They are like bubbles in the air. Clearly visible, almost within reach, but the moment you try to touch them they disappear into nothingness. Because there is not a thread of truth to hold them together! Yet, why do these starkly false beliefs about environment continue to survive, grow, and spread?
Sometimes because details get garbled, inadvertently. Sometimes because they are deliberately planted to counter social, political or economic pressures. Whatever be the factor it is absolutely critical to bust them. Because the better informed public is a better manager of environment.
There's enough 'clean' water for everyone for years
The total amount of water on earth is about 1400 million cubic kilometres, estimates the UN. But, fresh water constitutes only about 2.7 per cent of this enormous quantity. Out of this, about 75.2 per cent lies frozen in polar regions, and 22.6 per cent is present as groundwater. The rest exists in atmosphere, moisture, soil, vegetation, and surface water bodies, which supply a large part of our drinking water. But, what is the state of rivers?
Let’s take the example of the capital city of India – Delhi. The city consumes 850 million gallons of water per day. If this more than doubles in a few years, what would happen to river Yamuna – that supplies 80 per cent of Delhi’s water? Well, the river is already in its dying throes. Not due to overconsumption, but mainly because of pollution.
This is true of almost every river in India today is either drowning in muck or soon going to reach that state. It’s true of Cooum in Tamilnadu, and Damodar that flows through Bihar and Jharkhand, our holy river Ganga; and so on… So, why are the rivers dying?
The causes (and the effects) of river pollution are numerous. So, these are divided into two broad categories:
Non-point sources include pesticides and fertilisers, which are carried into rivers by rainwater runoff or drain down into groundwater; sediments from soil erosion, mining, and so on.
Point sources include effluent from factories and domestic sewage, which causes nearly 80 per cent of river pollution in India. Untreated, poorly treated sewage, and overflow from under-capacity sewage treatment plants send contaminated water into rivers.
Climate change is equal to global warming
Many people use the terms ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ interchangeably. But, they are two distinct concepts.
Global warming refers to the increase of Earth’s average surface temperature and lower atmosphere, due to a build-up of greenhouse gases (like water vapour, carbon dioxide, ozone and methane) in the atmosphere. This is known as the ‘greenhouse effect’.
Climate change, on the other hand, is a broader term that refers to long-term changes in climate, including average temperature and precipitation. Global warming is one of the main causes of changes in climate.
When we flush, we do away with our shit
On paper, this is how it works: When we flush, large amounts of clean water, physically push excreta and dilute urine down the toilet. Black water (waste water that carries human sewage) is then mixed with grey water (from baths, kitchens and sinks), and flown out of the house, through a pipe. This pipe then joins pipes of other buildings, and empties itself into the municipal sewer. This sewer, finally, joins the main large trunk sewer. More water is added to prevent the sewer lines from getting blocked. These trunk sewers then carry the wastes to the sewage treatment plants (STP). This involves removing the solids as sludge, getting rid of organic and inorganic pollutants and pathogens. And finally, the treated water is released in the nearest river or sea.
But, this is all on paper. In reality, the process is not so smooth. First of all, the system is horribly water wasteful. With each flush, over 10 litres of clean water goes down the drain. Then more and more water is used to simply flow faeces and urine further and further away from our toilets.
Moreover, only a small percentage of Indian towns and cities actually have sewage treatment plants. The cities, which have treatment plants, the capacities of these plants always remain way behind the volume of sewage being generated. Then, of course, there is the problem of leaky, decaying sewer lines, which cost an earth to be repaired and maintained. So, a large amount of the sewage never reaches the STPs!
So, where do these huge mounds of untreated human filth, loaded with dangerous pathogens go? The muck goes into the rivers, ponds, lakes of course, which incidentally are also the drinking water source for these cities!
Diesel, the 'Fuel of the poor', is better than petrol
Diesel is the primary fuel used in the big vehicles and trucks. It costs less than petrol, and ensures greater fuel economy, as it contains more energy per litre than petrol. But, this fuel complicates the trade-off between efficiency and clean emissions. Diesel particulates are more hazardous and harmful than petrol emissions. The carbon dioxide released per unit of energy in diesel is higher than petrol. Also, the black carbon emitted from diesel vehicles is a potent greenhouse pollutant.
In spite of this, auto companies are busy expanding their polluting diesel car fleet. This spells disaster. How? Let’s look at Delhi. It set an example to the rest of the country by saying no to diesel buses, and forcing the government to switch to the cleaner Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). But now, air pollution in the capital is reaching critical levels again. Why? Because a few thousand CNGrun buses cannot fix the damage being done by a few million diesel-run personal cars!
The way out is by creating disincentives for heavier, bigger, and diesel cars. Just like Delhi. The Delhi cabinet has now decided to introduce an Environment Cess on diesel at the rate of 25 paise per litre. For starters, the cess will be imposed on diesel-run commercial vehicles. With the money collected as cess, the government plans to set up a fund called the Environment Cess Fund to help the introduction of clean air policy. All other pollution infested urban centres must either go the Delhi-way, or find a suitable alternative.
Cars are more important than buses, as more people travel by cars
While there has been a phenomenal growth of private vehicles in our cities, large numbers of people – an estimated 60 per cent and above – still travel by bus or bicycle or walk to work. Yet, the share of buses in the total fleet in India has dwindled from 11 per cent in the 1950s to 1.1 per cent today. This is visible in the use of road space. For instance, in Delhi, personal vehicles – cars and two-wheeler – use up more than 75 per cent of the road space but meet only 20 per cent of the commuting demand. But, buses that use less than 5 per cent of the road space, meet more than 60 per cent of the travel demand.
So, personal cars in India have not replaced the buses, they have only marginalised them. The message is loud and clear – cars do meet our aspirations, but they do not meet our needs. Our needs are met by public transport.
Developing countries like India and China are stressing the environment
There are two worlds – industrialised/developed countries (the North) and developing countries (the South). Now, developing countries like India and China are experiencing rapid economic growth. Their per capita income is growing, and so are their demands for food and fuel. The industrialised world is accusing these countries for creating global energy crisis. How?
They allege, supported by many politically motivated data and reports, that the South is consuming more nonrenewable resources and thus, emitting more greenhouse gases, which is causing global warming.
But the fact is that the North, with only 20 per cent of the earth’s population, accounts for 85 per cent of the global consumption of non-renewable energy. On a per capita basis, the North releases much more greenhouse gases than an Indian or Chinese. The North has already used much of the planet’s ecological capital. It has already gobbled-up much of the global energy resources. And has already set off the climate change process. So, it is the North that should start cleaning up the mess, quickly. But, what is it doing? It is playing the blame-game, and refusing to tone down its lifestyle.
Developing countries like India and China are demanding their space to ‘grow’. Asking them to reduce carbon emissions now, amounts to asking them to freeze their standards of living as they stand today. This, in fact, amounts to freezing global inequality because then some countries will always be more developed than the rest. Why should they accept that? Especially since the Unites States — the largest emitter of them all — still refuses to make a firm commitment to cut its use of carbon-based fuels.