One afternoon when I was sitting back reading a book my gaze suddenly fell on an unusual visitor in the garden. It was a Blue Mormon, a common sight during my childhood, not so common now. I ran inside to get my one year old. She may not get a chance to greet such a visitor in her life again. There is a daunting thought that flashes in my mind time and again. How do I preserve the beautiful sights in nature to my children, or to the next generation?
There are many questions like this which might fill the heart with dismay for some of us. But very soon these may be a problem of many and not much later a reality. It is just human nature to think that we have enough time and we will correct it later. Or, we may just pass on the responsibility to our successors.
When we say that the natural environment is fast disappearing, there is another side to the coin which is the rapid transformation in living standards. The world population has outgrown almost anything and are now larger than any settlement that ever existed on Earth. The single species is the dominant inhabitant, ironically with much greater demands than any other. Urbanization is a natural consequence of ever evolving human settlements. As a natural outcome the urban dwellings and workplaces are fast expanding to cater to the increasing needs of demography.
Urban development and town planning along with other needs of commutation, transportation, community needs of education, health, entertainment etc forms the basis of infrastructure development in any settlement. This puts tremendous pressure on land use and harnessing of natural resources. Modern man is used to all the modern amenities and there is no going back on this. Development is a continuous process and it is true for urban development also. Technological innovations are taking the world to new heights and man can do little to keep it away from his own cosy space. From fulfilling necessities to adding comfort and style, his interiors, work space and whatever space that is accessible is being converted into a living space. We can ourselves see the difference, we are hardly satisfied with the kind of facilities our parents had and our children will not be with what we have now.
The change is quite visible around us. We can take the example of a typical work space, some thirty years back, it would have been a multi storied building that can house a hundred or utmost few hundreds with a workstation that consisted of a wooden/metal table and chair along with some basic shared facilities. But now the work spaces have transformed immensely to include a host of electronic devices, interior decorations that energize the mind, comfy chairs, shared pantry, vending machines that dispense refreshments and of course air conditioned,with a capacity to house at least a few thousands. The materials used for construction has also undergone changes. In addition to cement a lot of non-biodegradable materials found the way into daily life. Tiles used for roofing and flooring, poly carbonates, plastic and Poly vinyl chlorides in various combinations and synthetic foams to name a few. The electronic era has a whole new set of compounds adding to it. Accumulation of poisonous chemicals like Lead, Cadmium, Bromine etc in soil, water bodies and release of toxic fumes into the atmosphere book the entry to food chain thereby into the bodies of living organisms.
Non-biodegradable waste management is one of the biggest challenges to urbanization with the problem scaling at exponential rates every day. Reservoirs of earth, be it air, water, soil, needs to absorb the waste that ends up in land fill. From daily use low micron plastics to bottles, clothes, household items and industrial waste, land fills cannot hold it within anymore. I had this thought to try organic farming in the backyard once and dug up some holes to plant few seeds. There was less soil and more plastics. No doubt the polymers are reducing soil permeability, but the degraded parts are finding way into life cells. Land fills are visible to our eyes, but the ocean floor miles deep being piled up and choking the sea life might need a Tsunami to wash it ashore.
Waste management is not the only problem. There are many others, for instance, changes in land use pattern. The total forest area and vegetation cover has declined much below the prescribed levels. For India it is currently just over 20% which should be at a prescribed level of over 33%. This is including the area under plantation which could be disputed if it serves the actual purpose of forests. The recent, first of its kind health emergency declared in the national capital gave us what could be possibly seen as just the tip of the iceberg. Serious degradation in air quality and resultant shutdowns are now perennial for the National Capital Territory of Delhi.
Urban land use pattern has changed a lot over the years. With an over-sized population the per capita space consumption has risen manifold. The urban centers are jam packed with buildings which is normal, but the ecologically sensitive zones are being encroached increasingly. Safety codes, utilization of natural resources, eco-friendly construction practices like proper drainage, landscaping that should allow water permeability are not given much importance by people and not enforced by the authorities. The general public lacking awareness of such things is a growing concern. When we face water stress and shutdowns like that happened in Chennai due to acute shortage of water, we can no longer turn a blind eye on it.
Are all these problems of urbanization? Answer should be yes, because in some way or the other these are direct outcomes or derivatives of our deeds in daily life. When there is a problem there needs to be a solution.
Development, especially urban development cannot be held back, never in the past and certainly not in future. The Mahatma thought of this decades before and much before the world started actively discussing about sustainability. He said, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not any man’s greed.” It is quite natural that he, being a visionary, had answers to many of the problems the world is facing. The idea of sustainable development is to “fulfill the present needs without compromising the needs of future generation.” How is this even possible?
The world has already shown us the solutions for most of it, the remaining solutions can be thought out and implemented. For instance, conservation of water bodies is a topic in discussion from ages. But most of the highly populated cities of the world suffer from water stress. There is alarming decrease in ground water levels in India, replenishment, obviously a serious concern. We are never short of policies or Government schemes, latest in the list Jal Shakti Abhiyan. Guidelines are in the right direction of water conservation, rainwater harvesting, water shed development, reuse and recharge of existing structures, renovation of traditional and other water bodies, wastewater treatment and management so on and so forth. If such programmes are actually making visible changes in the country requires thought. There are leaders who stand out and show us the path. Israel has world’s best water conservation initiatives, that it can fully function without rain. They have developed best implementations of drip irrigation and wastewater management.
Apart from government initiatives, some innovations could bring in radical changes. The Great Bubble Barrier is one such initiative. The idea is to create a bubble barrier by pumping air through a large tube into river mouths or any source of flowing water that it pushes waste that is carried by water to a corner which can then be removed easily. This will not block the movement of ship or fish and is a very effective method of plastic waste removal which is carried by rivers to ocean. It is of equal or more importance to desalinate water. Current technique of desalination using fossil fuels enormously contribute to pollution, climate change and may inflict drought conditions locally. Desalination making use of renewable energy sources is an innovative thought and needs to be widely adopted. If Iceland can meet 80% of its energy needs through renewable sources of energy, why can’t rest of the world?
Ideas of environment protection need to be part of our everyday life. Wherever possible we should make it a personal obligation to follow a green method for our own future. The clothes we use, the synthetic clothes mostly end up as landfills. There are easy alternatives which are completely eco-friendly, biodegradable and skin friendly too. Polythene bags can be replaced with paper, jute bags; plastic bottles with metal or paper bottles if used for single time. There are also options of glass, ceramic and earthen pots to supplement it. The actions that require community participation like avoiding food packaging in plastic covers, discarding use of plastic bottles in general household and grocery shops need participation of local governing bodies. It could be totally restricted except for use in life saving medical purposes. Targets can be set for local bodies, state bodies and national bodies. If we could take it to the level that we meet national goals many of the natural disasters, we face could also be averted.
The pressure we put on nature for mere existence is incomparable. For man it would be useful to think and understand that nature has its own way of maintaining its equilibrium, at whatever cost. The single large species is not just the priority of nature.
The other day while I was browsing through one of the social media websites a featured video caught my attention. It had a group of adults given a paper and a box of colours. The organizers instructed them to draw a picture of their choice and make it as colourful as possible but with a caution note, choose your colours diligently. When they were done, came in the second group. A group of small children. They would also need to do the same exercise, but with whatever colours the adults have left behind. The adults were disheartened when they saw that they used up all the beautiful colors and left the new generation with a dull world.