Don't drink the water in India.

Don’t drink the water in India.

This is the post that will sit at the top of the Communing with Artifice page for a good long while. I’ll start by recapping the previous sixteen posts of this India blog sequence. You can link directly to the specific post that you want to read. The actual blog post follows below the list.

1) Warm-up post—did this in the Lufthansa Business Class lounge in Frankfurt.

2) Arrival—mostly just me whining about how bad the air quality was. Little did I know that back home they were dealing with the worst smog in decades.

3) A little excursion to a site near Coimbatore, and then our trip out to the Siruvani Forest Reserve.

4) Sampling day one at Siruvani—I’m getting to see the routine. There’s also a bit of discussion of the tribal people (Mudugar) and their relationship with the rest of India.

5) More sampling at Siruvani and onwards to Silent Valley National Park (Christmas Eve 2013). Some notes on driving in India are here as well.

6) Silent Valley National Park and onwards to Anamalais Tiger Reserve/Topslip. Sidebar discussion today is on activism that works, but the epilogue is more sobering.

7) Sampling day one at Parambikulam Tiger Reserve. Sidebar commentary is about the use of English in conversations and the role of social status.

8) Sampling day two at Parambikulam at a site that is just upstream of a proposed hydroelectric project, similar to the one that was defeated at Silent Valley.

9) Travel day—return to Coimbatore and then the bus ride to Cochin. A short visit with the Chief Conservator of Tamil Nadu forests leaves me impressed.

10) Touristy visits to Kerala Backwaters and hunting for fishing nets in Fort Cochin.

11) One really bad haircut, our return to Coimbatore, and the bus trip to Cumbum.

12) Periyar day one. Lots of waiting around to get into the Tiger Reserve (New Year’s Eve 2013).

13) Periyar day two. Whirlwind boat ride to and from Mulakkady Station on the far end of Lake Periyar (nearest some real wilderness). Meeting with Sanjayakumar, director of Periyar Tiger Reserve.

14) Gavi and our return to Coimbatore. Lots of photos and some words about India and its relationship with alcohol.

15) Meeting Bharathiar University faculty, my talk to students, my meeting with the Vice Chancellor. More cultural notes from a guy who has no interest in culture.

16) Travel and two days of sampling in Wayanad Reserve Forest. Catfishes, marauding monkeys, and… toddy!

My last day in India was filled with activity, though nothing happened that was particularly blog-worthy. I shared two nice meals with Mani’s family. Arun and Magesh took me to a modern shopping mall in the middle of Coimbatore to do some last minute gift purchases—which were very few and modest as I had basically no money and there was little that I wanted to take back with me. We did make a stop at a roadside cart for some of that non-fermented palm juice, which I liked a whole lot more than the toddy I had sampled up at Wayanad. The guy hands you a palm leaf for a bowl, and then extracts the pulp from a ripe palm fruit directly into the leaf-bowl—sweet gelatinous endosperm with a slightly bitter integument—and then ladles a cup and a half of the non-fermented palm phloem. Drink the juice, eat the pulp, and it comes with refills of the juice.

After goodbyes I made it out of Coimbatore no prob, but checking in for my international flight at the Bangalore airport, I was advised of a prob. My checked bag could not be put through directly to LA, so I would need to collect my luggage in Shanghai and re-check it for the trans-Pacific leg. But I didn’t have a VISA for China, and therefore I would not be able to clear customs in Shanghai, and I might be detained or—at best—given a chance to purchase a transit VISA to complete my trip home. The word detained resonated in a moment of slow-motion action. How much would it suck for me to be stuck in China? It didn’t seem right, and yet both the management of Singapore Air and the experts of the Bangalore airport seemed to be deeply concerned for my situation.

In reality, China does not expect people to get a VISA for transit through the country—you get a permit to stay for as long as 72 hours, provided that you can show a plane ticket for a destination outside of China. Totally reasonable, and I don’t know why the Bangalore personnel was so clueless about this.

In the days following my arrival in LA, I was under a tsunami of classes to prep, trip photos to sort and edit, blog entries to tidy up and post. There was a delay when my photo editing software finally crapped out (and in replacing it I went from version 6 to version 12) and these last couple (since Gavi) were delayed by a period in which I couldn’t locate my folder with the photos.

Dr. Mani and son Ezhil

Dr. Mani and son Ezhil

I owe a special thanks to Dr. Mani–he was very kind to arrange to spend nearly all of his holiday on this multi-stop research junket in the Western Ghats. I look forward to assisting in whatever way I can with the data crunching as well as with the development of the scholars in his laboratory. In the wake of my first visit to India I have new friends and new collaborators with whom I intend to maintain contact for the foreseeable future.

I came to India wanting to observe the balance between conservation of biodiversity/remnants of primary habitat and the superdense human population of southern India. Really it can hardly be called a “balance,” because the pressure is all exerted from the human side and it’s only because of either state or federal fiat that wildlands continue to exist at all here. Hurrah for government—enough wild space has been protected to allow the Western Ghats’ designation as a top-ten biodiversity hotspot by UNESCO.

Mr. Magesh and Mr. Arun Kumar

At the same time, this same government could do more to encourage international research within the country and to provide resources to Indian scientists to allow for their own research and to science educators to bring the country up to speed in basic science (as it already is in areas of applied science and technology).  I have already communicated these impressions in earlier posts.

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Camel procession on Xmas morning 2013 in Mukkali, portal to Silent Valley, Kerala.

December 25. We found an electronics shop not far from the guest house and bought a phone charger and put in enough juice so that Dr. Mani could advise Arun of situation. Jesus has a pretty large presence here, but not enough to shut things down today. There was a procession with three camels that came through town that was probably some kind of nativity reenactment.

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Jackfruit, Artocarpus heterophyllus. Native to Kerala but now found across the world’s tropics.

Feeling relieved at being back in contact with the world, Mani and I took a Jeep tour of Silent Valley with driver Mustafa. Just inside the buffer zone there is a sizeable village of tribal people, who are the buffer zone’s primary users. As a national park, the protection of Silent Valley’s core area extends to prohibition of use by tribals, unlike the state-managed tiger reserves and wildlife sanctuaries. We drove through stretches of forest with black pepper vines ensheathing the trees and coffee growing in place of the understory. One of the restrictions of buffer zone use is a ban on the felling of trees, so the shade for the coffee and the support for the black pepper is provided by mostly native species of tree. Cultivation of plants like coffee and pepper is also not allowed, but these particular plantings pre-date establishment of the restrictions, so the tribals are allowed to continue to harvest this coffee and pepper as “forest products.” Also the use of pesticides is also prohibited in the buffer zone, so the products grown in reserve buffer zones are all certifiably “organic.” Not all of the trees were native. There were a few recently planted coconut palms in the outermost layer of the buffer zone. There were teak trees, which though a native species has had its range extended by active planting both during and after the period of British rule. There was a large jackfruit tree, which can be found as a “welcomed and permanent guest” across the world’s tropics but is native to the forests of southwestern India, i.e., exactly where we are.

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30 m watchtower at the end of the road into Silent Valley. This and the trail down to the Kundhi River bridge are the only places in the core area where foot traffic is permitted.

At the end of the road there is a 30 meter watch tower that evidently not too many people are willing to climb—we had the top platform to ourselves until we had our fill of the incredible view—360° of nothing but wild primary tropical evergreen forest, and this is not more than 30 km from the very dense human population that covers most of India’s surface. [but see epilogue below]

There’s no way to describe the insane majesty of this place. The video I took can’t capture how special of a place this is. But there’s a subtext to Silent Valley, and it is a very encouraging story on how the role of humans in conservation activism can make a huge difference.

Providing energy for India’s already huge and growing population and growing economy is obviously a huge challenge. Thermic energy from the combustion of coal is one of the two principal sources. Many newer plants are using cutting-edge methods to maximize the efficiency and minimize the pollution from coal combustion. With a large stock of coal, India will be powering its future growth for some years to come. But even with the imported German technology, coal still emits more carbon per kilojoule than other forms of fossil fuels. In recent years much of the “fully developed west” including the U.S. has managed to reduce its carbon emissions, largely by transitioning from primarily coal to primarily natural gas or (better) to carbon-neutral sources. Coal-dependent India and China are projected to be the major contributors to increases in atmospheric carbon for years to come as their economies continue to rise. Let’s hope that they are able to move rapidly over to cleaner and more sustainable sources.

The other major energy source is hydroelectric, and really—why not? This subcontinent is blessed with monsoonal precipitation that is mostly quite reliable, and the topography of much of the country contains large, narrow canyons carved by rivers out of the elevated highlands—perfect for the construction of dams that use of gravity to make electrical energy with no carbon emissions at all. It’s basically another natural resource available to the Indian population. The Western Ghats contain many reservoirs. Most—like Siruvani Dam—are used only for storing water for steady domestic water and irrigation, but larger projects are built for both storage and hydro-power.

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Kundhi (Kunthipuzha) River from the bridge at the end of the foot trail at Silent Valley National Park, Kerala.

The unfortunate consequence of damming rivers in this way is the disruption of natural riverine habitat. The stream bed and terrestrial systems on both faces of the canyon being flooded are lost. The flow pattern changes downstream of the impoundment—instead of fluctuating between running high and low, there is a steady flow through the canyon. I’m reminded here of our very own Grand Canyon, where ever since the construction of the Lake Powell dam upstream there has been an accumulation of bigger rocks and boulders that historically would get cleared downstream by flood periods.

It also cuts off any migration between upstream and downstream parts of the river. Maybe some downstream migration is possible if an upstream river fish were to swim through the lake and over the spillway (better that than through the turbines), but the reverse route would be impossible. This is a potential area for studies in population structure by scientists like Dr. Mani and Arun.

There are other losses as well. The one coming to mind and causing the greatest outcry from people is when waterfalls are lost. I can’t help but mention here the “Sete Quedas” (7 Falls) that were destroyed to make the enormous impoundment on the Rio Paraná in Brazil. I say “destroyed” and not just “flooded” because the rock masses creating these spectacular falls (bigger than Niagara and close to Iguaçú in awesomeness) were dynamited and reduced to underwater rubble in order to make the lake more easily navigable by large cargo ships. The sete quedas project obviously went through in spite of the protests. There’s a very sad note in this Brazilian story, in which a suspension bridge collapsed under the weight of dozens of people during a protest and resulted in loss of human life.

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Silent Valley is moist evergreen forest. Its core area is perhaps the best example of primary rain forest vegetation in the country.

If you google “Silent Valley” you’ll probably come up with older links to the news items arising from protests in the late 1970s and early 1980s by local environmentalists when the Kerala government wanted to impound the Kundhi River to create a source of hydroelectric power in Silent Valley. Only in this case the national government actually listened to the protesters and intervened.  The project was axed when Delhi stepped in (Indira Gandhi herself, actually) to create the national park at Silent Valley with the stipulation of absolutely no development or exploitation within the park’s core area—except for the Jeep tours to the watchtower, and this is only allowed for the purpose of generating revenue. Not even fuel wood collection by tribals is permitted.

So yeah, wow. Activism works. The protesters were mostly Kerala locals who knew of the park’s insane majesty who were also joined by conservation groups. If not for them this whole valley would be underwater and generating electricity for nearby cities. Moral of the story: ACTIVISM WORKS.

Nearby the watchtower there’s a short trail down to the Kundhi River bridge, which is impassible, but there are nice views along the way. Saw giant squirrels, Nilgiri Langurs, emerald doves, and a big tiger’s claw marks on a tree.

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A tiger marked its territory by leaving claw marks on a tree.

After the Jeep tour we met up with Arun, Magesh and Sabadi, the driver of our new vehicle, a much larger Mahindra 4X4. Returned to Coimbatore for a very brief stop and proceeded to Anamalai/Topslip. Before leaving Silent Valley Magesh was hit with a stick that was dropped on him from directly overhead by a woodpecker. Shortly afterward a racket-tailed drogo flew into view at close range.

Once again our entry to the Anamalai Tiger Reserve was well after hours, and Dr. Mani needed to pull out his little black book for a phone call to a high official in the Tamil Nadu Forest system—basically the boss of the boss of the forest guard’s boss—who granted our entry but also gave Dr. Mani a stern reprimand for asking for such exceptions to what are typical non-negotiable rules. We pulled into the guest house at Topslip for the night.

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Satellite view of Silent Valley, from Google Maps. It turns out that much of the land is actually denuded, though the parts visible from the watch tower are nicely covered with forest.

Epilogue. My enchantment with the panorama at Silent Valley is shattered after seeing this satellite image from Google Maps. It shows that while the parts of the hills that are visible from the watchtower are nicely covered with primary forest, much of the land that is not visible in my panorama shot is actually denuded. I understand that forest clearing to make space for illegal Cannabis crops has been a problem in this area.