Air Clean Up

  • How Water Conservation Measures Increased Air Pollution

How Water Conservation Measures Increased Air Pollution

Aug 27 2019 Read 460 Times

A new study has shown how implementing measures to conserve water in northwest India has had the unintended consequence of exacerbating air pollution in the area. By forcing farmers to transplant their rice crops into paddies later in the year, the regulations have inadvertently delayed crop burning to a time when winds are less prevalent and pollution is thus more persistent.

The report, compiled by scientists from Cornell University in New York and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in Mexico City, used northern regions of India as the basis of their study and concluded from their findings that environmentalism is a multi-faceted beast which requires a sensitive approach. “This analysis shows that we need to think about sustainable agriculture from a systems perspective, because it's not a single objective we're managing for,” explained Andrew MacDonald, a co-author on the paper. “It's multidimensional, and solving one problem in isolation can exacerbate others.”

A two-headed monster

Northern India has been grappling with two substantial environmental issues for years now. On the one hand, dangerous levels of air quality mean that countless Indians are exposed to contamination of a daily basis. In fact, 1.1 million people loss their lives prematurely due to inhaling polluted air in 2015; the study argues that the financial outlay incurred by such a loss of life is equivalent to 3% of the country’s GDP.

At the same time, water shortages are a blight on the populace, as well. This is particularly true in terms of depleting groundwater, which is essential for rice cultivation. In a bid to alleviate the issue, the government introduced two measures in 2009, obliging farmers to delay transplantation of rice crops into paddies until after the 20th of June. While the regulations may have helped to conserve water, this kind of quick-fix approach to pollution unfortunately is not sustainable and the measures had other unwanted consequences, as well.

Unwanted side-effects

Because the rice crops were obliged to grow for longer, their stubble was not burnt until later in the year. This combustion must be done immediately after transplantation of the rice to make room for wheat crops which are cultivated during the winter months. However, those winter months generally enjoy fewer and weaker breezes, meaning the pollution stagnates in the air.

In fact, the study found that November readings of particulate matter (PM) were almost a third (30%) higher in northern regions than they had been prior to the implementation of the measures. Given that PM can be easily inhaled and can even infiltrate the bloodstream, causing all kinds of damage to the body’s organs and vital components, that’s a grave discovery indeed.

Finding a way forward

The authors of the study have suggested some solutions to the conundrum, including opting for varieties of rice which are more flexible in terms of when they must be planted and harvested. Another option on the table is the use of a tractor-mounted Happy Seeder machine, which is capable of drilling through crop residue and dispenses with the need for burning altogether.

Of course, this kind of air pollution is not just caused solely by crop combustion. Improper use of fuels to heat homes and cook foods is a widespread problem across the country, and the Indian government might do well to take a leaf out of Europe’s book by imposing similar emissions regulations on stove manufacturers as those being introduced by the EU in the near future.

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