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Forest fires: need for rethinking management strategies

Dr. H. S. Suresh's picture

Earth’s landscape has been subjected to both natural and anthropogenic fires for millions of years.

Natural, lightning-caused fires are known to have occurred in geological time continuously at least since the late Silurian epoch, 400 million years ago, and have shaped the evolution of plant communities.

Hominids have used controlled fire as a tool to transform the landscape since about 700,000 years ago. These hominids were Homo erectus, ancestors of modern humans. Paleofire scientists, biogeographers and anthropologists all agree that hominid use of fire for various purposes has extensively transformed the vegetation of Earth over this period.
 

Dry season ground fire in Mudumalai.  Photo Credit: Dr. H. S. Suresh

The nature of Earth’s modern-day biomes would be substantially different if there had been no fires at all. William Bond and colleagues (2005) used a Dynamic Global Vegetation Model to simulate the area under closed forest with and without fire. They estimated that in the absence of fire, the area of closed forest would double from the present 27% to 56% of present vegetated area, with corresponding increase in biomass and carbon stocks. This would be at the expense of C4 grasslands and certain types of shrub-land in cooler climates.

Mexico’s National Forest Fire Management Program

Alfredo Nolasco Morales's picture

On November 1-3, India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and the World Bank organized a workshop in Delhi to discuss forest fire prevention and management.  The workshop brought together fire experts and practitioners from eight countries along with Indian government officials from the ministry and the state forest departments, as well as representatives from academia and civil society.  One of the participating countries, Mexico, has recently transformed its national policy on forest fires. Alfredo Nolasco Morales, Wildland Fire Protection Manager at Mexico’s National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR) shared his insights on what this transformation has meant for Mexico, how it was achieved, and how it may serve as an inspiration for India as the Indian government prepares a new national action plan for forest fires.
 
Mexico’s forest fire program has operated for more than 70 years. On average, 7,500 fires occur each year, affecting 300,000 hectares of pasture, scrubland, forest, and regrowth. Recently, however, the country has experienced some especially bad years, including in 2017, when fires burned 715,714 hectares and killed 12 people. Extreme climatic conditions and the accumulation of fuels such as dry leaves, twigs, grasses, dead trees, and fallen timber have contributed to especially severe fire seasons.



Until 2012, Mexico’s national forest fire program focused on the complete suppression of fires by contracting helicopters to douse the flames. State forest fire programs were weak and there was little institutional coordination.

The Canadian forest fire danger rating system

Brian Simpson's picture
On November 1-3, India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and the World Bank organized a workshop in Delhi to discuss forest fire prevention and management.  The workshop brought together fire experts and practitioners from eight countries along with Indian government officials from the ministry and the state forest departments, as well as representatives from academia and civil society. Brian Simpson, an analyst with the Canadian Forest Service, shares his perspective on how Canada developed its national fire danger rating system and how this system has helped in preventing, detecting and suppressing forest fires in that country. Canada's experience may serve as an inspiration as India continues to develop its own fire danger rating system, adapting it to local conditions and management needs.
 
Canada is a big country, with a lot of forest and a lot of water. Fires are common, and are concentrated in the boreal forest region, a band of forest that stretches around the whole northern hemisphere. On average, out of around 400 million ha of forest, about 8,000 fires and 2.5 million ha burn per year. And dozens of communities and tens of thousands of people need to be evacuated each year.
 
People are mostly concentrated along the southern border with the United States, where it’s warmer. A lot of the northern communities are actually indigenous, and many of them are only accessible by air or water. If there is a road, it’s the only road. These communities are often threatened by wildfires, and are frequently evacuated due to this threat.
 
Ultimately, Canada has three main problems with respect to wildland fire - prevention, detection, and suppression.  The Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System (CFFDRS) helps with each, though it’s only part of the solution. It helps with prevention by allowing fire managers to know where the risk of fires is higher. It helps with detection by giving fire managers a place and time to look for new fires. And it helps with suppression by providing some guidance about how the fire will behave. Beyond fire prevention, detection and suppression, CFFDRS helps with planning, response, risk assessment, smoke modelling, and even carbon emissions from these fires.
 Gts/Shutterstock.com
Photo Credit: Gts/Shutterstock.com

With respect to wildland fire, the Government of Canada has a mandate to provide for the safety and security of Canadians, to protect critical infrastructure, to mitigate the effects of climate change, and to aid the implementation of other Sustainable Development Goals like reducing poverty and improving health. All are aided by the CFFDRS.

From potato eaters to world leaders in agriculture

Priti Kumar's picture
 Raj Ganguly
Matching sheer ingenuity with technological prowess, the Netherlands (pop: 17 millions; about the size of Haryana state in India) today is one of the world’s most agriculturally productive countries, feeding people across the globe from its meager land area. Photo credit: Raj Ganguly

Van Gogh’s famous painting of Potato Eaters depicts a family of poor peasants seated around a dinner table eating their staple fare. The artist confessed that this work is deeply reflective of the hard work that Dutch peasants have to do to earn a bare meal. Van Gogh frequently painted the harvest and often compared the season to his own art, and how he would someday reap all that he had put into it. 

Since those difficult times in the late 1800s, the tiny country of the Netherlands (pop: 17 mill; about the size of Haryana state in India) has come a long way. Matching sheer ingenuity with technological prowess, the Netherlands today is one of the world’s most agriculturally productive countries, feeding people across the globe from its meager land area. Indeed, this small nation is now the world’s second-largest exporter of agri-food products including vegetables, fruits, potatoes, meat, milk and eggs; some 6% of world trade in fruits and 16% in vegetables comes from the Netherlands.

But how exactly did they do this? In October 2017, we went to find out. Our team - of World Bank and Indian government officials working on agribusiness, rural transformation and watershed development projects – sought to learn from Dutch experience and identify opportunities for future collaboration. We met farmer cooperatives, private companies, growers’ associations, academia, social enterprises, and government agencies, and gained fascinating insights.

Primarily, we found that a convenient location, a conducive climate, investments in high-quality infrastructure, high-caliber human capital, an enabling business environment and professionally-run private companies have provided the Netherlands with that unmistakable competitive edge:

Maximizing agricultural output with minimum land and labor

Located conveniently as a gateway to Europe, the Netherlands acts as a transit hub for agricultural produce, importing Euro 4.6 billion worth of produce from 107 countries, adding value to these products through collection, re(packaging) and processing, and exporting almost double that value - Euro 7.9 billion - to more than 150 nations. In 2014, Dutch growers had a turn-over of euro 2.9 billion in fruit and vegetables, produced with a minimum of land and labor - only 55,000 hectares and just 40,000 people - indicating a heavy reliance on automation.

Spotting fires from space helps India’s foresters

E. Vikram's picture
 Vikas Gusain (April 2017)
Almost all fires in India are set by people intentionally or unintentionally. Ground fire in Chir Pine forests in Gumkhal, Pauri Garwal District, Uttarakhand, India. Credit: Vikas Gusain (April 2017)

The three-day international workshop on forest fires organized by the World Bank and the Forest Ministry of India is a watershed event in the management of forest fires in the country (1-3rd November 2017). On the first day, discussions were held on the latest technology being used to alert foresters to fires.

Almost all fires in India are set by people intentionally or unintentionally. For instance, forest-dependent communities in central India burn the forest floor to encourage the growth of tender tendu leaves, and to collect mahua flowers which standout easily on the charred forest floor.

In the northeast and some parts of central India, forests are rotationally burnt to ashes to enrich the soil for agriculture. After a few seasons of cropping, the depleted area is left to nature and the trees grow back once again. In the western Himalayas, pine needles are cleared every year to encourage the growth of grass for cattle-fodder. When pine needles full of resin pile up year after year, it takes just one spark from a careless smoker to burn down an entire forest of enormous value.

In remote areas, forest fires may not be detected for hours or even days, leading to an irreversible loss of forest wealth. Like any other hazard, the earlier one gets to know about the outbreak, the better it is for both the authorities and the people. Since traditional ways of gathering information from people perched on watch towers are not very effective, satellite sensors that can detect heat and smoke from space have now come to the rescue of foresters across the country.   

Today, the Forest Survey of India, in partnership with the National Remote Sensing Centre, uses these satellite detections to alert foresters across the country about the exact location of forest fires. All steps in the detection and dissemination process have been fully automated – including the processing of satellite data, filtering out fires that burn outside forests, composing personalized SMSs to relevant people, as well as sending them across. This system has helped fire alerts to reach people within 45 minutes to 1 hour of detection, enabling foresters to reach the spot quickly and contain the damage.

India joins other countries in tackling forest fires

Christopher Sall's picture

Fire has been a part of India’s landscape since time immemorial. Every year, forest fires rage through nearly every state, ravaging more than half of India’s districts. Today, with growing populations in and around the forests, these fires are putting more lives and property at risk.  Indian Space Research Organization estimates that in 2014 alone, nearly 49,000 sq.km of forests - larger than the size of Haryana – were burned during the peak fire months of February to May. And, this was a mild year compared to the recent past! 



But, forest fires can also be beneficial. They play a vital role in maintaining healthy forests, recycling nutrients, helping trees to regenerate, removing invasive weeds and lantana, and maintaining habitat for some wildlife.  Occasional fires can also keep down fuel loads that feed larger, more destructive conflagrations.  However, as populations and demands on forest resources grow, the cycle of fires has spun out of balance, and the fires no longer sustain forest health.  In fact, in many countries, wildfires are burning larger areas, and fire seasons are growing longer due to a warming climate. 

Measuring South Asia’s economy from outer space

Martin Rama's picture
New technologies offer an opportunity to strengthen economic measurement. Evening luminosity observed from satellites has been shown to be a good proxy for economic activity.
New technologies offer an opportunity to strengthen economic measurement. Evening luminosity observed from satellites has been shown to be a good proxy for economic activity.
Economic growth is a key concern for economists, political leaders, and the broader population.

But how confident are we that the available data on economic activity paints an accurate picture of a country’s performance?

Measuring Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the most standard measure of economic activity, is especially challenging in developing countries, where the informal sector is large and institutional constraints can be severe.

In addition, many countries only provide GDP measures annually and at the national level. Not surprisingly, GDP growth estimates are often met with skepticism.
 
New technologies offer an opportunity to strengthen economic measurement. Evening luminosity observed from satellites has been shown to be a good proxy for economic activity.

As shown in Figure 1, there is a strong correlation between nightlight intensity and GDP levels in South Asia: the higher the nightlight intensity on the horizontal axis, the stronger the economic activity on the vertical axis.
Figure 1 Nightlight intensity increases with economic activity
Figure 1 Nightlight intensity increases with economic activity

However, measuring nightlight is challenging and comes with a few caveats. Clouds, moonlight, and radiance from the sun can affect measurement accuracy, which then requires filtering and standardizing.

On the other hand, nighlight data has a lot advantages like being available in high-frequency and with a very high spatial resolution. In the latest edition of South Asia Economic Focus, we use variations in nightlight intensity to analyze economic trends and illustrate how this data can help predict GDP over time and across space.

Tackling India’s hidden hunger

Edward W. Bresnyan's picture
India’s National Dairy Development Board (NDDB)
With India’s rapidly growing dairy industry, large-scale milk fortification of Vitamins A and D is a robust vehicle for increasing micronutrients intake across the population. Credit: India’s National Dairy Development Board (NDDB)  
Micronutrient deficiencies, especially Vitamin A and D, are prevalent in India. 
 
Yet, these deficiencies -- often referred to as ‘hidden hunger’ -- go largely unnoticed and affect large populations.
 
Night blindness, a condition afflicting millions of pregnant women and children, stems from low intake of foods rich in essential nutrients like Vitamin A.
 
Budget constraints limit access to nutrient-rich foods for many families, who are unaware or unable to afford a nutritious diet.
 
National programs help supplement diets with Iron and Vitamin, but their scope is too narrow to adequately address these deficiencies.
 
 India’s National Dairy Development Board (NDDB)  
Food fortification is a relatively simple, powerful and cost-effective approach to curb micronutrient deficiencies. It is in general socially accepted and requires minimal change in existing food habits. Credit: Credit: India’s National Dairy Development Board (NDDB)


Fortified Milk Helps Increase Vitamins Intake
 
When fortified with vitamin A and D, milk, which remains a staple for many Indians, can help alleviate dietary deficiencies when supplementation is not available.

Food fortification is a relatively simple, powerful and cost-effective approach to curb micronutrient deficiencies. It is in general socially accepted and requires minimal change in existing food habits.

The process is inexpensive and costs about 2 paisa per liter or about one-tenth of a cent.  And because it only adds a fraction of daily recommended nutrients, the process is considered safe.

For these reasons, food fortification has been successfully scaled up in some emerging economies.

However, except for salt fortification with iodine, India has not yet achieved large-scale food fortification. 

With India’s rapidly growing dairy industry, large-scale milk fortification of Vitamins A and D is a robust vehicle for increasing micronutrients intake across the population.

Towards a clean India

Guangzhe CHEN's picture

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Mission in 2014, it marked the beginning of the world’s largest ever sanitation drive. Now, a 2017 survey by the Quality Council of India finds that access to toilets by rural households has increased to 62.45 per cent, and that 91 per cent of those who have a toilet, use it. Given India’s size and diversity, it is no surprise that implementation varies widely across states. Even so, the fact that almost every Indian now has sanitation on the mind is a victory by itself.

 Guy Stubbs

Achieving a task of this magnitude will not be easy. Bangladesh took 15 years to become open defecation free (ODF), while Thailand took 40 years to do so. Meeting sanitation targets is not a one-off event. Changing centuries-old habits of open defecation is a complex and long-term undertaking.

Bangladesh corridor vital to India’s ‘Act East’ policy

Sanjay Kathuria's picture
India-Bangladesh land border crossing, Photo by Sanjay Kathuria
India-Bangladesh land border crossing. Credit: Sanjay Kathuria

Deepening connectivity and economic linkages between India and Bangladesh will be critical for the success of India’s ‘Act East’ policy.

Here are five priority areas that have the potential to change the economy of Northeast India:

1. Transport Connectivity

After 1947, Northeast (NE) India has had to access the rest of India largely via the “Chicken’s Neck” near Siliguri, greatly increasing travel times. Traders travel 1600 km from Agartala (Tripura) to Kolkata (West Bengal) via Siliguri to access Kolkata port. Instead, they can travel less than 600 kms to reach the same destination via Bangladesh, or even better, travel only 200 km to access the nearby port of Chittagong in Bangladesh.

This is set to change as close cooperation between Bangladesh and India (including various ongoing initiatives such as the transshipment of Indian goods through Bangladesh’s Ashuganj port to Northeast India, expanding of rail links within Northeast India and between the two countries, the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement) can dramatically reduce the cost of transport between Northeast India and the rest of India.

The resultant decline in prices of goods and services can have a strong impact on consumer welfare and poverty reduction in the Northeast. Such cooperation also opens up several additional possibilities of linking India with ASEAN via Myanmar.

Moving forward, expanding direct connectivity between NE India and the rest of India via Bangladesh, while giving Bangladesh similar access to Nepal and Bhutan via India, is critical.

2. Digital Connectivity

Broadband connectivity of 10 gbps is now being provided from Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar to Tripura and beyond, to help improve the speed and reliability of internet access in NE India. Bangladesh has the capacity to provide more.

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