Posted by Karim Nawaz and Frank van Steenbergen
December 10, 2013
GLACIAL MELT: A POSTCARD FROM CHITRAL, PAKISTAN
This is the Western Karakom Part of the Himalyas, the high mountain area of the mysterious ‘Kalash’ people. They are said to be the descendants of the retreating army of Alexander the Great , with a unique culture and religion that is still well preserved.
There has been much debate over the effect how Climate Change will affect the Himalayas, especially since the IPCC’s slip of the pen that all Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2030. Now the consensus is over a more differentiated picture – some glaciers will get smaller, but others may grow. Micro-climates rather than global climate change are the determining factor.
In Chitral, the glacier is the source of many things – the melt water is used for irrigation and blocks of ice are harvested and used for refrigeration (see picture). Since Pakistan suffers from a serious shortage of electricity, ice factories cannot operate regularly. Therefore, the market for glacial ice is expanding rapidly. It is used in road side restaurants along the Karakoram highway and other roadways. Besides, there is as much demand in urban and rural settlements. So far its availability is free, but obviously there are transport costs.
Environmentalists are worried that indiscriminate ice extraction from road side glaciers without using proper procedures sets the region on path of an ecological disaster.
The common opinion in Chitral is that some amount of glacier melt is definitely going on. Although the main glacier becomes longer, it is considerable thinner than it was in the past. Its thickness and weight are no longer enough to keep it in place. Its thinning is also making it more and more brittle. It is becoming more and more likely for parts to break off it, triggering landslides and avalanches.
Local people also talk about how glaciers break down when there is lightning and thunder during the summer season (which are becoming more and more frequent in the Hindukush and Himalaya regions). When lighting strikes and thunder rumbles upon the glacier, part of it heats up and melts. Sometimes, the vibration cracks the glacier and initiates its gradual breakdown.
Besides, even a sunny afternoon is enough to melt the ice into a flow of water. This phenomenon used to be mild and gentle, but is increasingly becoming flashy and intense with rising average temperatures. One can clearly see steams originating from glaciers increase in flow between 12 noon and 10 at night, and decrease thereafter. Local communities are also worried about the soil exposed after the disappearance of glaciers, as it is highly vulnerable to weathering and erosion. This further depletes the supporting foundation of glaciers and increases the danger of avalanches.
Posted by Francisco Martin, Islamic Culture Foundation
December 02, 2013
A still from the movie Las Voces del Agua (Spanish)
Men and women in Islam have made full use of every drop of fresh water, egged on by the scarcity of water resources and supported by a quasi-mystical consciousness of its transformative power to shape landscape, and its capacity to revitalise the soul from a spiritual point of view. Today, as we see how the agricultural world has been almost completely industrialised, water is also a knowledge that begins to vanish from our memory. In the context of rural depopulation, the young generations grown in an urban environment are unaware of the traditional water management, and thereby we run the risk of losing thousands of years of traditional knowledge.
These insights were the point of departure for the project ‘Wise Voices’, run by the Islamic Culture Foundation in Spain, a non-profit organisation which has strived since 1982 to facilitate dialogue between Europe and the Arab-Muslim countries.
The great cultural blossoming during the al-Andalus period was made possible, among other reasons, through a wise water management. In this way, the testimony of the last farmers in Spanish regions with a strong tradition of Andalusian irrigation is a collection of voices that still know the secrets of water use. The project ‘Wise Voices’ travelled to three regions in southern Spain (while it is true that the Andalusian cultural legacy lives on in other parts of the country) with the challenge of studying, knowing, inventorying, conserving and maintaining those voices. These regions are Ricote Valley in Murcia, Axarquía in Málaga, and Alpujarras in Granada and Almería. The waters in these regions flow through ‘acequias’ (ditches) ‘aljibes’ (tanks) or ‘azudes’ (dams), all these words of Arabic origin, while the farmers continue to organise the irrigation and balanced management of water on the basis of communities and councils that go back to the al-Andalus period. Such efforts resulted in a blog in Spanish with over 18 hours of taped interviews and a large number of texts that provide a context for those conversations.
The next logical step was to create the short docu-film ‘The Voices of Water’ as a means to present the work done in a more concise format, while seeking to open up new avenues for reflection. The words of the last generation of farmers form the pages of a storybook that a mother reads with her daughter and also the images of a film screened on the walls of the city. This way, ‘The Voices of Water’ builds a bridge between the past and a present without memory, between the oral and written traditions, and between the countryside and urban areas. Is it not true that the family history of an overwhelming majority of us is rooted in rural landscapes? The issue at stake is the erosion of our biocultural memory, yet the millenary culture associated to the traditional use of water, in al-Andalus and elsewhere, is not only an important historic legacy, but also as a complementary approach to the technological developments towards finding a sustainable solution to the current water management challenges. Traditional practices in irrigation and farming often make an important contribution in terms of balance with nature and recognising the value of water.
The Islamic Culture Foundation has implemented ‘Wise Voices’ and ‘The Voices of Water’ within the framework of its programme entitled ‘Med-O-Med, cultural landscapes of the Mediterranean and the Middle East’. This cultural and environmental programme aims at making the development of 22 countries in that region compatible with the preservation of their environment and their heritage, mainly based on Islamic culture values, while putting forward new approaches and views that take into account a local point of view. The Islamic Culture Foundation seeks to continue listening and collecting the wise voices of water management in other countries across the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
Video: Lac Voces del Agua (Spanish)
Posted by Frank van Steenbergen and Alan Macdonald
November 19, 2013
It must be the world’s greatest single groundwater system, at least in terms of the population it supports. It is the mirror image of the Himalayas – the huge Indo-Gangetic Plains. The groundwater system stretches in a wide arc from Bangladesh to Pakistan, covering in between a large part of northern India as well as the southern part of Nepal.
In the image above a preliminary snapshot of the Indo-Gangetic aquifer system is given, courtesy of an ongoing Research into Policy Project of the British Geological Survey and partners, that is aiming to better understand the entire regional groundwater system and the resilience to climate change.
Aquifers in the Indo-Gangetic Plains are often thick – sometimes more than two kilometres – like an inverted mountain range. They have been formed by millennia of gravel, sand and clay being deposited by the Ganges and Indus. The water resources are abundant and recharged by two of the world’s mightiest rivers. Most of this immense area has groundwater available at a very shallow depth that is easy to reach – sustaining cities, villages and intense agriculture. All in all, a billion people live on and from this groundwater system.
It is not that the system is free of problems and challenges. The deeper groundwater is often saline. In Bangladesh and West Bengal (India) much of the shallow groundwater contains arsenic. This has caused arsenicosis – appearing, among others, in the form of cancer of the skin. In Uttar Pradesh in eastern India, agriculture is intense but would benefit from more systematic joint use of groundwater and river water to help prevent flooding. In the western part of the basin in the Indian Punjab groundwater use is very intensive, supporting triple cropping. At the same time, groundwater levels in this grain basket have declined steeply – dropping from 10 meters twenty years ago to more than thirty meters now. In various parts of the basin groundwater is contaminated, both by naturally occurring contaminants and by human activity.
In the Pakistani Punjab, the intense use of groundwater has been a boon. It has allowed much higher cropping intensities especially in areas with fresh groundwater. Heavy pumping by a million farmer wells here has led to water logging, the menace of the past, largely disappearing. Over the past few past decades water tables have been dropping in the Punjab, but only by centimetres every year. However, the southern part of the western IGB (i.e. Sindh Province) is still a big problem with widespread water logging and salinity. In two-fifths of the area the soils are fully saturated, often with saline water. This is related to the unbalanced surface irrigation supplies in Sindh. Water logging causes not only crop losses but also invites all kind of diseases – from malaria to liver fluke for livestock. The high groundwater tables of Sindh amount to a large man-made humanitarian disaster.
What is amazing about the groundwater across the Indo-Gangetic Basin is the lack of governance systems to manage the groundwater. There may be 5 to 10 million pumpsets accessing the resource, but till date there is no arrangement that regulates either use or supply. Even at a more basic level, large parts of the groundwater systems are not measured. In this age of Big Data and Big Brother this is quite amazing. A single system that supports one-seventh of the global population is largely terra incognita.
There are several ways to manage the huge groundwater systems of Indus and Ganges better. Groundwater for drinking purposes can be sourced from the right layers and locations to minimise contamination; surface irrigation can be managed better as this holds the key to preventing water logging and avoiding groundwater decline; peak waters can be used better for recharge to compensate for heavy pumping in the areas concerned; and there is a range of solutions to deal with salinity.
There is a huge need to understand these mega-systems clearly as they hold the key to global-level water and food security. There are these days a large number of people who have a good understanding of the ‘small solutions’ – from rooftop water harvesting to micro-irrigation. At the same time there is a glaring lack of expertise on the 'Inverted Himalayas,' the Indo-Gangetic System, the world’s most used groundwater body. This has to change urgently.
Posted by Raktima Mukherjee and Frank van Steenbergen
November 11, 2013
Dark putrid water enters, and fresh water emerges. The waste water from a burgeoning megacity turns into a productive fish habitat – nothing short of ecological magic. These are the Eastern Kolkata Wetlands, the huge water bodies that serve as urban kidneys for Calcutta (now named Kolkata).
This is how it works: Urban waste water supplied by the Municipal Corporation is routed through a series of small inlets, each managed by a Fishery Cooperative. The Cooperatives control the inflow of the waste water, they let it settle so that only the clear top layers of water flow into the shallow wetland. A parabolic fish gate separates the wetland water from the waste water (see picture). The parabolic structure is there to prevent fish swimming into the oxygen-less urban waste water, where they would die.
In the meantime nature does its work. In the inlets, organic waste settles down and is partly decomposed in the warm shallow water. In a series of biological steps, the organic waste in the wetland is converted into fish feed. There are several ecological processes at work: soil bacteria, macro-algae, plant bacteria and plants themselves convert nitrate, and absorb phosphate and heavy metals. The sediments in the waste water settle down. As the water becomes less turbid, sunlight accelerates some of these processes.
The wetland is managed by the Fishery Cooperatives which release fish fingerlings three times a year and occasionally add lime to the water to control fish diseases. A typical cooperative has 150 members, each owning the inlet and the land around. They release the nutrient rich water in the morning, harvest fish from the waist-deep wetland, protect it from the theft by keeping an eye from watch posts all around the lake, and transport the catch to the wholesale market in their own transport rickshaws.
Membership of the Cooperatives passes down in the family. Of late, the cooperatives have diversified their source of income, renting out the land on the border of the shallow wetland for picnics or movie shootings. The winter season when migratory birds descend on the shallow water bodies is particularly popular.
There are several challenges and changes for the Eastern Kolkata Wetlands. An important one is the composition of the waste water. Earlier there were many cowsheds in the city but these have now all been moved out. This has made the waste water less ‘nutritious’: fishermen estimate that it now takes fish six months to mature instead of three months as used to be the case.
Then there is also the pressure on the land in a fast growing city. Unfortunately, some of the wetland areas have been filled with residential houses and the image is of a city choking itself. The fishermen are also keen to remove some of the sludge and sediments from the wetland but since the area is so crowded there is no place to deposit the material. It causes the wetlands to get shallower, which obstructs the inflow.
Also, not all waste water goes to the wetlands, and there is a complaint that sometimes the supply of the nutrient rich water from the Municipal Corporation is erratic.
Yet in spite of these pressures, the Eastern Kolkata Wetlands are a magnificent example of multifunctional infrastructure: waste water treatment, fish for the city, tourist spots. Also the wetlands feed local drinking wells and support the cultivation of vegetables.
One wonders why not more cities have such kidney systems, even as they grow and generate more and more waste water. There must be more opportunities for managed urban wetlands. Moreover, with pre-treatment, changing vegetation, pulsing inflow and hydraulic control structures, their functioning can be optimized. They have everything going for them: they clean up waste water at no cost; they create amenity and generate much needed employment and jobs while converting waste into nutrients.