Saturday, 4 March 2017

World Water Day - Walk for Water

It's the peak of summer. I have a sip of water and my lips are immediately dry again. Water. We are running low. We still have to make our supply last a few more hours before I make my trip again. We try to ration it. We really do. But what can we do? We need it for everything. Cooking, washing, bathing, drinking. We are a family of five. My younger brother is only two. My older brother works in the fields. My mother has to take care of my younger brother.

I am twelve. My name is Sarita. Before my brother was born, I went to school. My mother made the daily trips to get water for us. I would jump up as I saw her approaching our house. She looked exhausted but pleased to see my face. I would tell her all that I learnt at school. She would listen with a smile on her face. I no longer go to school. I don't have much to tell my mother about my trips to fetch water. Now and then I meet the girls I went to school with. They have learnt so much more since I left. They feel sorry for me. I feel bad too. But this is my responsibility. Father said so.

It is time for me to go. I take my bucket and begin walking. It is a 5 km walk to my destination. The walk to the well isn't so bad. I feel it passes much quicker than my trip back. I walk faster. My lips are dry again. The sun is so strong on my back. The stones on the path dig into my feet. I don't even notice the cuts anymore. Far in the horizon, I see the well.

When I reach, I quickly lower my bucket, fill a little with water and bring it back up. I gulp it down and feel life returning back in me. I lower it again and bring it back up. My bucket is full to the brim. I put it gingerly on my head. Careful not to spill any of it. We will need every drop of the 20 litres. I prepare to head back.

"It's gotten worse." I think to myself. There is a sharp pain in my back. Mother had said it will go away. My body will get used to the load. I am not sure... I keep walking. The sun is stronger now. I feel sweat dripping down my face. Just a few more kilometers, I think to myself. I need to keep walking. I have no choice...

On average girls like Sarita have to travel 6 kms to get access to safe, clean water. Carrying heavy loads often causes them severe back and neck injuries. Easy access to clean water is not only important because this is a basic human right but also because it creates gender inequality. More often than not, women and girls are assigned the responsibility of travelling long distances and carrying heavy loads of water (sometimes up to 40 litres). This keeps them from attending schools or getting a job. This World Water Day, please join me for WaterAid's "Walk for Water" campaign to raise funds for girls like Sarita so they no longer have to carry this burden for their families. To join and/or donate please click here.

Image courtesy: Ankita Mehta

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Omnipresent Palm Oil

Happy 2017! My resolution is to write more on my blog this year. So I will waste no time and dive right into it.

Palm oil. The single most devastating environmental problem the world is facing today. Palm oil requires tropical conditions to grow. Nearly 85% of the world's palm oil supply comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. What were before luscious rain forests were slashed and burnt to make way for palm oil plantations. Every hour 300 football fields worth of forests are being compromised to make way for palm oil production.

The impact on the orangutan population in Indonesia has been catastrophic. Almost 90% of their habitat has been destroyed due to this activity. We are losing 6000 orangutans every year. The thought of it makes me very sad. They have been attacked by machetes and guns. The ones that survive often die of starvation.

Palm oil plantation workers are ordered to kill orangutans. They are treated like pests! These beautiful creatures have been said to share almost 97% of their genes with humans. Not just orangutans but the Sumatran Tiger, Clouded Leopard, Sumatran Rhino, among others are also chronically suffering due to this activity.

When I first learnt about palm oil I got really mad and went "Right, going to stop buying everything that contains palm oil!". Much to my dismay I found that palm oil is in literally EVERYTHING. It is extremely difficult to get around. Below are just some of the examples of products that contain palm oil.

What is the solution? The WWF has set up a sustainable palm oil certification system that sets environmental and social criteria that companies must abide by in order to get the certification. Although a move in the right direction, it has been criticized as more of a greenwashing tactic. In other words, the degree to which the companies are abiding by the criteria set is unclear. In some cases the auditors have even been accused of colluding with the plantation companies.

The other solution is to find an alternative to palm oil. A couple of years ago there were reports that scientists were working on developing an alternative on an industrial scale. If this happens, that would certainly be good news for all of us.

But in the meantime, if we want to stop the alarmingly fast rate at which palm oil production is causing environmental destruction, we must attempt to buy products that don't contain this substance. There are apps that can help you make better choices. I know it is hard. I myself struggle a lot with this (avoiding Nutella alone is an achievement for me). But, the change must come from the consumer's side. If the people boycott products containing palm oil, production and supply are sure to get affected - it's basic economics.

Can we do it? We have to give it a try. These guys in particular will be very grateful to you.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The Great African Crisis

I am thrilled to be in Africa currently, visiting my parents after three long years. Although I have been to this continent many times previously, its majestic wildlife, beaches and cheerful people never fail to delight me. I consider myself very lucky to have been on great African safaris many times before and am beyond ecstatic about visiting the Serengeti National Park end of this month. I think Africa is one of the few places left on Earth where people can feel truly connected to the beauty of nature and our fellow beings that roam the planet. 

This is why it saddens me that the very essence of this beautiful land is threatened by the inhumane and gruesome act of poaching. According to the African Wildlife Foundation, at the current rate, elephants, rhinos and other iconic African wildlife might be gone in our lifetime. This is simply unacceptable. 

Ivory, from elephant tusks and the rhino horn are sold in the black market for $1,000 and $50,000 per pound, respectively. To put things into perspective gold is sold for about $22,000 per pound. The significant money involved in the trade lures poachers into getting involved in such activities. A pair of tusks can be worth a few years' salaries in most African countries. This is the strength of the organised criminal gangs that are thriving on the money generated from this illegal trade. It is easy for them to bribe rangers and tempt local people into getting what they want. What makes them more dangerous is their use of high powered technology and weapons which enables them to kill many animals at once, without being detected. 

Apart from the endangerment of precious animal species, poaching poses a significant threat to Africa's tourism industry. In 2014, tourism contributed close to 5% of Kenya and Tanzania's GDP. Adding pressure to the problem is the growing evidence that suggests that wildlife poaching is funding criminal and terrorist organisations in several parts of Africa. Thus suggesting that the situation at hand must not just be treated as a conservation issue but also a security issue. 

There is no one solution to tackle this complex problem but several measures that need to be taken to bring the situation under control. The first would be to educate and create awareness among the consumers themselves. China alone accounts for about 70% of global ivory demand. The African governments will need to invest heavily in more sophisticated technology such as surveillance equipment, even drones have been proposed as a possible tool to assist in this task. All the countries that have been known to providing a market for these animal products need to take a tougher stand on the subject. In addition sustainable livelihoods need to be created in areas affected by wildlife crime.

Do we really want our children to grow up in a world where there are no elephants, no rhinos? Do we want them to learn about them in a museum and then explain to them that they were killed over something as trivial as trinkets and jewelry? Definitely not. 

Let's restore Africa's majestic wildlife and let our children enjoy it in all its glory! 

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Creativity vs Drought by Clemenger BBDO, Vivid Ideas

It was a GREAT honour to be a part of the judging panel for Clemenger's "Creativity vs Drought" event, as part of Vivid Ideas. The event beautifully captures how creativity can tackle real problems we face today. Primary school children came forward with their ideas on how to combat drought in Australia. I was absolutely blown away by their creative thinking and enjoyed every minute of engaging with them.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Macro Problems Caused by Microbeads

Microbeads are minute pieces of plastic which can be found in toothpastes, body scrubs, face washes and many other products. They are added to products for exfoliation purposes. Would be fair to say that the advantages of softer skin far outweighs the ecological devastation they are causing. These tiny pieces of plastic are so tiny that our filtration systems can't pick them up and they go straight from our bathroom drains into the oceans, rivers and lakes.

Microbeads absorb all the toxins from the water around them and become one giant, tiny toxic nuisance. Then of course they are consumed by marine life and probably end up back on your dining table.

There is also no scientific evidence that these microbeads have any benefits at all. As far as exfoliation goes, products that contain natural ingredients such as almonds, apricots and others are much more effective and don't need to be used more than once a week. Products that contain plastic microbeads on the other hand can be used on a daily basis, which means consumers run out faster and buy the product more regularly.

If you see any of the following ingredients:polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate or polymethyl methacrylate in the products you use, you're unknowingly contributing to this environmental problem. If you're in Australia, this list contains all the products that you should probably boycott.

The personal care products industry loves this ingredient because it works out great for them. It is cheap, easily available and gives a "silky" texture to their products. Of course it's smooth and silky! It's plastic. Silky texture exfoliants aren't really exfoliating at all, it only makes them less effective so you use them daily and pay more money.

Nevertheless the good news is that leading supermarket chains such as Coles and Woolworths have committed to not using microbeads in their own products from 2017. The United States has already passed legislation to ban use of microbeads in cosmetics, which will come into effect this year.

Environmental Minister Greg Hunt has said that Australia is pushing for a voluntary phase-out by July, 2018.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Why are Bees Buzzing Off?

It's not very common for people to be extremely fond of bees (other than your cool beekeeper friends). Most people at the mention of bees would look wildly around them and check their hair in fear of getting stung. Well, we have a lower chance of getting stung now- which is not a good thing.

50% of the Midwestern native bee species has disappeared in the last century while in the last 2 decades 4 of the bumblebee species has declined by 96%. These alarming statistics have come to light in the last few years and also point towards a bleak future for the food security of humans.

Bees among other animals such as butterflies, beetles and birds help in the process of pollination. This process helps the transfer of pollen from one flower to the other, helping plants grow and reproduce. Bee pollination helps grow vegetables, nuts, fruits and wildflowers. This process is responsible for almost $200 billion worth agricultural revenue. Every third bite we take in a day comes from the pollination of bees or some other generous pollinator. Apples, oranges, blueberries and many of our favourite delicious fruits and vegetables can be credited to the hard work of the bees.

In the last few years the bees have fallen prey to what is called a "Colony Collapse Disorder" which refers to the mass disappearance of the worker, adult bee population from bee hives. Why is this happening? Scientists are still working on investigating this phenomenon however several factors have so far been presented as a possible explanation to the problem. Pesticides, in particular neonicotinoids seem to be playing a role. This class of pesticides is causing bees to have navigation problems as it attacks their nervous systems. Contact with the pesticide has resulted in mass deaths of bees.

The Varroa mite parasite is also playing a role since they attack the beehives itself. Additionally, the nutrition of the bees has been threatened due to habitat loss. Increasingly we are growing crops that cater more to our food preferences rather than flowers and other wild plants, which bees depend on to collect pollen for their hives.

Last but not the least, climate change has played a role since it has been found that flowers have started blooming earlier or later than expected in the last few years. After coming out of hibernation the pollinators have started finding that the flowers that provide nutrition for them to start the season, have already bloomed.

It will be a huge burden on the remaining pollinators to carry out the responsibilities of the bees, if they were to disappear. This occurrence is one of the many negative outcomes that our current chemical-intensive industrial agriculture practices have produced. Ecological farming has been proposed as one of the front-runners on providing a solution to the problem in question. It will promote habitat restoration and also ensure better nutrition from the food that we eat. The pesticide industry is a powerful player and there are a lot of political and economic factors that have led to the situation we currently face.

Organic farming is gaining popularity by the day however needs to reach a stage where it no longer caters to a niche market but a more robust consumer base which challenges and overturns the current toxic methods of food production.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

The Predator

During my time at Monash, I met quite a few people outside of uni who asked me what I was studying. When I responded that I'm doing environmental management, some chuckled "Oh you're on your way to becoming a Greenie and spreading rumours about the world ending!". I chuckled back and wondered to myself when and how people's notions of climate change will change. You might be surprised how many people still think of climate change as a still from the movie 2012 (2 hours of my life I'll never get back).

One of the reasons people want to inherently dismiss climate change is due to their guilty bias. The primary discussion on climate change is how it has been brought about by the actions of humans. Naturally, we immediately defend ourselves and dismiss the idea altogether. Besides, people get bored when they hear about the long time-frames and "faraway" places associated with climate change. They don't see the urgency to take action now. Unfortunately this is the very reason why the situation is worsening.

Where's the proof that global warming is caused by humans and not just due to natural changes of the earth? The start of the growth of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere almost directly coincides with the start of the industrial revolution and increase in CO2 almost exactly correlates with the increase in the cumulative anthropogenic emissions.

Another staggering impact of human activities is the sixth mass extinction we might be entering, a recent study has found.

The earth has seen 5 mass extinctions before. The biggest of them all was the Permian mass extinction, which wiped out 96% of the planet's species. The last mass extinction is well known since it wiped out the dinosaurs in as few as three human lifetimes.

The current mass extinction might be the first of its kind, where the catastrophe is being brought upon by a single species alone, namely homo sapiens. We haven't even left the oceans alone. Our activities are destroying ecosystems in every corner of the planet. With extinction rates ten times higher the normal rate, we have really gotten our fellow living beings into trouble.

Even with all the progress we have made, we have failed. Poaching, whaling, furthering our own interests has led these beings looking at a bleak future.

Life is lonely for the the last male Northern White Rhino and many others. We can't do much about the past but we certainly can resolve that our presence does not directly correlate with the absence of others.