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Water, the next real estate

Water, the next real estate

There is a water crisis up ahead even without help from global warming, says S.Ananthanarayanan.

Two thirds of the earth’s surface is covered by water, perhaps the most abundant resource there is and there should normally be no fear of its running out. The trouble is that all the water is not of the kind we can use, most is salt, sea water. Only 3.5 percent of all the water is fresh and potable, and again, most of it is locked in the polar ice caps as ice!

Only 0.01 per cent, or one part in 10,000, is in a form which people can use, in streams, rivers, lakes and groundwater aquifers. And then, well over half of this is out of reach, or lost as floodwater.

The spectre of global warming threatens to destroy the ice-locked store by melting glaciers and sending the water into the sea, even if it is through destructive floods in ice-fed rivers. Rising temperatures apart, some may argue that this does not directly affect water supplies as no accessible water is lost. But this is not true. Not only will the glacier-fed rivers soon dry up, the great threat is that the source for aquifers and ground-water would disappear. 

Groundwater crisis

Increased demands for industry and rising populations has been fast depleting groundwater sources. For all the water there may be at the surface, there is a limit to how fast underground storage can be replenished. Aquifers that filled over thousands of years are being drained in decades. The effects are both local as well as extended, with ground-water level dropping in general, the world over.

A major source of water for communities is from wells and lakes fed from groundwater sources. Rivers, of course, served for transport not only of people and merchandise but also of water and the large human settlements arose on river banks. But there are important centres of vital resources, and hence habitation, away from rivers too, and this is thanks to ground-water, which gets there through an invisible yet efficient underground channel system.

It is this, underground source, whose depletion, as yet only because of over-exploitation, that would soon gain urgency and grab national and international attention.

Need for managing

Ground-water, being out of sight, is usually taken for granted and it is only of late that communities are waking up to its running out. There have been major disputes over river water flows and levels of lakes and reservoirs. There has also been the development of a legal framework, national and international, to regulate the use of such surface water.

Picture courtesy the website of Selwyn Johnston, Community Rep. in Queensland, Australia

But in respect of groundwater, there has been neither perceived need for nor possibility of legislation. The legal principle has been resolutely that of ‘ownership of land and everything that grows upon it and can be found within the land.’ The English common law concept of ‘rule of  capture’, which determines ownership of common resources, such as wild game, as belonging to the one who first ‘captures’, has been applied to oil and water resources. This is irrespective of whether it drains out the resource from the land of a neighbour – because she is considered to own the resource under her land only if she pumps it out!  There is no clear rule to deal with an industry that pumps out ground-water and starves a farming neighbourhood and statute to control ecological damage caused by certain kinds of industry is being slowly erected.

But it is clear that there is great need for administrative and legal attention to this area which is soon to become the world’s first battlefield.

Lessons from oil

Researchers at Oregon State University have recently presented a paper dealing with the problem at a conference in Tokyo, Japan. "In the northern half of Oregon from Pendleton to the Willamette Valley, an aquifer that took 20,000 years to fill is going down fast," says Todd Jarvis, Associate Director of the Institute for Water and Watersheds at at OSU. "Some places near Hermiston have seen water levels drop as much as 500 feet in the past 50-60 years, one of the largest and fastest declines in the world.” “ In the process,” Jarvis says, “underground aquifers can be irrevocably damaged – not unlike what happened to oil reservoirs when that industry pumped them too rapidly. Tiny fractures in rock that can store water sometimes collapse when it's rapidly withdrawn, and then even if the aquifer had water to recharge it, there's no place for it to go.”
The OSU paper takes stock of the problem, worldwide and suggests that the legal framework that has been developed by the oil industry, the hard way, to manage oil exploration, could provide a starting point to control the use of water.


A key concept that Jarvis presented at the conference was the idea of  “unitization”, which is built around people unifying their rights and their goals, and working cooperatively to make a resource last as long as possible and not damaging it. “Regardless of what else takes place,” Jarvis says, “groundwater users must embrace one concept the oil industry learned years ago – the "race to the pump" serves no one's best interest, whether the concern is depleted resources, rising costs of pumping or damaged aquifers.”
As with any resource that is scarce, it becomes important to reserve its use for where it has the best economic value. Doing this with water would call for a whole new way of looking at things, and property and civil rights, and a level of cooperation whose absence has been the hallmark of water disputes, local and international, through the ages.
Agriculture, which is at present the greatest consumer, would still be the priority area, but the methods used will have to change in many ways and traditional agriculture is notoriously wasteful. The arenas of agriculture would also shift to places which can control access and there would be a new industry of the ‘secondary’ water usage. With river resources shrinking or disappearing, regions where groundwater accumulates would be come the new oilfields.

[the writer can be contacted at Simplescience@gmail.com]

Did You Know ?

Counting tigers by the DNA trail

DNA tracks tigers in the wild

Genetics and the tiger trail

Genetics is now helping save endangered species, says S.Ananthanarayanan.

Genetics has entered all areas of modern life – bio-engineered food is commonplace, livestock breeding has become more aggressive with genetic intervention, medical science is revolutionized and then in forensic science, DNA fingerprinting, for identification and crime detection, is a daily occurrence.

The Wildlife Conservation Society, New York, has just reported a study published in the journal Biological Conservation, which describes a role that genetic methods can play in helping conserve the endangered Indian tiger. Samrat Mondol, K. Ullas Karanth, N. Samba Kumar, Arjun M. Gopalaswamy, Anish Andheria and Uma Ramakrishnan, all working in the National Centre for Biological Science or the Wildlife Conservation Society and Centre for Wildlife Studies, both in Bangalore, have developed a DNA based tiger identification technique which enables sensitive and error free tracking of tiger populations, to monitor and tailor conservation strategies.

DNA fingerprint

If fingerprints are unique to identify a person, her genetic makeup, as recorded in the million-fold variables of DNA is surely unique over millennia. DNA is a microscopic but giant, thread-like molecule found in the nucleus of cells and whose structure determines how the cell will behave.  The DNA thread is a long sequence of units, each of which is a template for the production of one of 20 amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Sequences of such units specify separate proteins, which then act as communication between cells, the activity of one group of cells setting off the activity of another group, and so on. As there are millions of activities to be monitored in a living thing, the DNA is naturally millions of units long.

The remarkable thing about DNA is that it also has an efficient way to clone or create an image of itself – which happens when a cell has to divide. The DNA first splits into two complementary halves and the cell separates, with one half of the DNA in each part. The half DNA rapidly completes itself from the material of the divided cell and each half becomes a complete cell. In the case of sexual reproduction, as happens with animals, special male and female cells, each with only a half DNA, combine to form the new individual, with a mix of the DNA components of both parents.

It is in this process of the combination of millions of units of DNA of the parents that some variations must occur, and statistically, it is impossible that any two persons have the same final genetic make-up. In broad areas, of course the DNA would be similar, which accounts for racial and family resemblance, but in the details, there are always differences, even in identical twins.

Laboratory methods are now available to identify and map parameters of DNA, rather like a fingerprint expert records the slant and width of whorls and loops in a human fingerprint, to enable comparison. DNA can hence be analysed, often entirely by automation, and compared, using computers, to say in a short time whether a pair of DNA differ or are similar. The ability has become important in crime detection, specifically in saying whether a given person has left her own DNA traces at the site of a crime, or even in demographic research, like tracing the wanderings of the Roman army by polling for Latin DNA features in European populations.

Counting tigers

Keeping count is an important part of managing anything. Science and engineering are centred around exact measurements and economists and governments depend on statistics – of resources, producers, consumers. Idealistic schemes to withdraw customs and excise departments result in loss of more than tax revenue – they block the data about movement and production that these departments collect!

But while collecting data of human activity is routinely implemented, collecting data about wildlife is challenging. To know the population of fish in the sea, to get data about migratory birds, we need to use methods of sampling and statistical analysis. One method of estimating the numbers of fish, for instance is to mark a fixed number of fish and to send them back, to mingle with unmarked fish. When a sample is later snared, the number of marked fish that appear would give and idea of how many fish there are in all.  

While dyes and chemicals have been ways of marking fish, in the case of estimating how many protected whales had been killed, DNA fingerprinting of individual whales, and later watching for their meat to show up in the market was used. With fish and whales, and even with birds, which can be captured, such methods are feasible. But in the case of tiger populations, which the Wildlife Conservation Society has been monitoring these last 15 years in India, it is not practical to trap and stain tigers or most other usual population estimating methods.

Using poop

DNA fingerprinting was used, it is true, by firing sedating darts at tigers and collecting blood or tissue samples, but the method was cumbersome and hence not effective. The Bangalore scientists have now developed a technique of getting the DNA data from tiger droppings. This method is not only ‘non-invasive’ but is eminently practical and amenable to large scale application by personnel with very simple training.

Once tiger DNA are catalogued, it is at least as effective as those tigers being ‘marked’ and their movement or their presence, among others not so ‘marked’, can be tracked by regularly collecting samples of tiger dropping everywhere in the forest.

The ‘gold standard’ for estimating tiger populations is the ‘camera trapping’, where individual tigers are photographed and identified by their unique stripe patterns. This is the rough equivalent of actual fingerprinting, but is clearly impractical where the tiger densities are low or the terrain is rugged. The study of estimation by droppings was conducted with collecting 58 samples in the Bandipur forest in Karnataka, and was validated against actual camera trapping estimation. Camera trapping is possible in Bandipur as the populations are in good numbers. The result of the study was that estimations from the DNA data found in droppings was accurate and reliable.

"We see genetic sampling as a valuable additional tool for estimating tiger abundance in places like the Russian Far East, Sunderban mangrove swamps and dense rainforests of Southeast Asia where camera trapping might be impractical due to various environmental and logistical constraints," said noted tiger scientist Dr. Ullas Karanth of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
"This study is a breakthrough in the science of counting tiger numbers, which is a key yardstick for measuring conservation success," he adds. "The technique will allow researchers to establish baseline numbers on tiger populations in places where they have never been able to accurately count them before."


[the writer can be contacted at simplescience@gmail.com]

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