Thursday, January 31, 2013

India Still Not Serious About Environmental Impact Assessment

Last year I compiled comments made by the then new Minister of Environment and Forest (MoEF) Ms. Jayanthi Natarajan. Here is the list from an article that appeared in The Hindu (emphasis mine):

....Jayanthi Natarajan has assured the corporate world that steps will be taken for promoting growth and “one window” fast clearances for big projects.

at the same time, said she would “do everything” to protect the environment. ...

She said that there will not be “any change” once clearance is given to a project....

Asked whether she could assure speedy clearances for such projects, Ms. Natarajan said she will do so but environment should be protected at “all cost” in all its “dimensions.”  

Dismissing the perception that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appointed her as a result of a compromise to appease corporate India, Ms. Natarajan said,
“My actions will show that there can be no compromise on either issue that I will always act for the best welfare of the country.

That these supreme examples of fence sitting and contradictions is not just a list to chuckle at but reflects how the MoEF actually takes on the task of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of developmental projects is painfully brought out by Parineeta Dandekar in an InfoChangeIndia article on the ongoing efforts to dam the Chenab river in Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir.

From the article: 

While other rivers like the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi, as well as smaller streams and tributaries in Himachal have been almost completely dammed, the Chenab is the last comparatively free-flowing healthy river in the state.

As things stand now, if all projects are implemented, less than 10% of the river will be seen flowing at all. Dams are being constructed bumper-to-bumper in a very tight sequence, where water from one hydro project meets not the river but the reservoir of the next hydro project in line. This conversion of a living river into a series of puddles, alternating with dry stretches and bypassed by tunnels, will have a profound impact on the ecology, biodiversity, hydrology, sociology and water availability of the region.

And the impunity with which even the most basic norms of a fair and transparent EIA process are being seemingly violated:

The MoEF sanctioned TORs for cumulative impact assessments of the Chenab in February 2012. Surprisingly, this critical task has been entrusted to the Directorate of Energy, Government of Himachal Pradesh. Can there be any agency with greater conflict of interest than the Directorate of Energy for this study? Can we expect this department to conduct the study in an unbiased manner? Even as the directorate put out a request for proposals for contractors to carry out the study, it did not mention that the consultant had to be an independent agency with a credible track record, as specifically instructed by the EAC.

The MoEF seems to have meekly accepted the Himachal Pradesh chief minister's demand for delinking environmental clearances from cumulative impact assessment studies, without any questions asked. Indeed, the EAC and MoEF have been according clearances and TORs to projects on the Chenab with great efficiency....

and this self defeating exercise:

In rare cases where consultants have showed courage and integrity by recommending that certain projects be dropped, their reports have been ridiculed and 'saviour' committees have been appointed to look into the reports again to make 'all ills go away', like the B K Chaturvedi Committee which is now looking at the WII study which recommended dropping 24 projects planned in the upper Ganga. The MoEF decided to dump the recommendation of the Teesta cumulative impact study when it stated that no projects should be built upstream of the Chungthang.

A case where political compulsions are going too far... and here is another study (press release) on the likely impact on ecology and social disruptions due to this frenzy of dam building activity in the Himalayas.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Warning From A Chinese Thomas Malthus

My Book Shelf # 23

In 1793 Hong Liangji, a bureaucrat in the Qing empire had an idea. He had been sent as an education inspector to Guizhou Province in the southwestern part of China. The arrival of crops from  the Americas like maize, potato and sweet potato, capable of thriving in marginal soils and steeper slopes, meant that more areas were coming under the plough and China was experiencing a population boom.

Hong Liangji worked out the consequences for a 8 person family:

Eight people would require the help of hired servants, there would be, say, ten people in the household. With the ten-room house and the 100 mu of farmland,  I believe they would have just enough space to live in and food to eat, although barely enough. In time, however, there will be grandsons, who, in turn, will marry. The aged members of the household will pass away, but there could still be more than twenty people in the family. With more than twenty  people sharing a house and working 100 mu of farmland, I am sure that even if they eat very frugally and live in crowded quarters, their needs will not be met. 

Hong conceded that the Qing had opened up new land to support China's population. But the amount of farmland had 

only doubled or , at the most, increased three to five times, while the population has grown ten to twenty times. Thus farmland and houses are always in short supply, while there is always a surplus of households and population... Question: Do Heaven-and-earth have a way of dealing with this situation? Answer: Heaven-and-earth's way of making adjustments lies in flood, drought, and plagues. 

Hong had described the Malthusian trap 5 years before the idea came to Thomas Malthus. He not only predicted that standards of living will stagnate as population increase outstrips resources but that there will be ecological consequences of the relentless drive to deforest and reshape the landscape for growing more and more food.

From 1493: Uncovering The New World Columbus Created  - Charles Mann.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Describing My Research Using Only 1000 Common Words

I have been tempted into this by a challenge issued to geoscientists  by Chris Rowan and Anne Jefferson at Highly Allochthonous. Can you use this new Text Editor and explain your research using the 1000 common word list of this editor. The editor gives you a warning if you use a word not in its list.

Here is my attempt to explain my research interests in carbonate sedimentology, the study of biogenic remains and their transformation into rock.

I study rocks made up of the hard remains of animals living in water a long time ago (10 hundred times 10 hundred years ago or more). That can tell us how deep or warm or cold the water was at the time the animals lived and also how warm or cold the air was at that time. Studying these remains from different times can tell us how things changed over a long time in the past and how things may change in the years ahead. Over many many years as the animals living in water die their hard remains turn into rock under ground. Different types of water moves through this rock leaving behind a sign and often making open spaces inside the rock. Sometimes in other near rocks soft remains change into thick matter which moves to fill these open spaces. All this happens deep under ground. It is important to know where, when and how this happened since we search for and need this matter to drive our cars and trains and to give us light and to make our lives easier in many ways.

Damn (in the list!).. that was harder than I thought .. but great fun! Here is the permalink to my short essay.

Try it out :)

Explanation of terms:

hard remains of animals - calcium carbonate skeletons of marine animals
10 hundred - thousand
hard remains turn into rock- lithification and diagenesis
open spaces - porosity
soft remains - soft tissue of marine creatures
thick matter- oil

Usually it is the technical terms that need explanation in everyday words. In this case its the other way around!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

K.S Valdiya On The Glacial Saraswati In Current Science

In the latest issue of Current Science, geologist K.S. Valdiya has written a long response to a paper   by  Giosan 2012 which concluded that the Yamuna and Sutlej rivers of northwest India stopped flowing into the Ghaggar river by early Holocene. There is a companion paper by Clift et al 2012 on this topic which Valdiya does not elaborate on.

The Ghaggar floodplains formed the agricultural heartland of the Harappan civilization. This finding by Giosan et al and Clift et al if true, meant that during the Harappan civilization the Ghaggar was not a glacial fed river but a monsoon fed river, but likely a perennial one due to a wetter climatic regime in the Ghaggar catchment areas of the Siwaliks. That in turn had implications for Harappan water use and agriculture methods. This question has also fed the controversy about the origin of the Aryans and the relationship between Aryans and the Harrappan civilization, since some say that a glacial Ghaggar was the Vedic Saraswati mentioned in the Rig Ved, an ancient collection of hymns in the Sanskrit language composed perhaps around 1500 B.C. or so.

K.S. Valdiya strongly disagrees with Giosan et al's findings that Holocene climate imparted a characteristic geomorphology to large glacial rivers of this region and that their finding suggests that there was no glacial river flowing on the plains of Haryana and Punjab during mid late Holocene. Goisan et al in due course may provide a detailed reply to Valdiya's arguments. I do have several comments on the way in which K.S. Valdiya has presented his evidence.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Some Good Readings About U.S. Oil In Shale Resources

I go over to the Oil Drum often to catch up on news and analysis on oil and natural gas. A few that caught my eye over the holiday period:

1) Does the U.S. Really Have More Oil than Saudi Arabia? - some fundamentals about the difference between shale oil and tight oil, and resources and reserves cleared up.

2) Bill O'Reilly Is Misinforming Americans About Oil Supplies - U.S oil exports and imports and the link to gasoline prices and jobs.

3) Shale Oil: The Latest Insights -  Development of "shale oil" resources and impacts on the shale gas production.

4) Gas Boom Goes Bust: On the future of the shale gas industry.

The Oil Drum has generally been giving a more cautious and conservative long term perspectives on the recent elation over shale gas and new discoveries of "shale oil".

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Note To Indian Govt: It Is Pointless Banning Seismologist Roger Bilham

I wrote in my last post on the travel ban issued by the Indian Government to American seismologist Dr. Roger Bilham. The reason given was that he was engaging in activities inconsistent with his visitor visa status. These activities include attending scientific meetings and contributing towards understanding seismic risk at a proposed nuclear power plant at Jaitapur in southern Maharashtra. I do suspect that this is the real reason for the ban, which is that Dr. Bilham has irritated people in the Indian Government in charge of nuclear power plant safety by suggesting that the government's assessment of Jaitapur underestimates the risk of a large (6-7 mag.) earthquake.

Now he has answered his travel ban in the best way possible; by producing more science about the geology of the area around Jaitapur with implications for regional and site seismicity. He and his colleague Vinod Gaur have published this work in Current Science. It is open access and there is nothing the Indian Government can do to prevent his work from being widely discussed and disseminated (as I am doing now) and critically evaluated.

That by the way is what these scientists want as they outline several tests for their hypothesis and the hypothesis proposed by other geologists critical of Gaur and Bilham's earlier paper on this subject.