Monday, June 27, 2011

The Journey South (the Heart of Darkness)

Kolkata is the gateway city to one of the most unique and celebrated ecosystems on the planet - the Sundarbans. The single largest block of tidal mangrove forest in the world, the Sundarbans stretches for 10,000 sq. km along the Indian and Bangladeshi coastline of the Bay of Bengal. Formed by the confluence of the Padma, Brahmaputra and Maghna rivers, this massive delta supports unique flora and fauna as well as providing critical ecosystem services to Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal. 

The Sundarbans, literally translated as "beautiful forest" in Bangla, is a bizarre landscape of flat mangrove-covered islands, rivers and mudflats. Transformed twice daily by the endless rise and fall of the tides, all life here (human, plant, and animal) is adapted to the ever-present saltwater and impermanence of the land.  Due to the extreme salinity gradient between the ocean and landward sides of the delta, the Sundarbans is highly biodiverse. Additionally, the complex underwater topography created by mangrove roots provides an important nursery to young fish and crustaceans. According to the 2011 nationwide census the Indian side of the Sundarbans supports the nation's single largest population of endangered Bengal tigers.  These roughly 270 animals are uniquely adapted to their watery environment and capable of swimming long distances from island to island. 

The Indian Sundarbans are protected by multiple layers of legal designations, including tiger reserve, national park, and wildlife sanctuary. But well before these exclusionary conservation policies came into effect, the Sundarbans were home to millions of people. The area's human population now stands at over four million, mostly landless agricultural workers who depend heavily on fishing, shrimp aquaculture, and the collection of forest products like wood and honey. Harvesting wood and honey, as well as netting the shoreline for baby shrimp, often require people to illegally enter areas of protected forest. Once in the forest, in addition to damaging the integrity of the national park, these people are vulnerable to tiger attack. Sundarban tigers kill between 100-250 people every year, far and away more than in any other area in India. 

What brought me to this tiger-infested mangrove swamp, you may ask?  As part of my investigation into ecosystem-based adaptation in India, I was interested in looking into adaptation activities and actors in a variety of different landscapes.  For my study sites I chose the Indian UNESCO biosphere reserves - areas designated as having special biological and cultural diversity which seek to reconcile conservation with economic and social development. Biosphere reserves are supposed to be model landscapes in which to test and demonstrate innovative approaches to sustainable development. I was visiting the Sundarbans, the first of my Biosphere Reserve visits, to see if this was actually the case. 

But before my investigation could begin, I had to get there.  Easier said than done.  From Kolkata we caught a local train, which involved a mad, no-holds-barred scramble with the fifty other people trying to enter the carriage for a few square inches of bench space on which to park my bum.  Having secured a spot, I uncomfortably occupied it for the next three hours until our arrival in Canning, the largest town in the Sundarbans region (named after Lord Canning, Governor General of India from 1856 to 1858). From Canning we rode on the roof of an extremely overcrowded shared van for an hour to reach the end of contiguous land in the village of Sajnekhali. Piling onto a local ferry we motored across a river channel to Gosaba. A bicycle rickshaw and one more ferry later, we finally arrived on Sajnekhali island, within the wildlife sanctuary. Next post: the Sundarbans!

Some pictures from the varied journey south from urban Kolkata to the fringes of the mangrove wilderness.
Kolkata train station
View from the local train: Kolkata to Canning
View from the local train: Kolkata to Canning
Waiting for the ferry at Sonakhali

Ferry from Sonakhali to Gosaba 

Local man fishing for baby shrimp to sell to an aquaculture farm: a highly unsustainable and dangerous practice

School kids as seen in passing from the bicycle rickshaw

Ponds for freshwater access and aquaculture

Sundarbans agricultural landscape

Thursday, June 16, 2011


After the farmer workshop, from Kharagpur to Kolkata we went.  Kolkata: steamy mega-city on the banks of the Hooghly river, 60 miles from the Bay of Bengal.  Capitol of India during the British Raj.  Home of the Indian independence movement and one-time center of politics, culture, science and education in India.  Contradiction embodied, with great marble British-build edifices sharing space with goat butchers and modern telecom buildings.  Urban, diverse, complex. Plagued with  poverty, population, and pollution. Fascinating. A little intimidating. Extremely compelling.

One afternoon we met up with the chairman of a local NGO doing environmental conservation work in the Sundarbans. Thirty seconds after saying "namaste", we were invited to the Kolkata Press Club to attend a press conference for a group of Indian climbers about to make an attempt on Mount Everest.  After the event we drank beer with some of Kolkata's intellectual elite in the Press Club pub. Unique adventure, only in Kolkata.

Kolkata is one of the few cities in India that still has hand-pulled rickshaws
The Victoria Memorial Hall, remnants of the empire

Kolkata street-scape

Taxi-wala taking a break
Bengali food, as served at Kewpies resturant

Married women wear this powder in their hair parting 

Chai-wala serving tea in Bengali clay cups

Street-side restaurant serving up some mean parottas

Saturday, June 11, 2011

West Bengal Farmer Consultation

One of the two projects on which I'm working with TERI deals with how climate change affects water resource availability in north-central India. The project has multiple components being handled by several partner institutions in India and Europe and includes climate and water modeling, socioeconomic scenario development, field visits and stakeholder consultations. In brief, the idea is to 1) downscale global climate model projections to a more useful regional level, 2) use these regional predictions to model the likely impacts on water resource availability (both in terms of glacial melt and monsoon precipitation patterns, 3) think about how things like population growth, income change, and urbanization over the next 50 years will interact with changing water resource availability, and 4) to go talk to people in a couple of case study sites to better understand the local situation and what climate change may look like in that particular place. Finally, 5) wrap it all up with a bunch of reports/workshops/information-sharing.  

All the case study sites for this project are in the Ganges river basin. The Ganges river has a significance in India that is difficult for westerners to understand. It is a holy river in Hinduism, worshiped as the goddess Ganga. Over 400 million people live in the river's catchment area, making it the most heavily populated watershed in the world.  Stretching from the Himalaya in northern India through the Gangetic plain to the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges is a critical artery through the subcontinent with massive cultural, biological, and agricultural importance.  

The four case study sites were selected to represent a variety of agricultural landscapes within the basin. The district of Udham Singh Nagar in Uttarakhand state is in the upper basin. From the middle basin are the sites of Delhi and Allahabad, in Uttar Pradesh state.  And in the lower basin is the town of Kharagpur, near Kolkata in West Bengal state.

In March I attended a community consultation in a village near the Kharagpur case study site. Rousting ourselves early from our guest house at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, we drove for 3 hours to a village in Midnapore West district.  Our first meeting with about 10 district-level officials and agricultural scientists was held in the local Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK), an agricultural extension office run by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.  The researchers from IIT Kharagpur and TERI explained how we were there to learn from the local experts and to connect on-the-ground fact-finding and human stories with the output of the impersonal computer models. For the next hour, the researchers lead the workshop participants through a discussion of what environmental problems were impacting agriculture in the area and what some possible solutions might be.  

Overall, the participants were fairly pessimistic. The discussion focused on the increasing cost of cultivation due to both labor shortages and small land holdings.  Poor farm laborers are migrating to the city in search of better jobs, leaving insufficient manpower to cultivate even the small plots of land held by most families. Efficiencies of scale through mechanization are impossible due to the high cost of equipment and the small farm size. The area is highly water-stressed - the water table has been over-exploited and the local characteristics of the soil make recharge a very slow process.  Rainwater harvesting has been going on in the area since 2005, but the structures are very expensive to build. Increasing temperature and decreasing humidity have negativity affected the cultivation of fodder grasses for livestock, impacting the health of cattle.

The participants were also very pessimistic about the ability of the government to help them.  They also questioned the value of our visit. Over the years, many NGOs and researchers have come to ask about their problems. But then off they go to publish their papers, never to return with assistance or information.  I felt very self-conscious during this discussion - a large white lady expressing intellectual curiosity but with very little understanding of the problems these people face every day. Although none of these problems can be firmly attributed to climate change, these issues are vulnerabilities that decrease the resiliency of the area to the eventual inevitable climate change impacts.  

The Krishi Vigyan Kendra office 
IIT Kharagpur researchers consulting with the district-level officials 
The district level meeting concluded with lunch - dal, rice, and vegetable stew delivered from the kitchen in massive buckets. We all sat at long tables, shoveling up the sticky mixture with our fingers and depositing it in our mouths with the minimum of mess.  Eating rice and gravy with your fingers is very much an acquired skill, and more of my rice may have ended up on my face and the table than in my mouth.  I asked one of the Indian researchers why people ate with their fingers when spoons, which are not exactly advanced technology, are not hard to come by.  "When you eat with your hands, you enjoy your food more" was the answer.  "The feel of the rice in your fingers enhances the experience, and allows you to eat with an additional sense, the sense of touch".  

After lunch, it was time to consult with the farmers themselves.  The KVK officials had recruited about 20 farmers to come and share their experiences with us.  Their comments were much the same as the district level officials.  They told of increased problems with elephants raiding their crops and of high-energy rain events that it was impossible to store and that just ran off straight into the ocean.  Rice seeds had failed to germinate in recent years due to high temperatures.  Overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides had killed all the earthworms, causing a decline in vermiculture.

The farmers were much more enthusiastic about the session than the district level officials had been.  They seemed ecstatic to have such a strange group of people interested in hearing about their problems.  We tried to communicate clearly that we didn't have anything to give them, that we were just here to learn.  They accepted this, and were still excited to share their story.

Last activity of the day: to visit the village.  One farmer guided our research group through a sal forest plantation to his family's fields.  And there it was, iron-age agriculture.  Buffalo-driven plows and hand-picked potatoes.  And in the village, mud huts with equal proportions of wide-eyed children and goats peering out of them.  More than half of India's 1.2 billion people live in rural villages such as this. This is the real India, and seeing it first hand, far removed from the tourist sites most visitors to India experience, was uniquely special.

Disclaimer: Before I inadvertently give the impression that my Hindi is amazing, I should reveal that due to the mixed language abilities of our group, simultaneous translation of most comments occured in Hindi, Bangla, English and Dutch.  Fortunately for me, I can speak at least one of these languages fluently.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Back to Basics: Project Description and Ecosystem-based Adaptation

OK, time to get serious and talk about some research. My next couple of posts will describe some research-related site visits I've done in the last few months.  To get everyone on the same page, I thought I would start with some background on what exactly it is that I'm doing here in India. For those of you who are just here for the pictures, I won't be offended if you skip ahead to the next post.

My original Fulbright proposal was to research adaptation to climate change in the particular context of India. I'm interested in both the high-level policy perspective (as in what institutional players are involved, where the money is coming from, etc), as well as the grass-roots perspective (what does an on-the-ground adaptation project look like?). For those of you new to this field (as I was before coming here), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines adaptation as the “adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities”.  Adaptation has frequently been overshadowed by greenhouse gas mitigation in international climate change agreements.  While mitigation strives to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases, the cause of climate change, adaptation acknowledges the critical importance of preparing and planning for the inevitable impacts of climate change even while trying to stop it.  Even if all greenhouse gas emissions were to stop tomorrow, the carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases already in the atmosphere from human activity would continue to cause climate impacts for centuries to come. 

Adaptation is an issue of immediate relevance for both developing and developed countries, as sea level rise, changing temperature and precipitation patterns, and associated impacts on habitat and biodiversity will affect every nation on the planet.  However, because the best adaptation to climate change is to be rich, poorer segments of the population in developing countries will suffer the worst impacts.  It is a particularly cruel irony that these poor and natural resource-dependent people who had no role in creating the problem will suffer the worst impacts. The few existing international funding sources available for adaptation assistance recognize only the poorest nations. India does not fall into this category and thus, climate change adaptation projects undertaken in India must primarily be organized and funded internally. 

Adaptation to climate change can take many forms and can occur at the individual, community, or government level.  Everything from buying an air-conditioning unit to planting drought-resistant crops to designing infrastructure projects to withstand extreme weather can constitute adaptation.  My project focuses on a specific subset of adaptation known as ecosystem-based adaptation. This type of adaptation acknowledges the connection between ecosystem health and human health and well-being.  Ecosystem-based adaption helps human communities adapt to climate change by generating economic opportunity, building resilience in natural systems, and mitigating the harmful impacts of climate change. Rural, resource-dependent communities most at risk from climate change will be the primary beneficiaries of ecosystem adaptation projects.    

Since coming to Delhi in November 2010, I've been working with the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) on two of their ecosystem-based adaptation projects. I've also been pursuing a few independent projects of my own. My next few posts will describe some of these projects and case studies in different parts of the country. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

God's Own Country

Except for my brief trip to Mumbai, I had not yet had the opportunity to venture out of northern, Hindi-speaking India, or "Hindia", as I like to call it. So rather than returning to Delhi after the Fulbright conference in Goa, it was time to venture down further south to see what the rest of this crazy sub-continent is all about.

Exiting the cool dimness of the night train from Goa to Ernakulam in the southern state of Kerala, we stepped into a steamy world of palm trees, flooded rice fields, and European colonial influences. My painfully acquired Hindi was of no use in this part of the country - Malayalam ( മലയാളം ) is the linuga franca in Kerala.

South India is, on average, wealthier and better educated than much of north India.  Kerala is a prime example, with the highest literacy rate in India (94.6%) and some of the lowest levels of corruption. Like Goa, Kerala has a certain European flare due to centuries of occupation by the Portuguese, Dutch, and finally the British. Kerala and West Bengal are unique in India in having elected communist governments.

Kerala's most famous attraction is the backwaters, an intricate network of brackish lakes connected by rivers and man-made canals extending almost half the length of the state. The area is rich in animal life, especially birds and aquatic beasties like giant prawns and mud skippers. Renting a houseboat that rather resembled a giant water beetle, we spent a wonderful 24 hours cruising the backwaters, stopping occasionally to birdwatch, eat fresh fruit, and swim.  The backwaters are a place where the Kerala department of tourism's motto "God's Own Country" seems like a pretty apt description.

Houseboat on the Kerala backwaters

Our second stop in Kerala was Kochi, or Fort Cochin to you British imperialists out there.  Located on the northern tip of an island just offshore, Kochi is an adorable tourist paradise of street side cafes and brightly painted alleys, Christian churches and Chinese fishing nets. It's also a good place to see a bit of Kathakali, a form of classical Indian dance involving lots of makeup and stylized movement. A full performance can take 7-8 hours. We, being shallow tourists with short attention spans, went to the 1.5 hour abbreviated version.

Kathakali dancers preparing for a performance
Huge cantilever fishing nets installed along the shoreline
Kerala - the land of the lungi and dhoti (colored or white cloths men wear around their waists in lieu of trousers)