Which water would you prefer? Sparkling, tap, pure, arctic ice, reclaimed water, desalinated?

I'll have the limited edition Arctic sea ice water (1)

What do you say when a server in a restaurant asks you the kind of water you’d like to have – sparkling, still, or tap (also known as regular)? Do you respond with one of the options given, or do you ask for bottled water? How about you are given an opportunity to have customised water? Customised can mean unleaded (I just made this up), pure, or mineral.

If pure, would you like to have treated through deionisation, reverse osmosis, carbon filtering, microfiltration, ultrafiltration, ultraviolet filtration, or electrodeionization? If mineral, what kind of minerals do you want in it? If spring, which spring do you want it from? If bottled, what brand do you prefer? Last, but not the least, at what temperature do you want it to be? Chilled, slightly chilled, slightly warm, warm, 35 deg Celsius?

Wait, the list hasn’t finished yet. Would you like spring water dug from underground or surface water? Or do you prefer we fetch it from a well? We also have a limited edition Arctic ice water that has been melting away from the ice sheet for quite some time now. Would you like water from a desalination plant or reclaimed water such as NEWater? We also have well-preserved rainwater for your disposal.

Perhaps in the future, there will be a way to mimic the exact water composition from a particular spring so that we no more deplete groundwater? Who knows maybe it has been condensed from the fog? Perhaps someday you’ll have your own portable fog collector. Because how do you know the restaurants are telling the truth? We will then need third-party certifications such as Pure Random Estimations (P.U.R.E.)?

Spare me some water: who has the right to water?

Early on in my life, someone said to me that it is a good idea to keep some water out in the window for the sparrows. Mumbai has very few avenues where a sparrow can get a good amount of water to wiggle its feathers in to clean itself or to quench its thirst. There are some I know who spare some water for the little sparrows. I’ve seen some come to my window here in New Jersey too but I don’t have to spare them water here because our apartment has a great view of a river. However, why do they still come to the water on the ground flowing out of a water faucet? May be they do go to the river and I’ve not noticed. I took the following video of a sparrow in water this morning:

Did you know? The world’s oldest desert, the Namib Desert has existed for at least 55 million years, completely devoid of surface water but bisected by several dry riverbeds. These riverbeds are vegetated and are home to a few ungulates, such as Hartmann’s zebras. The south of the desert is extremely dry and even lacks dry riverbeds; gemsbok is the only large mammal to occur in this harsh environment. Thick fogs are frequent along the coast and are the life-blood of the desert, providing enough moisture for a number of interesting, highly-adapted animal species to survive. Source: WWF

Drought can be caused by:

  • Lack of rain or snow over a period of time
  • Disturbance in the water cycle
  • Changes in the wind patterns that move clouds and moisture through the atmosphere can cause a place to not receive its normal amount of rain or snow over a long period of time

Climate change induced drought affects not only birds but all of the species on the planet. It has made cold-water fishes to migrate to colder regions and created dead zones that are drained of oxygen. Where areas that have intense flooding it means less reproduction for some species such as salmon and spread of water-borne diseases.

What do we do about the drought? In India, the first “water train”—with 10 tank cars each holding 54,000 liters of water reached the drought prone Latur. In California, the mandatory water conservation rules fail to take into account that the agriculture industry consumes 80 percent of the state’s water and is was exempt from the new restrictions. Solution to which may lie in free market for water.

Water right in water law refers to the right of a user to use water from a water source, e.g., a river, stream, pond or source of groundwater. Selling water access entitlements is called water trading. Water trading in the world is mapped below:
Water trading map

Yesterday I met an old lady in a table tennis club that my husband and I go to. We ended up talking about rainwater harvesting and she told me that it is illegal in some parts of the US. I thought it is not fair that if the water falls on one’s property one should be entitled to it. To which she said that it is not so straight forward. What do you think? Should we be entitled to all or some of the the rainwater that we collect on our roofs? While this is the situation in US, India is trying to make rainwater harvesting mandatory. Hmm.

 

Tiny worlds: it’s the small things in life

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Look around you. There is stuff you can’t see but it exists, like magic. In this side of our world,  the human notions of ‘seeing is believing’ fail to exist. This, my friend, is the microscopic world, the one naked to the human eye. Except for humans who have technology at their disposal that help them see this world, such as by using a microscope. We do however manage to see shadows of the Muscae volitantes (Latin: “flying flies”), or mouches volantes (from the French), commonly known as floaters. These are deposits within the eye’s vitreous humour.

It’s amazing how technology helps us see things we can’t normally see. For instance, we know why the wings of a Morpho butterfly are blue even if they contain no blue pigment. The physics of light at the nanoscale tells us that the structures/ridges on their wings have a peculiar structure that refracts light giving out blue and cancelling out other colors of light, a phenomenon called constructive interference. A similar thing happens to gold when we see it on a nanoscale. Colors of monodispersed gold nanoparticles are not golden at all!

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The microscopic world also puts a spell on the environment we live in. The spores that mushrooms give out as a part of their reproduction cycle are nature’s very own cloud seeders. Aerosols too do the same, 90 % of which have natural origins such as the sea salt, dust, and volcanic ash, the first two being the most abundant aerosols on the planet. The clouds that these cloud seeders create reflect about a quarter of the Sun’s energy back to space. Aerosols however have a love and hate relationship with global warming. Depending on their physical structure, they either aid or prevent warming/cooling. For more information, see my article ‘Polluted atmospheric layer in the making‘.

It also works the other way round. Warming of oceans could kill phytoplankton, and eventually all life on the planet. This is because these microscopic marine plants are the base of several aquatic food webs, they provide two-thirds of the planet’s total atmospheric oxygen and absorb as much carbon dioxide as tropical rainforests. If the water temperature of the world’s oceans increases by six degrees Celsius, it could stop oxygen production by phytoplankton by disrupting the process of photosynthesis. The macro is deeply connected to the micro, whether you see it or not.

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We have slowly entered into the depths of Microbial ecology (or environmental microbiology). It is the ecology of microorganisms: their relationship with one another and with their environment. Phytoplanktons provide oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide, chemosynthetic microbes living in the dark corners of our world provide energy and carbon to the other organisms. There are decomposers that keep the nutrient cycle (one of the biogeochemical cycles) running.

Microbial processes have a central role in the global fluxes of the key biogenic greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) and are likely to respond rapidly to climate change. – Nature Reviews Microbiology

An estimated 5 trillion trillion bacteria reside on this planet. They are in the oceans and the soils. A handful of soil contains about 10 billion bacteria! These keep our soils healthy and ultimately keep us healthy. Overuse of certain chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, pesticides are rendering soils infertile as they kill these microbes. Technology has a solution for this too. Scientists are now able to map genetic sequences of soil microorganisms, understand what they actually do and how to grow them, and reintroduce them back to the soil.

Last but not the least are the tiny worlds inside our own houses. Molds, mildews, bacteria, and dust mites are potential human health hazards. These are called bioaerosols and are found in homes. These can be controlled just like the indoor non-bio aerosols that are harmful to our environment. Consumer products such as Fingernail polish, perfumes, mouthwashes, pump hair sprays, and roll-on and stick deodorants emit Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which not only affect indoor air quality which may cause short- and long-term adverse health effects, but can also act as greenhouse gases, and cause smog.

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Further reading:

Microorganisms and the natural environment. P. A. Trudinger, B. Bubela. Mineralium Deposita November 1967, Volume 2, Issue 3, pp 147-157. This paper looks good to read, however I had no access to the entire text.

Dipping a toe in global waters

person-692406_1280Vetturale di natura (vehicle of nature)” said Leonardo Da Vinci, when he observed water and studied hydrodynamics. Then there are others who explore the world of water in a different way. One of them is Joshka Wessels. She has documented and researched the technology and rehabilitation of thousand-year old underground water tunnels called qanats in countries like Syria, North Iraq, Oman, Algeria, Morocco and Spain. These qanats face the danger of drying up due to climate change led droughts. She speaks about this in her documentary ‘Water from the Dawn of Civilization‘.

Recently, The Guardian asked its readers if they were affected by a lack of water or drought. It asked them to share their pictures and stories via GuardianWitness. It may seem that only those who are afflicted by these conditions care the most about water scarcity. But many organisations and companies are measuring their water footprint to see the impacts of their water usage around the world, because they realize the importance of water. If such steps are not taken, wars would be waged in the name of water. This world map shows water conflicts around the globe.

What if thirsty people start killing each other like zombies? How’s that for apocalypse? Jon Freedman, Global Government Affairs Leader, GE differs in opinion in this talk where they discuss why everyone is obsessed with apocalypse. He says he is not a fan of drinking his own pee and the solution of water scarcity in fact involves drinking your open pee, by which he meant treated waste water. He points out that there is water scarcity around the world, but there is a solution. ‘We can desalinate and treat waste water,’ he says. He says that there is no such thing as absolute water scarcity and water desalination is a solution as long as you have a coastline. Wait a minute, approximately one-fifth of the world’s countries are landlocked and have no access to the oceans, what are they going to do? Probably treat and reuse waste water. No wonder he says waste water treatment comes first to desalination. In desalination vs. purification, purification wins, because desalination is too costly.
Coming back to water footprinting, Waterfootprint Network defines water footprinting as the total volume of freshwater used to produce the goods and services consumed by the individual or community or produced by the business, measured in terms of water volumes consumed (evaporated or incorporated into a product) and/or polluted per unit of time. Three kinds of water footprints are measured and these are:
  1. Green water footprint is water from precipitation that is stored in the root zone of the soil and evaporated, transpired or incorporated by plants. It is particularly relevant for agricultural, horticultural and forestry products.
  2. Blue water footprint is water that has been sourced from surface or groundwater resources and is either evaporated, incorporated into a product or taken from one body of water and returned to another, or returned at a different time. Irrigated agriculture, industry and domestic water use can each have a blue water footprint.
  3. Grey water footprint is the amount of fresh water required to assimilate pollutants to meet specific water quality standards. The grey water footprint considers point-source pollution discharged to a freshwater resource directly through a pipe or indirectly through runoff or leaching from the soil, impervious surfaces, or other diffuse sources.

Classification of water footprint by type of water only paints half the picture, we also have local consumption, global water consumption and virtual-water flows. The impacts of making a product in a country ‘A’ could have a water footprint in a country ‘B’. How? This is called the virtual flow of water. Who best describes it than P. Sainath? He talks about rose cultivation in Maharashtra in his article ‘How the other half dries‘. Roses require 21.2 million litres of water per acre and its exports from India went up by some 15-25 % in 2013. Dr. Craig Jones provides an example of steel cladding. Steel cladding in European Union could be causing a impact in India, which has considerable water shortages. This is what is called ‘importing water scarcity’ by exporting products, which no one wants but has anyway. The virtual-water flows related to international trade in crop, animal and industrial products (1996-2005) can be seen down below.

Fig4-NVWI

(Image: Virtual water balance per country and direction of gross virtual water flows related to trade in agricultural and industrial products over  the period 1996-2005. Only the biggest gross flows (> 15 Gm3/yr) are shown; the fatter the arrow, the bigger the virtual water flow. Source: Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2011) National water footprint accounts: the green, blue and grey water footprint of production and consumption, Value of Water Research Report Series No. 50, UNESCO-IHE, Delft, the Netherlands.)

ISO 14046:2014, an international standard for water footprint assessment, specifies principles, requirements and guidelines related to water footprint assessment of products, processes and organizations based on life cycle assessment (LCA). The GEMI Local Water Tool™(LWT) is a free tool for companies and organizations to evaluate the external impacts, business risks, opportunities and management plans related to water use and discharge at a specific site or operation. We also have a tool by the Water Footprint Network.

Even if standards and tools for water conservation are at our disposal, conservation of existing water bodies is equally important. For example, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) India claimed that the 2014 Kashmir floods were caused due to shrinking wetlands and therefore is a man-made disaster. They said that wetlands act as a sponge that retains excess water. Due to economic development in these areas, Dal Lake has shrunk to half its size and Wular Lake is just 10% of its original size. Shrinkage of water bodies has also been seen in other parts of the world. For example, the Aral Sea.

If you want to see a change, you got to be that change, said Gandhi and he is right. I have a different lifestyle here in the US and therefore my water consumption pattern has changed. I just found out, National Geographic has a water footprint calculator, but unfortunately it only applies to USA. Now that I’m in USA, I tried and I’m guilty. But it would have been great if I could do that for India as well, because then I’d know the difference. The calculator by Water Footprint Network on the other hand lets me choose the country I live in. Be sure to try their extended calculator. It asks too many things though, for example, I don’t know how much kgs of cereal I eat every week. That’s too overwhelming for me! I therefore choose to use water consciously, instead of measuring my water usage (grumbles). If you try, let me know! Peace-out. Lots of tips out there by the way, to save water.

Further reading:

Thanks to Circular Ecology and Craig Jones, who delivered a webinar on water footprint, which inspired me to write this article. You can find the webinar details and the video here. During this webinar, I asked him some questions that might interest you and I’ve noted them down below. For questions from other participants and the answers to all the questions, see the webinar video.

  • Q. Are there any dirty dozens of sorts for industries that consume water the most? (Psst. I just found out that Sustainable Technology Forum has 10 listed.)
  • Q. Are there any water footprinting calculators for common people? (Like I said in the article above, I have just found out two such calculators.)
  • Q. It would be interesting to see the difference of footprinting, carbon or water, of synthetic meat vs real meat. (Psst. I just found out Water Footprint Network has this one sorted.)

Water history for our times: The revised version of Water History of our Times was published end of June 2011 by UNESCO-IHP. The essay was written by Professor Fekri Hassan, the Egyptian archaeologist and historian. The books purpose is to foster a better understanding of the historical development, cultural diversity and ethics of freshwater use and management, and its relationship to issues of equity, cooperation and social cohesion, which is considered a prerequisite for the equitable and peaceful sharing of water resources.

John Anthony Allan – the brain behind virtual water and water footprinting

Would you drink from River Krishna?

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The third longest river in India, Krishna, flows through the state of Maharashtra and meets the Bay of Bengal in the end. The regions of Satara and Sangli receive its bounty. However, a news channel this morning displayed the blame game the people here play. The public blames the sugar industries and the environmental scientists blame the people. What’s the truth? One of my relatives hails from Sangli. Sangli’s co-operative sector has 10 sugar factories and the industrial sector has the other 10. A few years back he complained that his family and people around were falling sick due to water pollution caused by sugar industries in the area. Not sure where he got that information from so I called up the pollution control board. MPCB denied any pollution caused by the sugar industry the relative mentioned.

Rivers of India map: Wikipedia

To study and manage water, the Watershed Atlas of India provides a systematic picture of river basins in the form of watershed maps. In the image below, you can see the various shapes water takes on land before it becomes a river. Rainfall from the mountain overflows down into what we call ‘catchments’. A group of these catchments form ‘sub-watersheds’. A group of sub-watersheds forms a ‘watershed’ and a group of watersheds form a ‘basin’.

Watersheds: Howstuffworks.com

In Watershed Atlas of India, the entire river systems of the country have been divided into 6 Water Resources Region, which has been further divided into 35 basins and 112 catchments. These catchments have been further divided into 500 sub-catchments and 3237 watersheds. Basins, catchments, and watersheds are hydrological units that provide a system boundary for analysis. Analysis like computation of water balance parameters helps in the implementation of water management schemes.

Krishna Basin Map: Govt. of India

The Central Pollution Control Board of India (CPCB) collaborates with State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) concerned with the river basin. In the case of Krishna river, it is the pollution control boards of the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Since some of the water goes underground, known as groundwater, two kinds of monitoring are done – surface water monitoring and groundwater monitoring. In the country, surface water monitoring is done on a monthly or quarterly basis and on half yearly basis in case of groundwater. The monitoring network in the country covers 445 Rivers, 154 Lakes, 12 Tanks, 78 Ponds, 41 Creeks/Seawater, 25 Canals, 45 Drains, 10 Water Treatment Plant (Raw Water) and 807 Wells. Among the 2500 stations, 1275 are on rivers, 190 on lakes, 45 on drains, 41 on canals, 12 on tanks, 41 on creeks/seawater, 79 on ponds, 10 Water Treatment Plant (Raw Water) and 807 are groundwater stations.

In my notes, I’ve defined the parameters that these stations use to infer the water quality. You can find my notes here. One of them is Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD). BOD is ‘a measure of the oxygen utilized by micro-organisms during the oxidation of organic materials’. It indicates the amount of organic material present in water or the amount of ‘organic waste’ in it. Drinking water usually has a BOD of less than 1mg/l, and water is considered fairly pure with a BOD of 3mg/l. But, when the BOD value reaches 5mg/l, the water is of doubtful purity. Below is a picture of the water quality trend of BOD in River Krishna. On an average, looking at the mean values, it looks fairly pure. That doesn’t mean it has been this way the whole time. It has gone through spikes, as seen from the maximum values, which means it has been highly impure at times. Why has the water gone from pure to impure, and to the extent that it reaches values like 17 mg/l?

Water Quality Trend of BOD in River Krishna

Other than BOD, there are other important parameters such as Dissolved Oxygen (DO) and Coliform levels. Following are results from the water quality monitoring stations in Maharashtra. Drinking water should have Total Coliforms (TC) to be 50 MPN/100 ml or less and DO to be 6 mg/l or more. The graphs show unevenness in this regard. The DO is hanging low from 6 mg/l and TC is seen shooting way higher than 50 MPN/100 ml.

Coliform bacteria are organisms that are present in the environment and in the feces of all warm-blooded animals and humans. Coliform bacteria will not likely cause illness. However, their presence in drinking water indicates that disease-causing organisms (pathogens) could be in the water system.

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Clearly, the water is not of the right quality and it is either the industries or the people that are contributing to it or both. Here’s a screenshot of an annual report (2004-05) that talks about steps taken to improve the water quality of this River.

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References:

http://cgwb.gov.in/watershed/about-ws.html

http://cpcb.nic.in/water.php

http://cpcb.nic.in/upload/NewItems/NewItem_193_WaterQuality2011.pdf

http://mpcb.gov.in/images/pdf/annualreport0405b.pdf

Why you should keep in mind your environment when celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi

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Haven’t you heard anyone say – ‘Too much of anything is bad’? Or some of you may have read what Mark Twain once said, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” Mark Twain has a funny way of saying witty things. I recommend you read some more of him if you haven’t already.

Why am I talking about Mark Twain here? That’s because as many in India and may be some outside India are gearing up for the upcoming Ganesh Chaturthi festival, you are going to see shores deluged with idols and other waste products, so many in so little time.

For those who don’t know about this festival, it is about the Hindu-elephant God Ganesha. This festival has been celebrated for years, but it only gained momentum when Lokmanya Tilak revived it as a festival that will bring communities together. And so each year, it transforms every gully, ever nook and corner of India, especially the city of Mumbai, into a holy place during this festival. If Lokmanya Tilak were here now, I wonder what he would think of the scale at which this festival is celebrated now and what changes would be necessary to tackle the ill effects of it. Everything around you evolves. This festival too has evolved into a much celebrated public festival but at the cost of the environment around us.

During immersion, as the tides raze the idols, people go back to their homes. What is left behind are pieces of PoP and a lot of other solid waste like thermocol. A lot of it at a same place can have environmental consequences. Effects of idol immersion on the environment include increased turbidity of water bodies. As the reaction of water and PoP proceeds, it emits heat, that is it is exothermic. Local hot spots like these can cause problems. It also leads to pollution due to paint used on the idol and it may cause bio-magnification – a process through which chemicals accumulate in food chain – that we are a part of.

Three years back, Shiv Sena executive president Uddhav Thackeray defied environmentalists by saying “Plaster of Paris idols don’t affect environment.” It’s the job of environmentalists to raise concerns and it is the job of such politicians to make sure they are supported to conduct scientific experiments. Call them theoretical environmentalists if you may (just like theoretical physicists). Theories apart, the same year, researchers at the Dr. R M L Avadh University, Faizabad (U.P.) studied the effects of idol immersions on some water quality parameters of Saryu river. The paper is published in European Journal of Experimental Biology.

A year before that, an assessment of idol immersion on physico-chemical characteristics of River Tapti was conducted by researchers at the Zoology Department at Guru Nanak Khalsa College, Mumbai. This research has been published in the Indian Journal of Fundamental and Applied Life Sciences. River Tapti’s conditions have also been verified by other researchers at Department of Biosciences at V.N.S.G.University, Surat and published in the Journal of Environmental Research And Development.

Similar study has been done for Kolar River in Saoner, Nagpur. Researchers at the Department of Zoology at Bhalerao Science College, have called for creative action on handling this situation as their assessment reveals nothing different. Their research has been published in the International Research Journal of Environment Sciences. A proof of slow pollution because of PoP was provided by researchers at M.P. Pollution Control Board, Bhopal. It has been published in International Journal of Scientific Engineering and Technology.

Although my previous post ‘Pollution and festivals’ mentions some other studies that are done over the years 2010-2013 for this festival, I hope more scientific studies into this will be encouraged. As to what we can do about this is – choose idols that have biodegradable paints on them and are made of clay. Communities can use a confined pond for immersion and devise ways to manage waste that is create locally. Many more such suggestions have been made by researchers mentioned above. The links will take you to websites where full PDFs are accessible.

Further reading:

How harmful is PoP to the environment? by Aparna Pallavi @AparnaPallavi1