Environmental Concerns


In modern times, the devastating impact of natural disasters has been worsened by factors such as high population density and a callous attitude towards the environment. VIVEK S. KULKARNI, of the Garden Department of Godrej & Boyce Mfg. Co. Ltd., gives readers a glimpse of a few environmental disasters that have shaken the world. Such disasters occurring in India, particularly in our overcrowded cities, would be calamitous.

Nature’s Fury

il spills, forest fires, groundwater contamination, water pollution, unbreathable air, gas leaks, desertification, droughts, flash floods, storms, earthquakes?all these events are familiar to us. We read about them in newspapers, magazines and on the Internet. We see stories about them reported on television. We notice a touch of heroism not only in the coverage but also in nature’s fury. Many environmental conferences are held, at a cost of $40 to 50 million, but whether it is the conference held in Rio in 1992, or desert conventions similar to the one in Paris in 1994, or the climate summit in Berlin in 1995, nothing has ever been achieved to remedy the situation. The fact remains that millions of human beings, animals, birds and plant species die, and we watch them die, often silently.


rom September to November 1997, parts of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand were seriously affected by a dense haze stemming primarily from large-scale forest fires in Indonesia. These conflagrations were caused when fires were lit for land clearing and were aggravated by the El Niño-induced drought conditions (the wet season normally begins in October). The unusually dry weather allowed the fires to spread into other areas, including dried-out peat swamps.

The fires affected most Indonesian islands, particularly Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Irian Jaya. It is estimated that the overall area burnt in the 1997 event totalled about 2 million hectares. In 1997, the thickest haze came from an extensive fire in a one million-hectare area of peat being drained by the government for a massive rice-planting project. The peat emitted noxious carbon fumes, which triggered health alerts throughout the region.

As reported in the 1997 United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team (UNDAC) mission report, most fires are caused by human activities related to land clearing for subsistence or commercial agriculture. It is widely accepted that many of the fires were caused by new agribusiness concessions, such as large-scale plantations, failing to comply with land-clearing regulations of the government forestry, agriculture and transmigration departments. These regulations have been in effect since 1995. They stipulate that land must not be cleared by burning.

Resurgence of Fires in 1998

The 1997 fires were alleviated by the onset of the northwest monsoon in December. The rains normally last until April. The monsoon, modified by the influence of El Niño, was weak and the rainfall was much reduced. The wet season therefore effectively ended for East Kalimantan by January, when fires resurged above ground. The consequent dry conditions provided ready conditions for the blazes to spread. The new fire situation in East Kalimantan escalated rapidly to a level comparable to the 1997 event. By early April 1998, the Indonesian authorities estimated the additional area burnt at 1,83,000 ha, or 0.88 per cent of the total area of the province.

Thirty per cent of the overall surface of the 60,000 ha Bukit Suharto eco-forest area had been burnt. Twenty-three per cent (1.7 per cent of which is primary forest) of the overall surface of 2,00,000 ha in the Kutai National Park was also damaged. Near Balikpapan, in an area of 4,40,000 ha licensed to the International Forest Corporation of Indonesia (IFCI), 2.3 per cent of primary forest and 6.6 per cent of the plantation forest was burnt.


The aftermath of a peatland fire in Indonesia.

Firefighters faced several constraints while fighting the situation ?difficult terrain, limited water supply, lack of manpower, insufficient equipment, inaccessibility of affected areas, lack of coordination and management capacity of operations, and villagers?reluctance to fight fires without monetary or other types of compensation.

Impact of Fires

The 1997 forest fires in Indonesia were an environmental disaster of exceptional proportions. Such disasters, aggravated by climatic factors, have a significant international dimension in that they cause severe trans-boundary air pollution, and by the indiscriminate destruction of habitat, put at risk a large portion of the world’s biodiversity heritage. The large-scale fires seriously affected visibility in the entire region.

Fires of this magnitude are significant internationally as they contribute to global warming and climate change. The temporary loss of forest and vegetation cover can also have unpredictable effects on local weather and rain patterns.

Carbon is locked in trees and vegetation as well as fossil fuels. When the forest burns, carbon is released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2), one of the more important greenhouse gases, and may cause a proportionally greater rise in the total levels of atmospheric CO2. These combine to cause a rise in the average global air temperature, also known as the greenhouse effect, believed to be one of the causes of global warming and climate change.

The Environmental Impact

Indonesia covers just 1.3 per cent of the earth’s land surface, yet 10 per cent of all known plants are found here, one-eighth of all animals, and one-sixth of all birds, reptiles and amphibians. Because of this biological wealth, Indonesia is considered one of the 12 "mega-biodiversity" countries of the world.

The flora of Borneo is estimated to comprise over 3,000 plant species. As many as 240 different species of trees grow within one hectare of lowland forest in Kalimantan. Dipterocarps are the dominant trees and are the most commercially important timber trees with 267 species, 60 per cent of which are endemic in Borneo. A number of rare plants and animals, including the orangutan, are considered to be under threat.

The rainforests of East Kalimantan are an economic asset that is fast being eroded. The damage caused by the 1997 and 1998 fires in terms of the value of the timber lost is significant. In addition, there will be continuing costs in the loss of biodiversity, increased health risks and other costs to society.

The impact of the fires on the protected areas and reserves of Bukit Suharto and Kutai in particular, and on the flora and fauna of East Kalimantan in general, is of major concern. Kutai, the major national park in the province, is again under threat and the resident population of orangutan, already an endangered species, is particularly hard hit. More than a third of the park has now been damaged by the fires. Based on the experience gained following a similar event in 1982-1983, it can be anticipated that large numbers of animals will have died in the fires and the survivors will have to deal with reduced food resources as a consequence of both the drought and fire.

The post-fire and drought impact must also be taken into consideration. The fires have denuded large areas of forest and other land normally under vegetative cover. Further land degradation can be expected and the overall effects on the normal hydrological cycle may be significant. The combination of degraded logged forests and deforestation by fire and drought will have measurable impacts on soil and water conservation.


eologists say that much of the world’s population lives on potentially shaky grounds. The seismic map of the earth shows that Southern California, southeastern Hawaii, Turkey, Taiwan, Iceland and the India-China border are most likely to experience strong quakes in the future. The map, developed by 500 scientists over seven years, offers data that could be used by all nations to prepare for the "big ones" (meaning, strong earthquakes). According to Domenico Giardini of the Swiss Seismological Service in Zurich, as much as 15 per cent of the planet’s land is in zones of high or very high hazard, which is defined as a 10 per cent chance or greater of violent shaking within the next 50 years. Only about 40 per cent of the earth’s land falls in the low hazard zone.

The earthquake in Gujarat

The earthquake in Gujarat caused massive destruction in several cities.

Experts feel that the death and devastation caused by major earthquakes around the world can only worsen in the years to come because more and more people are living near faults. With the global population estimated to surpass 6 billion this year, there are fewer unpopulated quake-prone areas. With ever more people to accommodate, there is more multistorey construction in vulnerable fault zones as well. As a result, destructive earthquakes such as those of the past few years are the wave of the future. There are 40 cities with a population of a million or more within 100 kilometres of a major plate boundary, and all of them are potential candidates for a large catastrophe.

Let us look at some of the major earthquakes in the recent past.


At 5.46 a.m. on the morning of 17 January, 1995, a major earthquake struck the Japanese city of Kobe. Within hours 6,425 people were dead, with tens of thousands wounded. The energy of eight Hiroshima bombs was released in the 20 seconds it took the earthquake to leave its devastating mark on the city. The physical toll was immense, with 2,40,932 houses completely or partially destroyed. Eighty per cent of the victims in the coastal city were crushed to death by falling debris.

In Japan every child is taught earthquake exercises. But the Kobe quake took the nation by surprise. The crisis managers were paralysed, emergency vehicles and fire engines got stuck in huge traffic pile-ups. Cars escaping the nightmare jammed the roads all the way from Kobe to Osaka. Houses certified to withstand earthquakes collapsed, and the thick supporting pillars of major highways broke like matchsticks.

Gujarat Quake

It was the morning of 26 January, 2001. The 7.7-magnitude earthquake had struck Gujarat at 8.46 a.m. killing approximately 20,000 people and destroying a large number of villages and towns over a wide area of western Gujarat. Over 6,00,000 people were rendered homeless. The damage was particularly severe in the Kutch region. The cost of the damage was estimated at over Rs. 80 billion.

Geologists know where earthquakes are likely to occur ?the difficulty lies in predicting when. If technology could predict the time of the quake, we could probably reduce the loss of lives. But what about the damage to property? The cost of repairing the physical damage caused by earthquakes is enormous.

It is significant to note that Mumbaikars are not in a safe zone. There are three major fault lines around Mumbai. They lie under the Thane, Panvel and Dharamtar creeks. Mumbai falls in seismic risk zone III. It can experience earthquakes measuring up to 6.5 on the Richter scale. There are some more minor fault lines near the eastern suburbs, which make them more vulnerable than the western suburbs.


super-cyclone with winds gusting at 260-300 kilometres per hour (hurricane category 5) hit the 90-mile coast of Orissa with a storm surge that caused the water level of the Bay of Bengal to rise 30 feet higher than normal. The water submerged many coastal areas, including the port city of Paradip and areas within 30 kilometres of the shore. The flood water was 15 feet deep.

Throughout the day of 29 October, 1999 and in the complete darkness of the fateful night, the water (sea water, rain water and flood water) rushing with violent speed and devastating wind force, played its most brutal mischief with thousands of helpless people.

Orissa cyclone

Thousands of people were rendered homeless by the Orissa cyclone.

It took several hours for the relief teams to reach the affected areas. Due to lack of infrastructure and flooding, it was impossible to provide any kind of relief to the affected people. Over 3,000 people lost their lives. It was impossible to assess the livestock loss and the financial loss.

In my post-cyclone assessment, I could see how the impact of the cyclone had increased manifold. The population pressures were very high along the affected coastline. Most of the coastal stretches were heavily encroached on. I felt that this was the major reason for such a heavy loss of life. The Orissa, Andhra and West Bengal coasts are prone to cyclones. The planning in such areas should always take into consideration the impact of cyclones. However, lack of coastal policies, poor implementation of existing laws and heavy population were the actual culprits for the loss of life. The Central Government of India woke up after this incident and declared mangroves and coral reefs as ecological priorities for the country.


n 24 March, 1999, the following assessment of the Exxon Valdez spill emerged from the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens?Advisory Council: "The Exxon Valdez oil spill was not simply a freak accident. While Exxon Corp. was immediately responsible, other factors were also at work. The oil industry, government agencies, elected officials and the citizens of Alaska share responsibility for the complacency that allowed the spill to occur and failed to ensure a prompt, effective cleanup.

"The oil industry failed to maintain adequate systems for preventing and responding to oil spills. Regulatory agencies failed to protect public resources because of ineffective or inadequate oversight?The result was a spill on 24 March, 1989, of about 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil into Prince William Sound less than 30 miles from Valdez, the city for which the tanker had been named. The ship ran aground on Bligh Reef after leaving the designated tanker lanes because of earlier reports of icebergs in the area.

Exxon Valdez oil spill

A helpless victim of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

"Birds, beaches and otters were oiled and people in the region suffered psychological and economic harm. In some cases, the ill effects of the spill linger today."


n the night of 2 December, 1984 a gas leak at a small pesticide plant in Central India owned by a subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation devastated the entire city of Bhopal. Like natural disasters, man-made ones also seem to have a preference for the poor. Over 90 per cent of the worst affected victims were the poor living in the vicinity of Bhopal’s industrial area.

The Bhopal disaster killed several thousand people and injured 2,00,000 in the space of just a few hours. The tragedy is one of the worst environmental disasters in the history of the chemical industry.

The first of the autopsies revealed that human blood had turned purplish red, the lungs had become ashen and had filled with their own secretions. The victims?tracheas were so dry that the mucous flaked off on touch.

The gas leak saw thousands blinded, breathless and giddy, flooding the hospitals, carrying those who had collapsed along the way. In cases of acute exposure, victims had suffered extensive damage to their lungs. Those who did not succumb to their injuries fell victim to secondary infections of the lungs and respiratory tracts. The psychological trauma caused by the accident is just beginning to be acknowledged and goes far beyond those physically affected by the gas. Victims suffered depression, anxiety, impotence, loss of appetite, nightmares, etc.

For one whole week the Government failed to assure the citizens of Bhopal as to whether the air they were breathing, the water they were drinking and the food they were consuming were safe or not.

Bhopal gas tragedy

The Bhopal gas tragedy left cattle and plant species dead.

So far, not much is known about the environmental impact of the gas leak from the Bhopal plant. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) issued a preliminary report on damage to crops, vegetables, animals and fish from the accident, but the investigations reported were mostly in their early stages with few conclusive findings. However, the ICAR report did indicate that the impact of whatever toxic substances emerged from the plant was highly lethal on exposed animals. Many were reported to have died within three minutes of such exposure. Large numbers of cattle (estimates range as high as 4,000), as well as dogs, cats and birds were killed. Plant life was also severely damaged by exposure to the gas. Vegetable crops such as spinach, cauliflower and tomatoes grown by small farmers on the outskirts of the city were destroyed. There was also widespread defoliation of trees, especially in low-lying areas.

In December 2004, thousands of people will still be awaiting justice in Bhopal. They will be marking the 20th anniversary of their plight!

The list of ecological disasters is long, and we have mentioned only a minuscule of them in this article. However, all the incidents listed above have factors in common, such as:


Lack of policies and planning.


Lack of understanding of natural processes.


Poor implementation of legal requirements.


Panic reaction of people.


Lack of coordination among relief workers.


Short memory of the disasters.

The transformation of arable land into deserts and arid regions is also one of the biggest and gravest environmental catastrophes on earth today! The resulting ramifications must be taken very, very seriously. Frequently, however, scientists and laymen alike have totally erroneous notions regarding these matters. In nature, droughts and other climatic influences foster the formation of deserts and arid regions. Yet, the principal cause for the formation of deserts and arid regions in many areas of the world rests primarily and fundamentally with human beings themselves, for they not only criminally and carelessly drive their populations to dizzying levels, but they destroy the land by forcibly increasing food production to feed the incessantly growing human masses. In doing so, they completely leach the ground and deplete it of all its nutrients, without allowing the soil to revive itself or be regenerated artificially, leaving the ground completely depleted. The situation is not remedied by artificially introducing new nutrients because the soil also requires natural forces that man cannot restore. In the long run, much more is extracted from the soil than can ever be replaced. The soil virtually dies, leading to the development of desert wastelands.

Finally, I remember the Russian author who wrote about seeing God in India. It is true. There is a God who is helping us Mumbaikars. Otherwise, how come an island with such a high population density, feeble environment, extremely polluted air, contaminated water and food, poor infrastructure and structures is still surviving? I fear to imagine what would happen to Mumbai if any of the above-mentioned disasters ever occurred in India’s financial capital. What would be the consequences? Who suffers? And who gains? The answers to all these questions need to be given serious consideration.

Don’t let your worries get the best of you. Remember, Moses started out as a basket case.