What can a city dweller do?

Posted by Susan Sharma on July 16, 2006


Simple actions such as maintaining a wildlife friendly garden can actually contribute to biodiversity. Its a long shot but if everyone where to modify their gardens in this way it could actually make a difference to some species e.g. the declining populations of house sparrows to name one.

 Let your lawn go natural for wildlife.

Save trees by reducing your junk mail

Environmental Education

Environmental education has no borders

Posted by Susan Sharma on July 14, 2006


Courses in environmental studies are very good at describing issues. Educators must also give techniques or tools for aspiring environmental professionals. Here is the gist of a discussion in a group at which I found interesting.

"A bricklayer layes bricks, a graphic designer designs PR and websites, a teacher teaches, a car mechanic fixes cars, but environmental professionals? In my thoughts you have to specialize in a set discipline, then you can later slant it towards conservation. You must frame the issues, not describe them.

I've learned this the hard way because for me it's been hard to develop a resume with concrete assets, not abstract thoughts."

"If there are tools for environmental professionals in conservation, what are they? Teaching this is not easy. Environmental problems are very site specific, and any good solution needs to factor in social and economical aspects. It comes with experience, and with asking lots of questions.

What does an environmental professional use? That depends on the environmental problem, its scale, temporality, spatial extent, etc. I would be pretty confident to say that mathematical models, geographical information systems (GIS), statistical analysis, and a thorough understanding of the specific field of interest, field and lab equipment and procedures. This is ideally complemented by a knowledge of law, economics, sociology at the minimum."

Environment Awareness

Environmental problems

Posted by Susan Sharma on July 12, 2006


Environmental problems are very site specific, and any good solution needs to factor in social and economical aspects. It comes with experience, and with asking lots of questions.

"Marketing" is an important issue, not only with environmental problems but with most problem in general. It is not only important to identify a problem, it is equally important to be able to present it to the public in a way that people can identify with it and to express it in a way that is easy to comprehend.

 You will be learning about many problems that may seem overwhelming, and at times you may feel that there are so many aspects to an issue that it is impossible to get a grasp on all of them.

Water quality is deteriorating, nitrate is killing off habitats, phosphorus is accelarating the closure of lakes, ground water is being polluted, farming accelerates erosion of soil, air quality is suffering, but on the other hand we need food, cash crops and food security. Where do you strike the balance?

 How do you make incentives for farmers to apply conservation practices? Who should pay for these costs? Who should pay for the economic downturn of fisheries ? These issued need to be aired and the public should know the impacts and the efforts to reduce them.

We need to generate debate on issues concerning the environment.  It is the ecosystem that is sustaining humanity.

Wildlife Poaching

Big Cats in Crisis – Save Them

Posted by Puja on July 12, 2006

TIGER, the most potent symbol of Asia, the pride of the Jungle is facing trouble. Today there is little ground remaining for our national animal. According to researchers the tiger population has dropped over the past 100 years from an estimated 100,000 in 1900 to only 4000 in the 1970's. In wake of the tiger crisis, government launched the Project Tiger in 1972 and we achieved little improvement in population of tigers from 4000 in 1970 to 5000-7500 tigers at present. So let us all unite to re-establish the dignity of the “Greatest Cat” that they deserve. If you really want to save this magnificent creature from becoming extinct, then come forward and voice your concern. Merinews provides an open platform for all to share & express their opinion on issues important to them. Click here to submit your views: -

Engineers and Environment

Invisible rural engineer

Posted by Susan Sharma on July 12, 2006


Chewang Norphel, 67, is a soft-spoken innovator from Ladakh. For over 15 years, Norphel, a civil engineer by training, has been building ‘artificial glaciers’ to make life a little easier for the hard-working but poverty-stricken farmers of Ladakh. Farmers in his village call him a messiah. Ex-President K R Narayanan called him an “invisible rural engineer”. But Norphel is better known as Ladakh’s ‘glacier man’ who can generate water and vegetation in the barren landscape of Ladakh.

For his work he was awarded the Far Eastern Economic Review’s 1999 Gold Asian Innovation Award.

Norphel comes from the small village of Skarra on the outskirts of Leh, the capital of Ladakh. He always wanted to do something to help the people of the region who suffer the harsh conditions of this remote, inhospitable high-altitude desert in the Himalayas, where temperatures can drop to below -30°C. Ladakh experiences long, severe winters and brief summers. And to top it all, water is in short supply. Ladakh is in the rain-shadow area of the Himalayas, where the annual average rainfall seldom exceeds 50 mm. The only water source is glacier water coming down the mountains. When glaciers melt in summer, they release water that is used by the people of Ladakh to irrigate their crops.

 “I realised that all the problems of the region were related to water, which was scarce in most areas,” says Norphel. This water shortage is more acutely felt during the summer months, between March/April and June. These months are critical for Ladakh’s farmers. Any delay in sowing the crop rules out an October harvest, as the crop does not then mature in time to beat the harsh winter. Only single crops like wheat, barley and peas are grown here.

The glaciers begin melting only after July. And so the short sowing season sometimes begins and ends before the bulk of water is made available through the melting of natural glaciers. Sometimes there’s no water to irrigate even a few crops. Norphel’s watershed intervention -- the ‘artificial glacier’ -- came from the simple observation that “while there was such a shortage of water at the start of the cropping season, a lot of water was being wasted during winter”.

He noticed that in winter water taps were left open to stop the water from freezing in the pipes. The water flowed into the drains surrounding the taps and froze. “And it is then that it occurred to me: why not try and make artificial glaciers in the vicinity of the village so that local farmers get a real headstart when they need it most,” says Norphel.

Norphel used to work with the Jammu and Kashmir rural development department making zings (small tanks fed by run-off from melting glaciers). A year after he retired from government service, in 1996, he joined as project manager for watershed development for the Leh Nutrition Project, a local civil society organisation. This gave him the opportunity to try out his ‘artificial glacier’ idea to trap and freeze water for future use. Norphel’s technique uses a network of pipes to capture and channel precious snowmelt that would otherwise be wasted. No crops are grown during Ladakh’s severe winters; the little water there is in the mountain streams generally goes waste.

Using some local ingenuity, Norphel built his ‘artificial glacier’ from stone embankments and a few hundred metres of iron pipe. First, water from an existing stream was diverted through iron pipes to a shady area of the valley. From there, the water was made to flow out onto a sloping hill at regular intervals along the mountain slope. Small stone embankments impede the flow of water, creating shallow pools. During the winter, as temperatures drop steadily, the water in these small pools freezes. Once this cycle has been repeated over many weeks, a thick sheet of ice forms, resembling a long, thin glacier. Norphel managed to freeze water in pipes as well. “I noticed in Leh that water sometimes did not freeze in the channels but did so in the thin iron pipes. As the pipes are made of metal and are very thin, they lose heat quite rapidly,” he explains.

There are several advantages of an artificial glacier over a natural one. To start with, it’s closer to the village and at a comparatively lower altitude. Natural glaciers, on the other hand, are located way up in the mountains and they melt slowly in summer, releasing water to the villages quite late. Early water release from an artificial glacier comes as a bonus for farmers. It enables them to get water a whole month before the snow starts melting on the mountain tops. This is particularly useful to start sowing, as the sowing season ends before water from natural glaciers begins to flow down the mountain.

The largest artificial glacier Norphel has built so far is near the village of Phuktsey. About 1,000 feet (300 metres) long, 150 feet (45 metres) wide, and four feet (1 metre) deep, it supplies irrigation water to the entire village of around 700 people. Norphel says the glacier was built at a cost of about Rs 90,000, which is about a tenth of what it would have cost to build a reservoir with similar storage capacity.

This technology has become immensely popular with the people of Ladakh, not only because it is effective but also because it is simple and affordable and makes use of local resources and skills. And there’s minimal maintenance required. “The villagers can understand this,” Norphel says. “This is optimum utilisation of water by using the simplest technique, at a low cost. It also helps recharge groundwater and nearby springs.”

As more and more glaciers are being constructed all over Ladakh, more and more barren land is coming under cultivation, providing better opportunities to poor and marginalised communities in the region. Norphel hopes that solving Ladakh’s water problems will help slow down the migration of young people to the plains. Improving the economic viability of farms, he says, will sustain village communities and also preserve the ancient Buddhist heritage of his people.

Norphel’s efforts have been tracked in a film by docu-filmmaker Fayaz Rizvi, titled A Degree of Concern, which was recently screened on the National Geographic Channel.

nature/wildlife films

Power of Video to change/motivate? Read this real life story

Posted by Susan Sharma on July 09, 2006


"Ela Bhatt was totally sold on the idea.

With support from the United Nations Development Programme and USAID, she managed to bring the Martha Stewart team to Ahmedabad. Twenty women from SEWA were given an intensive three-week training. They were all women from the unorganised sector who were unfamiliar even with basic electrical stuff, let alone digital technology. There was Leelaben, the vegetable vendor, Shubhadraben, the bidi-roller, Taraben, the incense-stick-maker…

Leelaben recalls: “I was dying every day and living every day. As a vegetable vendor I used to sit in Manek Chowk market with two baskets of vegetables. But the police always abused us, displacing us whenever they wished to.” For Shubhadra, the bidi-roller, protesting against unjustified wages or insufficient security measures in the workplace was difficult before she learnt how to record her demands. It’s been a long journey since 1984.

For the poor illiterate women of SEWA, Video Sewa has become a tool for change. What began as a sensitisation programme has turned into a mechanism for protest and marshalling public opinion. From simply depicting poor women’s concerns, it has become a canvas for information-dissemination, awareness-building and policy advocacy.

But for the users of this technology, there’s no jargon-spewing. The day Leelaben understood the hidden powers of the video she knew immediately what she had to do. Neelam Dave, coordinator Video SEWA, joined SEWA in 1981. She was among the first group of 20 members to be trained. Although Neelam was a trained photographer she was not exposed to the digital media and she found the training immensely useful. Explaining the effectiveness of video as a communications tool, Neelam says: “Video footage can make the authorities sit up. Leelaben and Shubhadraben both recorded the deplorable conditions of vegetable vendors and bidi-rollers. Armed with the footage, we visited the Ahmedabad civic authorities that responded faster than ever before.”

On a different occasion, the bidi workers of Anand district united to agitate against their employer who had illegally sacked them from their jobs. They had no testimony to back them up, but they had recorded their experiences, which were used as evidence in the Supreme Court, resulting in a favourable judgment and compensation for the women. Neelamben explains that this is not an isolated incident. “We went to Lucknow some years ago, to organise women doing chikankari embroidery. After the core training programme was over we screened some footage of a rally we had shot in Ahmedabad. The footage related to the demands of readymade garment workers for minimum wages. The Lucknowi women were enthused. They immediately decided to organise a similar rally in Lucknow. Such is the power of video,” says Neelamben.

With over 100 films completed, Video SEWA is now a movement. Somewhere down the line it became more than just a protest tool. It is also a space to discuss and negotiate macro issues like food security, water and sanitation, labour rights and women’s rights."

Nilosree Biswas (Nilosree Biswas is a journalist and filmmaker based in Ahmedabad) InfoChange News & Features, April 2006


Tribal Bill-How it will affect our forests

Exploiting natural resources for development

Posted by Susan Sharma on July 08, 2006


What is your opinion on the concept of reclaiming land for tribals?

Ans: That would be very important all over India. One of the problems that tribals are facing is that their land is not regularised and the government finds it very easy to throw them out if say something like minerals are found. In Orissa, parts of which were princely states, no proper surveys were done and no land given. The Orissa government also did not bother to regularise the land after independence. In a place called Kashipur, the tribals were cultivating land, considered it their own. A lot of bauxite was found, a Norwegian company came in, and the government just threw them out.

Tribals have not had proper land deeds and so on, and this must be changed. They want their right to land and this must be changed all over

Well-known historian and writer Ramachandra Guha

on the website:



Climate change and Global Warming

Siachen Science Park

Posted by Susan Sharma on July 07, 2006


Troop withdrawal from Siachen is still to be resolved but Indian and Pakistani scientists have begun pushing for a geosciences lab to study the glacier and eventually convert it into a science park.

With them are scientists from the US and Canada. Separate meetings are being held in Islamabad and Dehra Dun to develop a suitable work plan for researching the high Karakoram ranges in what is being referred to as the "Siachen Science Laboratory."

What has given impetus to the initiative, according to geologist John H Shroder of the University of Nebraska, is the October 8, 2005, earthquake in Kashmir. "It was a message from the gods that India and Pakistan need to have urgent cross-border dialogue,'' he said. The little-understood Himalayas are rapidly changing due to human intervention. The still provide sustenance for over a billion-plus south Asians by ensuring fresh water and energy security. But there are dangers -- retreating glaciers, rivers changing course, dams triggering earthquakes -- and geo-scientific research is vital.

Already, the initiative has faced roadblocks. A joint "Science for Peace" international conference, funded by the US National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research of the US Navy, was to be held in Islamabad in May. Over 100 researchers from the US, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Italy, Afghanistan, Germany, and China were to attend. But at the last minute, Pakistan withdrew official recognition for the event.

Undeterred, the key organisers of the event, the University of Nebraska, Omaha, organised separate meetings, one of Pakistani scientists in Islamabad, and one of Indians in Dehra Dun early this week. Together, they have tried to formulate a "collaborative research agenda for Indo-Pak scientific activities in the western Himalayas."

Topping the agenda are:

• Assessing seismic hazards

• Studying the impact of climate change on Himalayan ice

• Document glacial changes

The earthquake was a wake-up call, for it came as a surprise that the Muzaffarabad faultline turned out to be active, says Shroder. Researchers don't want to be caught napping and hope to install a dense network of seismic stations across the mountains to understand earthquake risks.

The advice to the scientists from Shroder, who has researched the Karakoram for some 40 years, was not to get disheartened by the unique logistical hardships of the region. "Just keep pushing the edges, and little by little good science can be done. There can't be a better natural earth science laboratory than the high Himalayas," he told the Dehra Dun meeting.

 Concurring with him is Baldev R. Arora, director of the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehra Dun. He says enough blood has been shed, and now the time has come for "the science for peace initiative to take off" for the good of all Himalayan neighbours.

 Report from Indian Express, 4th July 2006



Can evolution run backwards?

Posted by Susan Sharma on July 06, 2006


Can two species that have evolved from one species collapse into one once again? In other words, can evolution run backwards?

Two fledgling species can become different enough genetically so that they can no longer hybridize effectively. But, if the barriers to gene flow come down too soon the two may hybridize and merge again. A recent issue of New Scientist ( 20 May 2006) describes two studies that point to such a possibility. One study relates to two finch ( a small seed-eating songbird) species on the Santa Cruz island ( off the coast of California )-one with large bills and one with small bills-but rarely medium sized ones. This feature reflects two populations specializing in eating two different sizes of seeds. This was in 1960. Four decades later the researchers found that only birds living in sparsely settled parts of the island still showed two different bill sizes. Near the island's only town, birds with middle-sized bills had become more common! The earlier two distinct groups had collapsed into one! What could be the reason for the change? The researchers attribute this to the fact that people are providing bird feeders filled with rice and hence it is no longer a disadvantage to have an intermediate beak! Apparently everybody can eat this rice! Is the impact of human beings on environment forcing evolution into reverse?

Another study relates to Homo Sapiens-human beings. It is really asking who we are and where we came from! True, humans did not evolve from modern apes, but humans and modern apes shared a common ancestor, a species that no longer exists. In other words, we are cousins. Evolution is not a ladder. it is a branching bush. because we shared a recent common ancestorwith chimpanzees and gorillas, we have many anatomical, genetic, biochemical, and even behaviuoral similarities with the African great apes. We are less similar to the Asian apes -orangutans and gibbons- and even less similar to monkeys, because we shared common ancestors with these groups in the more distant past. In this study, genomes of humans, chimps and gorillas were compared using a "molecular clock" to estimate how long ago the three groups diverged. The further back two species diverged, the more differences would have accumulated between their genome sequences. The study suggests that the two lineages split over 6.3 million years ago. But later both the species re-hybridized in a "reverse speciation" event! Complete speciation between humans nad chimpanzees took place less than 6.3 million years. Natural selection then favoured those hybrid individuals whose chromosomes carried fewest of the genes that lower fertility! Evolution just selected what worked! May be, hybridization between the two fledgling species might have provided traits that saved our ancestors from extinction! The growing genomic information should bring us closer to the understanding of the key steps in evolution-the origin of species. Surely every bit of bio-diversity is invaluable. We never know which one would trigger the next innovation. 

Excerpts from article by Dr.V.B.Kamble at


Climate change and Global Warming

Evolution and Climate change

Posted by Susan Sharma on July 06, 2006


How is it possible for one species to give rise to more than one subsequent species?

One process by which this can occur is through the dividion of a population into two or more smaller populations by a geographical barrier. If the environments of the respective populations differ, different traits will be selected for in each, and the evolution of these populations will follow different courses. As the two groups become isolated from each other, they would stop sharing genes, and eventually genetic differences would increase until members of the groups can no longer interbreed. At this point, they have become separate species and the speciation is complete. Through time, these two species might give rise to new species, and so on through millenia.

 Another process that may give rise to speciation is climate change. When climate changes, species try to follow the climate they are adapted for. Hence they move around the landscape to stay in the same climate space. When they do that, some populations that are left behind might get isolated enough to spur morphological (physical) or genetic changes. One may get a species or population trapped in a region where climate is changing, which would induce a selective force to make them change or become extinct.

 Excerpts from article by Dr.V.B.Kamble



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