Friday, December 21, 2012

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"

There is apparently a great deal of interest among people to believe in stuff which are no where close to the truth and reality. I hope you guess it right, 21st December and the End of the world hoax. Well we all have to die one day or the other but I realized people have been believing and continue to believe lies that have no credibility from centuries on. (Link -  list of dates predicted for the apocalyptic events

Dates for the end of the world are proposed, that keep postponing and preponing when realizing that the world did not end on the day that was prophesied. I found a interesting article posted on the NASA website that just refutes the claims of the end of the world that is supposed to happen TODAY.

And actually "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." (quote by Carl Sagan) which is just lacking in the so called claims of the dooms day people. 

Friday, December 07, 2012

Are we banking on more dams to reap more disasters?

An article in the International weekly Journal of Science - Nature on Flood of protest hits Indian dams, Himalayan plans pose ecological threat, researchers warn raises concerns and highlights the agitations by native people on huge number of dams to be built on the youthful rivers of Himalayas. More than all the concerns raised, I am surprised that such places are focal areas of huge earthquakes and are totally ignored when building such reservoirs. Haven't we had enough deaths and have enough problems with displacement of people, loss of livelihood, loss of biodiversity, slicing of our beautiful mountains, loss of culture and language ...and the list goes no. Are we banking on more Dams to have a so called 'Economic growth' and want to reap disasters with more interest??

Courtesy: Nature, International weekly journal of Science.
Recent conclave concluded at Mahabaleshwar for Saving the Western Ghats highlighted the very dangers of big reservoirs that has posed on the rich biodiversity nestled in the Western wall of India, session taken by South Asia network on dams, rivers and people. I hope my readers would take note of the articles published by SANDRP, which are really insightful into the problems of our unplanned development. Also worth mentioning was the accelerated transformation of the landscape in the Western Ghats in the past couple of decades and its future changes expected due to rising population was really scary given by a research institute on Population studies based in Bangaluru (Just don't remember their name right now).

I hope that our Earth is protected from the greed of having more than what we require, but I don't think that the motion we have set in can be undone anymore, if at all there is an inner revolution in every individual to change this present scenario and restrict our wants. There would be more conflicts and tensions over sharing this limited natural resources in the years to come and it is already happening (eg. Water) with ever increasing population. And I don't think that we can really change the wishes, thoughts and actions of people, only if it starts from 'Me'.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Lead in History and the decline of Roman empire??

You might be wondering what is the link between lead and the decline of the Roman empire. Well this was the very same question I had when, I came across an unusual explanation of lead poisoning being one of the reasons for the downfall of the Roman empire. History imputes the final fall of Rome in 450 AD due to the Barbarians over taking the Empire but one of the eventual weakened condition has been attributed to mental and physical deterioration due to excessive quantities of lead found in their wine, food and cosmetics.

A theory put forward by Jerome Nriagu in 1983 in the New England Journal of Medicine sparked and reopened a public debate over the lead poisoning. But for me, inspite of all the controversy surrounding the importance and validity of lead poisoning to imagine the slow process of Geology having a part in the decline of the Roman Empire is startling.
Lead Pipe in Roman baths (Courtesy: Wikipedia)
Roman Lead water pipes with taps (Courtesy: Wikipedia)
The ancient Romans used lead for making water pipes and lining baths, and the plumber who joins and mends pipes takes his name from the Latin word plumbum, meaning lead. Plumbum is also the origin of the terms 'plumb bob' and 'plumb line,' used in surveying and also the chemical symbol for lead, Pb. In medieval times, lead came to be used for roofing, coffins, cisterns, tanks, and gutters, and for statues and ornaments. But water that supplied the Roman towns originated in the limestone terrain, these water carried dissolved lime and coated the inner linings of the pipes, not allowing the water to react with the lead pipe. Neither swimming in tanks lined by lead nor drinking water from the lead pipes were the reason for lead poisoning.

Romans were blithely ingesting huge amount of lead in the wine on a daily basis all their lives, including those famous multi-course, hours-long meals the upper class was fond of. So it seems like lead poisoning would have significantly impacted Rome's population, its decision makers, army, etc., especially over a long period of time and that's how Geology works.

Not only did the Romans had huge appetites and drink legendary amounts of wine, does Jerome sites but they flavored their wines with a syrup known as 'Sapa' made from simmered grape juice that was brewed in lead pots. The syrup was also used as a sweetener in many recipes favored by Roman gourmands. In all they probably had 20 milligrams led  input on a daily bases thus leading to physical and mental deterioration which may explain some of the bizarre and unusual behavior of Tiberius, Caligula, Cladius, Galba, Nero, Nerva and almost all of the late-Empire emperors were known to be both heavy drinkers and suffer gout-like symptoms. Elagabalus in particular was a huge pleasure seeking emperor, with enormous banquets, exotic dishes and blended wines. He was also, no doubt due to lead poisoning, mentally impaired.

I guess the lifestyle speaks for itself for the decline of the huge empire, but I hope we don't overlook this important page of history while going about with similar lifestyle that exist today.

Courtesy: (Cover page) The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

[i] Jerome O. Nriagu.(1985) : Saturnine Gout among Roman Aristocrats, New England Journal of Medicine, pp 660-3
[ii] Lead Poisoning and Rome; retrieved November 15, 2012 from <>
[iii] Decline of the Roman Empire:Wikipedia; retrieved November 15, 2012 from <
[iv] Roman Empire's fall is linked with Gout and Lead Poisoning (1983), New York Times,  retrieved November 15, 2012 from <>
[v] Edward Gibbon: General Observations On The Fall Of The Roman Empire In The West. Fall In The West — The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College Computer Science, retrieved November 14, 2012 from <>

Friday, October 19, 2012

A positive step towards sustainability

The Municipal Assembly of Saku, Nagano Prefecture, in central Japan passed a draft plan for preserving groundwater and spring water on June 29, 2012. The draft defined groundwater as a valuable common property of the local community indispensable to citizens' daily life, and set forth restrictions on groundwater pumping so that citizens can continue to benefit from plentiful, high-quality groundwater into the future. 

The city of Saku is dependent on groundwater for most of its water resources; it regards groundwater as public property and thinks it necessary to raise people's awareness on groundwater and to make efforts to preserve it. For this purpose, the ordinance sets down standards for requiring permission for or reporting groundwater pumping, and also a set of rules for setting up wells.  The city intends to cultivate groundwater, protect it from risks, and make sure it can be passed down to future generations.*[i]

The Groundwater rules and regulations in Maharashtra are also in place, but so far my experience in working closely with rural communities in Maharashtra has showed that the rules are quite easy to surpass/override if the land belongs to highly influential rich people who are backed by politicians. Every day so many open wells and borewells are sunk in the hard basaltic rocks with or without permission. 

The government role should be of more of an activist, a proactive role in protecting the precious water resource and the interest of the poor people. Well I am not writing to blame a particular group here, all the people are responsible including me and have an active role in preserving their water resources; it is just like a everyone having a bank account in a common bank. If all withdraw and don’t try to save or deposit in the bank (aquifers) then nothing will be left in the account and the result is bankruptcy.

Land belonging to poor people and having good amount of water are sometimes carried away by the greed of notes offered by people to buy and develop that land are not really the wealth – it the water that has real value. Money notes are in place just to make transaction easy but it should not substitute in valuing and protecting the real wealth. Hivre Bazaar is an excellent example where water is valued more than development.

During my work I realized that the village communities don’t even know that there is law to protect this precious water resource. The links below will be helpful to those who are working with the rural communities and active youths of the village.

Link to the Maharashtra Groundwater Law, 1993 and the recent bill passed in the state.

The copies of the Bill are available in the Office of all Zilla Parishads, Panchyayat Samitis, District libraries and the District office of the Groundwater Survey and Development Agency.

We should never forget that it was along rivers and streams that the civilizations began around the world. It is water that is the key to modern civilization, it this one resource more than any other that has potential to limit are ambitions. The fundamental limits of water cycle are still there but the lesson of history is that the most successful civilizations learn to adapt to those limits. The problem is more to do with us and that prospect may find you gloomy but the fact is shaping our future is in our hands and how we use our water resource.


[i] Japan to the World - Japan for Sustainability, retrieved on October 19, 2012 from <>

Monday, September 03, 2012

'Geologie' comes across TippyTap

You might be wondering how come I switched my post article for this month from geology to health and sanitation. Well don't forget! Everything in life is interconnected - Wars, cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, disease outbreaks, famine, radio-logical incidents and chemical spills – all are emergencies that, invariably impact on public health and sanitation. Internal emergencies in health facilities – such as fires and loss of power or water – can have adverse impacts on health and hygiene of the people in general. If you have to compare deaths due to natural disasters to loss of life due to poor health, then poor health will overtake the figures of natural disaster death toll [i]. 

Over 1.5 million children under five die each year as a result of diarrhea [ii] and it is the second most common cause of child deaths alone worldwide [iii] compared to average 0.06 million deaths per year from natural disasters. Just washing your hands with soap can cut the figure to almost 30%. Now isn't that amazing! Small interventions and little behavioural change can have such big impacts.

Tippy Tap film has been shortlisted for the 2012 Golden Poo Award. This is an award that works to promote water, sanitation and hygiene through different mediums. This year, the contest is for film shorts and the video has made it to the final round. The winning film receives promotion for Global Handwashing Day and World Toilet Day as well as getting access to groups like DFID and WaterAid.

I hope you will do all your bit to help raise awareness on water, sanitation and hygiene by just watching the video and also invite others to watch the same, that can SAVE LIVES and SAVE WATER and I am  sure you all will like it. Lets support the initiatives of WMG and Grampari in reaching out to more kids.

Kids enjoying washing hands with the Tippy Tap (Photo Credit: Grampari)
Click on the caption below to visit the website and have access to tones of information on how to make a Tippy Tap and reach out to more people with it. Cheers!!!

(Photo credit:

[i] Emergencies: Global and Local Impacts (2009) World Health Organization, 2009, retrieved on September 3, 2012 from <>
[ii] Prüss-Üstün A, Bos R, Gore F, Bartram J.(2008): Safer water, better health: costs, benefits and sustainability of interventions to protect and promote health. World Health Organization, Geneva.
[iii] UNICEF (2008). The State of the world’s children.

Friday, August 31, 2012

"Laterites" - The WATER BUCKETS of Western Ghats

Plateaus of Panchgani and Wai and the places located along the Western Ghats in Satara is capped by an interestingly looking reddish black rock called as Durricrust or Ferricretes *(1) also popularly known as Laterites *(2,3). A micro-habitat for diverse creatures and plant life. Alot of work is underway to document little known flora and fauna of these region but I would like to direct my readers attention to the Geological setting of this magnificent landscape which is one of the second highest plateau in Asia after the Tibetan plateau and are the Water buckets of the Western Ghats. 
Panchgani Ferricretic Table land. (Photo Credit: Aparna Shrivastava)
Understanding what they are made off, how they are formed, when they were formed, where are they found or the spatial extent of this rock type and why is it important; will help in appreciating the value of protecting mesas and plateau capped by Ferricretes.
Reddish black Ferricrete rocks resting on the hard volcanic Basalts in Wai.
Weathered in-situ Lateritic soil,Wai.
Parent rock Basalts below the Ferricrete blanket showing columnar jointing, Wai.
The first ever laterites being documented and named was in Kerala by a Scottish physician Francis Buchanan- Hamilton during his stay in India *(3), since then on extensive studies were carried out in understanding what they are made of and their origin. The rock looks grippingly reddish with holes, having yellowish halos that has resulted in pisolitic and vermicular structure. These ferricretes are developed by intensive and long-lasting weathering of the underlying parent rock, that have been created due to leaching away off more soluble elements within the Basalts like calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium and finally silica in rain water solution, leaving behind concentration of insoluble hydroxides of aluminium and iron; which on hardening to exposure to the atmosphere form hardened crust - the Duricrust.

Basalt and Ferricretic pebbles for comparison from Konkan Coast. (Photo Credit: Abhijit Gandhi)
But you will be curious how these Ferricretes ever happened to rest on these hard volcanic rocks, well there is an interesting mechanism put forward by Ollier and Sheth which suggest of inversion of relief which sounds quite intriguing. Well it is all about Geologising it!! Schematic diagram below shows possible mechanisms for formation of Ferricrete/Lateritic Tableland put forward by Ollier and Sheth compared to general accepted theory of formation of Laterites. *2
Mechanism for formation of Ferricrete. Courtesy: Ollier & Sheth (2008)
  • Widdowson & Cox explanation: A period of chemical weathering along a widespread area of basalts formed a continuous blanket of ferricrete. Subsequent erosion of most of it left discontinuous patches. 
  • Oliier & Sheth explanation: The ferricrete formed in shallow flat bottomed river valleys that developed on the basalt surface. The alluvium and colluvium of these basalt valleys got converted to ferricrete. The surrounding highlands got eroded away being softer than the ferricrete. The mesas represent an "inversion of relief". Former valley bottom now standing in higher relief.
These dark patches streching north-south outline a dendritic pattern (shown in the map below), just like a river system. So if the mechanism put forward by Ollier and Sheth is right then this ancient river system might have flowed in a northerly direction depositing iron rich sediments and forming Ferricrete which later on due the differential uplift of the Western Ghats got uplifted and reversed the drainage flow direction to today's existing southeasterly direction.

Ferricretes are chemical weathering products and such surfaces of intense chemical weathering was possible only during times of tectonic stability. The ferricretes around Panchgani and Wai tells us that after the eruption of the Deccan Basalts in the late Cretaceous there was a long period of intense chemical weathering in a tectonically stable regime. An initial period of uplift in early Cenozoic post deccan volcanic eruption lifted the Ghats as well as the coastal plains followed by a period of stability. Weathering on a stable block of crust formed flat surfaces or peneplains or planation surfaces which is what the Panchgani and Wai tableland and other such surfaces further south of Satara are made of. Later episodic uplift alternating with periods of stability resulted in development of such flat weathering surfaces at various altitudes as mountain ranges rise and get weathered and chamfered and then rise again. The younger surfaces will occur at lower altitudes.and that is the the reason we have the presence of ferricretes along the konkan region, west of the Sahyadri ranges.*(1)

The majority of the land areas with Laterite cover occur between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. That suggest Tropical climate for formation of Ferricrete. Tropical weathering (laterization) is a prolonged process of chemical weathering which produces a wide variety in the thickness, grade, chemistry and ore mineralogy of the resulting soils. This active laterization period extended from about the mid-Tertiary to the mid-Quaternary periods (35 to 1.5 million years ago) *(1)The spatial extent of these Ferricrete capping over basalt in Satara can be seen in the map shown below. *(3)
Spatial extent of Laterite/Ferricrete in Satara district.  Courtesy: Grampari

The thick Ferricrete layer is porous and slightly permeable so the layer functions as an aquifer in rural areas of Wai and Panchgani. 

Spring water oozing out from the contact of Ferricrete and Basalts. This water is used  by the  village communities for drinking and other domestic use, Wai.
Recent anthroprogenic or human interest in such so called 'barren lands' has lead to decrease in water table at these plateaus due to sinking of bore-wells that intercept spring flow and reducing the overall water table of the ferrcretic plateau. It may seem mostly barren, but there has been various articles that have metioned such plateau environs are teeming with plant and animal life, specialized to live in crevices and along the slopes and depressions and hollows and water seeps that have formed by the action of physical and chemical weathering. *(4)

Expected stages of changes in the ground-water outflow at springs. (A) Stage I—before sinking of borewells in Lateritic aquifer, groundwater comes out as springs from the contact of Ferricrete and Basalts filling the spring box. (B) Stage II— initiation of drawdown due to pumping at the borewell has caused movement of water away from the spring, but the spring has become losing or possibly intermittent. (C) Stage III—after a substantial period of pumping in excess of rate of ground-water recharge from the Lateritic aquifer, the spring may be disconnected if groundwater flow cannot provide enough recharge to maintain the water table. The spring has become ephemeral. (D) Stage IV — the spring source becomes disconnected due to no water in the lateritic aquifer pushing the groundwater table further down. (© Grampari)
These rocks has considerable water-holding capacity, depending on the depth of the formation. These Ferricrete aquifers recharges rapidly with the first two months of the monsoon, and continues to fill with the monsoon rains. The water table recedes slowly and is recharged several times during the rest of the year but this natural annual recharge can be affected if there is an overdraft from these aquifers.

The springs, streams and rivers originating from the Western Ghats upstream in Satara are capped by Ferricretic rocks needs due protection as these rock formations absorb and retain monsoon rainfall and slowly release this water throughout the year. This not only feeds the springs but also groundwater and base flow in nallas and in adjacent valleys supporting unique vegetation and endemic flora and fauna of the region and providing drinking water to million of vulnerable communities situated up-slope. These upstream areas are a treasure trove of the Western Ghats and for the rural people.

Water percolating slowly down through the Ferricrete.
Criss-crossing pipes that direct spring water downslope to villages under gravity.
Traditional spring water protection cum collection tank carved out into Ferricrete rock during the reign of King Shivaji at Kamalgad fort, Wai.
Recent decades have seen a boom in building of second holiday homes, tourist resorts housed in plantations and new hill stations. Rapid spurt in growth of roads as well as railway lines across the Ghats with resultant disruption of connectivity between natural habitats. With rapid increase in means of communication and transport, emergence of a large wealthy middle class and availability of powerful earth-moving machinery, the Western Ghats are beginning to be urbanized with a proliferation of holiday homes and resorts. These tend to be accompanied by a total decimation of natural biological communities and displacement of local people. The people of the Western Ghats traditionally depend heavily on natural vegetation for meeting their requirement of shelter, fodder and fuel *5. And it is our responsibility that we protect these areas and not be driven by our greed.

Excavation of 4 m depth of  Ferricrete for foundation pillars, upsetting the delicate groundwater flow at Yeruli, Wai.
Tourist resort being built and bore-wells being sunk, sucking all the groundwater on the ferricrete outcrops at Yeruli, Wai.
I hope my small writing endeavour and my personal experience while working with these people and in the region highlight the concerns and threat to the ferricrete outcrops, which will help in keeping these geological heritage intact and help in protecting the rich biodiversity of these region. Such plateau capped by Ferricrete should be also included under the ecosensitive zones apart from other already declared and minimal anthropogenic interventions is essential to preserve this natural heritage and biodiversity of the Western Ghats. 

Protected forest at the base of Kamalgad fort which is made of ferrricrete rocks, Wai.
*1 Ollier, Cliff D., H.C. Sheth. (2008): The High Deccan duricrusts of India and their significance for the ‘laterite’ issue. Journal of Earth System Science. Volume 117, Issue 5, pp 537-551.
*2 Laterite: Wikipedia; Retrieved on August 31, 2012 from <>
*Shellmann Werner: An Introduction to Laterites; Retrieved on August 31, 2012 from <>
*4 Jared Bouno, R. Thomas (2012): Spring Protection Proposal: Safe, Sustainable, Gravity-Fed Drinking Water – A Model for the Western Ghats; Retrieved on August 31, 2012 from  <>
*5 Report of the Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel (2011); Retrieved on August 31, 2012 from <>

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The endangered Springs - Water for Life

  Working together with the rural people situated along the Western Ghats of Maharashtra for ensuring safe supply of drinking water has sometimes left me pondering over....Why people situated on and along the mountain slopes hardly have any source of income?? whereas people living in the valleys have at least some sort of irrigation or pipe scheme running underneath or have atleast access to groundwater in the form of open-wells and borewell to water their fields and provide drinking water. And it is visible that water is the driving force for sustenance of life and agriculture, provided the geology is favourable for groundwater extraction.

  The poor people that have been driven upslope have moved because of socio-economic constraints  like land to grow food and shelter but the irony is that these very mountains have not enough water to irrigate land or for drinking. These very people are dependent on forest for their livelihood but if, rich and politically backed people from the cities who purchase and devastate these mountains at the expense of these poor people and precious forest cover - then the mountains that we know of that are the natural heritage of our land and source of water will be left no more. Today I feel sad that inspite of the huge urban development and large amounts of water being directed from the dam (that to built on poor peoples land) to the cities, the rural population is deprived of their right to water. We are unable to focus our efforts on protecting the mountains from rapid mass housing schemes, building of resorts, water amusement parks that need colossal amounts of groundwater. These developments will have serious repercussions on the availability of groundwater, a phenomenon called as 'Drawdown' (refer *1) or 'Overdraft' (refer *2) leading to lowering of water table and damaging the discharge of springs occurring along the mountain slopes endangering the ecohydrology of the forest. 

Expected stages of capture of ground-water outflow to a riparian area and stream. (A) Stage I—near the onset of pumping, water pumped comes from storage around the well and the stream/aquifer system functions as it did prior to pumping. Ground water from upgradient areas supplies riparian vegetation in the floodplain as well as base flow to the gaining stream. Periodic stream runoff events also may supply water to the near-stream aquifer. (B) Stage II—drawdown from well has caused movement of water away from the stream and floodplain after a substantial period of pumping. Availability of water for riparian phreatophytes may not be diminished because of increased inflow from the stream, but the stream has become losing or possibly intermittent. (C) Stage III—after a substantial period of pumping in excess of rate of ground-water flow from upgradient areas, the stream and aquifer may be disconnected if streamflow cannot provide enough recharge to maintain the water table. The stream has become ephemeral. (Please refer *3)

 Serious studies should be undertaken to understand the interactions between groundwater vulnerability due to development on mountains capped with lateritic rocks. As these very rocks are the water towers of the Western ghats and are source of spring water and providing base flows during peak summer months.

  We need to focus on small but indigenous ideas to harness, manage and protect water resources  rather than exploiting by sinking deep borewells. Also take necessary steps to strengthen the laws to protect these areas, as the existing Groundwater, Forest and Environmental laws are overlooked when someone shows a bundle of notes (I don't understand why people value money more over precious Natural Resources!!!). Throughout history, every culture has developed its indegenious ways of finding and protecting water. People have used different methods, invented devices for lifting and transporting water, planted trees to attract rain, and made laws to encourage neighbouring tribes and villages to share water, prevent conflicts, and preserve this precious resource for future generations. The rules that exist today can be easily manipulated, fudged, faked, cooked, wangled, misrepresented, chiseled, interpreted differently and pull strings for ones own personal gain. For example, the ban on sinking borewells and drawing water from them in the vicinity of 500 metres from public drinking water is nullified if someone justifies the use and sinking of borewell for agriculture purpose....a real thwart to the protection of spring source and the ecohydrology of the ecosystem.

  Springs discharging naturally from unconfined aquifers (refer *4) are the primary source of drinking water for rural villages situated along the Western ghats of Maharashtra. Due to reduced and changing rainfall patterns spatially and temporally, coupled with anthropogenic reasons mainly development at the recharge zones and mismanagement of water both at source and the mouth has resulted in the problem of dying springs which is felt increasingly across the country along the mountainous ranges of Himalayas to the Western Ghats. Spring discharge is controlled by rainfall, land use, vegetation, grazing incidence, underlying geology and geomorphology of the recharge zone. Understanding the nature of springs, their response to rainfall, land use, biotic pressure and sociological constraints are an important tool in protecting and riving the springs and in solving the water crisis.

Spring emanating from the contact of Laterite and Basalts.
Spring discharging in summer (April 2012)
Spring water being used as drinking water.

Spring water supplied down under gravity to the village through pipes.
Note: pipe leaks being fixed by locals by wrapping plastic over it.

Forest cover helps in slowing down the surface runoff and augmenting in recharge of groundwater. Note such forest cover is not seen at the spring source mentioned in the proposal due to human interference and cutting of trees for fuel. Such forest canopy is seen below Kamalgad, Wai, Maharashtra also having spring sites. 

Traditional spring boxes to collect spring water.

Rapid, massive and devastating development work being carried out in the
Lateritic rock not far from public drinking water source - Spring Water at Yeruli, Wai.

  The very story of development along the Western Ghat mountains needs serious reconsideration on the extent of Western ghat buffer zone and the threat it possess to the forest and livelihood of people. It is in the backdrop of the landscape where the movie 'Swades' was shot and the coincidence is that, in the movie the actor who is sent by his guardian to meet the farmer to collect the rent and the farmer being unable to pay was shot at the very picturesque background. A story of millions situated along the slopes of these mountains who are dependent on spring water for their daily needs.

Springs not far from the backdrop landscape shown in the movie 'Swades'.
Also known as 'Grandma's tooth'
 I invite concerned citizens, academicians, scientist, policy makers, students, government authorities and people in general to give their valuable advise on how we can protect the mountain springs - the source of public drinking water.  

Spatial extent of the laterite formation in Satara District and the location of a May 2012 spring survey. The survey found that 7 villages rely on spring water from one small portion of the total laterite formation. Based on information from this survey, which constitutes only 7% of the laterite in the District, we estimate that as many as 40,000 people may rely on such springs. (Refer *5)

  Link to the 'Spring Protection Proposal' given to the Collector of Satara and District Agriculture Officer, Satara -


*1 Lester Brown; Brian Black, Galal Hassan Galal Hussein (2010): "Aquifer depletion" In: Encyclopedia of Earth. Eds. Cutler J. Cleveland (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment); Retrieved on July 21, 2012 from  <>
*2 Overdrafting: Wikipedia; Retrieved on July 21, 2012 from <>
*3 Robert H. Webb, Stanley A. Leake (2006): Ground-water surface-water interactions and long-term change in riverine riparian vegetation in the southwestern United States, Journal of Hydrology,
Volume 320, Issues 3–4, pages 302–323, Retrieved on July 21, 2012 from <>
*4 Aquifer: Wikipedia; Retrieved on July 21, 2012 from <>
*5 Jared Bouno, R. Thomas (2012): Spring Protection Proposal: Safe, Sustainable, Gravity-Fed Drinking Water – A Model for the Western Ghats; Retrieved on July 21, 2012 from  <>

Sunday, June 03, 2012

The mountains are getting burnt & degraded

   Fire is one of the important force that has shaped the Human civilization, it was approximately around 400 million years ago that fire first appeared and the key to this transformation was vegetation. Land plants that had just appeared provided fuel for fire that took in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and pumped back large quantities of oxygen; providing the second most essential ingredient for fire - oxygen, brought about by the process of photosynthesis. The triggering of a wild fire was the lightning, that gave in mankind's hand fire to keep warm and to survive harsh cold winters. 

   The notion that fire can be a useful tool became known to early humans when they first took advantage of fire’s effects on the African savannas several million years ago to manipulate vegetation and wildlife. The threat that fire posed to their security and livelihoods was likely obvious to these early people too. As humankind spread throughout the world, they created new fire regimes that continued to shape and modify landscapes. There also continued to be fires that destroyed homes, crops, livestock and other resources. There has always been these “two faces of fire”—beneficial fire and detrimental fire.*1 

   Fire has become a conservation issue because many areas around the world depend on fire to maintain native species, habitats and landscapes. These are fire-dependent ecosystems. Conversely, there are other areas where fire can lead to the destruction or loss of native species and habitats. These areas are called fire-sensitive ecosystems. Services provided by ecosystems such as clean air, clean water and healthy and productive soils can be affected negatively or positively by fire depending on the adaptations of the species and other characteristics of the environment, and on how often and how intensely an area burns. These facts are just beginning to come to light in the relatively new science of fire ecology.*2

   But the wild fires in and around Panchgani, situated along the western Ghats are mostly caused by anthropogenic reasons every year creating degraded soils and loss of rich biodiversity. These are fire-sensitive  ecosystem which can have adverse effects on  the soil, native vegetation and fauna. Here fire is caused by naked flame, cigarette or bidi, electric spark or any source of ignition coming into contact with dry grass or inflammable material. The wild fire almost cook the soil reaching 100 to 150 degree celsius destroying the topmost fertile soil and making it hydrophobic soils - causing erosion.

   There are many reasons as to why people burn the dry grass even though being aware of the harm caused by wild fire or Vanva. One of the reason being the belief that if they burn the old grasses new set of fresh grasses will take its place which is not true, it is rather more poor and less nutritive ones that take its place that is to say less sensitive to fire. Such fire destroys also the rich seed bank in the shallow soil that is necessary for the growth of vegetation. 

   The other being, it requires less time or human effort to clear tall grasses making the path visible especially when you want to go to your field but in this way a lot of important organisms are destroyed which has its own functions in the ecosystem and also giving rise to accelerated erosion carrying away essential fertile soil and not allowing water to percolate into the ground resulting in decreased groundwater table. The burning of vegetation gives off not only carbon dioxide but also a host of other, noxious gases (green house gases) such as carbon monoxide, methane, hydrocarbons, nitric oxide and nitrous oxide, that lead to global warming and ozone layer depletion. 

   I see people today are not keen on growing grass or other native trees that preserves or restores back the ecosystem or the flow at the spring source. It is driven nowadays by external economic factors of industrialization and urbanization. We tend to forget that we can never give back to nature, it is the nature that provides. Our only role is to conserve and preserve it. I am reminded of an African proverb that fits quite well here.

"The world is not ours, the earth is not ours , it is a treasure we hold in trust for future generation"  

Rich in biodiversity and a pristine forest located on the opposite side of the valley
(Reserved Forest Land).
 Location Kamalgad, Wai

Springs originating in forest land. Location Kamalgad, Wai  

Recent forest fire in Panchgani where flames reached also the crown of the tree and shrubs.
Surface fire burning dry leaves, twigs and grasses destroying many animal habitats.

These very image was a lush and thick shrubby and grassy area -  a habitat for the Jungle fowl and Jungle Bush Quail destroyed completely by fire.
Huge burned patches seen in black colour  near Panchgani. 

Degraded and barren slope before the wild fire, near Dhoom Dam, Wai (May 2012)

After the wild fire, near Dhoom Dam, Wai (June 2012) 

*1,2 Ronald L Myers (2006): Living with Fire— Sustaining Ecosystems & Livelihoods Through Integrated Fire Management, The Nature Conservancy

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Unravelling the mystery behind the curved tree trunks near Budher caves

   It has been quite some time that I had some observations to write about the curved tree trunks that I noticed during my visit to Chakrata especially at Budher area which is located at an altitude of 2738 m approx. in the middle Himalayan ranges of Uttarakhand. Apart from noticing the rich biodiversity and enjoying tall trees especially the Deodhar and wild fox, birds, plants, etc.; the curved tree trunks kept on showing in almost all our treks especially on the upper reaches of the mountains. I was wondering if the Deodhar trees and others likewise have some growth problems. But the occurrence of groundwater oozing out from the rocks as springs and landslides were common phenomenon that were noticeable, where an entire slope had slid down and blocked the roads. Evidence of it was visible also on our walk to Tiger fall where the sides of the valley are loaded with evidence of past landslides. On which the people now do their terrace farming. Though people living in the mountains have a good system of selective logging for the trees when cutting for timber. I fear  that uprooting or cutting has made the slopes more prone and susceptible to landslides and degradation.

Area showing curved tree trunks at Budher, Chakrata, Uttarakhand(Courtesy: Google Earth)
Curved Tree trunks on the way to Budher Caves. (Photo Credit: Amar Oke)
Curved tree trunks on the mountain slopes. (Photo Credit: Amar Oke)
   But when I started connecting all these dots I started to realize that the trees has a message in its curved trunk growth at its base. As this became more evident when I bumped onto a research paper by R. Ian Harker from Department of Geology, University of Pennsylvania, titled “Curved Tree Trunks: Indicators of Soil Creep and Other Phenomena” published by the University of Chicago Press in the  The Journal of Geology, Vol. 104, No. 3 (May, 1996), pp. 351-358. The trees curved at the base that were studied at Mount Rainer National Park and the curved tree trunks of Budher area are very similar and fitting. The Budher area is underlined by limestone rocks which are shattered due to metamorphism and the water has carved out an interesting system of caverns underneath.

View from inside of the limestone cave. (Photo Credit: Nikhil Rajwade)
Stalactites inside the caves at Budher. (Photo Credit: Nikhil Rajwade) 

Spring water flowing down the gully.  (Photo Credit: Gurudas Nulkar) 
Water acts as a lubricating fluid for landslides. (Photo Credit: Gurudas Nulkar) 
      The trees grown on this terrain show curved trunk as a result of the unstable, brittle geology and also many external factors like snow/ice pressure, availability of light, catastrophic events and soil creep. These curved trunks at Budher are indicative of soil creep and are a useful indication of slope instability. Curves induced by soil creep are quite distinct from those from other factors mentioned earlier. His paper describes very well about this curved tree phenomenon. If the trunk curvature is of a character to be expected on selected slopes as a result of soil creep then similar such studies should be carried out by The Geological Survey of India to ascertain any impending dangers to the ecosystem and the local people. As the purpose of this is that we protect this fragile  landscape from further degradation. Not to mention the extent of how the winding roads have made the slopes more prone to instability.

Himalayan Pit Viper near Budher. (Photo Credit: Nikhil Rajwade) 

Common bluebottle butterfly at Budher. (Photo Credit: Nikhil Rajwade) 

Monday, April 30, 2012

Mangroves our line of defense and the cradle of biodiversity

My recent visit to Kerala via the Konkan route reminded me of my Konkan visit in Ratanagiri, Maharashtra I had two months back to study the role of the Mangrove ecosystem along the coast. Mangroves are an interesting and important forest rich in biodiversity I have seen so far with its interesting pipe like roots that stick out of the water to breathe just like the the pipes used by swimmers during snorkeling and another thing that was quite amazing to witness is that the seeds of the tree germinates still when they are hanging on to the branches as like a baby in the womb of a mother. These trees have features almost like humans but the roots have anchored themselves to the soggy muds stabilizing and protecting the coast line.  They have come to light in India after their role in protecting the Indian coast against Tsunami and cyclones.
Mangrove forest along the estuary in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra. (Photo credit: Abhijit  Gandhi)
Mangroves are 'Evergreen Xerophytes' that grow in the inter-tidal areas and estuary mouths between land and sea. Mangroves provide critical habitat for a diverse marine and terrestrial flora and fauna. Mangrove forests fix more carbon dioxide per unit area than phytoplankton in tropical oceans. Full carbon credits for that!!
They are salt-tolerant forest ecosystems found in specific regions mainly in tropical and sub-tropical inter-tidal regions of the world. They grow in shallow and muddy salt water or brackish waters, especially along quiet shorelines and in estuaries. Typically they produce tangled masses of arching roots that are exposed during low tides. The Ecosystem is highly fragile, subjected to long duration of intrusion as well as incessant physiological drought and morphological stresses, salinity effect, aeration and onslaught of wave action.
Mangrove Ecosystem is distributed all over the coast lines of the world and their occurrence is largely limited to the regions between 30° north and south of the Equator. According to estimate made by F.A.O./ UNDP a total area of 7.1 million hectare is covered under the mangrove formation in the world.

Map showing distribution of Mangroves around the globe. (Map Courtesy: Britannica Encyclopedia)
The total area of mangroves in India is about 6,740 sq. km, which is about 7% of the world's total area of mangroves. Luxuriant patches of mangroves are found on all the other continents but the best mangroves are found in Asia, especially in India and Bangladesh - the Sunderbans are the largest mangrove forest in the world both in size as well as biodiversity. 

Stilt roots of a Mangrove tree connected to the Cable roots below. (Photo credit: Abhijit  Gandhi)
       During my Kerala journey I could see large stretches of Mangrove forest especially along the coast of Kasaragod, Kannur and Kozhikode that have anchored and stabilized the coastal area with their highly developed roots. It is a bit strange that they haven't appeared in the State/UT wise Mangrove Cover Assessment 2009.

       The stilt roots are the main organs for breathing especially during the high tide. This very roots of these plants help in binding the soil and also help the establishment of micro-organisms which further help in stabilizing the area. Stabilization starts from the land side and gradually shifts towards the sea. These pioneer plants are slowly replaced by other mangrove plants and then mangroves gradually spread towards the sea. Once mangroves grow, the submerged banks are fully stabilized; after this, mangroves slowly reach climax vegetation stage. Climax vegetation is represented by the complete circle of life where there are different species of plants, animals (both terrestrial and aquatic) and micro-organisms forming an ecosystem called the tropical salt marsh or the mangrove ecosystem. In case the sediments are not stabilized, submerged banks are washed out. Like in Gangetic delta, thousands of deltas are formed and washed out every year before they can be stabilized.

       The major plant species forming the mangrove ecosystem have aerial roots, commonly known as prop roots or even stilt roots. Stilt roots serve to anchor the plants, but also are important in aeration, because the mangrove mud tends to be anaerobic. Rhizophora spp. (Red mangroves) have prop roots descending from the trunk and branches, providing a stable support system. Other species, including the white mangroves (A. marina) obtain stability with an extensive system of shallow, underground ”cable roots” that radiate out from the central trunk for a considerable distance in all directions and the pneumatophores extend from these cable roots. 
Breathing roots (Pneumatophores). (Photo credit: Abhijit  Gandhi)
      Breathing roots are special vertical roots, called Pneumatophores, form from lateral roots in the mud, often projecting above soil permitting some oxygen to reach the oxygen-starved submerged roots.

Stages of Development of a Mangrove tree. (Photo credit: Abhijit  Gandhi)
     Virtually all mangroves share two common reproductive strategies they are dispersal by means of water and vivipary. Vivipary means that the embryo develops continuously while attached to the parent tree. They may grow in place, attached to the parent tree for one to three years, reaching length upto one meter, before breaking off from the parent plant & falling into the water, these seedling then lodged in the mud where they quickly produce additional roots and begin to grow.

     The first line of defense for many mangroves is to prevent much of the salt from entering by filtering it out at root level. The leaves of many mangroves have special salt glands. Another method is the retention of water in the leaves giving rise to leaf succulence in many species. Third method of coping with salt is to concentrate it in bark or in older leaves which carry it with them when they drop.
   The Indian mangroves are represented by approximately 59 species (inclusive of some mangrove associates) from 29 families. These forest are the breeding grounds for many faunas especially the fishes. There are lots of birds that use the Mangroves for roosting like the western reef egret, purple heron, black kite, red wattled lapwing, Black-tailed Godwit, Common Greenshank, Brown-headed Gull. Other important faunas are the grasshoppers, crocidiles, snakes, crabs.

       Mangrove forests are one of the world’s most threatened tropical ecosystems. More than 35% of the world’s mangroves are already gone. The figure is as high as 50% in countries such as India, the Philippines, and Vietnam, while in the Americas they are being cleared at a rate faster than tropical rainforests. 12 species of mangroves found in India are considered to be ‘Critically Endangered’ and a total of 57 mangrove and mangrove-associated species are considered threatened. The main reasons for the destruction in the area are mainly due to population pressure in and around the mangrove belts. There are several other specific reasons for degradation of mangrove area. 

      Natural threats like change in climate can have effects on Mangrove forests as they require stable sea levels for long-term survival. They are therefore extremely sensitive to current rising sea levels caused by global warming and climate, Cyclones, typhoons and strong wave action. Infestation by barnacles that interfere with respiration and photosynthesis can delay in seedling growth. Oysters, Crabs, Gastropods also damage the plant parts. Browsing and trampling by wildlife damages young seedling, leaves, flowers, roots and fleshy tissues. Insect pests such as Wood borers, Caterpillars, beetles which eat the mangrove foliage do damage the wood. Infestation by weeds such as Acrostichum aureum and Acanthus species, which often occupy deforested mangrove areas and restrict the re-growth of mangrove tree species.

       Destructive activities by human like the use of mangrove land for urban development. 

  • This has been one of the most visible reasons for accelerated disappearance of the mangrove. Mangrove forests are cleared to make room for agricultural land, anchoring of boats, human settlements, resettlement activities, infrastructure, and industrial areas. More recently, mangrove clearing for tourist development, shrimp aquaculture, and salt farms has also taken place.
  • Over harvesting of Mangrove trees for firewood, construction wood, wood chip and pulp production, charcoal production, and animal fodder. While harvesting has taken place for centuries, in some parts of the world it is no longer sustainable, threatening the future of the forests.
  • Dams and irrigation have reduced the amount of water reaching mangrove forests, changing the salinity level of water in the forest. If salinity becomes too high, the mangroves cannot survive. Freshwater diversions will to lead to mangroves drying out. In addition, increased erosion due to land deforestation has massively increased the amount of sediment in rivers. This can hamper the mangrove forest’s filtering ability, leading to the forest being smothered.
  • Coral reefs provide the first barrier against currents and strong waves. When they are destroyed, the stronger-than-normal waves and currents reaching the coast can undermine the fine sediment in which the mangroves grow. This can prevent seedlings from taking root and wash away nutrients essential for mangrove ecosystems.
  • Pollution is the major problem through out the world. Fertilizers, pesticides, discharge of industrial effluent, solid waste dumping, pollutants, and sewage into creeks, rivers, and estuaries has several consequences, such as blocking of the mangrove pneumatophores, decreased oxygen level in the surrounding water bodies. Other toxic man-made chemicals carried by river systems from sources upstream can kill animals living in mangrove forests, while oil pollution can smother mangrove roots and suffocate the trees.
  • Due to many anthropogenic (Commercial, religious, cultural) activities, the inlet water channels to the mangrove patches have been stopped or diverted. This diversion of water flow has resulted in the elevation of the surrounding lands, deposition of one way flow of salt water & intrusion of less or non-salt tolerant grass species resulting in disappearance of many of the mangrove dense patches.
Ecological & Economical importance of mangroves
       Ecological significance: -
    Mangrove forests are among the most productive terrestrial ecosystems and are natural and are a renewable resource. Mangroves are not a marvel just for their adaptations but also for the significant role they play in our environment.

  • Mangrove ecosystem act as Buffer Zone between the land and sea.
  • Mangroves protect the coast against erosion due to wind, waves, water currents and protect coral reefs, sea-grass bed and shipping lanes against siltation. They are also known to absorb pollutants. Mangroves host a number of threatened or endangered species, different animal species- mammals, reptiles, amphibians and bird- offer nutrients to the marine food web and provide spawning grounds to a variety of fish and shellfish, including several commercial species
  • It has been suggested that the large loss of life (300,000 to 500,000 lives) in Bangladesh during the 1970 typhoon was partly due to the fact that many of the mangrove swamps protecting those populated coastal regions had been removed and replaced by rice paddies. 
  • In mangrove areas water level is shallow, warm water temperatures due to various decaying activities, water current is slow (nearly stagnant) hence ideal place for growing of sea algae and for spawning for fish and marine animals. They are breeding, feeding and nursery grounds for many estuarine and marine organisms.
  • Purify the water by absorbing impurities and harmful heavy metals and help us to breathe a clean air by absorbing pollutants in the air.
  • The tidal swamp is an ideal sanctuary for avifauna some of which are migratory
  • Mangrove forests are also important in terms of aesthetics and tourism. Many people visit these areas for sports fishing, boating, bird watching, snorkeling, and other recreational pursuits.

       In addition to these ecological roles, mangrove forest possess attributes that are specifically important to humans:

  • Mangroves are also a source of a vast range of wood and non-wood forest products including timber, fuelwood, charcoal, fodder, honey, pulp, tannin, medicine and thatch etc.
  • The ecosystem has a very large unexplored potential for natural products useful for medicinal purposes & also for salt production, apiculture, fisheries products fuel and fodder, etc.
  • Mangroves also provide opportunities for education, scientific research and eco tourism.
  • It is essential to systematically conserve the biodiversity in the mangrove ecosystem and manage well for the use of mankind.

         The Government of India had set up the National Mangrove Committee at the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 1976 to advise the government about mangrove conservation and development and also a legislative framework for the conservation and management of mangroves is already in place like the Indian Forest Act, 1927; The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972; The Forest Conservation Act, 1980; Coast  Guard Act, 1978; The Environmental (Protection) ACT, 1986. We cannot survive without mangroves. Despite their importance, mangrove forests are being neglected by a majority of the population. Despite all the legal framework there has been incidences of encroachment and violations by humans on to these lush mangroves for the development of various housing societies, laying of railway lines, sports complex, constructing of golf courses, pipelines, jetties, sewerage treatment plants, garbage disposal project….etc and this story is not just from India but also from other Mangrove forests in the world. 

      We tend to forget that life first originated in water and these very forest has been protecting and providing the required nutrients  and providing organisms with shelter and food for them to grow and evolve. If we continue to destroy this precious forest then we will be left with no life on our Planet. We will be breaking the very foundations of the food Pyramid.

Lets protect our Mangrove forest!! (Photo credit: Abhijit  Gandhi)
P.S: Most of the information provided is accessed from ENVIS Newsletter 2008, ENVIS Centre, Environment Department, Government of Maharashtra, Mumbai
Mangrove Ecosystem in Maharashtra, Retrieved on 30th April, 2012 from  <