Environment, GS-3, Uncategorized

Environment Digest – 15th May – 21st May 2016

[1] Mexico’s Vaquita porpoise headed toward extinction


  • Scientists have warned that the population of Mexico’s endangered vaquita marina, the world’s smallest porpoise, has fallen to alarmingly low levels and is heading toward extinction soon if drastic measures aren’t taken.


  • The vaquita (Phocoena sinus), also known as the Gulf of California harbor porpoise, is the smallest and rarest of the cetaceans – which include whales, dolphins, and porpoises.
  • The vaquita has a gray body with a pale gray or white belly and a dark patch around its eye.
  • They are very rarely seen in the wild.Vaquitas have the most restricted range of any marine cetacean.
  • They appear to live only in the northern end of the Gulf of California.


  • The greatest threat to the remaining vaquita is incidental death caused by fishing gear.
  • Vaquitas are known to die in gillnets set for sharks, rays, mackerels and chano, as well as in illegal and occasionally permitted gillnet sets for an endangered fish called totoaba.
  • The vaquitas are threatened primarily by gillnet fishing for the totoaba fish, another endangered species in the area that is hunted for its swim bladder, considered a delicacy in China.
  • They are also killed by commercial shrimp trawlers.


  • It is a common fishing method used by commercial and artisanal fishermen of all the oceans and in some freshwater and estuary areas.
  • Gill nets are vertical panels of netting normally set in a straight line.

Last census found just under 100 of them

  • The last such survey found just under 100 vaquitas in 2014. Overall, their numbers are down 92 percent since 1997.

Joint Action is required

  • The Mexican, the U.S. and Chinese governments need to take urgent and coordinated action to stop the illegal fishing, trafficking and consumption of totoaba products.
  • In the end, if the vaquita goes extinct it would inevitably be a shared responsibility of the three countries.

May join the ‘extinct’ list

  • The Steller’s sea cow disappeared in 1768, the Caribbean monk seal in 1952, the Japanese sea lion in 1970 and the Chinese river dolphin in 2006.
  • While capture and captive breeding remain as a possible last resort, no one has ever succeeded in keeping a vaquita alive in captivity, much less breeding them.
  • Activists said extinction could also end the kind of shielding effect that the protections for the charismatic porpoises resulted in for the surrounding habitat.

[2]Asian waterbird census data causes mixed feelings


  • A quarter century of ornithological observations of wetland birds of Kerala come with a mixed bag of joy and despair for birders.


  • Ornithology is a branch of zoology that concerns the study of birds.
  • The science of ornithology has a long history and studies on birds have helped develop several key concepts in evolution, behaviour and ecology such as the definition of species, the process of speciation, instinct, learning, ecological niches, guilds, island biogeography,phylogeography and conservation.

Key Observations

  • At a time when the wetlands of the State are facing multi-pronged threats, the population of a few bird species has been found soaring whereas some others have nose-dived in the population chart.
  • Researchers focused their attention on the data generated from the four Ramsar sites of the State – Sasthamkotta Lake, Ashtamudi Lake, Vembanad Lake and Kole Wetlands – and also the other important wetland habitats to get a bird’s eye view of the population trends of wetland avian fauna.
  • The annual census, coordinated by Wetlands International, also happens to be the first country-wide citizen science activity on natural history in India.

Threats identified

  • Demographic pressure, industrial development, pollution, urbanisation, agriculture and aquaculture and water transport have been adding pressure on the wetlands of the State.
  • Reclamation of wetlands and the aquatic ecosystems, which are often considered as wastelands, is spelling trouble to several taxa.
  • The stake nets used for fishing removes a wide array of non-target organisms, which are functionally important to the aquatic environment.
  • Destructive fishing practise are also taking a toll on the bird population, it was reported.
  • Unregulated fishing, reclamation of wetlands, dumping of solid waste and domestic sewage too posed threats to the wetlands of Kerala, according to ornithologists.

[3] Conservation suffers as roadkills in Chinnar sanctuary shoot up


  • Conservation has suffered a severe jolt with roadkills in the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary accounting for a large number of fatalities over the past six months, mainly owing to lack of strict measures to enforce speed limits on vehicles on the Chinnar-Udumalpet road.

Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary

  • Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary (CWS) is located 18 km north of Marayoor on SH 17 in the Marayoor and Kanthalloor panchayats of Devikulam taluk in the Idukki district of Kerala state in South India.
  • It is one of twelve wildlife sanctuaries among the protected areas of Kerala.
  • It is under the jurisdiction of and contiguous with Eravikulam National Park to the south.
  • Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary is to the north and Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary is to the east.
  • It forms an integral part of the 1,187 km2 (458 sq mi) block of protected forests straddling the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border in the Annamalai Hills.
  • The Western Ghats, Anamalai Sub-Cluster, including all of Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary, is under consideration by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee for selection as a World Heritage Site

[4]Waiting to exhale


  • Though, Delhi’s ranking has improved in the latest air quality assessment published by the World Health Organization, the problem of small particulate matter (PM) measuring 10 and 2.5 micrometres is still deep-rooted, and its health impact has been under official scrutiny only in recent years.

Key Points

  • While Delhi has come to the 11th place for fine particulate matter pollution, many other cities in north India with a history of poor air quality are still high on the WHO list.
  • This is unsurprising, as scientific studies point to distinct causative factors and atmospheric conditions in this part of the country that lead to very poor air quality.
  • It is strongly quantified through research that air pollution increases the risk of death from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart problems, lung cancer and other chronic ailments.
  • This should prompt the Centre, which frames environmental law, to act speedily.

Some measures need to be taken

  • It has been known for long that the States along the Indo-Gangetic basin register higher levels of particulate matter pollution due to specific factors.
  • Haryana, Punjab, Delhi and western Uttar Pradesh contribute a large part of the air pollution suffered by populations in the east too.
  • A policy of mitigation should therefore aim to reduce the burning of solid cooking fuels and agricultural biomass, which takes place in the post-monsoon and winter seasons.
  • This requires a coordinated approach involving the Centre and the States, and enlightened welfare policies relating to improved cooking stoves, solar stoves and cooking gas, low-cost heating facilities and affordable shelter.
  • These measures would contribute to a reduction in the general burden of disease, and reduce the number of premature deaths linked to pollution
  • It is important to curb the use of automotive fossil fuels, and promote public transport and non-motorised alternatives such as cycling and electric vehicles.
  • Urbanisation also needs to become green, with eco-sensitive administrations providing paved surfaces, wetlands, parks and trees.

What is particulate matter?

  • Particulate matter, or PM, is the term for particles found in the air, including dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets.
  • Particles can be suspended in the air for long periods of time.
  • Some particles are large or dark enough to be seen as soot or smoke. Others are so small that individually they can only be detected with an electron microscope.
  • Many manmade and natural sources emit PM directly or emit other pollutants that react in the atmosphere to form PM.

Size matters

  • These solid and liquid particles come in a wide range of sizes.
  • Particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM10) pose a health concern because they can be inhaled into and accumulate in the respiratory system.
  • Particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) are referred to as “fine” particles and are believed to pose the greatest health risks.
  • Particles with diameters between 2.5 and 10 micrometers are referred to as “coarse.
  • Because of their small size (approximately 1/30th the average width of a human hair), fine particles can lodge deeply into the lungs.

Sources of PM

  • Sources of fine particles include all types of combustion activities (motor vehicles, power plants, wood burning, etc.) and certain industrial processes.
  • Sources of coarse particles include crushing or grinding operations, and dust from paved or unpaved roads.
  • Other particles may be formed in the air from the chemical change of gases. They are indirectly formed when gases from burning fuels react with sunlight and water vapor. These can result from fuel combustion in motor vehicles, at power plants, and in other industrial processes.


  • According to a study,  increase in PM2.5 by one microgram per cubic metre reduces life expectancy by three weeks, which implies that such alarming increases could chop off a significant portion of one’s healthy years.

[5]Shaping the deal in Bonn


  • To effectively participate in the post-Paris climate negotiations, India must first ratify the Paris agreement.

What is Paris agreement?

  • The Paris Agreement is an agreement within the framework of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) dealing with greenhouse gases emissions mitigation, adaptation and finance starting in the year 2020.

How is ratification done?

  • Countries follow different systems and domestic laws to adhere to international treaties or agreements.
  • In India, approval of Parliament will not be required for the government to ratify the Paris Agreement. A Cabinet decision to this effect would be enough.
  • The United States, on the other hand, would need the approval of both Houses of Congress to join the Agreement.
  • In the case of the EU, ratification will be even more complicated because the consent of each member country will have to be obtained.

Importance of Paris Agreement

  • The Paris agreement neither replicates the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change nor is it guaranteed to end global climate change.
  • It does not also cater to all of India’s asks (or those of others) in the negotiations. It does, however, contain “hooks” and “place holders” to ensure that India can, if it so chooses, continue to shape the climate regime, for instance on the defining issue of equity.
  • The Paris agreement embodies a hybrid architecture combining “bottom-up” and “top-down” elements.
  • Nationally determined mitigation and adaptation contributions comprise the “bottom-up” element and a system of oversight comprises the “top-down” element.
  • States have autonomy in the form and stringency of their contributions.
  • States are expected to ensure that their successive national contributions represent a progression from their previous ones, but the nature and extent of “progression” is nationally determined.

An oversight system

  • These contributions are paired with an oversight system consisting of three components
  1. A transparency system that ensures countries are doing what they agreed to do,
  2. A global stock-take process that periodically assesses collective progress towards the agreement’s long-term goals,
  3. And a compliance system that facilitates compliance with the agreement.

India’s interest in Paris Agreement

  • India has a compelling interest in having a rigorous oversight system.
  • India and its economic growth are vulnerable to climate change.
  • In the absence of a rigorous oversight system, India will be left with an imperfect method of ensuring that other countries are keeping their promises, the world as a whole is moving in the right direction, and countries are sharing the burden equitably.
  • In relation to transparency, India needs a system that is rigorous yet tailored to its own capacity constraints.
  • In relation to the global stock-take process, we need the consideration of equity. India could introduce benchmarks — qualitative and quantitative — in the global stock-take process.
  • In assessing collective progress towards long-term goals, this would cast light on the relative sharing of responsibilities between parties.
  • This is key for countries like India with limited historical responsibility for climate change, low per capita emissions, high energy poverty and much of our growth ahead of us.
  • It is only if we participate thoughtfully in the post-Paris negotiations on the oversight system that we will have a system that strikes the right balance between rigour for all and flexibility for those who need it.

Why India should ratify Paris Agreement?

  • India’s ability to participate effectively in the post-Paris negotiations will be influenced by its approach to the ratification of the Paris agreement.
  • Ratification of the Paris agreement signals a sense of ownership, commitment, good faith and continuing engagement.
  • If we do not ratify, our ability to influence the post-Paris agenda, if we are on the sidelines, however, will be compromised.
  • India should focus on shaping the post-Paris agenda to ensure that the oversight system is rigorous, effective and tailored to our constraints and capacities.

[6] Ken-betwa project


  • Development vs Ecology.


  • Ken-Betwa interlinking will help irrigate 600,000 hectares of land and provide drinking water to 1.34 million in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, but the ecological impact of the project may be disastrous.

The Ken-Betwa link project

  • The Ken-Betwa link project envisages diversion of surplus waters of Ken basin to water deficit Betwa basin.
  • The quantity of water proposed to be diverted from Ken basin, after considering in basin demands and downstream commitments earmarked for providing irrigation in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, is 1020 Mm3 .
  • This link canal will provide irrigation to water short areas of upper Betwa basin of Madhya Pradesh by way of substitution and also to enroute areas of Madhya Pradesh & Uttar Pradesh.
  • The command envisaged in the earlier proposed Ken Multipurpose Project (KMPP) by Madhya Pradesh State Government is also to be irrigated from this project.
  • It is the first-ever inter-State river linking project since India’s independence


  • The Union Water Resources Ministry has told the Union Environment Ministry that many measures are in place to ensure that territories and habitats of tigers and vultures in the region are not damaged.
  • The Ministry was responding to a report filed on Monday by wildlife experts, constituted by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), who warned of dangers to wildlife resident in the core region of the Panna tiger reserve.
  • NBWL clearance is necessary for the go-ahead and subsequent commissioning of the Rs 9,000-crore project that proposes to irrigate the drought-ravaged Bundelkhand region.

The problem

  • The project involves building the 288-metre Daudhan dam, and transfer of surplus water from the Ken river basin to the Betwa basin.
  • This will submerge nearly 4,141 hectares of the Panna tiger reserve — held as model of tiger conservation after its numbers fell from 35 in 2006 to zero in 2009, and rose again to at least 18 after seven years of conservation.
  • On the contrary, water that will result in the region may lead to new water bodies that will draw herbivores and thus prey and carcasses for the tiger and the vultures.

Any solution offered

  • The Madhya Pradesh government had promised 8,000 hectares of alternate forest land as compensation and much of it — currently barren — would be replenished with vegetation that had once existed in the region, the source added.

Experts’ opinion

  • Wildlife experts says the project will not channel water to drought prone regions of Bundelkhand.
  • They have  warned of the dangers to the ecology and animal life due to the proposed Ken-Betwa project.
  • Apart from threats to the tiger habitat, there are also threats to gharial, hyenas and vultures that live within the sanctuary.

[7]‘Space veggies’ grow in Dutch greenhouse


  • Agricultural researchers at a Dutch university are growing vegetables in soils similar to those found on the Moon and Mars, looking for ways of helping space pioneers grow their own crops.

How did they manage to get the soil?

  • NASA, the U.S. space agency made ground similar to that on the Moon from sand found in an Arizona desert, while Mars’ crimson “soil” was scooped from a volcano in Hawaii.

The major problem in growing ‘Space Veggies’

  • Martian and lunar soil, including NASA’s own imitation, may contain heavy metals that are harmless to plants but could prove deadly to humans.
  • If analyses show that the vegetables contain arsenic, mercury or iron making them unfit for human consumption, the soil can be purified by growing other plant species such as violets which absorb the poisons.

[8]Towards a viable climate target


  • The author has given arguments that a target of zero emissions should be pursued in order to tackle the menace of climate change.

Vague targets

  • The problem lies, first and foremost, with the goals spelled out in the agreement.
  • Targets like limiting warming to 1.5°C or 2°C cannot effectively guide policymakers and the public.
  • They address the whole Earth system, not individual actors or governments.
  • By failing to state explicitly what individual countries are required to deliver, it allows leaders to support targets that seem ambitious, while pursuing mitigation efforts that are in reality insignificant.
  • No scientific formula can describe how to share the burden of global mitigation equitably among countries, leaving every government able to declare confidently that its policies are in line with any given temperature target.
  • An evaluation of whether the goals are being attained can be carried out only on a global level, and thus no country can be held responsible if the target is missed.
  • As a result, every UN climate summit concludes with expressions of grave concern that the overall efforts are inadequate.
  • In climate policy, most governments choose a progressive stance while talking and deciding, but a more cautious one when it comes time to act
  • Ambitious UN climate targets have not served as a prerequisite, but as a substitute for action.

Case for ambitious goals

  • This is no reason to give up on climate targets altogether.
  • Complex long-term policymaking works only if ambitious goals are in place.
  • But targets cannot be vague aspirational goals; they must be precise, evaluable, attainable and motivating. The Paris agreement itself offers one possible approach.
  • Hidden behind a vaguely defined formula, a third mitigation target has been introduced: reaching zero emissions in the second half of the century.

Why we should opt for zero emissions?

  • A target of zero emissions tells policymakers and the public precisely what must be done, and it directly addresses human activity.
  • Every country’s emissions must peak, decline and eventually reach zero.
  • This provides a transparent system to evaluate the actions not only of national governments, but also of cities, economic sectors, companies and even individuals.
  • Replacing temperature thresholds with an effort to reduce emissions to zero would ensure accountability and minimize political inconsistency.
  • The gap between real-world emissions and what will be needed to keep warming below the agreed-upon limits is rapidly widening.
  • Whatever our temperature target, global emissions have to peak soon and decrease afterwards—all the way to zero.
  • The Paris climate agreement will be remembered as a success only if we manage to shift our focus from talk to effective action

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