variations (including droughts, floods, submergence, and extreme temperatures from -14ºC to +55ºC), pH (from 3.3 to 12.5), salinity, frosts, herbicides, pesticides, and pollutants. Its sturdy stems can withstand deep and heavy water flows. It is also noninvasive, propagating by small offsets instead of stolons or rhizomes. Should there be any fires or heavy grazing (or any other hazard), the new shoots easily develop from the underground crown. Interestingly, Vetiver is intolerant to shade which may result in a reduction of growth or even its elimination.

Vetiver is thus a low-cost effective solution to myriads of problems, including soil erosion which otherwise results in great expenses. For the farmers, this is a very beneficial tool which evidently results in increased crop yields, irrespective of adverse weather conditions. Furthermore, flooding risks are greatly reduced and runoffs of agricultural chemicals (into streams/rivers) are restricted. Even the rest of us are blessed by this modest grass!

Photo: by treesftf

Gossamer Webs 1.4

Have you been contemplating about cycling? This wonderful review (on the paper by Johan de Hartog, et al in Environmental Health Perspectives) makes the merits and demerits clearer!

Comparing the photos taken in 1921 by George Mallory and in 2007 by David Brearshears does indicate that glaciers in Mt Everest have indeed shrunk.

Coral bleaching is resulting in the detrimental transformation of the beautiful and fascinating Coral reefs, as reported in South East Asia, Indian Ocean, and Pacific Ocean.

The bearded goby's contribution in 'reweaving the (food) web'.

A sight for sore eyes- I absolutely love this innovative and creative gardening!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Poll results: How do you deal with the plastic/polythene bags dilemma?

When asked 'How do you deal with the plastic/polythene bags dilemma', 64% of the respondents stated that they reuse plastic bags, 57% use their own shopping bags, 28% store these bags in a kitchen cabinet, and 14% throw these into a waste bin.
None of the respondents burn the bags or throw it into the backyard.

Please participate in the new poll.

Gossamer Webs 1.3

* A new technology for making petrol from carbon dioxide and sunlight. The question, however, is whether this is truly viable.

* Most of us are aware of how smoking, by pregnant women, can have detrimental effects on the developing foetus. Research by Dr Stephen G Grant of University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute suggests that ‘similar mutational induction’ may also occur in pregnant women who are exposed to passive smoking. The resulting effects in the babies include birth weight fluctuations, survival, and lifelong susceptibility to diseases such as cancer.
You can download the paper, ‘Tobacco smoke exposure and somatic mutation in newborns’, from

* And another cure from nature: Long-term use of Olive oil results in multiple effects against breast cancer
(paper on ‘Dietary olive oil and corn oil differentially affect experimental breast cancer through distinct modulation of the p21Ras signaling and the proliferation–apoptosis balance’ by Montserrat Solanas, Laura Grau, Raquel Moral, Elena Vela, Raquel Escrich and Eduard Escrich of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, as published in Carcinogenesis)
* A review on the paper published by Anderson et al on ‘Octopuses (Enteroctopus dofleini) Recognize Individual Humans’. Might be of use to fans of Paul the Octopus.

* I am not surprised by the following research (‘Fragrant Dioxane Derivatives Identify β1-Subunit-containing GABAa Receptor’), being someone who often wears jasmine on her hair. Basically, the smell of jasmine is very calming, comparable to that of valium and with absolutely no side-effects!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Man-eating lions and their decision-making
Should one dismiss the past as something of no significant relevance? Well, Justin Yeakel, of the University of California Santa Cruz, and collaborators (from Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, University of Puget Sound, University of Cambridge, and University of Utah) seems to think otherwise as exemplified by their paper, ‘Cooperation and individuality among man-eating lions’, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Historical Background
Let’s go back to March 1898 when the British were building a railway bridge across the Tsavo River in southern Kenya. Unfortunately, their progress was hampered by a partnership of two adult male lions, which launched nightly attacks on the rail workers’ camps. This killing spree lasted for nine months, until they were killed by Colonel John Patterson.

The final death toll has always been ambiguous. The first estimate was 28 victims, i.e. the 28 Indian workers who were killed by the lions. But in 1920, Patterson himself revised the death toll to 135, supposedly after factoring in the natives (estimates of which range from zero to 107).

Yeakel’s methodology
To confirm the final death toll, Yeakel used the premise that the Tsavo lions’ diet can be deciphered by analysing the isotopic ratios of nitrogen and carbon in their hair and bone samples (obtained from the Field Museum in Chicago), for it would reflect the isotopic ratios of their prey (i.e. grazing and browsing animals and humans, such as the Taita people who lived in the Tsavo area). More specifically, dietary inputs of the last 2-3 months of the Tsavo lions could be deduced by analysing the hair keratin from the rapidly regenerating tuft hairs of the tail, whilst the lifetime average could be deciphered by analysing the bone collagen. Once this was accomplished, Yeakel modelled the prey combinations which were most likely to produce these distinct isotope ratios.

So, how many?
The final modest estimate was that the lions ate around 35 people. It is likely that the number of humans killed might be greater than the number of humans eaten, for there might have been cases when the lions couldn’t escape with their prey or when the bodies were recovered before the lions could properly sink in its teeth. Perhaps some may have even succumbed to their injuries later.

The Lions’ platter
The results also revealed that, for most of their lives, these lions ate grazing animals- until March 1898. Although they hunted cooperatively (despite hunting humans not really requiring cooperative hunting for they are significantly less hassle than the larger ungulates), there was a disparity in their diets. One lion ate more grazers and some occasional humans (around 11, i.e. approximately 13% of its food intake), whilst the other ate both grazers and humans (around 24, i.e. approximately 30% of its diet). It is quite likely that the latter’s substantial preference for humans had to do with its severe dental problems and jaw injury which may have impeded its ability to hunt.

Why humans?
So why did these lions widen their dietary preferences to include humans?
One possibility was the existing scarcity of the habitual prey, which may have been the result of
i. the Tsavo region experiencing drought in 1898,
ii. unhindered hunting of the lions’ usual prey,
iii. the rinderpest virus (from Europe) which had killed most of the lions’ conventional prey.

Baldus (2006) reports a similar (and fairly recent) case from Tanzania. His previous study (2004) estimated that lions are responsible for one third of the 200-odd humans killed in Tanzania each year by animals (Packer et al states that, between 1990 and 2004, 563 humans were killed and 308 injured by man-eating lions). Nonetheless, from August 2002 to April 2004, a young adult male lion single-handedly killed 35 humans and injured at least 10 in Mkongo Ward, south west of Dar es Salaam. These took place on a thin stretch of agricultural land, along the southern bank of the Rufiji river and enclosed on its western and southern sides by the Selous Game Reserve. Significantly, a human population of approximately 13,000 was residing near the game reserve. But more importantly, the Mkongo lion shared a striking similarity with the dominant Tsavo man-eater: he had a broken upper left molar with a serious abscess. It is likely that, because of the permanent pain, he would have preferred the humans.

Yet, Baldus stresses that most man-eating lions in Tanzania are healthy, with no signs of infirmities. So what transforms the grazer and browser-preferring lion into a human-preferring lion? Fall in the habitual prey densities.

Carnivore-human conflict
Carnivores are forced into conflict with humans when their habitats and habitual prey densities decline (usually due to human related activities such as the creation/expansion/encroachment of agricultural and/or settlement lands, virulent ungulate poaching/hunting) (Hackel 1999; Schiess-Meier et al, 2007). This carnivore-human conflict has resulted in a decline in carnivore population. In 2005, there were only approximately 5,750 Lycaon pictus a.k.a African wild dogs (Swarner, 2004; Lindsey et al, 2005). Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) population has fallen from an estimated 30,000 in 1975, to less than 15,000 in the 1990s, the famed Serengeti National Park in Tanzania having just around 200-250 cheetahs (Kelly 2001).

Thus, very likely, it was the change in environmental conditions which changed the dietary specialisations of these lions. What does this bode for the rapidly expanding human civilisation in Africa and Asia? And more importantly, what does this bode for the wildlife population and their natural habitats?

Yeakel, J., Patterson, B., Fox-Dobbs, K., Okumura, M., Cerling, T., Moore, J., Koch, P., & Dominy, N. (2009). From the Cover: Cooperation and individuality among man-eating lions Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (45), 19040-19043 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0905309106

Baldus, R. (2005). A man-eating lion (Panthera leo) from Tanzania with a toothache European Journal of Wildlife Research, 52 (1), 59-62 DOI: 10.1007/s10344-005-0008-0

Hackel, J. (1999). Community Conservation and the Future of Africa's Wildlife Conservation Biology, 13 (4), 726-734 DOI: 10.1046/j.1523-1739.1999.98210.x

Kelly, M. (2001). Lineage Loss in Serengeti Cheetahs: Consequences of High Reproductive Variance and Heritability of Fitness on Effective Population Size Conservation Biology, 15 (1), 137-147 DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2001.99033.x

Baldus, R. 2004. Lion Conservation in Tanzania Leads to Serious Human-Lion Conflicts. With a Case Study of a Man-Eating Lion killing 35 People. Tanzania Wildlife Discussions Paper No. 41, GTZ Wildlife Programme in Tanzania, Wildlife Division, Dar Es Salaam.

LINDSEY, P., DUTOIT, J., & MILLS, M. (2005). Attitudes of ranchers towards African wild dogs : Conservation implications on private land Biological Conservation, 125 (1), 113-121 DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2005.03.015

Packer, C., Ikanda, D., Kissui, B., & Kushnir, H. (2005). Conservation biology: Lion attacks on humans in Tanzania Nature, 436 (7053), 927-928 DOI: 10.1038/436927a

SCHIESS-MEIER, M., RAMSAUER, S., GABANAPELO, T., & KÖNIG, B. (2007). Livestock Predation—Insights From Problem Animal Control Registers in Botswana Journal of Wildlife Management, 71 (4), 1267-1274 DOI: 10.2193/2006-177

Monday, July 5, 2010

Gossamer Webs 1.2

* When the news first emerged of the oil spill off the coast of Louisiana, I ruminated over commenting on this, but it soon morphed into a traumatic topic given the unquantifiable impacts both on flora and fauna. Therefore, here’s an illuminating and succinct insight on the effects of oil spills.

* We read about a catamaran made out of 12500 plastic bottles. And now plans on converting the North Pacific Gyre into a floating island?

* At least something good has emerged from climate change: The cannibalistic large blue butterfly (Maculinea), which went extinct in the UK in 1979 and is now globally endangered, might be successfully reintroduced because of the rise in temperatures in the Cotswolds- all thanks to the research by Professor Jeremy Thomas (Professor of Ecology and Fellow of New College, Oxford University).

* Good news for those with hypertension AND a sweet tooth. A meta-analysis by Dr Karin Ried and colleagues reveals that eating chocolates reduces B.P.

* And more on hypertension. Here's another example of how nature always holds the cure for health ailments. A study, by Vikas Kapil, published in Hypertension (‘Inorganic Nitrate Supplementation Lowers Blood Pressure in Humans. Role for Nitrite-Derived NO’ establishes that drinking a glass of beetroot juice per day can dramatically lower blood pressure, and reduces incidences of heart diseases and strokes.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Gossamer Webs 1.1

This is a new series of Our Gossamer Planet posts which will predominantly comprise of links to news articles, posts, and websites which fall under the wide scope of this blog. The chances are that it would be an eclectic mix, but obviously those which will excite your grey cells or make you ponder!

Cats and Toxoplasma gondii

Wiper fuilds and Legionnaire's Disease??? Read on....!

A literal case of butterflies in the tummy. Or is it insects?
Perhaps it is nothing to be squeamish about... after all, some of us do eat prawns (Phylum: Arthropoda; Subphylum: Crustacea)

Erosion- how a canyon was carved in three days!

If you want to listen to the Sun's melody...

Friday, June 18, 2010

Effect of Plastics in Fauna (particularly marine fauna)

A cow and its calf chews a plastic bag in rural Kerala whilst the daily newspaper cites the number of animals which have died after ingesting plastic bags and wastes discarded by the roadsides; A little puppy whines while being trapped in that suffocating cloak; A turtle inquisitively approaches a plastic bag. Indeed, it is very likely that we have either witnessed the above or have seen such photographs.

Now, although I have already referred to the plastic menace in this blog, as well as while highlighting David de Rothschild’s Plastiki in Ecoratorio, this post will focus on the effect of plastics in fauna (particularly marine fauna).

Plastics in marine environment
Due to the increased production (the plastic resin production increased 25-fold from 1960 to 2000) and use of plastics, it is hardly surprising to note the corresponding increase in the quantity of plastic waste entering the marine environment. In fact, 10% of the approximately 100 million tonnes of plastic estimated to be produced per annum have ended up in the marine environments. As a result, 60-80% (90-95% in some areas) of total marine pollution is due to plastics. And this common and persistent pollutant has its disastrous consequences.

Effects in marine fauna: overview
Plastics result in the injury and deaths of hundred thousands of marine fauna per annum (or more, for it is impractical to accurately calculate the number of affected animals in all marine environments), including crustaceans, fishes, dolphins, whales, turtles, seals, and seabirds. As of yet, 267 species of marine organisms worldwide are known to have been affected by plastic debris, a number which is bound to increase after factoring in smaller marine organisms. The fate of all these marine species is hanging in a balance given that they already face other threats to their existence, most notably by other anthropogenic activities. For instance, derelict and/or lost fishing nets have resulted in the deaths of an innumerable number of fishes, birds, and mammals after these get entangled.

What are the threats posed by these plastic bags?
i. Plastics can entangle the marine fauna, oft injuring them, and/or impairing their ability to catch food or avoid predators, and/or drowning them.

ii. Fauna mistake plastic bags and other disintegrated pieces as food, resulting in appalling consequences, with either any or all of the following happening: strangulation, suffocation, abrasions/wounding, poisoning (polychlorinated biphenyls are absorbed), and blockages in the alimentary canal. It is very likely that normal feeding and digestion and/or respiration would be hindered, thus resulting in starvation. The future of these affected fauna certainly seems bleak.


1. Sharks
Three juvenile Brazilian sharpnose sharks (Rhizoprionodon lalandii), found off the coast of southeast Brazil, featured plastic debris rings around their gill or mouth region. The rings had also caused severe abrasion, which probably increased when the fish grew. Given the emaciated state of two sharks, it is likely that the collars (identified as detachable lid parts of plastic bottles) hampered normal feeding and/or ventilation (study by Sazim et al, of Universidade Estadual de Campinas and Universidade Santa Cecília, 2002).

2. Turtles
The already endangered/threatened turtles mistake the floating, semi-transparent bags for jellyfishes (their primary food), apart from ingesting fishing lines and other plastics. Autopsied turtles have revealed plastic bags in their stomachs, with one notable case off Hawaii turning up around 1000 pieces of plastic, including part of a comb, a toy truck’s wheel, and a nylon rope.

3. Birds
44% of all marine bird species are known to ingest plastic. One study conducted off southern Africa demonstrated ingestion of plastic in 36 out of 60 sampled seabird species.

Albatrosses, fulmars, and procellariiforms oft mistake floating plastics for food or fishes. And the tragic culmination is seen at Midway Island, where out of the 500,000 albatross chicks born each year, 200,000 perish mainly due to consuming plastic fed to them by their parents.

The pattern keeps on repeating. Out of a sample of seven red phalaropes (Phalaropus fulicarius), collected from a flock of 6000 late spring migrants, six stomachs were found to contain plastic particles (by Peter Connors and Kimberly Smith of the University of California at Berkeley).

Plastic was most frequently seen in procellariiforms (notably Blue Petrels, Pintado Petrels, White-faced Storm-petrels, and Great Shearwaters). 90% of examined Blue Petrel chicks at the remote Marion Island, off South Africa, had plastic in their stomachs, again apparently having been fed these by their parents. In another study, the mass of ingested plastic in Great Shearwaters was positively correlated with PCBs in their fat and eggs. When University of Cape Town’s Bridget Furness (1983) sampled bird species in the Benguela Current, small plastic particles were found in White-chinned Petrels and Great Shearwaters. Peter Ryan, also of UCT, established that the size of ingested particles was related to body size, and this affected the proportions of plastic types ingested. Convincing evidence also indicated that although birds generally chose darker-coloured particles over paler particles, the smaller species of birds were less colour-selective and thus correspondingly exhibited a higher incidence of plastic ingestion than the larger species. The incidence of ingested plastic was directly related to foraging technique and was inversely related to the frequency of egestion of indigestible stomach contents. In one of the sampled species, secondary ingestion of plastic through the contaminated prey was important.

4. Cetaceans
26 species of cetaceans accidentally ingest plastic bags, fishing lines and other plastics, which is very much exacerbated when they swallow large mouthfuls of water during feeding. The recent autopsy of a 37-foot long gray whale (in mid April 2010), which came ashore at Arroyo Beach near Seattle, revealed a stomach full of fresh trash, including sweatpants, a golf ball, surgical gloves, duct tape, small towels, bits of plastic, and more than 20 plastic bags. Since these whales are bottom feeders, it is likely that they would unknowingly ingest in these garbage which may have sedimented at the bottom.

Some whale species (such as the reclusive Beaked whale, one of which washed ashore on the Isle of Mull, off the West Coast of Scotland) swallow plastic bags mistaking these for their favourite food, the squid. When the Isle of Mull whale was autopsied, its stomach was seen to contain 23 plastic bags and fragments (some being large dustbin liners and supermarket types).

5. Other
The same pattern is seen amongst the terrestrial fauna. A recent example is that of Whitey, a 10-foot long crocodile in Australia, which died after being relocated to the popular tourist destination of Magnetic Island. It had consumed 25 plastic shopping bags, garbage bags, a plastic wine cooler bag, and a rubber float.

A legitimate concern?
Obviously. The above examples are valid evidences. Furthermore, the gravity of the situation and the extent of the pollution are well exemplified when considering that although the beaked whale feeds 100-200 miles off shore, yet it had a stomach filled with plastic. And the carcharhinid shark species (Sazim et al, 2002) face a great risk since they dwell and reproduce in shallow waters.

Food web and Bioaccumulation
Furthermore, the effect of these pollutants doesn’t end with the demise of the affected animal. The ingested plastics (being non-biodegradable and takes a few good centuries to degrade) remains intact, even after the decomposition of the victim, until it becomes the bane of another animal. The accumulation of plastic debris on the sea floor can also inhibit gas exchange, and disrupt and/or smother the benthic fauna.

In yet another twist (Mato et al, 2001), the floating plastic fragments and pieces acts as sponges, adsorbing hydrophobic pollutants (such as PCBs, nonylphenols, and DDE), and significantly and steadily accumulating these to a high magnitude of concentration. These micro-debris (marine plastic debris < 5mm, usually fragments, resin pellets, and powders) are ingested by filter feeders and/or higher fauna, resulting in the inevitable physiological damages in their bodies. These filter feeders (at the base of the food web) are, in turn, eaten by larger animals- and thus, the food web is contaminated since the pollutants travel up the food chain resulting in bioaccumulation / bioconcentration, i.e the higher up in the food chain, the more an animal is contaminated. For instance, Orcas, which feed on other marine mammals and fishes, are about 10 times more contaminated than gray whales, which usually subsist on crustaceans. <>

Given that some of the cited researches were conducted during 1982-1987, I wonder what will be the nature of the findings if these studies were to be repeated now.
Thoughts, comments, insights, and relevant links are welcomed as always.

Selected references:
CONNORS, P., & SMITH, K. (1982). Oceanic plastic particle pollution: Suspected effect on fat deposition in red phalaropes Marine Pollution Bulletin, 13 (1), 18-20 DOI: 10.1016/0025-326X(82)90490-8
FURNESS, B. (1983). Plastic particles in three procellariiform seabirds from the Benguela Current, South Africa☆ Marine Pollution Bulletin, 14 (8), 307-308 DOI: 10.1016/0025-326X(83)90541-6
LAIST, D. (1987). Overview of the biological effects of lost and discarded plastic debris in the marine environment Marine Pollution Bulletin, 18 (6), 319-326 DOI: 10.1016/S0025-326X(87)80019-X
Ryan, P. (1987). The incidence and characteristics of plastic particles ingested by seabirds Marine Environmental Research, 23 (3), 175-206 DOI: 10.1016/0141-1136(87)90028-6
Mato, Y., Isobe, T., Takada, H., Kanehiro, H., Ohtake, C., & Kaminuma, T. (2001). Plastic Resin Pellets as a Transport Medium for Toxic Chemicals in the Marine Environment Environmental Science & Technology, 35 (2), 318-324 DOI: 10.1021/es0010498
DERRAIK, J. (2002). The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: a review Marine Pollution Bulletin, 44 (9), 842-852 DOI: 10.1016/S0025-326X(02)00220-5
Sazima I, Gadig OB, Namora RC, & Motta FS (2002). Plastic debris collars on juvenile carcharhinid sharks (Rhizoprionodon lalandii) in southwest Atlantic. Marine pollution bulletin, 44 (10), 1149-51 PMID: 12474977
CADEE, G. (2002). Seabirds and floating plastic debris Marine Pollution Bulletin, 44 (11), 1294-1295 DOI: 10.1016/S0025-326X(02)00264-3
MOORE, C. (2008). Synthetic polymers in the marine environment: A rapidly increasing, long-term threat Environmental Research, 108 (2), 131-139 DOI: 10.1016/j.envres.2008.07.025

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Poll results: Change in Climate

When asked, 'Based on your personal observations, do you believe that the climate in your town/city of residence and/or hometown has changed over the past decade?', 50% stated 'Yes, slightly' and 50% stated 'Yes, severely'.

New poll has been posted.

South West Monsoons

Although the IMD states that the South West (SW) Monsoons are on the romp in the Indian subcontinent, I must admit that Trivandrum seems to be neglected so far apart from some insubstantial drizzles- a far cry from those old days when the school reopening (usually on June 2nd) coincided with deluges (the normal onset of SW Monsoons being 1st June) and one would have to suffer through the lengthy classes with soaked socks!

Even though the SW monsoons first hits the south peninsular region of India (comprising of the states/territories of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Andhra Pradesh,
Karnataka, Kerala, Lakshadweep¸ Pondicherry, and Tamil Nadu) before proceeding on to the north, the Northeast Indian states (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Sikkim,West Bengal, Jharkhand, and Bihar) receives the most amount of rainfall (1098.1 mm in 2009), followed by the Central Indian states (Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Goa, Chhattisgarh, and Orissa) with 795.5 mm. The historical data for the past decade also shows that the South Peninsular region experiences the monsoons’ fickleness (682.3 in 2009; 692.5 in 2008; 902.1 in 2007; 684.5 in 2006; 807 in 2005; 617 in 2004; 648 in 2003; 506.7 in 2002; 659 in 2001; 801.3 in 2000), with the region receiving less than 700 mm in 1999, 1993, 1987-1984; 1982; 1979; 1980; 1977-76; 1973-71. The region’s normal rainfall in June averages 200-300 mm. And with Kerala receiving only 98.4 mm during the week of 27th May to 2nd June (a deficiency of -57%), I am fervently hoping that there won’t be another drought.

*All data and units are from IMD

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Plastic woes

When considering Trivandrum’s (or any other city’s) rapid development and expansion, it is hardly surprising that numerous retailers are colonising any available spaces to sell their products. And with India being one of the biggest consumers of plastics/ polythenes, it is not unanticipated to find the plastic menace rearing up its ugly head.

Matters were quite different less than two decades ago. One was expected to utilise a shopping bag (usually durable) when commencing on the customary and/or sporadic shopping expeditions. And retailers, in turn, used old newspapers to pack the products. Bags were either of paper or jute, and those tantalising plastic bags with pink, blue, yellow, and white hues could be bought only for a price.

The past morphing into the present has resulted in many changes, one of which is that these plastic bags are now generously supplied by all retailers (and, usually, for no charge) - even the fishmonger. It has become such an integral part of the average existence, that I am met with surprised and sneering looks when I insist on the vendors placing the purchases into my large shopping bag instead of using their plastic bags.

Manufacturers of these plastic bags are quick to insist that these don’t cause any environmental problems. Furthermore, banning these bags would jeopardize the livelihood of many workers. Retailers are also in the same bandwagon for these bags provide an affordable marketing and publicity solution. Surely, there is no one who hasn’t noticed the glaring logo of Burberry Prorsum on that silver (or gold) bag held proudly by a WAG? And isn’t it common to find consumers carrying plastic bags which advertise sales at the large department stores (including John Lewis/Peter Jones)?

Denying the environmental problems caused by plastic bags is akin to insisting that the sun revolves around the earth. Firstly, it is difficult and expensive to recycle plastic bags. Secondly, being non-biodegradable, these bags take a loooong time to degrade (apparently 300-1000 years). Even then, these degraded pieces are toxic and would contaminate the area in which they are found. Fourthly, animals trying to swallow plastic bags are common sights- and the conclusion is inevitable. The plastic bags continue to dodge one when walking in any street- in the gutters, on the road, amongst the undergrowth, and on the rivers and streams (and it seems as if residents have assumed that these are the ideal sites for discarding plastics and other wastes). Another common sight is plastic being burned- should I elaborate more on the composition of these noxious fumes and the effects which it will have on human health?

I understand that the state has now stipulated a minimum thickness of plastic bags (around 30-50 microns) - but this still doesn’t curtail the use of plastic bags. The best solution would be if everyone would reuse the same bags instead of absent-mindedly accepting more at the various shops - and if each one of us refuses to a plastic/polythene bag each day, this amounts to refusing 365 plastic bags per annum! Another option would be to use a jute shopping bag- spacious and hardy.

If there is no improvement, the retailers could be pressurised to institute a hefty charge for the plastic bags (something along the lines of Rs 15 per bag)- and this, surely, will reap benefits.

Or perhaps the solution is along the lines of what has been so effectively implemented by the Municipal Council of Nagercoil (in Tamil Nadu)- anyone using/manufacturing flimsy plastic bags faces hefty fines (the minimum is Rs 25; the maximum is around Rs 5000). I recommend something much more heftier.

Image: (photographer:tibetanelements)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Gross forest cover loss

We are mostly aware of deforestation occurring in third world countries. Which is exactly why I must convey the findings of a particularly illuminating paper, Quantification of global gross forest cover loss, by Matthew Hansen, Stephen Stehman, and Peter Potapov of South Dakota State University and State University of New York (SUNY), published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (April 2010).

The researchers used satellite imagery to quantify the Gross Forest Cover Loss, GFCL, defined as ‘the area of forest cover removed because of any disturbance, including both natural and human-induced causes’ from 2000 to 2005 (‘forest cover’ is specified as 25% (or greater) of canopy closure for trees over 5 metres tall).

To summarise the findings:
Firstly, during this time period, 3% (1011,000 km2 ) of the world’s forest disappeared, which relates as a loss of 3.1% from the estimated total forested area in 2000 (32688,000 km2).

Secondly, amongst the biomes, the
boreal experienced the largest GFCL (where 60% was due to fire), followed by the humid tropical (mostly due to clearing for agriculture and plantations, especially in Brazil, Indonesia, and Malaysia), dry tropical (again, due to clearing for agriculture, and mostly in Australia, Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay), and temperate biomes.

Thirdly, amongst the continents, North America had the greatest GFCL (around 30%), followed by Asia and South America. Interestingly, Africa exhibited the least GFCL.

Fourthly, amongst the seven countries which has over 100,000 km2 of forests (Russia, Brazil, US, Canada, China, Indonesia, and Congo), Brazil showed the largest GFCL (165,000 km2; of which 26000 km2 were rainforests and 7000 km2 were dry tropical forests) followed by Canada (160,000 km2).

Fifthly, the greatest proportional GFCL was exhibited by US, which lost more than 120,000 km2 (6% of its forest cover in 2000) mainly due to logging. Canada’s proportional forest loss was 5.2% of its forest cover, higher than Brazil’s. Of the remainder, Indonesia lost 3.6%, Russia lost 2.8%, China lost 2.3%, and DRC lost 0.6% of their respective forest covers.

There are some caveats with this otherwise illuminating study: it did not factor in forest gains during this time period. Secondly, the study period is from 2000-2005, and obviously is not indicative of what happened over the past half decade. It is also limited by its definition of forest cover. Yet, it does serve to remove some amount of misconceptions!
Hansen, M., Stehman, S., & Potapov, P. (2010). From the Cover: Quantification of global gross forest cover loss Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (19), 8650-8655 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0912668107

Friday, April 30, 2010

Poll results of 'What is your ideal indoor temperature'?

20-24 deg C: 50%
16-19 deg C: 33%
0 deg C: 16%

New poll added.

The modern-day Sisyphus

Development is essential. But what I dislike is when the funds for development are squandered in the most despicable manner.

I would like to present the following as an example of mismanaged development plans:
Ever since I returned back to Trivandrum, I have been witnessing many road expansion works. Now, unlike Washington DC, the roads of Trivandrum weren’t planned after deducing the population of Trivandum in the 21st century (774,983 residents as per the 2001 census) and accounting for roughly 315000 residents (in 2003) possessing a vehicle (which, I reckon, would have at least trebled by now). And unlike Cambridge with its narrow roads, the current powers-that-be have decided against implementing efficient system of one-ways and effective traffic management.

Road expansion projects are generally unpopular. Firstly, it is a bane for those owning properties or buildings by the road side: they would, inevitably, have to vacate, undergo the excruciating torture of witnessing their hard work being demolished to rubble, and are forced to accept a paltry compensation (if any). Secondly, these projects generate so much of dust which results in particulates much higher than the usual levels (considered to be supposedly 50 microgram per cubic metre; the US EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality’s standards are 150 µg/m3 for 24-hour PM10 and 35 µg/m3 for 24-hour PM2.5). Thirdly, all of this digging may result in a hapless wayfarer falling into the ditches.

Nevertheless, once slated, road expansion projects are seldom deterred, although there might be some amount of delays. The end result is quite striking: relatively wide metalled roads, with good terracotta-tiled footpaths (they definitely don’t spare any expenses!), and lawn turfs on the traffic islands, bordered by flowering herbs and shrubs such as bougainvillea, hibiscus, and canna. All lovely except that the vision is marred by 99.99% of vehicle drivers violating the basic rules of driving…

I shan’t deviate into listing the hazards of traveling in these roads, but would like to direct the attention towards these newly-made roads for, unfortunately, the happiness derived from observing these are transient. Within a month or two, one is bound to find these metalled roads and footpaths dug up so that the other-powers-that-be can install water pipes, electricity cables, and sundry. Upon completion of these ‘works’, the roads are seldom metalled again, neither are the footpaths reinstalled. Now, another recently developed road at Plamood (Plamoodu) has work underway to reduce the width of the footpath and to relocate the newly made bus stop. Numerous other sites in the city are also witnessing the laying of pipes and cables resulting in dug up roads and footpaths. And I am not the only individual who is frustrated by all this.

It is baffling as to why the departments concerned with such development plans are bent on negating all the good work done by the others. Surely all of this could be avoided with some amount of effective communication? This could, for instance, ensure that the pipeworks and electricity works are conducted first, followed by metalling the roads and creating footpaths. After all, all these development plans require resources, time, and expenditure. Doing this all over again only results in waste. Surely these powers-that-be wouldn’t practice the same whilst constructing their own residences?

Now, what’s the source of these development funds? Certainly not their own personal funds.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Flying elephants? Dumbos? Or just, elephants?

We often come across fiercely contested disputes which, after a spell of intense discussion, are shifted to the backburner, and then surface once more after a new stimulus prods it back to the limelight. The local newspapers of late have been featuring one such debate, which first emerged in the early 1990s. What are we to believe? Does the Kallana exist or not?

Kani tribals, who dwell in the rainforests of Peppara (in Trivandrum district), very much insist that these Kallana (I would spell it as ‘Kal-aana’) exists. Based on the accounts, Kallana are pygmy elephants, miniature versions of the Indian elephant, around five foot tall, supposedly subsisting in the forests of the southern Western Ghats ranges. Their feeding habits are similar to that of the stately Indian elephant, but their smaller size enables them to be agile and scamper over steep and rocky slopes (and thus can be seen in the higher altitudes of the mountain ranges, where the topography comprises of rocks and grasslands).

Wildlife photographer Sali Palode, who has been trekking in the forests of Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary and adjoining areas for nearly fifteen years, had photographed a herd, ten years ago, which were identified by the Kani as adult Kallanas. In 2005, Palode and Mallan Kani (a member of the tribe) encountered a small herd in the Sanctuary. In January 2010, he photographed a supposed Kallana carcass, which the Kani found in Kuttiyaar (within the Sanctuary). The Kani explained that a group of four Kallanas had come to the area. Subsequently, guided by Mallan Kani, Sali Palode and fellow photographer Jain Angadikkal photographed one such elephant sighted in the Kotoor division of the Kerala Forest Development Corporation, adjacent to the Sanctuary. Last month, Mallan also guided photographer Ajanta Benny, to a water body in Marakappara, where another Kallana was photographed. However, when forest officials, along with Mallan, visited the area immediately after these sightings were reported, they could find no evidence at all.

Zoologists and ecologists are sceptical since the Kallana’s existence has not been scientifically proven. Apart from eyewitness accounts and photographs not being strong evidence, the criticisms are:
i. Peppara Sanctuary is not an island forest where animals could evolve in isolation.
ii. The photographs doesn’t provide anything which could serve as a scale.
iii. Could it be the Borneo pygmy elephant? (more on this later)
iv. Is it a true elephant dwarf as opposed to a different subspecies/species?
v. These could be adolescent Indian elephants.

Palode argues that Kallanas are not baby elephants since they lacked the fine hairs characteristically present on the babies. Furthermore, these were sighted at altitudes and thickly forested and steeply inclined terrains, which are not usually haunted by the Indian elephants.

Fossil records demonstrate extinct pygmy elephants from around the world. However, in 2003, after conducting DNA analysis on nine dwarf elephant specimens, it was concluded that these are 'the results of individual cases of nanism (dwarfism) or pathological growth'. The elephants of Borneo, tagged as ‘pygmy elephants’, are around 6 foot tall. The population of approximately 1000 lives in the northern tip of Sabah and extreme north of Kalimantan in north Borneo. A DNA analysis, by Columbia University in 2003, confirmed these to be a genetically distinct type of the Asian elephants.

The Forest Department has supposedly dispatched search teams to the forests of Agasthyavanam, Neyyar, and the Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary. Previously, in 1995, the Kerala Forest Research Institute’s (KFRI) search/survey for the kallana, supported by the ecologists from the Indian Institute of Science (Bangalore) was abandoned due to heavy rains. Searches in 2005 and 2008 came up with naught.

Interestingly, the older generation recollects Kallanas. One local narrated to me of how, before the 1940s, a Kallana had been domesticated by a landlord of a nearby village. It was very popular with children- hardly surprising since I picture it as a Dumbo. Unfortunately, it met its demise when being forced to carry heavy timber along with other sturdier Indian elephants.

If the Kallana indeed exists, what resulted in this different morphology- ecological conditions? Or is it a variation within the species? Would the tribals make some cock-and-bull story, one which is traditionally believed? After all, the tribals are much more aware of the forest biodiversity than the best ecologist in the world.

As for why the search teams came up with nothing, it is certainly much easier to survey animals in the African grasslands than in the oft-impenetrable forests of Kerala. And as for the experts’ opinion, I have my own doubts: after all, they failed to identify the mysterious animal in a television footage of someone’s backgarden, some even supposing that it might be an unidentified species…. until an academic (who isn’t a zoologist per se) easily pointed out that it was none other than a slender loris.

In any case, I am hoping that the ‘DNA sample’, reportedly taken from the corpse of the Kallana by the Kerala Forest Research Institute in January, would solve the puzzle- provided they locate the sample first!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Global Forest Resources Assessment

My new post on FAO's Global Forest Resources Assessment can be accessed at the Ecoratorio blog.

Watery facts

Further to my post alluding to the quality of tap water supplied in Kerala, the Water Resources Minister admitted that:
- 1,879 wards in Kerala have sub-standard drinking water.
- 43 water treatment plants are outdated.
Over the years, we were always advised to drink boiled water since the water treatment itself uses unsafe levels of various chemicals (sometimes it is exceptionally easy to detect chlorine!). Moreover, the drinking water is easily contaminated by the adjacent drainage/sewage pipes, especially during the rains.

Paradoxically, according to V Srinivasa Chary (Director of the Centre for Energy, Environment, Urban Governance and Infrastructure Development in Hyderabad), Trivandrum is the one among the two Indian cities to have continuous water supply (the other being Kota).

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Water, Water, but not everywhere

Tomorrow, March 22nd, is the UN designated World Water Day, which originated from the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro (more specifically, according to the proposals in chapter 18 of Agenda 21). This year’s theme is ‘Clean Water for a Healthy World’ which, as some may know, is an issue very close to the heart!

I wish not to elaborate more on the specifics, and consequentially deviate from tomorrow’s importance,
but I do hope that the day will result in increased awareness of the issue, more participation at the grassroots level, as well as a perceptible impact on the implementation of feasible governmental regional and national policies alleviating this problem. The estimated stats are gruesome: 4500 people die daily due to lack of clean drinking water and around 1.1 billion use unsafe drinking water sources.

Water is a central need in human existence, and thus has ripple effects on all other activities of an individual. But it’s not just about quantity, but also about quality- a fact especially relevant in developing nations which tends to follow unsustainable development, which, in turn, results in detrimental effects on the water quality.

I must admit that when it comes to water supplies and resources, Kerala probably fares much better than its peers (even though the state anticipates acute water shortages due to the drought conditions). Based on the 2001 census, 69.1% of rural households (total-4,942,550) and 78.9% of the urban households (total-1,652,656) had drinking water located within premises; of which, 13.9% of rural households and 39.9% of urban households had access to tap water. Yet, there are still many households without access to clean drinking water (and who use the water from wells, rivers, streams, and lakes- 77.2% of rural households and 56% of urban households use water from wells for drinking purposes), and it even might be worth researching on the impurities contained in the drinking water supplied to our homes.

Thus, when it comes to drinking water, it shouldn’t just be about ensuring that something in the form of H2O is supplied, but also to ensure that it is safe and drinkable, and available without any interruptions and free of charge for those who live below the poverty line.

I am always impressed by the commitment which citizens of other nations have towards alleviating the water problem faced by their less fortunate neighbours. However, I do hope that the funds raised are utilised productively. Or else it would be a shame if that $5.90 from a five-year old’s piggy bank is helping some official in constructing a swimming pool in his home.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Addendum: Mercuric

I mentioned in ‘Mercuric’ of how traditional eco-friendly Keralite house (similar to a Roman villa) featured nadu muttams, like the Peristylium, and often an Impluvium to collect rainwater. Unfortunately, nadu muttams also tends to ease the burglars’ game plans. As a result, house owners have now come up with various solutions, including installing a grille along the corridors, or affixing fibreglass above the muttam. Those who installed wire meshes found their efforts to be futile. Another option was followed by the current residents of my mother’s maternal home, which used to have three nadu muttams: these have now been converted into rooms.
Any ideas of how to maintain a burglar-safe nadu muttam?

Since my previous post, after the appearance of rainclouds in the evening, we are expecting some respite, although a local climate expert has dampened these hopes by stating that the resultant showers, if any, will be light. The more aged astutes are predicting torrential cloudbursts. The seas are apparently exceptionally rough.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Results of the Poll: What is more important?

Mutual coexistence of all elements in Nature- humans, flora, and fauna- 100%

New poll added. Please participate.


The mercury has been rising. Quite astronomically, if I may add so. Whilst newspapers tagged yesterday's temperature of 37.5 deg C as the highest in 22 years, our two reliable thermometers indicated 45 deg C (outdoors-in shade) at 1630 hrs. This morning, at 0800 hrs, the same thermometers recorded 29 deg C.

Ideal room temperatures are usually in the range of 21-25 deg C, which the American Society for Testing and Materials stretches to 38 deg C. After all, it is recommended that the human body should be maintained within/around 37 deg C. In Kerala, there have already been some deaths due to sunstroke which is hardly shocking: when the windows are opened, a blast of searing air greets you, very much akin to how it feels when opening the door of a pre-heated oven. Perhaps the boiling temperatures mightn’t pose a problem for the well-heeled, who reside in centrally air-conditioned houses, travel in air-conditioned Mercs/Audi/BMWs, and work in air-conditioned offices. But the majority is fortified only with an umbrella. Our non-air-conditioned home, during these sultry times, have an indoor temperature of 30 deg C, which is certainly thanks to the greenery maintained by us. Our neighbours, on the other hand, have been moaning about the agonising heat.

The Trivandrum of my earliest memories had a pleasant temperature range (this link would provide a quick glimpse), with us then considering temperatures of 30 – 32 deg C to be exceptionally warm. Until around a decade ago, the maximum range was around 33- 34 deg C. The change in weather/climate is much more perceptible since I have not been around for a few years. And I am quite convinced that these soaring temperatures have to do with (at least partly) the virulent de-greening of the city, the foliage having been a protective cloak.

As a toddler, I recollect Trivandrum as a very green city which the aerial view substantiated: a dark emerald carpet with very few perceptible buildings (for the towering trees concealed the myriads of settlements). Roads were lined with stately avenue trees, the parks and grounds of various offices had copious greenery (mainly mature trees), and most houses had shrubs and trees of various sizes. Pockets and belts of paddy fields, fallow grounds, and wooded areas were located just around 10-15 minutes walk away from our home, which is located barely 1 km away from the main arterial road, MG Road, the continuation of the National Highway (a twin of London’s Marylebone Road). Such green pockets, with water bodies, used to abound everywhere, with culverts and brooks transporting pristine water flourishing with aquatic flora and fauna. The traditional Keralite house was also very eco-friendly, similar to a Roman villa, often in the same proportions: there was one-three nadu muttam (an inner courtyard like the peristylium), often with pools (like the Roman impluvium). Whilst herbs and shrubs would be planted in the areas immediately surrounding the house, trees would be planted a little distance away. Thus, it is not that surprising that the weather then was tolerable.

When we fast-forward to a few years, we can notice the progressive de-greening, more so within the past six years. Most of the avenue trees have been hewn down (presumably as part of the road widening projects or to lay down massive cables; or for no apparent reason). The pattern is repeated in the grounds of various offices, where the ‘garden’ comprises of concrete tiles and lawns. The green pockets are, more or less, nonexistent, having been replaced by towering apartment complexes and sprawling mansions. Culverts and brooks have dried up and most ponds have been filled up. And the modern Keralite house shuns greenery (as hinted in my post in Ecoratorio).

So, what can be done?
The first should be to halt (or at least decrease) this de-greening in the name of development. This can be easily implemented by the city corporation (and the state government) which not only issues building permits, but also makes and implements building policies and controls. For instance, making it mandatory for new buildings and developments to:
- plant and maintain a sufficient amount of vegetation.
- follow environmentally friendly and sustainable architecture.
- plant more avenue trees.

Secondly, residents could be provided with incentives to maintain greenery in the grounds of their homes.
Thirdly, the derelict ponds could be cleaned.
Fourthly, instead of converting paddy fields and fallow lands into developments, farming could be encouraged.

If not, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kerala ends up with a faster desertification rate.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Save Our Tigers

The Save Our Tigers is a collaborative campaign run by Aircel and WWF-India.

I recently came across their poignant advert (
which you can view here).

With the Chinese New Year (interestingly, of the Tiger!) barely 3 days away, tigers have been placed on WWF’s list of ten critically important endangered species facing extinction. There are only 3200 tigers left in this world (a reduction of 95%), spread over the subspecies of the Amur, Bengal, Indochinese, Malayan, and Sumatran tigers. Three subspecies (viz. Bali, Caspian, and Javan tigers) are now extinct, and the South China tiger have not been sighted for the past 25 years.

In India, from an estimated 40,000 tigers a century ago, only 1411 tigers remain in the wild (according to a study conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India, in association with NTCA, Government of India, 2008). The Bengal tigers (the national animal of India) have, unfortunately, become an easy victim to the avaricious and callous man. It was cruelly hunted during the colonial times and its parts are now used in certain indigenous/traditional Asian medicine.

Please, let not our descendants read about the tigers like we now read about the dodo.

register your support and do the spread the word to your friends and acquaintances as well. You can also join the Facebook page or tweet @saveourtigers