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From Nipah to Shimla

Dr Nabi Kanta Jha

(Dr Nabi Kanta Jha is Officer Trainee, State Forest Service, Central Academy for Forest Service, Burnihat. He may be reached at nabikanta@yahoo.co.in)

From the outbreak of Nipah virus in Kerala to severe water crisis in Shimla, it has shaken the country not only from south to north but its entire dimension too. However, if closely assessed, it will be realized that these incidents have been just waiting to happen for a long time. These crises regularly strike the chord of our negligence towards the basic understanding of environment. Everyday and everywhere, environmental disasters are happening in front of our eyes. However, we just ignore not because of lack of information about them but because we continuously overlook these factors. Nowadays, most of us just read such environment-related headlines if those are in bold font and turn over the pages of newspapers or change news channels thinking that those will never happen in our backyard and not affect us.

Nipah virus encephalitis is caused due to infection of human body by Nipah virus which was first detected in Malaysia in 1999. Fruit bat or flying fox (Pteropus sp.) is the natural host of the virus, and transmission to humans occurs through saliva or body fluid of the infected bats. Consuming fruits eaten or touched by infected bats may transmit the virus to humans. There are no direct interactions between bats and humans. But with decreasing forest areas, bats are living with humans in close proximity, or, rather say, the human has destroyed and invaded the natural habitat of the bat. And thus, habitat destruction is increasing the chance of disease transmission. The outbreak in Malaysia was linked to the rapid urbanization of rainforest which brought humans to the close proximity of bats. Trees are roosting places for fruit bats.

Lack of fruit trees creates food shortage and habitat loss for bats, which in turn reduces immunity among them and raise the virus load in the body. Once an animal hosts any pathogen in its body, the entire food web of the animal faces the risk of infection. Degradation and fragmentation of forests have reduced the natural habitat of bats and now they are adapted to urban settlements and bright glare of light at night. But the urban environment has also put this nocturnal animal into stress. Abandoned buildings, ceilings of flyovers in cities, large auditoriums, and long terraces are becoming the new home for them. These changed scenarios have increased the likelihood of transmission of pathogens carried by bats.

Culling of poultry during the outbreak of bird flu virus or pigs during swine flu eruption was carried out to control the spread of the disease. But culling the Nipah-carrier bats straight away will be a decision taken hastily without assessing its further impact on the ecological balance. Identifying infected poultry and pigs is easier compared to bats. Fruit bats are declared as vermin in the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and thus are not protected as other wild animals. However, bat is an important pollinator and seed disperser, especially of fruit plants, and thus has an important role in fruit production. Some species of bats are predators of insects and thus help in checking their population. Therefore, extensive research is needed before taking decision of culling or eradication of any animal from any ecosystem.

On the other hand, Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh and world-famous tourist destination in the western Himalayan range, has been struggling with severe water shortage. Not only Shimla, but other Himalayan hill stations (like Mussoorie and Nainital) are also facing dry conditions. Surprisingly, these ecologically fragile landscapes are getting urbanized rapidly without having a scientific arrangement for water resources. Urbanization at the cost of forest degradation leads to deficient rainfall. The high-altitude areas in the Himalayas cannot hold water because of the mountain slopes. Rainwater or glacier-melted water runs off the slopes towards the plains. The water shortage in Shimla once again attests the Garhwali proverb pahaadh ki paani aur pahaadh ki jawaani, pahaadh ke kaam nahi aataa (water and youth of mountains are not made for it).

Shimla is situated at an altitude of 2,200 metre above the mean sea level. Annual rainfall is also moderate (about 1500 mm). However, most of the rainwater runs down the slopes. Declined rainfall and snowfall in the previous years are also responsible for the drying up of the resources.

This time, the water scarcity is so acute that the Himachal Pradesh High Court had to intervene and order cutting of the water connections of unauthorized hotels. It also stopped all construction activities in the town to save water. The municipality is rationing water supply in the needy areas. Increasing influx of tourists and ever-expanding urbanization requires gallons of water. Hotels, construction activities and vehicle washing are the major causes behind the scarcity. About 40 per cent of population in Shimla is floating, majority of which are tourists. Hotels and their guests are not so environment-friendly and environmentally educated who can use limited water supply sensibly.
The above incidents are only two of thousands of such consequences arising mostly due to neglected environmental components. These were just waiting to happen. There are several examples of environmental disasters which prove that we really do not learn from past incidents and keep ourselves prepared. The Kedarnath disaster of 2013 was the result of neglected warnings of Nature and scientists that killed about 6,000 people due to glacial lake outburst. Unofficial sources report missing of more than 10,000 people. There was warning of outburst of the Chorabari glacier in 2004. But we neglected. Exploitation of environment and its resources beyond the threshold limit aggravates natural calamity and increases death toll or infrastructure damage.

The public, especially in towns and cities, have to be educated environmentally. We have to be aware of the threshold limit of our surrounding ecosystems. Environmental impact assessments should consider the complex relationships among environmental components. Tourist influx in small hilly towns with limited natural resources should be regulated strictly.

Human adaptability to its environment varies across different regions and populations. It also depends on the acquaintance of the people with their surroundings. Otherwise nature will take its own course as always to be balanced. And consequently, crises like Shimla, Kozhikode, or in Kedarnath, tsunami in Southeast Asia, or cyclone in Odisha will keep happening.

About the author

Ankur Kalita