Archive for the 'Water' Category

Indian Rainforests

An article by Mohan Pai

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The Indian Rainforests


Rainforests – the Lungs of the Planet Earth
Tropical rainforests are vital to the global ecosystem and human existence. They are a world like no other and are unparalleled in terms of their biological diversity. Tropical rainforests are a natural reservoir of genetic diversity which offers a rich source of medicinal plants, high-yield foods, and a myriad of other useful forest products. They are an important habitat for migratory animals and sustain as much as 50 percent of the species on Earth, as well as a number of diverse and unique indigenous cultures. Tropical rainforests play an elemental role in regulating global weather in addition to maintaining regular rainfall, while buffering against floods, droughts, and erosion. They store vast quantities of carbon, while producing a significant amount of the world’s oxygen. Rainforests once covered 14% of the earths surface and even though they now only cover 6% of the earth, they are home to almost half of the worlds population of mammals, amphibians, reptiles, insects, bird life and plant life.
Tropical rainforests are located in a band around the equator (Zero degrees latitude) in the area between the Tropic of Cancer (23.5° North latitude) and the Tropic of Capricorn (23.5° South latitude).This 3,000 mile (4800 kilometres) wide band is known as the ‘tropics’.

The equator is a line that circles the centre of our global world and is situated halfway between the north and south poles. Temperatures at the equator are high. These high temperatures cause accelerated evaporation of water, which results in frequent rain in rainforests in the tropics.

World Rainforests
 
Tropical rainforests are found between latitudes 10° N and 10° S. This includes the Amazon Basin of South America, the Zaire Basin of Africa and the islands and peninsulas of South-east Asia.In Southeast Asia, the tropical rainforests are found in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Burma and Papua New Guinea. The rainforests found in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are in small patches and strips, while on the other hand, Indonesia contains one-tenth of the world’s rainforest and 40% of all Asian rainforests! However sadly, as Indonesia is progressing further into modernisation, it is losing its rainforests to commercial logging and human settlements. Malaysia too has lost about two third of its lowland forest to plantations. On a brighter side, Papua New Guinea still has areas of rainforest yet to be disturbed, due to its mountainous terrain. Papua New Guinea is home to many amazing animals, one being the largest butterfly in the world; the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing. Its wing span can reach up to 10 inches wide!
Although they cover less than 2 percent of Earth’s surface, they house an estimated 50 percent of all life on the planet. The immense numbers of creatures that inhabit the tropical rainforests are so great—an estimated 50 million species— they are almost incomprehensible. The sheer range of numbers alone suggests the limited extent of our knowledge of these forests. For example, whereas temperate forests are often dominated by a half dozen tree species or fewer that make up 90 percent of the trees in the forest, a tropical rainforest may have more than 480 tree species in a single hectare (2.5 acres). A single bush in the Amazon may have more species of ants than the entire British Isles. This diversity of rainforests is not a haphazard event, but is the result of a series of unique circumstances.
Layers
A tropical rainforest is typically divided into four main layers, each with different plants and animals adapted for life in that particular area: the emergent, canopy, understory, and forest floor layers.

Emergent layer
The emergent layer contains a small number of very large trees called emergents, which grow above the general canopy, reaching heights of 45-55 m, although on occasion a few species will grow to 70-80 m tall. They need to be able to withstand the hot temperatures and strong winds in some areas. Eagles, butterflies, bats, and certain monkeys inhabit this layer.

Diagram: Coutesy Animal Corner
 

Canopy layer
The canopy layer contains the majority of the largest trees, typically 30-45 m tall. The densest areas of biodiversity are found in the forest canopy, a more or less continuous cover of foliage formed by adjacent treetops. The canopy, by some estimates, is home to 50 percent of all plant species, suggesting that perhaps half of all life on Earth could be found there. Epiphytic plants attach to trunks and branches, and obtain water and minerals from rain and debris that collects on the supporting plants. The fauna is similar to that found in the emergent layer, but more diverse. A quarter of all insect species are believed to exist in the rainforest canopy. Scientists have long suspected the richness of the canopy as a habitat, but have only recently developed practical methods of exploring it. As long ago as 1917, naturalist William Beebe declared that “another continent of life remains to be discovered, not upon the Earth, but one to two hundred feet above it, extending over thousands of square miles.” True exploration of this habitat only began in the 1980s, when scientists developed methods to reach the canopy, such as firing ropes into the trees using crossbows. Exploration of the canopy is still in its infancy, but other methods include the use of balloons and airships to float above the highest branches and the building of cranes and walkways planted on the forest floor. The science of accessing tropical forest canopy using airships, or similar aerial platforms, is called dendronautics.

Understory layer
The understory layer lies between the canopy and the forest floor. The understory (or understorey) is home to a number of birds, snakes, and lizards, as well as predators such as jaguars, boa constrictors, and leopards. The leaves are much larger at this level. Insect life is also abundant. Many seedlings that will grow to the canopy level are present in the understory. Only about 5 percent of the sunlight shining on the rainforest reaches the understory. This layer can also be called a shrub layer, although the shrub layer may also be considered a separate layer.

Forest floor
The forest floor, the bottom-most layer, receives only 2 percent of sunlight. Only plants adapted to low light can grow in this region. Away from riverbanks, swamps, and clearings
where dense undergrowth is found, the forest floor is relatively clear of vegetation because of the low sunlight penetration. It also contains decaying plant and animal matter, which disappears quickly due to the warm, humid conditions promoting rapid decay. Many forms of fungi grow here which help decay the animal and plant waste. It takes up to 20 minutes for rain to actually touch the ground from the trees. Forest floor – Mahadayi Valley, Karnataka.
Because of the ample solar energy, tropical rainforests are usually warm year round with temperatures from about 72-93F (22-34C), although forests at higher elevations, especially cloud forests, may be significantly cooler. The temperature may fluctuate during the year, but in some equatorial forests the average may vary as little as 0.5F (0.3C) throughout the year. Temperatures are generally moderated by cloud cover and high humidity.
 
PRECIPITATION

An important characteristic of rainforests is apparent in their name. Rainforests lie in the intertropical convergence zone where intense solar energy produces a convection zone of rising air that loses its moisture through frequent rainstorms. Rainforests are subject to heavy rainfall, at least 80 inches (2,000 mm), and in some areas over 430 inches (10,920 mm) of rain each year. In equatorial regions, rainfall may be year round without apparent “wet” or “dry” seasons, although many forests do have seasonal rains. Even in seasonal forests, the period between rains is usually not long enough for the leaf litter to dry out completely. During the parts of the year when less rain falls, the constant cloud cover is enough to keep the air moist and prevent plants from drying out. Some neotropical rainforests rarely go a month during the year without at least 6″ of rain. The stable climate, with evenly spread rainfall and warmth, allows most rainforest trees to be evergreen—keeping their leaves all year and never dropping all their leaves in any one season. Forests further from the equator, like those of India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Central America, where rainy seasons are more pronounced, can only be considered “semi-evergreen” since some species of trees may shed all of their leaves at the beginning of the dry season. Annual rainfall is spread evenly enough to allow heavy growth of broad-leafed evergreen trees, or at least semi-evergreen trees. The moisture of the rainforest from rainfall, constant cloud cover, and transpiration (water loss through leaves), creates intense local humidity. Each canopy tree transpires some 200 gallons (760 liters) of water annually, translating to roughly 20,000 gallons (76,000 L) of water transpired into the atmosphere for every acre of canopy trees. Large rainforests (and their humidity) contribute to the formation of rain clouds, and generate as much as 75 percent of their own rain.
The Amazon rainforest is responsible for creating as much as 50 percent of its own precipitation. Deforestation and climate change may be affecting the water cycle in tropical rainforests. Since the mid-1990s, rainforests around the world have experienced periods of severe drought, including southeast Asia in 1997 and 2005 and the Amazon in 2005. Dry conditions, combined with degradation from logging and agricultural conversion, make forests more vulnerable to wildfire.

Rainforests Waters
Tropical rainforests have some of the largest rivers in the world, like the Amazon, Madeira, Mekong, Brahmaputra, Negro, Orinoco, and Zaire (Congo), because of the tremendous amount of precipitation their watersheds receive. These mega-rivers are fed by countless smaller tributaries, streams, and creeks. For example, the Amazon alone has some 1,100 tributaries, 17 of which are over 1,000 miles long. Although large tropical rivers are fairly uniform in appearance and water composition, their tributaries vary greatly. Many tropical rivers and streams have extreme high and low water levels that occur at different parts of the year. In addition to rivers, rainforests have conventional, free-standing lakes and so-called oxbow lakes, formed when a river changes course. These lakes are home to species adapted to the quiet, stagnant conditions. Tropical waters, whether they be giant rivers, streams, or oxbow lakes, are almost as rich in animal species as the rainforests that surround them. But they, too, are increasingly threatened by human activities, including pollution, siltation resulting from deforestation, hydroelectric projects, and over-harvesting of resident species.

Forest – the mother of rivers

There is an umbilical connection between healthy forests and water regimes. Forests are nurseries and cisterns for our life giving rivers. Forest areas give birth to all the major and minor rivers. Most of the rivers spring from some unknown forests. Because of the slope the rain water cannot stay to soak into the earth, it flows downhill rapidly taking some of the earth with it This run-off on the hillsides will only be halted, and water will percolate into the earth where there is a good tree cover. In fact a forest “traps” rainwater and channels it into underground streams.
 
World’s Largest Pharmacy

Medicinal plants and herbs which are in great demand by Pharmaceutical MNCs e.g. Mappia foetida used for the treatment of ovarian colon cancers. The tree is the richest source of Camptothetician (CPT) used in the treatment of these cancers.

Tropical rainforests are called “the world’s largest pharmacy” because of the large amount of natural medicines discovered in rainforests that are derived from rainforest plants. For example, rain forests contain the basic ingredients of hormonal contraception methods, cocaine, stimulants, and tranquilizing drugs. Curare (a paralyzing drug) and quinine (a malaria cure) are also found there.
CONSEQUENCES OF DEFORESTATION

Rainforests around the world still continue to fall. Does it really make a difference? Why should anyone care if some plants, animals, mushrooms, and microorganisms perish? Rainforests are often hot and humid, difficult to reach, insect-ridden, and have elusive wildlife.
Actually the concern should not be about losing a few plants and animals; mankind stands to lose much more. By destroying the tropical forests, we risk our own quality of life, gamble with the stability of climate and local weather, threaten the existence of other species, and undermine the valuable services provided by biological diversity. While in most areas environmental degradation has yet to reach a crisis level where entire systems are collapsing, it is important to examine some of the effects of existing environmental impoverishment and to forecast some of the potential repercussions of forest loss. Continuing loss of natural systems could make human activities increasingly vulnerable to ecological surprises in the future. The most immediate impact of deforestation occurs at the local level with the loss of ecological services provided by tropical rainforests and related ecosystems. Such habitats afford humans valuable services such as erosion prevention, flood control, water treatment, fisheries protection, and pollination—functions that are particularly important to the world’s poorest people, who rely on natural resources for their everyday survival. Forest loss also reduces the availability of renewable resources like timber, medicinal plants, nuts and fruit, and game. Over the longer term, deforestation of tropical rainforests can have a broader impact, affecting global climate and biodiversity. These changes are more difficult to observe and forecast from local effects, since they take place over a longer time scale and can be difficult to measure.
Deforestation and the Global Carbon Cycle
Carbon dioxide ( CO2) is the major gas involved in the greenhouse effect, which causes global warming. All the things that produce CO2 (like car burning gas) and the things that consume Co2 (growing plants) are involved in the “global carbon cycle”. Tropical forests hold an immense amount of carbon, which joins with oxygen to form CO2. The plants and soil of tropical forests hold 460-575 billion metric tons of carbon worldwide. Each acre of tropical forest stores about 180 metric tons of carbon.
Deforestation increases the amount of CO2 and other trace gases in the atmosphere. When a forest is cut and replaced by cropland and pastures, the carbon that was stored in the tree trunks (wood is about 50% carbon) joins with oxygen and is released into the atmosphere as Co2.The loss of forests has a great effect on the global carbon cycle. From 1850 to 1990, deforestation worldwide (including that in the United States) released 122 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere, with the current rate being 1.6 billion metric tons per year. In comparison all the fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) burned during a year release about 6 billion tons per year.Releasing CO2 into the atmosphere increases the greenhouse effect, and may raise global temperature. The role of fossil fuels burned by cars and industry is well known, but tropical deforestation releases about 25% of the amount released by fossil fuel burning. Tropical deforestation, therefore, contributes a significant part of the increasing CO2 in the atmosphere.
Today tropical rainforests are disappearing from the face of the globe. Despite growing international concern, rainforests continue to be destroyed at a pace exceeding 80,000 acres (32,000 hectares) per day. World rainforest cover now stands at around 2.5 million square miles (6 million square kilometers), an area about the size of the contiguous 48 United States or Australia and representing around 5 percent of the world’s land surface. Much of this remaining area has been impacted by human activities and no longer retains its full original biodiversity.
 
The Rainforests of India
The rainforests in India are the centres of species richness and endemism and due to this has the status of being one of the 12 mega-biodiversity countries in the world. Even the two hotspots in India, the Western Ghats and the Eastern Himalayas, owe their status due to the presence of rainforests therein. These forests form very important catchments areas for major river systems, maintain soil and water fertility not only in the immediate vicinity but also hundreds of kilometers away, harbours rich indigenous culture with long traditions of sustainable use of traditional knowledge systems especially on medicines and wild relatives of cultivate crops. It is to these rainforests that more than 80% of the endemic flora and fauna of India are confined. Being the most complex ecosystem, the rain forests are living laboratories in which complex ecological, biological and evolutionary processes that have shaped the Earth.

Bamboo brakes, Muthodi, Karnataka

 
Tropical forest cover in India has been reduced to two major areas: the coastal hills of the Western Ghats (about 55,000 square miles or 135,000 sq. km) and 14,000 square miles (34,500 sq. km) in Northeastern India. Very little of India’s forest cover is considered pristine. 22.8% —or about 67,701,000 hectares—of India is forested. Change in Forest Cover: Between 1990 and 2000, India gained an average of 361,500 hectares of forest per year. The amounts to an average annual reforestation rate of 0.57%. Between 2000 and 2005, the rate of forest change decreased by 92.3% to 0.04% per annum. In total, between 1990 and 2005, India gained 5.9% of its forest cover, or around 3,762,000 hectares. Measuring the total rate of habitat conversion (defined as change in forest area plus change in woodland area minus net plantation expansion) for the 1990-2005 interval, India gained 1.0% of its forest and woodland habitat.Biodiversity and Protected Areas: India has some 2356 known species of amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles according to figures from the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Of these, 18.4% are endemic, meaning they exist in no other country, and 10.8% are threatened. India is home to at least 18664 species of vascular plants, of which 26.8% are endemic. 4.9% of India is protected under IUCN categories I-V.

Rainforests of the Western Ghats
The Western Ghats hill range in India contains spectacular landscapes and an incredible array of wild species, many found nowhere else in the world. One among the world’s 34 most biologically diverse “hotspots”, the region has representation of a wide variety of natural ecosystems from grasslands and dry forests to rainforests, rivers, and streams, threatened by a multitude of human activities such as industrialisation, agriculture, grazing, hunting, deforestation, fragmentation, and degradation. Today, rainforests in the Western Ghats occur largely as fragments within a landscape matrix dominated by commercial plantations of tea, coffee, and other cash crops. With an annual deforestation rate of 1.2%, the southern Western Ghats is losing about 500 square kilometres of forest every year. NCF’s programme focuses on human impacts on wild species and habitats, biological surveys, human-wildlife conflict research and mitigation, and restoration to turn the tide of destruction towards conservation.

Forests of the western slopes of the Western Ghats, Konkan

The northern portion of the range is generally drier than the southern portion, and at lower elevations makes up the North Western Ghats moist deciduous forests ecoregion, with mostly deciduous forests made up predominantly of teak. Above 1,000 meters elevation are the cooler and wetter North Western Ghats montane rain forests, whose evergreen forests are characterized by trees of family Lauraceae.The evergreen Wayanad forests of Kerala mark the transition zone between the northern and southern ecoregions of the Western Ghats. The southern ecoregions are generally wetter and more species-rich. At lower elevations are the South Western Ghats moist deciduous forests, with Cullenia the characteristic tree genus, accompanied by teak, dipterocarps, and other trees. The moist forests transition to the drier South Deccan Plateau dry deciduous forests, which lie in its rain shadow to the east.
 

Clear felling, Mahadayi Valley, Karnataka

 
Above 1,000 meters are the South Western Ghats montane rain forests, also cooler and wetter than the surrounding lowland forests, and dominated by evergreen trees, although some montane grasslands and stunted forests can be found at the highest elevations. The South Western Ghats montane rain forests are the most species-rich ecoregion in peninsular India; eighty percent of the flowering plant species of the entire Western Ghats range are found in this ecoregion.

Tropical Montane – Bedthi River Valley, Karnataka

The animal life of the Indian peninsular region is characterised by the absence of many of the Indo-Malay species which are so abundant in the hill forests of the Himalayas. It is the home of the true Indian fauna of which the spotted deer, the nilgai, the blackbuck, the four-horned antelope, and the sloth bear are typical representatives. They are found no where else. Other species like the gaur, the sambar and the muntjac (barking deer) occur both in India and Malay countries. The Western Ghats, in sharp contrast to the adjoining dry zone of the Deccan present a region of great humidity and heavy rainfall. The forests covering the western slopes are at times very dense and composed of lofty trees, festooned with perennial creepers. Bamboos form a luxuriant undergrowth. In parts of the range the forests are more open and the banks of clear streams running through them are covered with spice and betel groves.
The Nilgiris, an offshoot of the Western Ghats, rise precipitously to form extensive grassy downs and tablelands seamed with densely forested gorges or Sholas. They are composed of evergreen trees with dense undergrowth.

1. Malabar Giant Squirrel 2. Lion tailed Macaque

 
Among the species limited to these forests are the Nilgiri langur, the Lion-tailed macaque, the Nilgiri brown mongoose and the striped necked mongoose, the Malabar civet, and the spiny mouse. In the higher levels of the Nilgiris and the Anaimalais are found such characteristically Himalayan animals as the tahr, the pine marten and the European otter.
 

Endemic species of the Western Ghats

One hundred and twenty species of mammals are known from the Western Ghats of which fourteen species are endemic (found only in that area).
 
The mammalian fauna of the Western Ghats is dominated by insectivores (11 species), bats (41 species) and rodents (27 species including porcupine). Few studies have, however, paid attention to the community structure and organisation of these small mammals in the Western Ghats, although there have been attempts to review our understanding of the status and ecology of smaller cats and lesser carnivores.
 
Rainforests of the Northeast India
 
The Northeast India lying between 22-30 degree N latitude and 89-97 degree E longitude, and sprawling over 2,62,379 sq.km., Northeast India represents the transition zone between the Indian, Indo-Malayan and Indo-Chinese biogeographic regions and a meeting place of the Himalayan Mountains and Peninsular India. It was the part of the northward migrating ‘Deccan Peninsula’ that first touched the Asian landmass after the break up of Gondwanaland in the early Tertiary Period. Northeast India is thus the geographical ‘gateway’ for much of India’s flora and fauna, and as a consequence, the region is one of the richest in biological values. It is in this lowland-highland transition zone that the highest diversity of biomes or ecological communities can be found, and species diversities within these communities are also extremely high.
 
Northeast India is blessed with a wide range of physiography and ecoclimatic conditions. The State of Assam has extensive flood plains, while Khangchendzonga in Sikkim stands 8586 m. tall. Cherrapunjee in the State of Meghalaya holds the record for the highest rainfall in a single month (9,300 mm) as well as the most in a year (26,461 mm) in India, while the nearby Mawsynram has the world’s highest average rainfall (11,873 mm). The forests in the region are extremely diverse in structure and composition and combine tropical and temperate forest types, alpine meadows and cold deserts. There are regions, for example, in the State of Sikkim, where the faunal assemblages also change rapidly from tropical to subtropical, temperate, alpine and finally to cold desert forms.
 
After the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the Western Ghats, Northeast India forms the main region of tropical forests in India, especially the species-rich tropical rain forests. The tropical semi-evergreen and moist deciduous forests in the lowlands of this region extend south and west into the subcontinent, and east into Southern China and Southeast Asia. The subtropical forests of the region follow the foothills of the Himalaya to the west; also extend into Southeast China in the east. Himalayan temperate and subalpine zone forests extend from northern Pakistan and adjacent Afghanistan through Northeast India to Southwest China. Each of the eight States of the region, namely Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura, boast of several endemics in flora as well as fauna. This region represents an important part of the Indo-Myanmar biodiversity hotspot.
 
1. Dooars forests, North Bengal 2. Golden Langur
 
The primary vegetation in extensive areas of the Northeast India has been disturbed and modified and in some places destroyed by seismic activities, frequent landslides and resultant soil erosion. While these natural causes have contributed only marginally to the change in vegetation type, it is the activity of Man that has led to the irreversible transformation in the landscapes and has resulted in colossal loss of biodiversity in the entire region. Human influences have pushed many species to the brink of extinction and have caused havoc to natural fragile ecosystems. Such devastations to natural ecosystems are witnessed almost everywhere in the region and is a cause of great concern.

 
1. Slow Loris 2. Reticulated Python

Northeast India has 64% of the total geographical area under forest cover and it is often quoted that it continues to be a forest surplus region. However, the forest cover is rapidly disappearing from the entire region. There has been a decrease of about 1800 sq.km. in the forest cover between 1991 and 1999. More worrisome still is the fact that the quality of the forest is also deteriorating, with the dense forests (canopy closure of 40% or more) becoming degraded into open forest or scrub. Though there is a succession of several edaphic formations, a vast area of land has already been transformed into barren and unproductive wastelands. This being the case, the statistics of ‘more than 64 % of the total geographic area in this region under forest cover’ could be misleading. For example, though the forest cover in Manipur extends to 78% of the total geographic area, only 22% of forest area is under dense forest cover and the rest has been converted to open forests.
 
 
Except in the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys of Assam where substantial areas are under agriculture, little of the land is available for settled cultivation. Hence, shifting agriculture or slash-and-burn agriculture is the major land use in Northeast India and extends over 1.73 million ha. Different agencies have come up with different figures concerning the total area under shifting cultivation (jhum) in the region. What is not disputable is that with an ever shortening jhum cycle, the other human influences have caused environmental degradation with disastrous consequences.The forests of Assam once acted as a sponge, absorbing the tremendous impact of the monsoons. The natural drainage of the vast northeastern Himalaya is channelled through Assam and with the loss of thick forest cover, Brahmaputra, one of the largest and fastest flowing rivers of the subcontinent is creating havoc in the State. Floods that have devastating effects are now common to Northeast India and protecting the forests is a difficult problem.
 
 
The Rainforests of the Andamans & Nicobar Islands

 
The Andamans and Nicobar Islands have tropical evergreen rain forests and tropical semi-evergreen rainforests as well as tropical monsoon moist monsoon forests.
 
There are 572 islands in the territory, of which only approximately 38 are permanently inhabited. Most of the islands (about 550) are in the Andamans group, 26 of which are inhabited. The smaller Nicobars comprise some 22 main islands (10 inhabited). The Andamans and Nicobars are separated by a channel (the Ten Degree Channel) some 150 km wide.The total area of the Andaman Islands is some 6,408 km²; that of the Nicobar Islands approximately 1,841 km².

 
Aerial view -Andamans & Nicobar Islands

Andaman & Nicobar Islands are blessed with a unique tropical rainforest canopy, made of a mixed flora with elements from Indian, Myanmarese, Malaysian and endemic floral strains. So far, about 2,200 varieties of plants have been recorded, out of which 200 are endemic and 1,300 do not occur in mainland India.The South Andaman forests have a profuse growth of epiphytic vegetation, mostly ferns and orchids. The Middle Andamans harbours mostly moist deciduous forests. North Andamans is characterised by the wet evergreen type, with plenty of woody climbers. The north Nicobar Islands (including Car Nicobar and Battimalv) are marked by the complete absence of evergreen forests, while such forests form the dominant vegetation in the central and southern islands of the Nicobar group. Grasslands occur only in the Nicobars, and while deciduous forests are common in the Andamans, they are almost absent in the Nicobars. The present forest coverage is claimed to be 86.2% of the total land area.

 
 
 
References: Wikipedia, Mongabay,com, Animal corner.com, The Western Ghats by Mohan Pai, Nature Conservation Foundation, Biodiversity of Northeast India an Overview -V.Ramakantha, A.K.Gupta, Ajith Kumar
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WATER … the giver of life

An Article by Mohan Pai

Water … the giver of life.

 

Water has a central place in the practices and beliefs of most religions for two main reasons. Firstly, water cleanses. Water washes away impurities and pollutants, it can make an object look as good as new and wipe away any signs of previous defilement. Water not only purifies objects for ritual use, but can make a person clean, externally or spiritually, ready to come into the presence of his/her focus of worship. Secondly, water is a primary building block of life. Without water there is no life, yet water has the power to destroy as well as to create. We are at the mercy of water just as we are at the mercy of our gods. The significance of water manifests itself differently in different religions and beliefs but it is these two qualities of water that underlie its place in our cultures and faiths.
In India, water has been an object of worship from time immemorial. Primordial water is aadi jalam, kaarana jalam, karana vaari. The sea of primeval water is kaaranavaaridhi. Water represents the non-manifested substratum from which all manifestations arise. Primarily, water is the building block of life. The five elements of nature (panchamahabhuta) include earth, water, fire, air and ether (sky). Adi Shesha, the divine snake who forms the couch of Narayana, represents cosmic waters.

Water-carrier (1882)
Akshitha is imperishable. Water is Akshitham. In the matter of purity it is like eyes. Hence it is also known as Akshitharam. Water is a purifier, life-giver and destroyer of evil. It is life- preserving power par excellence.Although Hinduism encompasses so many different beliefs, most Hindus do share the importance of striving to attain purity and avoiding pollution. This relates to both physical cleanliness and spiritual well being. Water cleanses, washes away impurities and pollutants. The belief that water has spiritually cleansing powers has given it a central place in the practices and beliefs of many a religious ritual. Physically and mentally clean person is enabled to focus on worship. Water as an element of belief system and culture makes Hinduism ‘a religion of holy water’. The words panchapatre, dhaarakam, kudam, kamandalu, kindi and kundi(ka), kalasa are the Indian water vessels for holy use.
Most life on Earth has water as a major component; our cells, and those of plants and animals are made up of approximately 70 percent water. Water is the basic building block for all life on Earth, water is the most plentiful natural resource on the planet; in fact, over two-thirds of the Earth is covered by water. However, 97 percent is held in the oceans, while only 3 percent is freshwater. Of the freshwater, only 1 percent is easily accessible as ground or surface water, the remains are stored in glaciers and icecaps. Moreover, freshwater is not evenly distributed across land surfaces, and there are a number of heavily populated countries located in arid lands where fresh water is scarce.
The Water Cycle
Water also regulates the temperature of the planet and cycles essential nutrients through the land, air, and all living things. The flow of water through the atmosphere, biosphere, lithosphere, and hydrosphere is called the hydrologic, or water, cycle. Thus, water is both the most abundant natural resource on our planet and a fundamental element of life whose preciousness requires diligent management. Vast quantities of water also cycle through the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, land, and biosphere over both short and long time scales. This grand cycling of water is called the hydrologic cycle; it shapes our weather and climate, supports plant growth, and make life itself possible. The water cycle is dominated by oceans, where 96 percent of the water on Earth is found and where the majority global evaporation occurs.
Water is stored for periods of time in various types of reservoirs, primarily the oceans and polar ice and glaciers. There is roughly 50 times as much water stored in the oceans than in polar ice and glaciers, which is the next largest water reservoir. The amount of time that water stays in a reservoir varies: while glaciers retain their water for an average of 40 years, deep groundwater can be held for up to 10,000 years. At the other end of the spectrum, the retention time for rivers, soil moisture, and seasonal snow cover is typically less than 6 months.
When rain and other precipitation falls on land, much of it seeps into the ground. This process, the movement of water into and through the soil and rocks, is called infiltration. How water behaves once it is in the ground is determined by the type of soil or rock through which it moves. It is primarily during this stage of the water cycle that water is purified, although the extent to which it is “cleaned” also depends on the water composition itself as well as the state of the surrounding environment. As water passes through layers of sediment and rock, many pollutants are filtered out. In general, the deeper groundwater is found, the cleaner it will be.
Water not absorbed into the soil flows across the land and into rivers, lakes, streams, and eventually to the oceans. Runoff waters can originate from precipitation or stem from melting snow or ice, although it will vary depending upon an assortment of factors, including the topography, geology, and land cover of a particular area. An expanse of land where the surface runoff and groundwater drains into a common point – usually a stream, lake, or river – is called a watershed, which can range in size from a few acres to many square miles. And, unlike water filtered by the soil, runoff water can serve as a collector of nutrients, sediment, or other pollutants on the land that can affect the quality of water throughout a watershed.
Most water, however, returns to the air in the form of water vapor; the bulk of this evaporation occuring by means of the oceans. Roughly half of land-based evaporation occurs on the surface area of plants, called transpiration. These together are sometimes referred to as evapotranspiration. The process in which water vapor is converted back into liquid form is called condensation. Within the water cycle, it takes place primarily in the atmosphere. As water vapor moves upward in the atmosphere it cools. Droplets develop and collect as a result of gravitational pull to form clouds. Water then returns to Earth through precipitation which, depending on the temperature of the surrounding air, will take either frozen or liquid form; although, it is primarily through precipitation that water moves from the atmosphere to the Earth.
Water Use

Fresh water is one of our most valuable natural resources for which agricultural, industrial, municipal, and environmental uses all compete. Throughout history, cities and villages established themselves, and grew, near sources of water. Today, an adequate supply of fresh water is still needed, with quality being just as important as quantity. However, with continued increases in population, the competition between the various uses will only become more intense. How the allocation, use, and management of water is addressed will have dramatic impacts on the environment, the economy, and our quality of life.
Fresh Water Crisis
By mid century as much as three quarters of the earth’s population could face scarcity of fresh water. Apart from population increase, Global Climate change is exacerbating aridity and reducing supply in many regions.Lack of access to water can lead to starvation, disease, political instability and even armed conflict and failure to take action can have broad and grave consequences. In the absence of concerted action to save water, the combination of population growth and climate change will create scarcity far and wide.
Water Situation in India
India, with a sixth of the world’s population, faces a rapidly growing water crisis, both in the urban and rural areas. These include wasteful practices in the use of water, particularly for irrigation, water-logging and salinity, and inadequate access to safe drinking water and sanitation. In cities such as Chennai and Delhi, several localities rely on private water tankers for their daily water needs. Groundwater is the dominant resource that has been developed in rural India to meet the drinking water needs. But often, the shallower wells are found to be affected by fluoride, arsenic, iron, salt and/or microbial contamination. In many States, especially Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, this is a significant concern. Over-use of pesticides and chemicals in agriculture is the primary cause for groundwater pollution in the rural areas. A survey conducted in Uttar Pradesh in 2004 revealed that people in one region are compelled to drink polluted water with a high fluoride content, leading to large-scale dental fluorosis and arthritis.
Average water consumption around the world is about 53 liters per head per day. In India, we expect to soon have only about 20 liters available per head per day. We have had droughts for a long time, and now with global climate change, things will become even more difficult. The glaciers are receding from the Himalayan Mountains. They are about one fifth the size they were about 60 years ago.
Himalayan glaciers

The waters from the Himalayan glaciers provide water for about 70 percent of all the people in Asia. In India, we have three major rivers – the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra – and it is likely that they will drain to small rivers. It will be a very big disaster for India, more than any other country. In most of northern India, there will be no water. Right now there are floods. The flood area has increased from 25 million hectares to 60 millions hectares in the last 30 years. That is an indication that the water is draining away, and these will become dry areas. This will happen in less than 30 years. It is a very serious matter. Already today, irrigation, which has benefitted agriculture in India a lot, has become very difficult. Things have changed since the Green Revolution. The rate of agricultural production has come down. Groundwater, which is already scarce, has gone down to 800 feet (240 meters) or even 1,000 feet (300m) in some regions around Bangalore.
Water Facts
01 Only about 3% of surface water is fresh water.
02 Water covers 71% of the Earth’s surface, but one fifth of the world’s population lacks access to clean drinking water.
03 The Earth’s oceans are the most important carbon sink on the planet along with rainforests.
04 Floods are the most frequent disaster worldwide.
05 Waterborne diseases affect about four billion people every year.
06 In 2007, Greenland’s ice sheet lost nearly 19 billion tons more ice than in 2006.
07 It is expected that the demand for water will double during the next 30 years.
08 A kilo of industrially produced meat needs about 10,000 liters of water to produce.
09 People in rich countries use ten times more water than people in poor countries.
10 Agriculture takes up 70% of the water we use.

MY BLOG LIBRARY

For some of my articles visit:

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For some key chapters from my book “The Western Ghats”, please log on to:http://westernghats-paimohan.blogspot.com/

For detailed blog (6 Chapters) on Mahadayi/Mandovi River Valley, please log on to:http://mohan-pai.blogspot.com/

For the book ‘The Elderly’ please log on to:http://oldagecare-paimohan.blogspot.com/

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