Saturday, December 22, 2007

Random Readings

On the rhetoric of Climate Change.

Unintended consequences are everywhere. This particular report is about combating the "big" health problems in Africa.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Green Food

An article in the New York Times on why eating local or organic food may not necessarily be green or carbon-friendly, an echo of what Tim Harford wrote a while ago. Also how difficult it is for consumers to make informed decisions. Helpfully, Tim Harford, in another article points out the way forward.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

More on Suicides by Farmers

In an earlier post I wrote that the percentage of suicides committed by farmers has been more or less constant at 15% of the total number of suicides during 1998-2005. I also remarked that as the proportion of farmers in the total population is declining this understates the population adjusted suicide rate for farmers.

A superior way is to calculate the Farmers’ Suicide Rate (FSR), which is the number of suicides per 100,000 farmers. Dr Nagaraj has done that. P Sainath writes that the FSR of about 12.9 is higher than the General Suicide Rate (GSR) of above 10. The latter is the number of suicides per 100,000 population.

However, it is methodologically incorrect to compare the GSR with the FSR. This is so because the size of the work (labour) force is much smaller than the total population. While calculating GSR one takes the total number of suicides and divides it by the total population of the country. The total population includes, for example, all sub-adults including infants and children who are not part of the work force. The percentage of population below the age of 14 is about 33% (2001 census) and if one were to exclude this the GSR would jump to 16.

But while calculating FSR one takes only those (adult farmers) numbers who are part of the labour force. This is a much smaller number. Census of India 2001 classifies 400 million or approximately 40% of the population as workers. Hence FSR ought to be compared with the suicide rate for other professions and not the general population. Or FSR should be compared over time.

Also note that the Census of India definition of workers (see here and here) is different from the NCRB category of professional status of suicide victims, the latter includes the unemployed and housewives.

Dr Nagaraj also argues for making adjustments for one, the exclusion, by the NCRB, of non-title holders who are actually cultivators from the category of farmers and two, for the distinction between marginal and main workers in the Census categories. Both these matters are debatable and it is a moot point if such adjustments ought to be made. Even if done these adjustments are likely to change the suicide rate but not the variation in them over time. And even after making such an adjustment the FSR increases to 15.8 which is lower than the 16 (GSR) that I calculate excluding children from the count.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Suicides by Farmers

P Sainath has written extensively on the subject of suicides by farmers and thinks it is an indicator of economic distress in rural areas. Most of his stories are reports from the ground (See here and here). Of late, he has written some pieces (see 1, 2 and 3) based on analysis done by Dr. K. Nagaraj of MIDS, who in turn has used data collected by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). See here for an interview with Dr Nagaraj.

Sainath's dramatic headlines - 1.5 lakh farmer suicide during 1997-2005 and a farmer's suicide every 30 minutes seem to suggest very high incidence.

Let us look at the evidence. Here is a table from Sainath's own piece:

During 1997-2005 there were 1.5 lakh suicides by farmers, as he says. But during the same period there were a total of 1 million suicides in the country. If there was a suicide every 30 minutes by a farmer there was one every 4-5 minutes by the general population.

Obviously these absolute figures have to be put in context. As the table suggests:

1) The overall incidence of suicides (suicide rate) for the country is stable at just over 10 per 100,000 population (i.e. ten suicides per lakh of population per year).

2) Suicides among farmers are also more or less constant at about 15% of the total suicides in the country.

Thus, there is hardly any increase in the proportion of suicides committed by farmers in the nine-year period.

(There is an inexplicable jump in the number of farmer suicides from 1997 to 1998, which may be a data issue as data on farmers as a category started being collected from 1995 and several states reported late. Also strictly speaking we should account for the likely declining proportion of farmers to total population but nine years is not that long a period, nevertheless the stated numbers would understate the farmers' suicide rate).

Curiously, Dr Nagaraj and P Sainath make no mention of the causes of the suicides that are part of the NCRB statistics. The NCRB data suggests that a mere 6% or so suicides are due to poverty and bankruptcy, the majority being due to illness (22%), family problems (22%), other causes (28%) and unknown (15%).

I don't have the breakdown by reasons for farmers but it can hardly be that these other reasons are absent as a cause for suicides by farmers.

If true, that just like for the general population the reasons for committing suicides by farmers are predominantly non-economic, then the whole hypothesis of Sainath and Nagaraj would take a severe knock.

Four states – Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh (including Chattisgarh) – have accounted for more than 60% of farmer suicides during 1997-2005. Dr. Nagaraj relates this to several factors such as the lack of support from government, aridness of the regions and relying on cash crops and bought-out inputs. He also groups the various states in several categories. See the articles above for details.

However, the patterns don't quite hold. For example, if the affected states are arid so are Gujarat and Rajasthan which have low number and incidence of suicides. Kerala has one of the highest suicide rates, both overall and among farmers but it is not arid, but quite wet. Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are not arid either.

If cash crops are a factor, then one would expect Gujarat to be on the high suicides by farmers list, but it is not. And Chattisgarh hardly grows any “cash crops” and is a high suicide state. And certainly rice and wheat are cash crops for Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh but the incidence of suicides is low in these states. These states are also high-input using ones.

Tamil Nadu too is arid in many parts and the agriculture is quite “commercial” but the incidence of farmers' suicides is low though overall suicide incidence for the population is much higher than the national average. Communist ruled West Bengal has a high rate of overall suicide rate but not so for farmers.

One hardly sees a pattern, certainly none that fits the neat hypothesis of Sainath and Nagaraj.

A perusal of Sainath's field reports and other media reports suggest that farmers who took their lives are land owners (not landless), had frequently leased-in additional land, invested in irrigation and had borrowed sums which by Indian standards were not inconsiderable – several lakhs of rupees in many (most?) cases. Note, that the suicide-prone are not marginal farmers and landless labourers who one would expect to bear the brunt of agricultural distress. Also note that relatively poorer states like Bihar and Orissa have much lower rates of suicides than the four most seriously affected.

Finally, distress doesn't translate automatically and immediately to suicides. It takes a lot more than distress for a person to commit suicide. Why it happens at all and why so in select parts of India is beyond the scope of this blog and my competence. Some clues can be found in the book - The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell – who points out the “locally contagious epidemic” nature of suicides once a few have occurred.

P Sainath and Dr Nagaraj also point out that there are limitations to the data. I agree that there could be severe deficiencies but it is not at all certain, a priori, as to what direction revised statistics would take.

The stories, data and analysis presented of suicides by farmers are at present far from convincing.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Cats vs. Birds or People vs. People

The New York Times carries a story about cat lovers pitted against those trying to conserve birds, illustrating the trade-offs and the difficult choices that have to be made.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Interviews and Links on Climate Change

Scientific American carries interviews with Nicholas Stern, Bjorn Lomborg and Gary Yohe and also has some useful links on what else but ...........Climate Change.

Wheat, Apples and Chickenpox: From the Plain Wrong to the Ridiculous

A neighbour’s child has contracted chicken pox for a second time. This is in spite of being vaccinated. It must surely be very rare as both the vaccine and a prior case of chickenpox should have helped develop immunity. According to the doctor such cases are becoming quite frequent and the reasons are climate change, pollution and eating of junk food!!! (This is not a concocted story, trust me. It is easy to pick on the three great villains of our times).

Last year when the apple crop in Himachal Pradesh was poor, farmers, politicians and even scientists were quick to invoke climate change as the reason. That apple production has fluctuated for as long as one can remember was conveniently forgotten. And this year a bumper crop has lead to a scramble to hire scarce labour for harvesting the fruits – no mention of climate change.

This is what Dr Pachauri (of Nobel Prize fame) said sometime back:

“…………R.K. Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, said: “Wheat production in India is already in decline, for no other reason than climate change. Everyone thought we didn’t have to worry about Indian agriculture for several decades. Now we know it’s being affected now…………..”

Again, more recently:

“…………..Climate change is bringing down wheat production in India, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Rajendra K. Pachauri said in Ahmedabad Monday……….

………..'Agriculture productivity, particularly of wheat, has shown signs of going down as a result of the climate change,' Pachauri told an international conference on environmental education at the Centre for Environment Education…………"

Intrigued, I decided to look at the evidence.

Here are the figures for the past decade and more.

Unitsmhamillion tonneskgs/ha

Source: Extracted from 1 and 2. For 2006-07: the estimates are the 4th advance estimates from 1. See also this.

I don’t see any decline in production. Yes, there were two down years recently - 2004-05 and 2005-06 but production has jumped in 2006-07. Further, such declines and recoveries are part of the cycle of agricultural production. (Look at the table and for more see the sources listed). Dr. Pachauri’s statement illustrates the pitfalls of jumping to conclusions using a year or two of agricultural data.

Production is stable or rising, albeit slowly but since area under cultivation can change looking at yields is perhaps far more useful. Again no discernable trend is visible.

It is also odd that one picks on one crop – wheat – to make a case for climate change affecting output. What about other crops? It is worth noting that during 2006-07 India has harvested record levels of total foodgrains (though not wheat, where the harvest is the second-best ever), sugarcane, cotton and soybean (see this). Production of rice, the other major crop has been stable to rising.

Is there something unique about wheat that would make it more vulnerable to a warmer earth? Wheat is a Rabi (winter) crop. But a perusal of the data for cereals, foodgrains and other crops for the Rabi season suggests no declining trend (data is not presented here but look at 1, 2 and 3).

In fact, it could be argued that higher concentration of carbon dioxide and higher temperatures should at least initially, boost yields, but we let that pass for the moment.

However, the assertion that wheat output is being adversely affected by climate change doesn’t withstand even preliminary scrutiny.

Climate change is a serious matter deserving of our utmost attention. But when lazy or ignorant minds - whether a doctor in India’s science city or the head of a Nobel Prize winning body of several hundred scientists - start jumping to conclusions it is obvious that the desire for the dramatic has taken precedence over the need to stick to the facts.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Save Rhinos, Lose Antelopes?

A recent post by Alex Tabarrok refers to an old New Scientist story on a rhino rescue plan gone awry.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Help in Our Troubled Times

While carbon offsetting takes care of Climate Change here is a chance for you to neutralise your other sins!!!!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Intriguing Proposal on Climate Change

Joan Martinez Alier writes about a proposal wherein Ecuador will leave oil in the ground in return for compensation. The initiative has been recognised by the Clinton Global Initiative and is attracting interest from a variety of individuals, organisations and governments.

The intriguing bit is the claim that not extracting oil will reduce carbon emissions. Only if the oil from this particular oil field could not be replaced from anywhere else would it be the case. That is manifestly not the case. World consumption of oil doesn’t decline because one particular oil field is not being drilled. If the proposal is accepted I am afraid it is not going to make an iota of difference to world oil consumption and thence to carbon emissions and climate change.

Two more issues arise.

One, the commitment has to be honoured in perpetuity. So how will the legal agreement be structured and enforced?

Two, it raises the interesting possibility of strategic proposal submission - claiming to forsake projects which don't make sense anyway to attract funding – e.g. individuals (I won’t fly to London if you compensate me), organisations (we won’t hold our annual bash, compensate us) and governments (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge???).

Monday, October 22, 2007

Of Bjorn Lomborg and Al Gore

Here is Partha Dasgupta reviewing Bjorn Lomborg's Cool It.

This review in the Financial Times has a different perspective.

The last word ought to go, for now, to Greg Mankiw.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Other Water Problem

Climate Change may not only be about rising sea levels but also about reduced freshwater availability. The New York Times has an article about the USA. I wonder if we have such studies and popular articles about India.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Water Fiction

In earlier posts I have referred to data about water availability and utilisation without looking at it in any great detail. The estimates, made by government bodies in turn form the basis of many papers, essays and analysis by administrators, researchers and others (see 1 and 2). In a recent report the Planning Commission too uses the same numbers.

While I had also pointed out several conceptual deficiencies in the estimates I had not examined the data. It is time to do so.

It is instructive here to quote from A Vaidyanathan at some length. In his latest book, India’s Water Resources, while discussing surface flows as estimated by the CWC, he writes:

“………….These estimates have gaps and limitations. The flow observations sites are known to be relatively few, located along the main rivers of each basin and, until recently measurement devices were relatively crude. Locations for which long time series are available are even fewer. Releases from all major and medium reservoirs are supposed to be measured and recorded regularly. However, this information is not available for all reservoirs and in such cases utilisation is estimated on the basis of reported irrigated area.

More importantly, extensive changes have taken place in land use patterns: forest area has declined and the quality of the forest cover has deteriorated; extension of cultivation to marginal lands and soil erosion has led to degradation of land; and natural drainage channels (have) been disrupted by the expansion of road and rail networks and urbanization. These changes are likely to make a significant difference to the quantum, duration, and seasonal profile of surface flows. But their impact on the above has not been adequately and systematically studied. ………….”(pg. 34)

While noting that CWC estimates of utilizable surface flows relate mostly to large storages, he remarks about small structures:

“……….Their extent has been increasing and there is reason to believe that official statistics understate the area irrigated and volume of water harnessed. ……”(pg. 34)

And about Central Ground Water Board estimates of natural recharge from rainfall and recharge from irrigated areas of groundwater, he says:

“..… The Commission (NCIWRD) draws attention to the limitations of these estimates and the need for further research and observation to improve them. While it does not modify the estimate of overall recharge, their projections assume, rather arbitrarily and without citing any reason, that only two-thirds of the total recharge is utilizable in all the basins. ……………”(pg. 34-35)

It would thus seem that the estimate of aggregate water availability and utilisation as well as its categorisation as surface flows and groundwater is based on faulty or inadequate measurements and untenable assumptions.

For several purposes, water flows (irrespective of source and sink) can be treated as one system as the distinction between groundwater and surface flows may not be relevant. Remember water continually flows between the two – surface and ground – and this is not merely natural but human induced as well.

While the overall quantum of water that falls in the form of rain and snow (the starting point of water estimates) is known with a great degree of certainty, evaporation rates and return-flows, to name two important variables need to be measured adequately to estimate aggregate availability and utilisation. However, in several instances it is not only flow quantities but also withdrawals from stocks that matter as for instance if groundwater levels are falling over large tracts of land area.

In other words not only we don’t quite know how much of the total water is flowing on the surface and how much of it is seeping into the ground but that the estimates of both aggregate availability and utilisation too are fraught with severe problems of data that it seems little more than guess work.

Precise estimates as are put out by official agencies should be taken with more than a pinch of salt.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Elementary Errors Compounded

In the Handbook of Water Resources in India (2007) several authors bemoan the low per capita water storage in India. These include John Briscoe and RPS Malik (pg. 2), A Sekhar (pg. 63) and RPS Malik (pg. 142), well known and influential names.

Mr. Sekhar, Advisor to the Planning Commission, even says that one of the main reasons for water problems in the country is the low per capita storage. He adds that India has no option but to go ahead with its dam construction programme. This is quite incredible for in the vast number of articles in book (including by these authors and others) the problems discussed and the solutions offered are quite different.

Nevertheless, it may well be that the authors are merely inconsistent in their views. The question may still be posed. Is there merit in the augmenting water storage?

The reason proffered by these authors is that rainfall is concentrated in a few monsoon months making storage inevitable. Further, the per capita water storage in India at about 265 cubic metres (see Tables 1.8 &1.9 and Chart 4 of this report) is much less than that of other countries. While Briscoe and Malik say that arid-rich countries like USA and Australia have over 5,000 cubic metres (m^3), middle-income countries like South Africa, Mexico, Morocco and China have a storage capacity of about 1,000 m^3. Interestingly, Mr. Malik in a later chapter offers somewhat different figures – 1964 (USA) and 753 (South Africa). He also points out that dams on the Colorado (USA) and Murray-Darling (Australia) can store 900 days of river flow; India can store only about 30 days of rainfall.

The comparison is with a select list of countries (why only these and not other countries make it to their list and why global averages are not presented is a moot point but I will let that pass for the moment). The interesting that is that most of the countries mentioned - Australia, Spain, China, USA and South Africa - face varying levels of acute and chronic water-related problems including that of scarcity. Water storage hardly seems such a silver bullet after all.

Mr. Sekhar also suggests the need for a storage capacity of 750–1,000 m^3 per capita though the rationale of that figure is not explained.

In any case, what matters is the ability of a country to meet its requirements - to provide water - and not its storage capability. India’s per capita availability of 1,700 m^3 per capita per annum is considered quite comfortable. As I pointed out earlier, several countries with higher storage have not solved their problems while several countries (e.g. in the Gulf) with less storage manage quite well. In fact if a country can meet it use without storage so much the better.

Since rainfall in India occurs over a few months it is, of course, imperative to store water. Let’s examine this more closely.

Note that the Indian storage estimates – approximately 300 billion cubic metres (BCM) (265 m^3 per capita) - relate to major (more than 10 million m^3) and medium facilities with the former accounting for almost all of it. This excludes the tens of thousands of small storage structures in the country that collectively store considerable quantities of water.

A major source of surface storage is water in the form of snow, something not considered by the authors at all. This is a free and valuable form of storage and the melting of snow provides water in a very regular and dependable manner, though admittedly the water is not accessible the way it is from other sources. Yet it is a form of storage that hardly deserves to be excluded. In another essay in the book (pg. 184) a figure of 200 BCM of annual water flows from snowmelt is mentioned and one can derive a figure of 800 BCM of storage in the form of snow (700 m^3 per capita), a figure hardly to be scoffed at.

Nor is water stored only above the ground. It is stored below the ground (in shallow and deep aquifers) and which provides near-free and low evaporation capability. As is well known by now groundwater is a considerable source of supplies to irrigation, domestic and industrial users. Aggregate storage below the ground would dwarf surface facilities by a large margin.

(Now it is true that other countries storage capacities too will increase if we include all sources but as I have pointed out overall storage per capita may not be a useful way of looking at things.)

There is also the whole issue of the source of water for storage. If water is not being stored today where is it going? Is it flowing to the seas? Recharging groundwater? Or is it evaporating? Surface storage in large dams would make sense only in case of the last of the three. For as the authors themselves recognise water flowing to the seas is not a waste. And if it were to be captured from what goes to recharge groundwater it would be a zero-sum game.

Finally, it is in the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna system that the bulk of the storable potential exists but water shortages are endemic in the arid parts – select regions of north, western, central and southern India. Enhanced water storage is unlikely to benefit these areas.

(This post may be read along with the others on Water.)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Water Woes in Chennai: Quick Comments on RWH and Desalination

In a recent post I had discussed the potential for desalination as a solution to shortages of water and had made a reference to Chennai. The intention was not to discuss the water problems of the city at any length. The city’s water woes are well known but not well studied.

One attempt to redress the lacuna is the work of A. Vaidyanathan (done jointly with J. Saravanan). Readers may read the relevant chapter in this book. Based on a survey of households carried a few a years ago it provides information on several aspects such as consumption, sources of supply and costs. Care must be taken in interpreting and drawing conclusions from the study as it had several limitations, which the authors themselves highlight. It does provide a broad overview of the water issues including discussion on conservation, rainwater harvesting (RWH) and other supply augmenting measures.

While the work is useful it lacks conceptual clarity. If suffers from most of the errors I had pointed out in an earlier post. We don’t get a water balance for the city that would take into account the way water is received, stored, used and disposed.

For example, while discussing RWH the authors don’t tell us where does the water go if it is not harvested. Does it flow out to the seas or to tanks or lakes that dot the city or in to the marshes or other natural bodies? Does RWH increase overall water availability or does it just redistribute it? Does local availability increase? Is it a zero-sum game?

(This is an important issue especially in urban areas. In rural areas local harvesting has much stronger rationale though the issues are relevant there too. See, 1 and the responses to it - 2 and 3.)

There is also the issue of RWH on individual structures. Even if water is to be harvested locally must it be done on each and every building rather than in a collective enterprise? Making RWH compulsory as was done in Chennai is also likely to lead to corruption, or people putting up token structures that are not effective to begin with or then failing to maintain them.

Desalination is dismissed in one paragraph, which is surprising as the book has been written in 2006 by when a lot of initiatives in Chennai had been taken up. As mentioned in an earlier post this augmentation measure may have great potential and impact.

Chennai is interesting not only because it suffers acute and chronic water problems; relies on water from surrounding and far-off areas with attendant problems; but also because it is on the coast where desalination can be an attractive proposition.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Desalination in India: Some Comments

It is not for nothing that Earth is called a blue planet. Not only is 71 % of the surface covered by seas, the water they hold is so unfathomably large (in relation to what circulates in the hydrological cycle) so as to be considered infinite. See here.

Removing salt from water is rather easy - boil it and then condense the vapours in another vessel, - and in the bargain get salt, as well. The issue has always been of the cost – primarily energy.

Developments in the past decades have dramatically reduced these costs – present estimates range from 50 to 80 cents (Rs. 20-32) per cubic metre (1,000 litres) of water. (See 1, 2 and 3), though in India a figure of Rs. 50 is also quoted. Costs are most sensitive to the level of salt in water (the lower the salt content the cheaper it is to desalt - so treating brackish water is cheaper) and energy costs. Note that the above costs are that of desalinisation and don’t include those of distribution. Transporting water over long distances (which may also entail lifting it) can increase considerably the final delivered cost of water.

There are two major technologies for desalting water – reverse osmosis (RO) and multi-stage flash (MSF); the former is increasingly more popular. RO is modular in nature and capacity ranges are wide. Another point to the noted is that while the cost of desalination is going down that of conventional water is going up as fresh supplies come from deeper aquifers or water is transported over longer distances. (See above citations for details including on costs, technologies and other matters. See also the references in the sources cited above.)

Given that so much water is available, costs are falling, traditional sources are turning dearer and more difficult to tap, and that there are severe shortages in several coastal location (Chennai is the example that springs to mind) is there a case for desalting water on a large scale?

Apart from Chennai, several other cities on the lower east coast and in Gujarat would seem to hold immediate potential. At present Chennai is building several desalination plants for both domestic use and for industries. See 1, 2 and 3.

Another interesting possibility is that if coastal areas can develop their own independent water supplies it may relieve pressures on upstream water resources that currently supply water to these locations. In other words, water which is now required for downstream users can be saved and used upstream. Hence, desalted water may have a role in helping upstream water users too!!

Desalted water is undoubtedly more expensive, say 2-5 times (numbers are illustrative) the cost of conventional water and it is feared that overall costs of water would shoot up considerably if it were to be adopted on a wide scale. The purpose of this post is not to discuss the costs in any detail but I would suggest a perusal of the links cited above. Instead I wish to make some more general observations and clarify certain matters in this regard.

To begin with it is not as if all water supplies would be met from desalted water. Only incremental supplies will be. So if say, 10 % of water is to be met from desalination and it costs 5 times as much as conventional water overall total costs go up only 50 % and don’t become 5 times. (A scenario analysis using various assumptions on the cost of desalting water and its contribution to overall water supplies is encouraged)

However, comparing the marginal cost of desalted water with the average of conventional is not the right way to go about it. Marginal costs ought to be compared with the marginal cost of conventional water supplied. Since the latter is likely to be closer to Rs. 50 and not Rs.10 or so the difference between the two sources narrows down considerably. (The average cost of the RO is nearly the same as its marginal cost).

In short, desalination may be cheaper, relatively, than what appears at first glance.

It is also argued that the energy costs of RO are considerable but that is already included in the higher costs of desalting water and highlighting them separately is wrong and if done unthinkingly may end up in double counting.

Note, that as a practical matter residents of Chennai and industries around the city already pay Rs. 50 or more per cubic metre, the very high end of the cost of desalted water. And if one adds the opportunity cost of time, disease, additional investments in pumps and storage, desalination is not more expensive, probably a cheaper alternative. The extra burden, assuming all costs are to be recovered from users would hardly burn a hole in the pockets of the residents. Compare the monthly expenditure on water with items such as telephony or entertainment. (Tamil Nadu seems rich enough for its government to give free colour TV sets to the needy!!)

The other major concerns with desalination are its environmental impact.

One of them is the loss of marine life during the intake as organisms get sucked in and die. This is rather a minor problem to solve and is preventable by the suitable placement of intake pipes, meshes and beach-wells.

The major worry has been the effluents generated during purification. Note, however, that the common notion that hot water generated during the process can damage the marine ecosystem is not true. Hot water is not generated during RO but brine (highly concentrated salt solution) definitely is.

It has been argued that brine can be discharged at appropriate places and diluted with water to lessen its impact. Another suggestion is to solidify the wastes and dispose them in say, abandoned mines or such places.

But the best possible solution would be to sell it. After all salt is a major input for many chemical industries and maybe it can even be made good enough (after treatment) for human consumption. I am reminded about flyash (generated from thermal power plants) and which was such a problem many years ago. Now cement companies clamour to gain access to it to make blended cement. They are willing to pay for it.

It is also curious that papers such as that of the WWF cited above make no discussion of environmental costs of existing water supplies. After all costs are relative. Groundwater depletion, energy use by borewells, tankers plying all over the city, water transported over long distances, are all environmental costs associated with conventional supplies.

Overall it seems that desalination of water has a promising role to play. It ought to begin small but if economic and environmental costs are reasonable it can be expanded to more locations, and water conveyed inland.

Finally, desalination is not a substitute for demand-side measures. It is sometimes argued that we should rely on the latter rather than the former to solve our problems. Of curse, we should. But where supplies need to be augmented, desalting would be as good a bet as withdrawing water from the ground or bringing it from distant places. Nor is desalination likely to be relevant for the whole of India. It is also not a panacea for the myriad ills of India’s water system but it could play a considerable role in supplying clean water to select locations at low rates with minimal damage to the ecosystem.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Elementary Errors in Analysing Water

Water analysis usually starts with estimates of water availability. According to India’s Central Water Commission:

"Precipitation (including snowfall) is the source of all water on the earth. The average annual precipitation over the country is estimated at 4000 BCM of which a part goes towards increasing ground water storage, a part is lost as evapo-transpiration and the remaining appears as surface water. The water resources potential of the country which occurs as natural run off in the rivers is estimated as about 1869 BCM, considering both surface and ground water as one system. Due to various constraints of topography, uneven distribution of resource over space and time, and geographic [sic] only about 1122 BCM of the total potential can be put to beneficial use, 690 BCM through surface water resources and 432 BCM by ground water."(pg. 13)

These numbers are widely used (see CSE and Iyer (2007)) and rather uncritically.

Note that just over 25 % of the precipitation is estimated of being put to beneficial use. So even a small increase in the utilisation percentage can lead to a big jump in available water.

The paragraph quoted above, however, is factually inaccurate, misleading and incomplete. To begin with the statement about precipitation being the source of all water is erroneous as oceans (97%), glaciers and polar icecaps (2.4%) hold the bulk of surface water. See here. Shallow and deep aquifers (in the aggregate) hold enormous quantities of freshwater.

The CWC statement can perhaps be re-read to indicate an estimate of sustainable water availability as water from rains is replenished every year. However, even so their estimate is incorrect, as we will see below.

Firstly, rainwater which seeps in to the ground is also (potentially) available for use so it should not be deducted from total precipitation. Secondly, India has commitments to supply (let water flow) to neighbouring countries and in turn it receives water from outside its boundaries. The net figure has to be deducted from overall precipitation. Finally, flow of water in rivers and out in to the seas serves many critical ecological and socio-economic functions, so even if all water could be captured and stored one wouldn’t do so.

So beginning with the annual precipitation over the country, a proper analysis must deduct the quantity of evapo-transpiration (strictly speaking this is the only quantity not available for use) and India’s net commitments to neighbouring countries. Water, which needs to flow to the seas to fulfil ecological and other functions, too needs to be subtracted.

Potentially all other water is available for use. However, it is not quite practicable to store all the water that falls as precipitation and much of it flows to the seas. The storable potential is not fixed and has and can be increased. Note, however, that this increase in storage capacity doesn’t necessarily have to come from the construction of large dams. Small storage structures and increasing ground water storage through increase in percolation of rainwater through the soil, to name just two measures, can be just as effective.

Even this analysis is incomplete. For water can be and is used again and again. This is true of the three major water-using sectors – domestic, agricultural and industrial. Return flows, as they are termed are extremely important and the bulk of water used is returned back to the hydrological cycle. Most of this happens naturally but can be enhanced by human efforts. A multiplier is at work here and recycled and reused water may increase manifold the effective utilisable water.

For an extremely illuminating discussion on the above see IWMI especially the section on Water Balance Analysis and Appendix A.

Finally, water supplies can be augmented by desalination of seawater. This is, of course, limited to coastal location and largely for industrial and domestic use but with a coastline of 7,500 kms this need not be a trivial source of supply. Such water is now available at very competitive rates without severe environmental damage (this is not the place to go into details, but I will discuss this in a later post). And rather than take out all the water from our rivers it may be far more sensible to let water flow into the seas and then desalt it.

The CWC analysis (which forms the basis for many others) seriously underestimates water availability in the country. I don’t have the model or the data to estimate the revised numbers but they must surely be much more than present CWC estimates.

{Note: BCM is billion cubic metres. I cubic metre = 1,000 litres. India’s average annual rainfall is 1200 mm (1.2 mts) and multiplied by the area of 328 million hectares gives an approximate figure of 4,000 BCM since a hectare = 10,000 sq. mts. Also 4,000 BCM=400 million hectare metres=4,000 cubic kms.}

Monday, September 3, 2007

Bhopal Revisited

S Ravi Rajan who has written extensively on Bhopal calls it a “natural laboratory” which allows one to study and understand matters such as environmental and societal violence in relation to complex, modern technology (see this essay). In particular, discussing the Bhopal gas leak, which he calls not quite unpredictable or unusual, he states and I quote:

“ …….. Yet, they are far from being freak incidents, results of a stochastic roll of the dice of history.........In light of this history, what happened on December 3, 1984, was clearly not accidental in the sense of a chance, random, unpredictable event......"

The history Ravi Rajan is referring to includes the various accidents at the Bhopal factory of Union Carbide, prior to 1984. This fact juxtaposed with the faulty plant design, departure of skilled staff and manning by under-qualified staff makes his hypothesis seem quite convincing and the accident almost inevitable.

However, closer examination suggests that only is the analysis based on the study of just one major disaster but there is a far more serious problem with it.

It is manifestly wrong (methodologically) to argue backwards from the event after it has occurred. From the knowledge of the disaster having taken place it is simple to trace it to a set of particular circumstances and underlying reasons. It is simple but it is also deeply flawed.

For what of the hundreds of instances where similar initial conditions prevailed but no accident/disaster took place?

To understand this better it is instructive to invoke the ideas of Nassim N Taleb discussed in his book The Black Swan (this is definitely the must read book of 2007 - irrespective of your interests or background. The present analysis owes a lot to this book. If unfamiliar with his ideas see 1 and 2).

A Black Swan event has three characteristics:

  1. small probability of occurrence
  2. large impact
  3. and, retrospective predictability.

As we have seen in an earlier post the Bhopal gas leakage of 1984 was an extremely rare event with huge impact. And yet with perfect hindsight it is rationalised and explained as something not unusual or unpredictable.

However, a proper analysis ought to start with a universe of factories (or a subset of them where the pre-conditions/indicators that have been identified -– small accidents, lack of preparedness, staff issues – are present) and see how many lead to extremely, serious and huge accidents. This would help test if the hypothesis has any predictive power.

In other words rather than start from Bhopal (a known disaster site) one ought to start from factories and move forward. The analysis as done by Ravi Rajan starts with the disaster and then moves backwards to underlying causes and is thereby flawed.

A similar analysis applies in case of the warnings about the hazards from the Bhopal factory and which were largely ignored. Such warnings were and continue to be made in the case of numerous other factories; warnings which were and have been ignored by and large. But the consequences too have never materialised. Even environmentalists didn’t take the warnings seriously till the gas leakage took place in Bhopal.

So should the solitary Bhopal catastrophe lead one to conclude that the other disaster-free plants had appropriate designs, trained staff and high level of preparedness? If so it would make Bhopal even more of an outlier but more importantly it would defy all what is generally known and accepted about the conditions in Indian factories – certainly till the 1980s.

Or alternatively if the plants were not designed safely, had staffing issues and a history of small accidents then the hypothesis as propounded by S Ravi Rajan is faulty since in such factories (with certain pre-conditions identified) no major accident took place. These indicators, it would seem are poor predictors of industrial accidents and Bhopal would be unusual and unpredictable, contrary to Rajan’s thesis.

This still begs the question: what turns some to be Black Swans?

Well, the short answer is that we don’t know; nor can we know prospectively else they wouldn’t be Black Swans.

Think 9/11. In retrospect it is all too clear. But what seems predictable now was inconceivable back then.

It is also very likely that industries have learnt from Bhopal and other disasters and taken steps to avoid them. We will never hear or read about disasters avoided since they never happened!

More Black Swans?

Black Swans are rare but they do occur – though not exactly in the same way. History rhymes, it doesn’t repeat.

It is a frightening thought that though they can’t be predicted disasters will occur and perhaps with extremely devastating consequences.

Should we be worried? Yes. Can we act to stop them? No, and for reasons outlined above.

However, while we all seem to be fixated on low probability events with huge consequences we tend to ignore the more probable ones with smaller distributed impacts.

So while we focus on Bhopal, we ignore the everyday small accidents in factories. We worry about airplane crashes (though adjusted for passenger kilometres air travel may be safer than road travel) while everyday 250 persons die in road accidents in India. To put that number in perspective it is nearly 100,000 people every year. While we are concerned about terrorism (less than 5,000 deaths every year on average in India), millions of infants will not see their first birthday and tens of thousands of women die in childbirth every year.

Not only do these seemingly small matters have more bearing on our lives but they are also far more but amenable to corrective action.

(this post may be read along with the one below)

Rethinking Industrial Disasters

Given the concern that industrial disasters invoke the Wikipedia entry on them turns out to have surprisingly few entries. An Internet search too doesn’t generate many unique entries. Another website has very few industrial disasters listed as happening in the past 50 years. Admittedly these lists are not exhaustive (and they largely omit the plant-level accidents in the former USSR, China and Eastern Europe) but nevertheless it is unlikely that a major disaster affecting the general public would have been excluded.

The list includes several infamous accidents such as Bhopal (undeniably the world’s worst ever industrial disaster), Chernobyl, Seveso and Minamata. Three Mile Island is not even mentioned on the Wikipedia list, presumably due to lack of mortalities, though it crops up frequently in public discussions. See the Wikipedia links cited above for information on fatalities from accidents.

At this stage it is useful to distinguish between several kinds of accidents/disasters.

Bhopal and Chernobyl are examples of (one-time) accidents that had an immediate (and also long-term) massive impact which extended well beyond the plant premises. In the second category are accidents where the impact is confined to the plant premises.

The word disaster is also sometimes used for damage due to pollution (discharge of effluents on a near-regular basis) and which has long-term impacts outside the plant - e.g. - Minamata. It is also used, though less frequently for occupational hazards in work places due to dangerous practices and exposure to toxins.

These four categories differ in origin, causes and their impacts and consequences. Colloquially the word disaster refers to the first category though perhaps the big plant-level accidents too ought to be considered as disasters especially the mining accidents which historically and presently continue to take a heavy toll of human life.

It is because of the immediate and huge consequences that we remember Bhopal and not the other smaller accidents. It is by no means certain that accidents (within and outside plants) cause the bulk or majority of the fatalities. Long-term exposure to toxins among workers and adverse health consequences due to exposure to pollutants among public have grave health consequences and in the aggregate they may match or exceed the fatalities due to accidents.

Industrial disasters which affect the general public grab headlines and comprise most of the discussion on the subject, the horrible consequences of other events notwithstanding. It is not only in popular press that they dominate. Consider for example, the year 2007 publication, Environmental Issues in India, edited by Mahesh Rangarajan. While otherwise very comprehensive in its treatment of subjects it has practically nothing on pollution, occupational health and plant-level accidents.

As mentioned earlier it seems that industrial accidents/disasters affecting the public have mercifully been very rare though it may seem otherwise given the attention that they receive in public discussions.

The rarity of accidents is also somewhat remarkable given the level and growth of industry and the millions of hours of operations at multiple sites all over the world. The Indian chemical industry (broadly defined to include inorganic and organic chemicals and also petroleum refineries, petrochemical plants, fertilizers and pharmaceuticals) too has grown by leaps and bounds and doesn’t seem to have slowed down since 1984 when the Bhopal accident took place. In fact growth has accelerated in the past two decades.

Despite the risks, growth has taken place in several countries and across ownership categories - private, public, MNCs and even co-operatives. And while the profit motive is usually blamed for accidents the continuous process chemical plants actually need to run for long, accident-free, uninterrupted stretches to turn in profits. Hence, the desire for profits is well-aligned with the necessity to avoid accidents and plant shutdowns.

(In the next post I will look at the Bhopal gas leakage)

Friday, August 24, 2007

No Two Thoughts About Reading This Book

The dilemma, of course, is what to eat? A simple question it is not (certainly not anymore) as the author takes us on a fascinating journey following three food chains – the industrial, the pastoral organic and that of the cultivator-forager-hunter.

There is, however, a lot more than just food in the book – there is something for practically everyone to ruminate over. So there is plenty of ecology – and not only about animals but plants and fungi too. You can learn as much about grazing regimes, interdependence and evolution as you can about carbon and nitrogen cycles.

It is also about the absurdities of industrial food systems, its waste, its pollution and the cruelty to animals and the ill health it causes. Big organic (the likes of Whole Foods) comes under scrutiny and which it would seem shares many of the values if not necessarily all the inputs of industrial food. There is a discussion of animal rights, vegetarianism and much more.

So this is not really a review but a recommendation to read the book. The paperback has just been released which makes it far more affordable but as a book that will educate, amuse and make you think it is priceless.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Many Shades of Green

Forest Futures: Global Representations And Ground Realities In The Himalayas
Antje Linkenbach

The Chipko movement in what is now Uttarakhand is widely and justly celebrated as a pioneering environmental movement to save Himalayan forests. Sorry, what did you say - an environmental movement. I thought it was a peasant movement. Wait a second - wasn’t it a feminist movement?

Now, now - these are labels that “outside” experts and professionals have given Chipko. Have you asked people what do they think of it? Do they all think of it the same way? All the time? What about the ban on tree-felling? Did people approve of it? Don’t people ever want to cut down trees? Do they never encroach on forest land? Are they content to grow crops merely for subsistence or do they have other aspirations? What about growing cash crops like apples and using fertilizers and insecticides?

If you have had 101 questions that you were afraid to ask or didn’t know who to ask here is the book for you. It will disabuse you of many myths (romantic or otherwise) and notions that have been built around the Chipko movement.

So does the real Chipko stand up? Well, maybe there is none. Like in the movie Rashomon people see events differently and there are many perspectives, rich and varied, dependent on whom you ask and what you read.

And even though this may suggest that the book dwells quite a bit on differences, rivalries and conflicts (which it does because of the very nature of the study and in any case there is no dearth of laudatory accounts), as the author emphasises Chipko is a remarkable movement both in what it did in the region and the impact it had worldwide.

The one jarring note in the book is the chapter titled Ecology and Development. The author digresses into providing the backdrop and the context to her work. However, her discussion of development theory and the Indian development debates and experience is inadequate if not actually misleading. Even the “conventional development” discourse in India is far richer than what the author suggests. The discussion in the chapter also seems superfluous to the main theme of the book.

The sections on agricultural cycle, marriage relations, history, religion and rituals of the study village necessary as they are could easily have been shortened. The relevance of the lengthy discussion and the links to the subject matter of the book is neither shown nor is it self-evident. And while the author subjects Chipko and its history to critical analysis (that is what the book is about) she accepts rather uncritically certain other aspects (e.g. the struggle for the formation of and the expectations from Uttarakhand).

These small matters notwithstanding, on the whole the book is a very useful read and addition to the literature.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Conservation Outside Protected Areas

A notable feature of the debate on conserving India’s wild biodiversity is the focus on national parks and wildlife sanctuaries (commonly referred to as protected areas – PAs). Virtually all participants – whatever their ideological positions and opinions on policy matters - discuss issues in the context of PAs.

Even among PAs it is a few that dominate. Virtually all studies and references come from a list comprising Gir, Bharatpur, Sariska, Ranthambore, Rajaji, Great Himalayan National Park, Kanha, Nagarhole-Bandipur, and a few others. PAs attract researchers due to their glamour value but also due to the availability of information, baseline data and superior logistics.

This concentration is reflected in the published work (among books see, for example, 1, 2, and 3). Virtually all analysis, criticisms and prescriptions come from a few sites.

Why are PAs so important? To one set of wildlife protagonists they (potentially) provide inviolate spaces where human beings or their activities can be excluded. To another set there is no contradiction between conservation imperatives and human activities and in fact, many argue, that human activities may promote biodiversity. This is not the occasion to visit the debate but ask a different question. Is the exclusive focus on PAs healthy? Desirable? Are we missing something?

Collectively the PAs make up a little less than 5% (16 million hectares) of India’s geographical area. The total forest area in the country is about 77 million hectares or 24% of the total land area. So approximately 19% or a massive 60 million hectares are other forests (OFs) which are not PAs. This is reason enough to look at more than just protected areas.

There may be another reason too. As Vasant Saberwal states in a slightly different but related context

Human disturbances may increase floral and faunal diversity in a number of ways.(pg. 55).

Fire, grazing, logging and extraction of NTFPs are examples of such human disturbances. Now it is a reasonable assumption that most of the OFs have “considerably greater” human activities than PAs. To the extent disturbance (albeit, up to a certain degree) promotes diversity, OFs are huge reservoirs of floral and small-faunal diversity. Thus OFs are extremely important conservation areas not only for their sheer aggregate area but also for the fact that they may harbour significant biodiversity which may match or exceed those in PAs.

But do we need to study the OFs or can we carry our insights from PAs to them. The OFs’ very different legal status and consequent ecological and social history probably implies very different patterns of resource availability and extraction.

Hence biodiversity studies in OFs and their inclusion in debates about conservation ought to be of utmost importance.

Leading researchers had in an essay, rightly argued, among other things, for greater encouragement, opportunities and access for doing research in wildlife areas. But they limit their case to PAs. It may well be time to look beyond parks and sanctuaries.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Floods in India: 2007

Re. an earlier post discussing floods here are some pictures and some more.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Earlier Post as a Letter

An earlier post on Sariska now appears as a slightly edited letter in the EPW.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Essays, essays, everywhere, not one to read

The book comes in the midst of the flood season in India. The floods have, as usual, taken their toll of human and animal life and property. So I quickly flipped the pages to see what this book may have to say on the important subject and found a solitary article.

Rohan D’Souza’s piece is about flood control in deltaic Orissa alongside comparisons with similar schemes in the USA and China. The author points out the conflicting views on controlling floods by constructing embankments and dams and how the views swung from seeing flood waters as a calamity to seeing it as a nutrient-rich resource. The history is not quite up-do date as it stops with the 1950s. What lessons does it have for contemporary matters relating to flood control?

Precious little, one would think. Whatever may have the situation earlier matters have changed since the 1850s, from when the author traces the history. Two major changes can be pointed out. One, that nutrients to enrich soils are now increasingly supplied by artificial means and with greater effectiveness and control.

The second and the major change, however, is in the impact of floods. Urban areas and populations (both absolute and in relation to rural areas) have increased dramatically. Now urban areas don’t derive any benefits from floods but bear huge costs. Even in rural areas population densities have increased. What earlier may have been a relatively simple expedient of moving away when waters flooded homes is these days nothing short of a nightmare (even if it were simple to shift in the past it must have been a terrible experience though the author doesn’t discuss this aspect).

In contemporary India we are quite familiar with what happens when floods strike and images of people marooned and forced to spend days and nights on tree-tops under rain with scarcely any food or amenities are grim reminders of the heavy costs that people face. Even the army needs to be called in at many places to rescue people. Unfortunately, waters don’t confine themselves to farm land but enter houses and offices destroying life and damaging possessions. Not only is life at risk but even in rural areas large scale inundation is extremely disruptive of economic, social and educational activities. These days there is more infrastructure (roads, banks, schools), more material possessions (household durable goods, for example) and more equipment (tractors, pumps, engines) whose submergence is hardly an inconsequential matter.

In other words India can’t afford to have large tracts of land inundated with water every year. The author quotes a source that 12-20% of the land area of the country may be flood-prone. If true, it would imply a population at risk in such areas of 100-200 million.

So the notion of floods as a resource is now merely an academic curiosity. This, however, doesn’t and shouldn’t be construed as a plea or a case for building dams or embankments. There are other important aspects to inundation and hydrology that the author doesn’t discuss - the most prominent omission is drainage – and which are critical to understanding, regulating and preventing floods and the terrible consequences they bring.

Most of the papers in the book are not about surfeit but scarcity of water. On groundwater there are two articles – both about Gujarat and oddly enough David Hardiman’s paper relies a lot on the work of the other contributor - Navroz Dubash. Not only does it make the essays repetitive but one also misses perspectives from other states. For example, even communist-ruled West Bengal has fairly extensive groundwater markets.

Both Hardiman and Dubash are critical of and reject work claiming competitive water markets. They don’t, however, demonstrate that prices deviate from competitive outcomes but merely assert that this is so. This is clearly not sufficient.

On the other hand they do claim roles for institutional factors and historical development in water markets. Dubash makes the case that kinship and caste-based understandings play an important role in determining outcomes. Hardiman also claims that in one village (of the 2 studied by Dubash) a price cartel has been at work.

In that particular village the dominant community makes up 64% of the households and owns 97% of the land and 100% of the wells. Hence the thesis that kinship and caste play an important role is a trivial conclusion and not particularly insightful. After all given the ownership pattern is it a surprise that all decisions and outcomes will be internalised within the particular community? And if as Hardiman says they have formed a price cartel it is not clear who the cartel is exploiting or targeting. After all, the cartel is itself the market!!!!

The second village is more diverse and market forces play a greater role and caste and kinship forces seem to be weaker. The thesis thus propounded by these two authors suffers from lack of evidence and seems quite tenuous.

Overall, in the book, several important areas such as pollution, urban water scarcities, waterlogging and salinity of irrigated land are missing and while no book can be expected to be comprehensive this one has a lot of articles of questionable relevance if not questionable scholarship.

Take the editor’s own article. It reads like a diary – a travel diary – of her journey through Jhabua evaluating its watershed programme. With little else apart from her own impressions and of those she met how seriously can one consider it? And one searches in vain for something on water, and then finally the last paragraph of the paper begins “Finally, water………..”

Other essays, for example in the section entitled “Imagining Communities” are not that neglectful of water. However, and in spite of what the editor says in the introduction there is no ecological specificity about these essays. They are not water-distinctive at all, they could have been about any resource, indeed about anything. For example substitute school for the tank in Arun De Souza’s piece and it would still read right. Or if in R Brara’s it were electricity instead of water it would still ‘enlighten”. So whatever be the other merits of these essays they don’t deepen our understanding of water issues.

The redeeming feature of the book is the essay on south Indian tank irrigation by David Mosse. It questions the idea of a pre-colonial ‘ideal’ water and irrigation regime and associated conceptions and roles of the state and the community. But it doesn’t stop there. Instead it also draws implications relevant for our times and can be read as a critique of attempt to recover or recreate the past. One does miss, however, what could have been a dialogue with another contributor with different views on the subject.

The book’s jacket has a colourful water painting titled “Small Pond, Many Fish”. I wonder if the artist is alluding to the billions of humans on planet Earth. Interesting all the fish are of the same size - no small fish, no big fish - and no fish is eating other fish!!! The rest of the landscape is verdant with trees and birds and women around a handpump giving plentiful water. Has the artist not read the book or is she making a point of her own?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Don’t Go by the Title

Making Conservation Work
Securing Biodiversity in this New Century

Ghazala Shahabuddin & Mahesh Rangarajan (editors)

Reading the book’s title and sub-title made me expect papers and discussion on urgent biodiversity concerns and priorities, an analysis of existing and required changes in laws and policies, some recommendations and prescriptions, and even a few success stories pointing the way forward. And the impression was heightened when in the introduction the editors said that that most of the papers in the book were presented at a workshop looking at solutions to biodiversity loss in India.

Alas, it was not to be. The book is not about solutions or about making conservation work or securing biodiversity. Perhaps one and a half papers would qualify. Expectations of readers based on the title may well be belied.

What the book has is plenty (5 of the 8 papers) of description and analysis of what has transpired. These review papers in the volume are not even posing the problem except in a very peripheral way. Though all 8 papers are case–studies, they are not used to pose larger questions and move towards solutions even if they were to be provisional or tentative. There is no looking at the future and in particular to relate biodiversity imperatives to the rapid changes in society and the economy.

One paper that does attempt to deal with solutions is the one by Nitin Rai (readers without access to the book may read this article) on extraction of NTFPs in a Western Ghats village. He shows that secure tenure is associated with prudent harvesting while premature harvesting and other destructive practices are seen in open access areas. On the critical matter of solutions he mentions several things such as collective control and distribution based on customary rules, addressing issues of equity, role and space for local forest-dependent communities, and active role of government and non-governmental organizations.

These measures are mentioned without detailing how they would come about and be sustained. Unfortunately, the paper stops – by listing these measures - where it should have begun.

To begin with it is not clear why communities or groups are not able to organise and prevent premature harvesting which as he notes they have done at other places. What is it about the structure of society that causes this? The village has 81 households of which the dominant community is 54% (who don’t participate in collection from open-access areas) and the next two groups comprise 15% each of the total households. The average income in the village is much higher than the state and national averages and even the relatively “poor” don’t seem destitute. The district is aware, literate and no stranger to movements. Is the effort involved in modifying extraction regime not worth the reward? Or does the community need time to sort out matters?

From the paper it is not clear if collection of other products including wood and fodder in open access areas is prudent or destructive. Is it only fruit extraction, which the author studied, which is destructive of the environment?

The author leans towards providing security of tenure as a possible solution. But such security can take various forms. Which one will work? Another pertinent question not raised or addressed is that a regime change may bring about a change in behaviour. For example, secure long term access may lead people to suppress the growth of some species and promote that of others. Vegetation composition may change.

My point is that a more detailed discussion is required to take the matter forward.

For me the most fascinating paper in the book is about the pioneering restoration work on small fragmented rainforests, being done in the Anamalais, Western Ghats by the NCF. This is a real solution, albeit on a micro scale and involves working with several partners including the forest department, local people and the corporate sector. As the authors point out restoration is a neglected sphere of work. It is also quite demanding and one significant challenge would be to scale it up. There are literally thousands of such fragments in various parts of the country. It would be beyond the capacity of individual or even several NGOs to do so. So who can run the programme and how can it expand to other parts of the country? There are also large tracts of land (semi-abandoned coffee estates, for example), which exist as enclaves in the middle of forests and protected areas. They too could be restored.

Individuals and corporate houses in India have come to great riches, of late, but most of their philanthropic effort is directed at programmes on education, health and general welfare. Perhaps the time has come to start considering and debating initiatives such as purchases of conservation-important areas presently in private hands. As an example see the work of The Nature Conservancy.

While the book may not be about what the title purports nevertheless one may ask are the articles useful? Yes, several of them are and the book is not a waste of an effort but it is not what one expected.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Crisis that Wasn't: Fuelwood

For an excellent exposition on old vs. new wisdom on the subject see this.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Biomass Crises in India: The Case of Fuelwood

Even though many continue to hold on to the notion of a fuelwood crisis in India (try a search on it) it is quite apparent that the crisis hasn’t materialised as feared. For a useful summary see this RFF paper on the subject.

What happened? Briefly, in rural India people responded by substituting fuels and augmenting production. The RFF paper cited above provides one such illuminating case study from Madhya Pradesh.

To know what is happening with bio-fuels on all-India basis is extremely hard as data is not available but we do know a few things. Biomass increases have come from agricultural residues (agricultural production has grown 2.5% CAGR for the past 55 years); dung (livestock population up 1% CAGR along with increased fodder availability); and woody biomass from trees grown on private, community and government lands. Of course all incremental production is not available as fuel and woody biomass has reduced in many areas.

I wish to focus, however, on a potentially far-reaching development that may be underway - increasing use of LPG in rural areas. According to the NSSO “The proportion of households using LPG increased six-fold in rural India from about 2% in 1993-94 to 11.7% in 2004-05. See also this note by the NSSO for primary energy use. Since kerosene is not used in rural areas for cooking it may be safely inferred that such use is replacing bio-fuels.

In urban areas too LPG use has grown rapidly. The proportion of households using LPG doubled in urban India from 29.5% in 1993-94 to 59% in 2004-05. See the two sources cited above. But LPG in urban India may be replacing SKO (Superior Kerosene Oil) rather than bio-fuels, the latter still continue to the primary cooking fuel for about 20% of the households.

It is instructive to see what is happening with LPG. The tables below give some data:

Annual average compound growth rate %

1974-79 8.7 3.7
1980-85 18.4 9
1985-90 18.9 6.7
1992-97 10 3.9
1997-02 12.6 0.5
2002-07 8.2 0
Source: Extracted from table 17 of petstats.

LPG customers and Sales of LPG and SKO

Year LPG Customers
LPG Sales
Million Tonnes
SKO Sales
Million Tonnes
1990-91 17 2.4
4.8 11.1
5.4 12.2
6.4 11.9
7 11.3
2001-02 64 7.7 10.4
2002-03 70 8.4 10.4
2003-04 77 9.3 10.2
2004-05 85 10.2 9.4
2005-06 89 10.3 9.4
Source: Extracted from Tables 16 and 24 of petstats.

Both tables reflect the stupendous rates of the growth in number of LPG customers and use. SKO has stagnated as it gets phased out as cooking fuel and also but less so for lighting. The high rates of LPG use, far in excess of per capita income growth, in certain periods, suggest latent demand not met due to supply constraints.

These constraints have now largely disappeared due to increases in domestic refining capacities and import facilities at ports in the past 10-20 years. In addition, huge gas discoveries in KG basin and ample foreign exchange reserves will make supplies a non-issue within a couple of years. Supplies have not yet been fully eased in rural areas as affordability is much more than indicated by the 11% households presently using LPG.

The constraint of the initial high capital cost has been eased in several states by providing subsidies on the purchase of stoves, smaller cylinders are provided in hilly areas but perhaps the largest factor may be growing incomes of households and a desire for clean and convenient fuel.

Use of LPG is still quite low, especially in rural India but is growing rapidly. It seems such rates may be sustained. If so, for the vast numbers of women living in abysmal conditions in the country, this development may turn out to be more meaningful and have a more durable positive impact than having a woman president.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Biomass Crises in India: The Case of Fodder

It is customary to talk of the crisis of fodder. As a representative see the editorial by Sunita Narain. A search on “fodder crisis in India” will throw up thousands of links, virtually all of them echoing the same litany. The impression they convey is one of widespread and persistent shortage of fodder. How grounded in reality are these assertions?

A perusal will suggest that such claims are usually anecdotal in nature, based on field trips and restricted to specific regions of the country. Virtually no data is ever presented. There are some studies and estimates which assert that availability of fodder is less than the requirement. What does that mean? If there are fodder deficits should it not reflect somewhere – prices, population numbers or reduced production?

If indeed there are shortages - how does one measure them? An economist would reply – look at prices. It would be a good way to start if we have time-series data for the country and individual regions of the country. I could not find them.

However, if fodder shortages have been persistent (for decades) as has been argued, we should see it being reflected in the number of livestock. The table, below, gives some figures.

(Million Numbers)
Species 1951 1961 1972 1982 1992 2003
Cattle 155 176 178 192 205 185
AF Cattle 54 51 53 59 64 65
Buffalo 43 51 57 70 84 98
AF Buffalo 21 24 29 33 44 51
Total Bovins 199 227 236 262 289 283
Sheep 39 40 40 49 51 62
Goats 47 61 68 95 115 124
Others 8 9 10 13 16 16
Total 293 335 354 420 471 485
Source : Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying & Fisheries, New Delhi. AF=Adult Female
(Extracted from here. See the link for more details including notes and data for intervening years)

A few noteworthy features:

  • Total livestock has increased by 60 % during the period – an annual compound rate of approximately 1 per cent.

  • Among bovins the rate of increase is much higher among buffaloes especially adult female than cows. This is interesting since buffaloes are heavier, eat more and yield more milk with higher fat content.

  • Goats have increased faster than the total but not much more than buffaloes. It is cattle which have lagged the overall rate. In fact, total numbers have actually declined in the last 15 years.

The increase in livestock numbers doesn’t suggest any fodder shortages far less a crisis.

It may be argued that the high increase in the population of goats may be a reflection of fodder crisis. Goats are hardier and able to survive on resources out of bounds for and unpalatable to other animals. This is unlikely for though goats have increased faster than average the rate is not very different from that of adult female buffaloes. Further, all populations have increased – goats being the fastest. So it is not as if goats are substituting other animals. Others too have increased. So overall goats may not be replacing other animals.

The evidence about numbers is not conclusive as it may be argued that the fodder crisis does not reflect in reduced numbers of animals but makes them less healthy and less productive,

So let us examine production of livestock products. The most important product and for which the most reliable statistics are available is milk.

YearMillion Tonnes
Source: Economic Survey 2006-07

For details on wool and meat look here and here.

The figures hardly deserve any elaboration. They speak very loudly. It is interesting that the rate of growth of milk production accelerates after the 1980s when one would have expected fodder shortages to hurt more. Over the past 55 years while livestock population has grown at 1 % per annum milk production has grown by 3.3 %. In other words while livestock numbers are up 60 % milk production is up almost 500 %. Livestock numbers have not only increased, but livestock has become more productive.

This put a serious doubt on the theory of fodder crisis.

So where could the fodder to meet increased population and production have come from? Undoubtedly agriculture would have played a big part. Overall all crops have grown at 2.5 % per annum since the early 1950s and fodder availability would have increased concomitantly - both from residues and direct production. Note that crop output has risen faster than livestock numbers and milk production even faster. Animals are eating quite well. There was also reduction in requirements as mechanisation took hold in several animal-using operations. This probably explains the decline in overall cattle numbers. In the past two decades tractors have spread to non-traditional states. What about common pastures and forests? We can’t be sure as information on fodder availability from these lands is sorely lacking.

Suffice it to say there never was nor is a fodder crisis in the country. State-level data suggests a similar picture.

Nevertheless it is probably true that some regions face periodic shortages, maybe a few even chronic ones. And certain groups such as pastoralists especially nomadic ones may have lost permanent access to pastures and thence to fodder.

But a crisis for the country as a whole? Definitely not.