India is phasing out the use of DDT, but it’s not tackling its long-term effects

India is phasing out the use of DDT

A few weeks ago, India entered into an agreement with the UN to end the use of the insecticide DDT by 2020. DDT had been used in agriculture for decades until it was restricted in 1989, but 6,000 tonnes of DDT are still produced annually for the eradication of mosquitoes and other pests. This would be perfectly understandable, except for the simple fact that DDT has become ineffective — in the last decade, most insects have developed a resistance to it. The resulting instinct to simply use greater amounts of DDT or replace it with other harmful Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) has infused India’s soil, water and air with a concoction of noxious chemicals.

Other insecticides and pesticides that are used specifically for agriculture further contaminate our environment. After it restricted DDT, the government began encouraging the use of other POPs that were potentially even more harmful, such as HCH (later banned in 1997), endosulfan (later banned in 2011) and then lindane (restricted in 2012). Rather than acknowledge that the makeup of all POPs render them intrinsically harmful, the government seems to be promoting different POPs in turn until each is found to have tangible toxic effects.

Perhaps this is due to the fact that India is the second largest producer of pesticides inAsia and the fourth in the world. Samples of drinking water across India show high concentrations of HCHs, endosulfan isomers and DDT metabolites. Laws in India do permit some level of these substances in food and water, but these amounts are many times higher than those allowed in the West. DDT doses in food, for instance, are permitted to be seven times higher than doses in the European Union; lindane doses are allowed to be a 100 times higher and endosulfan doses 40 times higher (and 200 times higher for water). The air in Indian cities has also been recorded to contain the highest concentration of HCHs in the world.

The pervasive presence of DDT and other POPs is a consequence of their slow degradation. DDT-infused indoor insecticide spray used thirty years ago still lingers on the walls of homes. Crops that are grown in fields that were sprayed with DDT in the last decades show substantial traces of the insecticide. Unfortunately, the degradative products of some POPs are also highly toxic.

Because of their resilience, POPs have a tendency to persist in organisms. This leads to bioaccumulation, which means that the higher up an animal is in the food chain, the greater the concentration of a POP it contains. For instance, while the dose of DDT in one worm might not substantial, a bird that eats three worms ingests an amount that might be lethal to it. In the US, the use of DDT has been proven to thin out eggshells and make them prone to breakage. This has resulted in the severe decline of several species of birds, including America’s national bird, the magnificent bald eagle. In addition to birds of prey, waterfowl and songbirds, marine life is especially susceptible to the bioaccumulation of DDT. Fish from the rivers Gomti and Ganga have been found to have concentrations of DDT a thousand times greater than limits proposed by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Humans, at the top of the food chain, are at great risk of ingesting harmful amounts of the insecticide. Samples of women’s breast milk in Delhi were found to have levels of DDT 12 times higher than those recommended and blood tests were also shown to possess unsafe levels of POPs. In human and animal bodies, large amounts of DDT turns cells carcinogenic, provokes endocrine disruption and corrupts reproductive systems (diminishing semen quality and increasing the potential for miscarriages in mammals).

Rachel Carson, through her groundbreaking book Silent Spring, galvanised the American public in the 1970s into protesting the use of DDT in the US. “In nature nothing exists alone”, she said. Carson showed that the use of DDT tore apart delicate ecological systems developed over millennia by inducing resistance in certain species and poisoning others. Moreover, DDT and other POPs can be found hundreds of miles away from the area they were used in. Soil erosion and rainwater runoff and wind and water currents means that no place, no animal and no person has escaped these chemicals. Freshwater bodies in India are contaminated with POPs, as well as a large portion of the country’s groundwater.

The Indian government has shown resistance to changing the current situation. During the Stockholm Convention on POPs in 2011, India was the only country to resist the ban of endosulfan, probably because it was the largest producer of the POP in the world. It only ratified the agreement when certain crops were exempted from the endosulfan ban. Shockingly, this meeting took place after official reports had acknowledged in 1995 that the use of endosulfan in the state-owned plantations in Kerala caused at least 500 deaths, though unofficial estimates put the number at 4,000. More than 9,000 people were sickened in the endosulfan tragedy. Babies were increasingly being born with abnormalities, neurobehavioral disorders and congenital malformations.

Kasargod, the area in Kerala that was affected, was also once very rich in wildlife. But after the use of endosulfan, plant diversity decreased by 40-70%, fish species died in droves, and honeybees and butterflies were noticeably absent. A large number of animals and birds — the endangered Nilgiri langur, the jungle cat, the mouse deer, the flying fox, the fairy- bluebirds and large cuckoo shrikes, to name just a few— disappeared.

While part of the problem lies in the fact that POPs are fatal, other issues stem from their incorrect usage. Many farmers in India tend to use insecticides indiscriminately. Moreover, huge amounts — more than 47 tons — are lying in storage in various parts of India, past their expiry date. Like the radioactive waste from a nuclear reactor, these chemicals must be contained, lest they risk contaminating their surroundings. There is also a depressingly small amount of research being done about POPs and the impact they have specifically in the Indian context.

Much more needs to be done by the government, scientists, agricultural workers and environmentalists to ensure that POPs are disposed of safely and used in a limited manner — or even better, replaced with environmentally friendly insecticides and pesticides. As Rachel Carson asked, “How can intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?”

Climate Change Refugees and the Man from Kiribati
A man from Kiribati, a tiny Pacific island, has asked New Zealand to officially recognize him as a climate change refugee. New Zealand refused what was the world’s first appeal for climate change refugee status, and Ioane Teitiota now faces deportation. Teitiota had argued that rising sea levels had damaged his crops and contaminated the water supply, and that he feared a worsening situation in the future. Kiribati is expected to be three-fourths underwater in just 30 years. Its government has had to buy land from Fiji.

Climate change refugees might soon become a common place occurrence. Sea levels are predicted to rise by at least a couple of feet in the next few decades. Cities, or even countries, that lie below sea level are at high risk of being submerged. Bangladesh, for instance, would have already lost 17 percent of its land by 2050. An estimated 20 million people from this highly over-populated country are expected to become refugees. Rising sea levels could also sink all 1,200 of Maldives’ islands. Its government is attempting to work out an evacuation plan with nearby countries. Other coastal cities such as Manhattan, London, Shanghai, Bangkok, and Mumbai are at risk. Entire cultures and identities could be wiped away forever.

Droughts and desertification are increasingly destroying arable land, forcing many people to migrate further inland to already crowded cities. The Gobi Desert, for instance, expands 3,600 km square each year. Morocco, Tunisia and Libya are losing 1,000 km sq each annually. Poorer countries that depend on agriculture for both economic growth and basic subsistence are heavily impacted by the increasingly extreme weather patterns. Food security will become a serious issue for many countries when it was not before.

Although the need for one is clear, a universally accepted definition of climate refuge is lacking. The Global Governance House defines climate refugees as environmental migrants forced to move “due to sudden or gradual alterations in the natural environment related to at least one of three impacts of climate change: sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity.” Environmental migrants are defined as “persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad” by the International Organization for Migration.

Last year, 36 million people were displaced by natural disasters. Of this number, an astounding 20 million were climate change refugees. António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, predicts that the number will increase rapidly, and not just because of changes in weather in climate. The shortage of food and clean water will lead to “resource wars,” as they are called in popular culture. Increased competition for water, food and grazing lands will lead to conflict. A recent study predicts that the probability of civil war will increase in Africa by more than 50 percent by 2030 as compared to 1990.

Sources: UNHCR, Telegraph, International organization for Migration, Global Governance House,National Geographic
Photo: ABC

Artificial Trees Absorb a Thousand Times More CO2

Scientists have been arguing for a reduction in carbon emissions ever since the effects of global warming were recognized. Now, to further aid the fight against increased global warming, some of these scientists have found a way to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This technology will manifest in the form of “artificial trees” that absorb up to one ton of carbon dioxide in a day.

These artificial trees look and feel nothing like real trees. In fact, they resemble cars in size and shape. Not only will they hey absorb carbon dioxide from the air a thousand times faster than a normal tree would, but they will also not release carbon back into the atmosphere unlike real trees.

Previous inventions that removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere necessitated the processing huge volumes of air, since carbon dioxide makes up just 0.04 percent of the air we breathe. Artificial trees, however, will simply absorb carbon from the air into their leaves, which are coated with sodium carbonate. When sodium carbonate comes into contact with the carbon dioxide, it shall form a harmless bicarbonate – baking soda.

Klaus Lackner and Alan Wright, the brains behind this new technology, understood that carbon dioxide emissions needed to be decreased within the next few decades to prevent the non-reversible effects of climate change. Even if humans stopped all carbon dioxide emissions today, the amount left in the atmosphere would keep temperatures increasing for the next hundred years.

Artificial trees have the potential to reverse this trend. Ten million artificial trees could absorb 3.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year. This would amount to 10% of all global emissions. A single tree would initially cost $20,000, around the price of a car in the U.S. However, as production of these trees increase, price would also fall, making this initiative cost less prohibitive.

The carbon dioxide collected by the artificial trees could also be used or stored in few ways. It could either be transformed into a liquid and buried underground. Alternatively, hydrogen could be added to it to create hydrocarbon fuel. As long as the process uses renewable energy, this fuel would not release any new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Furthermore, the gas could be injected into rocks such as peridotite, which can hold huge amounts of carbon dioxide.

The concept of artificial trees is a simple one, yet has immense appeal. The economy of energy would remain the same, enabling people to continue living existing lifestyles. Artificial trees would just allow us to maintain these lifestyles better. Noting that the U.S. will also be producing as much petroleum as Saudi Arabia by 2020, it is unrealistic to hope that alternative sources of energy would replace oil any time soon.

On the other hand, it is not economically sound for companies to invest in these artificial trees currently. Only when high penalty for companies that have huge emissions is put in place, will absorbing carbon dioxide be viewed as a solution equivalent to reducing emissions.

Sources: BBC 1, BBC 2, National Geographic
Photo: Physics World

Cleaner Cookstove Technology Fails to Take Off


The Poverty Action Lab (PAL), a research organization from MIT, carried out a project that implemented new, environmentally friendly cookstoves for 2,600 households in Orissa, India. Each household contributed a small amount of money to pay for the building of the stove and was given training on its proper use and maintenance. Although the initial take up of the technology was high, families were only cooking 1.8 meals a week on the new stove three years after its implementation. Most had reverted to using their old cookstoves, commonly called chulas.

Indoor air pollution caused by chulas is the second largest health risk in developing countries, after unclean water. Over 70% of all households in India use them. Chulas burn cheap fuels such as firewood, coal or cow manure and create particle matter concentrations of 20,000 micrograms per cubic meter; the recommended limit is just 50. For the people who are around them — mainly women and young children — it is like smoking several packs of cigarettes a day. They cause 2 million deaths in India annually.

The new cookstoves were promoted as a cleaner alternative to traditional stoves that would save families from mental hardship and health expenditures. They would also make them more productive, as adults and children would miss fewer days of work and school. Finally, the stoves were advertised as being more cost-effective as they used less fuel and more time-effective because they decreased cooking times.

Medical checkups three years into the PAL study showed that because they were rarely used, introducing these stoves to poor households even at a very low cost did nothing to change health effects. High levels of blood pressure, a tendency to develop coughs and poor infant health remained the same. People showed the same risks of developing lung cancer, cardiovascular diseases and respiratory diseases.

In addition to causing health problems, chulas cause environmental damage. Worldwide, three billion people use them, or four out of every ten people. They collectively release 6 billion kilograms of CO2 into the atmosphere. That is triple the amount of the daily emissions from all private cars in the United States.

The main issue that seems to have stopped people from using their new stoves was that they required a lot more maintenance, and their unfamiliarity with the technology was an impediment to carrying out repairs. Households reported that they spent hours getting their stoves fixed and cleaning newly added chimneys. Their old way of cooking was easy to use and never broke. Moreover, it was familiar, so people were more inclined to revert back to it when their new stoves exhibited problems.

While the new cookstoves perform well in laboratories and have the potential to drastically decrease health and environmental effects, their effectiveness depends on them actually being used. India launched a National Biomass Cookstove Initiative (NCBI) in 2010 and plans to install 2.5 million cookstoves by 2017. Moreover, Hillary Clinton helped start the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC), which aims to install 100 million cookstoves by 2020. Both the NCBI and GACC would do well to conduct long-term studies before spending millions of dollars in initiatives that have little to no impact.

Sources: National Geographic, The Washington Post, Poverty Action Lab 1, Poverty Action Lab 2, Boston Globe, Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves
Photo: The Washington Post

Narmada Dam Estimated to Cause Further Environmental and Humanitarian Disasters

A recent study carried out by a team of experts and political figures found that increasing the height of the Narmada dam in India would submerge a much larger amount of land than had been officially estimated. Team member Soumya Dutta, an environmentalist and energy expert, warned that it would lead to a humanitarian disaster “worse than the Nepal earthquake”.

Last year, the Gujarat state government had approved a height increase of the dam from 122 to 139 meters provided that people whose lands would be flooded were compensated and rehabilitated (their consent to the increase was not taken into account). The new study’s findings call for a re-evaluation of the number of people that would need to be recompensed. When the dam was first contextualized in 1999 it was planned to be only 88 m high. Multiple Supreme Court rulings over the years have allowed a series of height increases, to the dismay of activists.

India’s long-contested Narmada Dam raises troubling conundrums for anti-poverty advocates. The dam is the second largest in the world after the U.S. Grand Coule Dam. It has provided drinking water, irrigation water, electricity and flood protection to thirty million people in drought-prone and underdeveloped areas. The government has lauded it as a steppingstone that would lift millions of people out of poverty.

But the dam has also inundated 37,000 hectares of forest and agricultural land, disrupted the river’s ecology and repeatedly flooded surrounding areas during the monsoon season. People who depend on this land and river are from India’s poorest and most discriminated against communities- Dalits, or untouchables, and tribals. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced without their consent and given neither adequate compensation nor rehabilitation.

Annie Raja, another member of the research team and general secretary of National Federation of Indian Women, emphasized that large-scale corruption and mismanagement surrounds the dam project. Rehabilitation sites often have no water, electricity, schools or hospitals. Thousands of families have received no compensation at all so far.

But the Supreme Court of India ruled in 2000 that the benefits of the dam “are so large that they substantially outweigh the costs of the immediate human and environmental disruption”, citing a ratio of 100:1 of beneficiaries to affected people. It maintains the position that sacrifices have to be made for development- whether people agree to them or not.

Through the troubled history of the Narmada Dam, activists have argued that the long-term so-called benefits of the dam do not stand up to scrutiny. Degrading the environment exacerbates food insecurity. Intensifying the plight of India’s most vulnerable people deepens inequality and makes it harder for them to climb out the poverty trap. Turning a deaf ear to people’s concerns weakens democracy.

Moreover, dams do not last forever. Eventually, reservoirs silt up, and huge amounts of money go towards maintaining them. Some dams have to be removed altogether after a few decades. More than a thousand dams have been taken apart in the last century in the U.S. alone. Reservoirs are also hugely detrimental to the environment. Worldwide, they account for an astounding 4% of all human-made climate change. The resulting fluctuations in weather patterns are highly detrimental to those who depend on the land for their livelihood.

Since the 1980s, the Narmada Bachao Andolan, or Save Narmada Movement, has carried out mass protests and hunger strikes. Activists have refused to leave areas there were to be flooded. This grassroots pressure forced the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which was lending money to the Indian government for the dam’s construction, to conduct a review of the project. It decreed that it did not meet its environmental and resettlement guidelines and withdrew its loans in 1993. While the Indian government has managed to raise money from other sources to cover the costs of the dam, the same concerns remain.

The controversy surrounding the dam raises more philosophical questions about India’s future. As Arundhati Roy, a famous Indian author and winner of the Booker Prize, asks, who owns this land; who owns its rivers- the government or the people who live off it? Can the lives of people be pushed through a cost-benefit analysis machine for the sake of overall “development”? Should the environment be sacrificed to help secure to livelihood of millions of people?

Sources: Indian Supreme CourtUnited NationsScrollBusiness StandardThe Greater Common Good by Arundhati RoyInternational Rivers

Hangzhou: The Defilement of a Paradise

Hangzhou is widely regarded as the poster child for the Chinese economic model. The city is growing at nine percent annually and is six times larger than it was in 2000, thanks to the break-neck speed at which its industries are diversifying and expanding. Residents enjoy a GDP per capita of 9,300 dollars, the ninth highest of all cities in China. But the frenzied rate of development has also precipitated rain on Hangzhou’s parade – the rain being showers of coal dust.

On March 10, 2013, residents woke up to a film of black powder that coated their homes and roads. The trees and flowers of the nearby Bashan National Forest Park were not spared either. Paradoxically, Hangzhou is a city whose name translates to “heaven of the earth.” It is legendary for its natural beauty; an ancient saying declares, “just as there is paradise in heaven, there are Suzhou and Hangzhou on earth.” In 2009, the city was voted the “National Garden City” and given the “China Habitat Environmental Prize.”

However, authorities were not able provide an explanation, much less a solution, for the shower of coal dust that came down on Hangzhou. It was an incident that both literally and figuratively besmirched the city and pointed to a larger nation-wide problem. China burns 3.5 billion tons of coal each year, largely for energy purposes, which generates 60 percent of the nitric oxide, 40 percent of the carbon dioxide and 25 percent of the dust pollutants in China’s notorious pollution.

Many residents of Hangzhou have refused to turn a blind eye to the environmental strains caused by the city’s rapid development. In May of 2014, people in Hangzhou demonstrated against a proposed garbage incinerator they believed would contaminate the air with toxic dioxin and mercury. More than 20,000 signatures were gathered from concerned residents who called for the project to be halted.

The authorities demanded calm, claiming that the incinerator was necessary given that the rapid expansion of the city had led to mounting levels of residential waste. After facing months of continued criticism, they promised that the project would not go ahead if public resistance remained high. At the same time, however, they arrested dozens of protesters. But even if authorities did pledge a shutdown, they could easily withdraw it. In 2011, a paraxylene plant that had sparked multiple protests in the city of Dalian was later quietly reopened in 2012, one year later.

The Chinese government is taking some steps to address the environmental problem in Hangzhou. It promised to build a coal-free zone by 2017, and assured Hangzhou’s residents that they would be able to enjoy more than 300 days of second-grade or better air quality by then. The government established the aptly named Project Blue Sky, Project Green Water, Project Greenness and Project Quietness.

While not being entirely inert, the rate at which progress is being made to ensure clean air might not be fast enough to keep up with the city’s rate of growth. In spite of implementing a metro system in 2012 and other public transportation initiatives that were aimed at decreasing people’s dependence on automobiles, CO2 emissions due to transportation are projected to increase by 59.6 percent by 2020. As long as the city develops at its current rate, demand for cars and other forms of motorization will continue to surge.

In 2013, China released 29 percent of the world’s CO2, or 10.3 billion tons. It was the largest emission from any single country. The U.S. released the second highest amount of CO2, accounting for 15 percent of global emissions with 5.3 billion tons. There is cause for hope, however, with the carbon reduction deal President Barack Obama and President Xi Jingping signed last November. China agreed to cap emissions and increase its use of zero-emission energy sources by 20 percent by 2030. But even with this initiative, it seems that Hangzhou will continue to suffer increasing environmental degradation for at least the next fifteen years.

Sources: China Briefing, Chicago Policy Review, NYTimes, The Epoch Times, Xinhua, IKPMG, Hangzhou Weekly, Hangzhou Government, Hangzhou Government, UN Habitat, The Guardian, PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and the European Commission

Photo: Fortune