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World Day of Social Justice 2020: talking environment equity and climate change

black and white working old human

©Vijay Putra

<5 mins read. Approx. 505 words

The context:

On 26 November 2007, the UN General Assembly (GA) declared that, starting from the 63rd session of the GA, February 20 will be celebrated annually as the ‘World Day of Social Justice’. This year’s theme is “Closing the Inequalities Gap to Achieve Social Justice”

Personal context:

One of the very first projects, that I was part of in the early 2000s India, was funded by environmental equity and justice partnership. The goal of EEJP is ‘to secure environmental justice especially for the poor and the marginalized that are often expected to bear more than their share of environmental burdens’. That was my very first introduction to the concept of environmental equity and how it relates to social, demographic, caste and climate change justice beyond just the economic lens.

The world today:

Globally, the number of urban residents, who lack safely managed sanitation, has increased from 1.9 billion in 2000 to 2.3 billion in 2015, costing $223 billion a year in health costs, lost productivity and wages.  In a recent analysis of 15 cities in the global south by WRI, 62 percent of sewage and fecal sludge is unsafely managed. This in on top of 780 million people, who do not have access to an improved water source.

In terms of combating air pollution, the Indian government, has tried to use anti smog water cannon to combat toxic air in nation’s capital, Delhi. They have also implemented something known as odd and even number of driving days for car owners based on their license number plates. 5 million residents were handed out face masks. Specialists have warned that inhaling Delhi’s toxic air is equivalent to smoking 2 packs of cigarettes a day. As in every episode of an environmental challenge, the poorest are the worst hit in this case as well. They have to go out, and work to earn their daily wages.

Urban heat island effect is another climate change related phenomenon that has undertones of environment injustice and unequal social equity. Tree covers and green spaces tend to remain in influential and wealthy parts of neighborhoods, especially in the cities. Therefore, urban heat island effects low income neighborhoods more.

In conclusion:

According to the UN GA, globalization and interdependence are opening new opportunities through trade, investment and capital flows and advances in technology (IT, AI and others). The growth of the world economy has resulted in development and improvement of living standards around the world. At the same time there remain serious challenges, including serious financial crises, insecurity, poverty, exclusion and inequality within and among societies. It will provide considerable obstacles to further integration and full participation in the global economy for developing countries, as well as some countries with economies in transitions. Ultimately, economically disadvantaged citizens shall be facing these challenges. Environment and climate change in the context of social justice shall become increasingly evident, in the absence of viable global solutions and make it harder to achieve SDGs for all.

This post ‘World Day of Social Justice 2020: talking environment equity and climate change’ first appeared on theflipsideofdevelopment.wordpress.com

Celebrating Wetlands and Biodiversity today

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Mangroves at Radha Beach in Andaman Islands, India, circa Nov. 2016 ©Pallavi Bharadwaj

 

<6 mins. read, approx. 595 words

Personal context:

One of my very first volunteer projects was on wetlands. Janhit Foundation, a small local environmental grassroots nonprofit, had undertaken a census of all ponds in and around Meerut district for the very first time. I was in-charge of translating that entire report from Hindi to English for a wider circulation among the funders, program partners and international experts. I am very fortunate and thankful to the wetlands as that project catapulted my interest and career in water resources management and global development. That assignment also helped me land my very first full time assignment as the first women Program Coordinator at Janhit Foundation in the early 2000s!

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What exactly is a wetland?

A wetland is a place where water covers the soil or is near the soil surface for varying periods of time during the year. Some examples of wetlands that you might have seen are lakes, marshes, swamps, estuaries, tidal flats, river flood plains, mangroves, ponds (including vernal ponds) and even rice fields.

Ramsar Convention on Wetland:

Today marks the anniversary of 7 countries coming together in 1971 to protect wetlands through the Ramsar Convention. This number has grown to 171 countries as of 2019.

Why should you care?

I would say that if you have ever been to a beach, lake, forest, pond or any natural water body to relax and take a break, then you must care. Additionally to prove my point, these are the three key messages from the Ramsar convention for today.

  1. 40 % of the world’s plant and animal species live or breed in wetlands: Wetlands are an important habitat for biodiversity.
  • Over 100,000 fresh water species can be found in wetlands
  1. Wetland biodiversity matters for life to thrive
  • Swamp vegetation filters pollutants from water, which improves water quality
  • Wetlands provide livelihoods for one billion people
  • Rice grown in wetland paddies is the staple diet of nearly three billion people, while most commercial fish depend on coastal wetlands for part of their life cycle.
  • Turtles, crocodiles, shrimps and others lay their eggs and rear their young in the mangroves (a type of coastal wetlands). See the title pic.
  • 30% of land-based carbon is stored in peatlands. Peatlands, mangroves, seagrasses and salt marshes store carbon and matter for climate action
  • Mangroves and coral reefs protect coastal communities during storm surges, hurricanes and tsunamis, which reduces risks of disasters by providing buffers.
  • Wetlands provide ecosystem services worth USD 47 trillion annually, more than those from forests, deserts or grasslands
  1. Biodiversity is in steep decline and wetlands are disappearing three times faster than forests
  • One million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, with wetland species declining the most.
  • 35 % of the world’s wetlands have been lost since 1970’s – causes include pollution from waste, draining or infilling for agriculture and construction, overfishing, over extraction, encroachment, rapid urbanization, among others.
  • 25% of wetland species are threatened with extinction, including water birds, freshwater-dependent mammals, marine turtles, and coral-reef- building species
  • Between 1970 and 2014, populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles declined by 60%

In conclusion:

It’s no surprise to say that it will take more than just one day to help protect the invaluable ecosystems that the wetlands are. It will take a combination of policies, technological innovation, market-based solutions combined with political will and  individual efforts to reach that goal. If protected today, then the wetlands shall help alleviate the type of extreme events observed in not only cities like Chennai, India but also in most major inland and coastal cities of the world.

Making reliable investments to alleviate water-borne sickness in children

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<5 mins read. Approx. 500 words

A new financial product called Development Impact Bonds (DIBs) has been launched to improve Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) in underserved communities. If successful, this may be an investment boost that the sector needs in order to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

THE CONTEXT

More than 2 billion people in the world consume water that has been contaminated, meaning that one in three people do not have access to clean potable water. Without that access, people drink water with fecal bacteria, parasites, and land-based contaminants that enter surface drinking water sources, including wells, springs, rivers, lakes, ponds and others. This leads to an estimated 485,000 diarrheal deaths each year (UNICEF 2019).

The latest report by the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene presents the first estimates for the new UN’s SDG indicators in WASH and has some very important finding.

Though the number of drinking water-related deaths in the above report are staggering, it still fails to represent the hundreds of millions of individuals, who suffer from serious waterborne illnesses each year due to the lack of access to a safe and reliable drinking water source. Since waterborne diseases have the greatest effect on children, the secondary effect of waterborne illness directly impacts community development indicators, such as education and livelihood generation due to missed days at school by the children and missed days at work to care for a sick child.

MAKING WASH INVESTMENTS MORE CREDIBLE

The first Development Impact Bond (DIB) developed for WASH is known as the Cambodia Rural Sanitation DIB. This bond has been launched by International Development Enterprises (iDE), in partnership with the Stone Family Foundation and USAID, and has announced a $10 million bond in support of sanitation initiatives in Cambodia. WASH DIB is aimed at ending open defecation in 1600 villages in six provinces by 2023, and accelerating the Cambodian government’s efforts to achieve universal sanitation.

Attempting to solve entrenched global problems with new financial mechanisms, such as DIBs, is not something new. It has been done in areas such as climate change , and empowering womens’ health and livelihoods. However, the application of such a mechanism to address WASH management, so as to achieve the UN’s SDG 6, clean water and sanitation for all, is a novel concept.

COMBINING DATA AND FINANCIAL TOOLS TO ADDRESS WASH MANAGEMENT

Gravity Water’s system combined with Cambodia DIB can help achieve safe sanitation, which is critical to keeping drinking water free of contamination and preventing the spread of disease, improving overall health and reducing stunting among children.

Products and services offered by Engineering for Change’s Solutions Library combined with systems such as Gravity Water’s and innovative financial mechanisms, such as DIB, can a long way in providing WASH services to all in need, especially children across the world.

Disclaimer: This post “Making reliable investments to alleviate water-borne sickness in children” first appeared on Engineering for Change’s website under the heading “Financial Tools to Alleviate Water-Borne Disease in Children”. It has been modified for the ease of readers of this blog. For the original article, please visit EngineeringforChange’s website by clicking here. This is the third and last article in the series ‘Gravity Water’ for 2019. To read the first and second articles in the series, please click here and here.

World Soil Day 2019: A photo essay

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Angel Oak Tree, Charleston, SC. circa Nov. 2019 ©PallaviBharadwaj

<6 mins. read Approx. 599 words

Today, December 05 is World Soil Day, as designated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN-FAO).  Readers might be wondering what exactly soil is and why are we dedicating an entire day to celebrate it. Take a look at the above picture. The Angel Oak Tree in Charleston, S.C. is over 400 years old, according to the experts. Legend has it that it’s over 1,500 years old. 400 or 1,400 years, the reason that this tree has been standing strong for so long and attracting over 1000s of visitors each year is because of the healthy soil underneath it’s roots.

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Charleston Tea Factory, S.C. circa Nov. 2019 ©PallaviBharadwaj

For a lay person: there’s no obvious difference between dirt and soil. Dirt is what the kids make mud pies from, we buy in bags to start a window garden or wash off our hands.

For scientists, farmers and gardeners: Unlike dirt, which is mostly broken-down rocks that contain minerals like calcium, magnesium, and iron, soil is dirt with the added bonus of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, worms, and insects. These aerate, build structure, and give vital nutrients to soil. Add plants to this mix, and what you get is a complex system called a “soil food web.”

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Tea plantations in a row seen on the right at Charleston Tea Plantation. circa Nov. 2019 ©PallaviBharadwaj

The theme for World Soil Day this year is #StopSoilErosion. Seen in the above pic on the right hand side are tea plants in a row in Charleston Tea Plantation in South Carolina, US. Traditionally, tea is grown on the rolling hills of India and Sri Lanka. In part, because tea plants do not need standing water, and in part to #StopSoilErosion.

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Thriving happily above ground ferns and mosses in S.C. circa Nov.2019 ©Pallavi Bharadwaj

It’s not just what is beneath the surface of soil or as scientists call it, the rhizosphere, where an astounding number of micro-organisms live. It’s also what lives because of this layer above the surface. Seen above is a thriving population of ferns and mosses on the tree’s branches.

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A chameleon calling the Angel Oak Tree it’s home in S.C. circa Nov. 2019 ©PallaviBharadwaj

What we put in soil, determines not only the soil’s but also the organisms that live under and above the surface. Chemical induced industrial farming is gradually deteriorating the soil’s health and making it increasingly difficult for the soil food web to remain intact. Look closely in the above pic, a chameleon calls this tree it’s home and forms a part of the soil food web.

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Mushrooms thrive happily on the Angel Oak Tree in Charleston, S.C. circa Nov 2019 ©PallaviBharadwaj

Soil biologist Elaine Ingham says that biodiversity in soil leads to, not just optimal crop yields but also weed suppression, fire resistance, flood resilience, as well as soil growth,  increasingly critical as climate change wreaks havoc on our landscapes. All those essential ecosystem services, healthy soil can provide. Seen above mushrooms, an edible form of fungi, likes when it’s moist inside and outside the soil to thrive.

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Magnolia Plantations, S.C. circa Nov 2019 ©Pallavi Bharadwaj

In conclusion:

Regenerative agriculture and legislative actions across the states in US and globally, shall prove instrumental in alleviating soil pollution and erosion. It’s a positive sign that soil health is gaining attention in a diverse group of people, including farmers, businesses and experts.  Working together, we shall be able to keep the soil healthy for all the organisms that depend on it now and also in the future.

This post World Soil Day 2019: A photo essay first appeared on theflipsideofdevelopment.wordpress.com

Access denied to access granted: Solutions to provide sanitation to all

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< 8 mins read. Approx. 740 words
Today is World Toilet Day celebrated by UN Water all around the world.
The context:
Growing up as a little girl in India, I accompanied my uncle during many of his business meetings, during summer vacation in Delhi. Those meetings invariably ended in a trip to McDonalds or one of my favorite ice-cream places. During one of those trips, my uncle’s meeting lasted much longer than expected. I was waiting for him, in his car, with my 5 year old cousin and we needed to use the bathroom. I was about 11 years old, however can remember that day like yesterday, because of the urgency/desperation that I felt due to the absence of a toilet. Most of us take access to a functioning toilet for granted. Unfortunately, this is not true for approximately 4.2B people in the developing as well as developed nations globally. Unavailability of a clean, working toilet presents its own sets of challenges for both rural and urban settings worldwide. I have seen first hand how in rural and urban regions in India, the lack of access to a toilet put communities, especially women and children at risk. Women and children become vulnerable to attacks by stray and wild animals in the rural areas, and prone to accidents by cars and trains, as open defecation mainly takes place near the railway tracks or secluded roadside.
Present Day:
India’s massive 5 year Swachh Bharat Mission aka Clean India Mission to construct latrines for all ended recently. The Government claims that 100 million additional toilets have been constructed via this campaign. Most of these systems are not connected to any water based sewer systems. Only 30% of India’s urban population has access to sewers, though most city plans include elaborate plans for sewerage systems. These sewer systems are supposed to be underground and inconspicuous. They should not need any manual labor to dispose of the waste, if built properly. However, sewers get blocked and need to be unblocked, they overflow and have to be cleaned out, and break down and have to be repaired. Several cities have introduced mechanization to fix major blockages and to avoid people having to jump into the sewer system when problems arise, still sewer management remains a big challenge.

Earlier this year, Indian Government has also pledged to provide piped drinking water to every rural home by 2024. It’s great that WASH is coming up high on the political agenda of India’s government. However, upon observing closely, this plan will mean that a lot of resources will be spent on people living in densely populated (urban) areas, where piped networks are feasible. Many of these people have access to at least basic level of water services already. However, at the same time some 8 million people (around 1% of the rural population) still rely on surface water. It is very unlikely that piped networks will reach these people. This is where unconventional and non-traditional technology, such as the one by Gravity Water comes into play. 

In conclusion:

India has shown impressive progress with a government led initiative in sanitation. That approach has focused on lifting the ones left behind (the ones practicing open defecation as mentioned above) to at least basic level (mainly by constructing their own pit latrines). A push for universal coverage with sewered sanitation system has achieved impressive results so far. However, just focusing on piped coverage for water and wastewater might not be a one size fits all solution for India (or for the US) for that matter. This is where the solutions in the form of services and products in Engineering for Change’s Solutions Library can provide alternatives to “Leave no one behind.” Ecosanitation is one such solution, which is closed concept of sewage treatment that employs the planet’s natural hydrological cycle to close the gap between sanitation and agriculture. This type of solution can work particularly well in places where piped supply is not possible and people still use surface water for water and wastewater supplies, e.g. in rural India or the US. Such solutions can not only help solve the sanitation problem but also aid in establishing a circular economy.

Providing more than 4B people with sanitation sounds like a tall order at first glance. However innovative solutions such as the ones in E4C’s Solutions Library, combined with political will and policy instruments, can go a long way in fulfilling that goal and provide sanitation as a human right for all in the future.

Disclaimer: This article originally appeared on Engineering for Change’s website under the title ‘No More Access Denied: Providing Sanitation to India and 4.2 Billion Worldwide’. To read the original article, please click on the title. To read all articles by me on E4C, please click here.

“Pollution Holiday”: An essay on a new kind of (sad) school holiday in Delhi

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Pollution Holiday: By one of the students in a public school in Meerut, India

For the non-native speakers, here is the translation of a very sad essay. My mother teaches this kid, and she shared it with me this morning. It made me very upset that this is what our future generation thinks pollution is, a holiday.

Pollution Holiday:

From now on, ‘Pollution’ is Delhi’s main festival. It always begins after Diwali. We get more holidays during Pollution, than during Diwali. During Diwali we get only 4 holidays but during pollution we get more than eight days as holidays. People wear different types of face masks during this holiday. We consume black pepper, honey and ginger to stay healthy during this holiday at home. The kids like this festival more than Diwali now.

 

 

 

 

MNREGA was created to help the Indian farmers. What happened then?

man sitting on street near tree

Photo by Sankalpa Joshi on Pexels.com

<6 mins read, approx. 560 words.

More than 1.8 million water-related projects were abandoned or left incomplete in 2018-19 in India.

The context:

About MGNREGA

Many districts and states in India faced a second consecutive drought, while others dealt with record rainfall. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) could have helped mitigate the impacts of drought, by providing access to employment to folks, who are most affected by it. However, evidence shows that the scheme’s performance has not been very promising. MGNREGA’s performance was highly unsatisfactory in the drought-stricken districts in 2018-19. According to an analysis by Down to Earth India, more than 1.8 million water-related projects were abandoned or left incomplete in 2018-19. The government spent close to INR 16,615 crore (2,402,087,539.45 USD) on these projects. This was close to a quarter of the total MGNREGA expense on structures that are of no use to anyone.

A state of contradictions

Odisha, one of India’s poorest states, is also the one bearing most brunt during these natural disasters. In addition to getting battered by the effect of the Cyclone Fani in 2019, it had also witnessed one of the driest spells in 2018. The rainfall predicted in the Kharkhara village in Odisha has decreased 3 folds in the past three years, making it extremely drought hit. In 2017, Balangir district in Odisha recorded just 840mm of rain. This led to the waves of climate refugees or migrants seeking refuge in far off states such as Karnataka in southern India and others. They mostly work as bonded labor for meager payments in brick kilns, construction projects and others. Under MGNREGA, one member of each rural household is eligible for availing employment for 100 days a year. At an individual level, while 91 million people demanded jobs, only 77 million could be provided. A bigger concern, than employment demand not being met, was the large-scale suspension of  agriculture- and water-related projects that could have helped farmers during the time of drought.

MGNREGA today

As reported by Down to Earth, for 33 states and union territories, the MGNREGA wage rate is less than the corresponding minimum wage for agriculture, condemning workers to another year of bonded labor. This ratio is in the range of 60%–70% for a number of poor states such as Telangana and Odisha. Activists groups, such as the the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, demand an increase in the MGNREGA wage rate to 600 INR ($8.00 USD) a day. This follows the Seventh Pay Commission recommendation of 18,000 INR (260.24 USD) as the minimum monthly salary.

In conclusion:

India has a long way to go towards solving its domestic water crisis from Delhi to Karnataka. The able bodied and younger villagers migrate to urban areas leaving behind an aging, sick and elderly population. This is only one of the many adverse consequences for the rural areas. A combination of steps such as smart water catchment management ,forming Water Users Associations, exchanging knowledge with other countries, encouraging different sources of earning a living via natural resources management, to the very traditional ones, such as granting aids to the farmers in addition to equitable distribution of water to various sectors, implementing community based adaptation and others shall help keep the population in the villages, and provide jobs to more than half a million people in the state of Odisha and many more across the country.

This post ‘MNREGA was created to help the Indian farmers. What happened then?‘ first appeared on theflipsideofdevelopment.wordpress.com

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