By Srinibash Das and Ranjit K. Sahu
The problems of population, pollution, and climate change will converge to create a major challenge for civilizations to sustain themselves in the coming decades. It is becoming increasingly evident that the availability of per capita consumables of basic materials, like air and water, are becoming progressively difficult to ensure, even in regions where these resources were once considered free and abundant.
While erratic climate patterns may have their roles in the net availability of these resources, the matter of concern is the deterioration of quality of these in areas where poverty plagues the people along with absence of proper government facilities. More often than not, it is drought or flooding that brings forth these issues to public limelight in an ephemeral manner. However, the gradual degradation of the environment, which is mainly responsible for the long term effect, is often overlooked. The thing which gets lost in this melee is the very cause of the problem, one of which is the pollution and depletion of reliable water sources and their destruction due to environmental degradation. This jeopardizes the proposals aimed at ensuring water to the people in some remote areas where it is, not drought but, the collapse of water sources that is responsible for such induced water shortages.
Much has been made out of the water wars between states and nations where political involvement has resulted in their gaining considerable significance at national and international levels. However, for most people in the remote areas of southern Odisha (Including area coming under the undivided districts of Koraput, Bolangir and Kalahandi), it is the gradual modification of the environment that has been causing the non-availability of these resources. While civilizations have been evolving and collapsing throughout the history of mankind, the process has never been so rapid until now when the switch over to the modern lifestyle in an attempt by the traditionally self sufficient societies has caused a neglect of the environment.
This region encompassing the eastern ghat has one of the loftiest mountains of Odisha and the source of water for many indigenous tribes is the seasonal rain and water originating from the mountain springs and streams. Rapid industrialization in this region due of availability of minerals as well as the possibility of using the land for large scale plantation of eucalyptus by commercial enterprises has lead to a degradation of the land in an irreversible manner. Traditionally this region was covered in deciduous forests and bamboo which did not interfere much with the replenishment of water resources and the mountain springs during the monsoons. Due to large scale deforestation and planting of eucalyptus this natural equilibrium has been distorted. While there are many ramifications of the problems that have now originated in this region due to such modernization, one aspect that has been overlooked is the health status due to changing water resources.
The growing number of eucalyptus plantations on the hill slopes previously covered with vegetation that aided the recharging of mountain streams and springs as well as ground water has led to the possible problem of decreased water availability in the environment (Photograph 1-3). More over these trees themselves take up enormous volumes of water which further depletes this resource and has the potential to also deplete existing underground reserves of water. As in evident from the photographs, there has been gradual replacement of native forests with eucalyptus. While government apathy and corporate profits continue to play havoc with the environment it is the masses that have been historically linked to the natural resources that suffer.
Women in this region form the backbone of the society by contributing immensely to both domestic and agro-forestry related chores. Often women depend on mountain springs for their water (Photograph 4) and spend several hours to reach the water source as well as to fill their pots. Due to the depletion or contamination of these resources they are further drudged into spending longer times or hours in search of the same. Diversion of women in such agrarian communities has a cascading effect on dereliction of their other duties like caring and nurturing for their children which leads to increased disease prevalence among the young. And one of the oft ignored reasons for this water scarcity maybe the ever growing plantations of eucalyptus that now cover the hill sides that were the catchment areas of the perennial springs, this maybe a collateral damage along with other environmental modifications that are caused due to these plantations.
While the plantations of eucalyptus may in the short time lead to increased monetary benefits, the loss of water may indeed lead to the displacement of the communities itself. Traditionally, the hill tracts of KBK region were the site of shifting cultivation where the first criterion for locating the new cultivating land was a water resource. Based on the availability of the mountain springs these lands were selected and the springs met the water requirement for both agriculture and domestic purposes. While the shifting cultivation has been gradually been decreasing due to efforts of several organizations, the essence of loss of the water sources is not lost. Water is still required for the tribals inhabiting the nearby lands and any effect on their quality and quantity can play havoc in the stability of the community. The monsoons which brought copious rainfall and recharged the water systems have been increasingly getting erratic. This along with rapid industrialization and deforestation has led to the water being contaminated or procured from sources not fit for domestic use. This has resulted in increased incidents gastrointestinal and skin disorders in the local population (Photograph 5). As expected it is the children. Women and old who being the most susceptible that bear the brunt of these water problems. With increasing summer temperatures that these areas have been experiencing, such activities that promote the depletion of water and forests may indeed lead to the collapse of the communities. With that would come the inevitable consequence of a deserted land that is of little interest once the eucalyptus is harvested?
World over there is increasing awareness about conserving nature and biodiversity, more so in the interest of building sustainable communities with proper health care facilities. In the case of Koraput and its adjoining regions, it seems the balance is tilted towards ensuring a collapse of environment with activities like planting of eucalyptus and depletion and degradation of the mountain springs. It would be a paradox of human civilization if mineral water has to be supplied for people to survive in a region, where mountains springs exist just to fill the coffers of the rich and the influential.
Photo 1-3. Eucalyptus being cultivated in the hill slopes and other regions of korpaut once covered by native forest species.
Photo 4- A woman collecting water from a mountain spring.
Photo 5- Young children with the baby showing evidence of skin disorders on his limbs.
About the Authors:
Srinibash Das currently works in Agragamee and has been involved in rural development activities. He has keen interest in environment protection and health care in rural India.
Contributions: Ranjit K. Sahu was involved in conceptualization and writing of the article, including translations of portions in Odia written by Srinibas Das. Srinibash Das collected the data, wrote portions of the article and shared the responsibility of finalizing the draft for communication.
Photo Credits: Srinibash Das.