Delhi’s Air Pollution: The Unsolvable Problem

Disclaimer: Non Scientific Post.

There is one difficulty when we are trying to solve common problems – That we are trying to solve a problem. I shall elaborate.

Delhi’s air quality has plummeted, as it usually does during times of Diwali and the onset of winters. Most of the pollution comes from neighboring places, specially the agriculture fields that burn the crop left overs. The wind brings the smoke to Delhi and NCR. Within NCR the pollution levels also vary depending on the local weather conditions. eg. Noida sometimes is more polluted. Then there are local pollutants within NCR – like Diesel Gensets, Vehicles, Power Plants, Construction, Dust etc. During times of Diwali the burning of firecrackers adds to this pollution resulting into a spike. Since the wind speeds are particularly low this spike in air pollution stays for a longer time, perhaps a week or 10 days. The single most important factor that makes Delhi/NCR’s air pollution the worst in the world is its local Weather Conditions and Meteorology. Comparatively, Mumbai and Kolkata being on the sea cost are blessed with sea breeze which can blow away the particulate matter every now and then. Plus, the rains also help in settling down the particulate matter. Delhi does not have the privilege of both such features. Hence, what comes to Delhi stays in Delhi.

Now comes the question of how do we solve the problem of Air Pollution in Delhi. I think this is the wrong question to ask. Because given current situation of the farmers who are burning the crop residues, people who are burning fire crackers, driving cars, companies constructing buildings and bridges etc. have a reason, perhaps valid, for doing these things. There is nothing wrong in the reasons for which they are doing what they are doing. Hence, there is nothing to be solved. If there is anything to be solved it is the symptom of high PM levels in the air. And we have solved it, not just in one way but in two: 1) Air Purifiers, 2) Face Masks. These two are the most popular solutions being practiced by people staying in Delhi/NCR (some idiots like me also turn on the AC). While some chose to temporarily leave NCR to avoid the severe pollution levels, others continue to live without air purifiers and face masks. All are coping. Then what is it that we are trying to solve?

The fundamental question to be asked is not “How to get things right” but rather “How to avoid doing wrong things”. We have chosen to burn fire crackers when the meteorology is not supportive of dispersing the particulate matter. Why? We have chosen to burn crop residues during times of winter when the meteorology is not supportive. Why? We have chosen to expand NCR and increase the activity levels beyond its meteorological carrying capacity. Why? We have chosen to solve the problem of air pollution by implementing quick fixes like air purifiers and face masks. Why? The cost of labor per acre of land to remove the crop residues is less than the cost of one air purifier, still no private investments are being made to manually remove it instead of burning. Why? We have chosen to privatize clean air by paying for purifiers and masks at the cost of deterioration of the commons. Why?

If we are continuing to do wrong things then what is there to solve? Isn’t this a paradox. I could be wrong here, but then I have a hypothesis on which I am basing my argument. What is yours?

The Profitability of Sustainability

I often wonder, while we have the techonology, the money and the means to convert our miserable world into a sustainable world why are we unable to transit? What is taking us so long (since 1972 when the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment took place, since 1987 of the Bruntland Report and since 1992 of the Kyoto protocol)? Paul Hawkin has made a valiant attempt to understand what it would take for the world to reverse global warming i.e. to start sequestering the excess of carbon (GHG emissions) in the atmosphere so that we are back to safe levels. He edited a collosial effort of over 100 researchers and writers from across the world coming together for Drawdown. The book is awesome. It ranks the best solutions in decreasing order of their impact. It has some counterintuitive ranking which is worth pondering over. What makes the book special is that it is a first of its kind. A pioneering effort indeed!

But the book tells us a future under mutliple “What ifs”, what if all the girls get educated and could control their fertility rates leading to a more sustainable population. What if all the food that is wasted around the world was saved. What if the land use and land change was improved to sequester more carbon etc. etc. It has around 100 such solutions. The catch is this. We pretty much are aware that there exist solutions to our misery, but are unable to overcome our inability to implement these solutions. Probably the enabling environment is just not enabling enough. Now the question is of “How to” and not so much of “What if”. Let’s think about it!

There is one dominant principle on which most of the meta decision making happens. Profitability! For all of you who are unaware of what this means, profitability basically means that you should get more than what you spend – be it energy or money. If the profitability of action A is less than action B then there is a fair chance that majority would chose action B over A and this has been the dominant narrative for most part of our formal civilization.

There is perhaps nothing that stops us from moving to a truely sustainable and just world. And I am damn sure that it is definetely not our lack of understanding of the complexity of our real world. Yes, we still do not have a genuine intuitive understanding of real world complexity that can help us take systemic decisions, but I think we understand enough to be able to enable a transition process. Then what is it that is stopping us?

For many days (in between) I have often been lured into climate finance, green bonds, carbon credits and related discussions. And I mantained that I am just not interested. Simply because I believe these, in their current forms, are just distractions and not real solutions. Because the math is simple. If (and that is a big if) the profitability of climate/sustainability solutions is not more than the climate/sustainability problems then there is just not enough incentive for us to transit. Unless Solutions have a higher ROI than Problems, we are going to maintain a status quo or at best a deliberately slower transition (something that we are seeing now, which is ironically also considered transformative by some).

This theory is generically applicable. There may be brilliant examples of work where profitability or economics just did not matter, but they are far and few in between. Not enough to enable a macro transition. But the question is do we need to wait for it? Can micro, meso movements make a shift? I think yes they can. But I just dont know how much and how can I be a part of it. Because I am pretty much part of the problem economy more than the solution economy.

Now comes the game changer.

If we think that the solution economy has to have a higher profitability than the problem economy then we need to change the nature of economics. The purpose of money has to change when it comes to solution economy. It has to, has to enable a more sustainable behaviour of the masses.

I urge you all to read on the following topics and see if you find merit in my argument because after all my arguments are based on common sense and the available literature. So here is the list:

  • Localisation
  • Ecological Economics
  • Global Equillibrium
  • Limits to Growth
  • Local Currencies (community currencies)
  • Time Banking
  • Ecological Currencies
  • Degrowth
  • Steady State Economics

My Journey of Systems Thinking – VII

When is systems thinking not useful?

I have been asking myself this question very often, off late, because I think that thinking in systems has not always helped me take actions. But this is not a short coming of the subject but rather a personality trait associated with me. However, I think that one has to be aware of this trap of “inaction” in name of believing that the “system” is the problem. I will try to elaborate a bit.

For most time of the past ten years I have been thinking of real world systemic solutions and the top three things that come to my mind are: Local Economics (having local currencies), Self Sustaining Energy and Ecosystems Based Adaptation. If someone asks me what is the solution to all the environmental and economic problems we are facing today, I would simply go back to these three solutions (using different vocabulary). However, if they probe me further on how they could take small actions in their daily life to contribute to environment or sustainability, I am often at loss of words or ideas. Quickly I fall back to the regular options – use LEDs, shift to 5 star rated appliances, use efficient flush (in bathroom), segregate waste etc. But deep down these are not the things that I would consider as real solutions part of my daily life, if other meta things remained constant as they are today i.e. the problem of money and economics, un-sustainability of alternate energy systems, poor governance of fresh water etc.

So I conveniently let go all my efforts to practice some basic things in my daily life, like listed above. This does not mean that I don’t think they contribute to change but then I think that the system is the problem and unless we start developing or redefining systems, all our small efforts are not going to produce the big change that we wish to see in this world. This is a kind of “systems” trap. Where our desire to see big changes drives inaction towards small steps that one could take. As systems thinkers we have to be careful and mindful that we have to work at all levels simultaneously i.e. we have to sometimes apply the quick fix (change lights), work with people to help them see the patterns (how air pollution has become a recurring problem), evaluate the policy/governance structures that are causing the recurrence of these patterns even while personal awareness is going up (long distance travel is a must considering the cities becoming metro towns, farmer’s inability to recycle the agriculture waste back into the soil because the market turnaround time for agriculture produce is shorter these days etc.), also then reflect on the mental models/beliefs of people, that give rise to such structures (market, economy etc.) i.e. why people think the way they think, what are their untested assumptions, and then finally become aware that it is the shared vision of the society in which we are born and most of our mental models emerges from this societal vision (eg. growth is prosperity).

As systems thinkers we should not be choosy on what are the things that we would want to work upon. Say only public policy or teaching or awareness generation etc. We cannot get into the trap of exclusion while wanting to create a change at a system level.

I am facing this difficulty of trying to focus while also being alive to all the changes happening around me and how I could be a part of it. If I am not then I am being very non systemic in my approach.

Learnings from Implementing Social Change Projects

https://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/langlo/PIIS2214-109X(18)30199-2.pdf

Mr. Arun Maira once had shared the above article by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs on his personal experiences as the Director of the Millennium Villages Project (MVP). In response I shared some of my learnings which resonated with the article. These are based on my experience while working at WOTR from 2009 to 2014 on the climate change adaptation project in 25 core villages which then expanded to 50+. The scale, diversity and integration of sectors of that project were very similar to MVP. After re-reading the mail today I thought of putting it here since I think it captured some of the key elements that could have generic applicability for social change projects. Hope you enjoy reading it.

——

Dr. Sachs says, ” Third, as an island of relative prosperity in the midst of poverty, the MVP’s resources inevitably were shared beyond the MVs to the neighbouring areas, thus diminishing the spending per person and impact within the MVs.”… this is consistent with my findings when we estimated the local to local money flows in project villages and tried to assign a local multiplier. None of the villages managed to spend even 10% of the total income locally throughout. This meant all the project money and work done created an endogenous rippling effect of at max 10% after the project activities. Thus, creating an ecosystem of local to local exchanges and strengthening the local spending is key for creating higher impact of projects. I have over half a dozen case studies from Maharashtra and one from Meghalaya on this.

Later he says, ” It used to be supposed that complex, multisector projects might be too hard to implement. We found that this was not the case: there were not only synergies in outcomes, but also important synergies in implementation across sectors.”… I remember Sushil Bajpai (then Director at WOTR and my systems thinking professor at SCMLD) use to tell us that while on field please look through an interdisciplinary lens and don’ t constraint your vision by your expertise or departmental lens. That was very helpful. I don’t think that the project’s complexity, due to over 10 verticals, was a challenge for implementation. It was our inability to cut through the department/disciplinary silos and leverage the inter-dependencies between our work eg. how solar pumps were linked to water budgeting and livelihoods and gender.

While I am being critical let me also say that the project team’s aha moments started coming when the project was nearing its end. This was the most painful. Dr. Sachs says, “… but by 2007 the MVP leadership team realised that the communities would need the full 10 years to 2015 to achieve the MDGs.”… this was true for us too. We were only beginning to get the beat of the system by the time the project was over. I distantly remember the implementation team and even the villagers beginning to see each other’s perspective by the time we were suppose to wind up the project. And it is also true that the follow on funding for extension was equally poor as in the case of MVP. I suspect one of the reasons was that it was very hard to show measurable outcomes from the first phase. Thus, I like what Dr. Sachs says, ” Fortunately, the project was not based on testing the effects of a specific and fixed set of interventions. It was instead based on reaching a specific set of targets”…. If one binds the project through a log frame then we are predicting the impacts of interventions (through the proposal) and then committing to test it through implementation. This could be disastrous.

My Journey of Systems Thinking – Part VI

I was back in the classroom, this week, interacting with bright students at Indian School of Development Management, Noida. These students challenged me to my core. Their sharp questions would often test my own depths – related to my knowledge of systems thinking, my understanding of how real world systems operate, my experience of working with communities and policy makers. It is these students who help me go deeper and explore my previously unexplored depths of knowledge and some glimpses of wisdom which is hidden deep within (this is true for all of us). It is a matter of time before some one helps us unearth it.

After many examples on how systems thinking is used, by making causal loops, and also by going through the systems thinking process, I finally decided to put up two slides which say what Systems Thinking is and what it is Not. These are my own, so I encouraged the students to add/modify them depending on their understanding and reading of the literature.

I am pasting these below:

What Systems Thinking is

–Method of Thinking

–Method to perform systemic diagnoses

–Engagement tool useful for communication

–Learning tool useful for testing assumptions

–Identifying impact pathways and

–Reasons that give rise to non linearity of system’s behavior

–Potential tool to generate insights and foresights

What Systems Thinking is NOT

–to predict future reality

–to control reality

–to identify who is to be blamed

–to be used in isolation

–to solve all problems at once

–to prove superiority

–to win arguments for the sake of just winning

Before the closing of our 16 hours of engagement, I requested students to keep these points in mind when they go out to interact with the real world complexities and the multiple stakeholders who would present their perspectives which would give them some information about why things are happening the way it is happening, but it would never be enough for them to understand reality in totallity.

In the next post I would elaborate on these points more to explain why I put them there. Stay Tuned!

The Age of Peaking of Resources

Recent news about water crises has again got me thinking about the issue of reaching the maximum levels of extraction of natural resources and then every effort put in results into getting less and less of it.

This is not only true for water or oil, but also for renewable resources like wood. In my field experiences of visiting and staying in villages I often encountered cases of how the depletion of forest has led to increased drudgery over women. Their road miles (these roads are different) for fetching wood to be able to cook has constantly been going up. Once a women explained how the time it takes her to fetch wood is twice as much while the quality of wood is not the same.

Similar would be the case for our efforts in fetching ground water. In fact the increasing depths of borewells in cities is an example of how we are putting in more effort to fetch water which is inferior in quality (often higher TDS is recorded in deep borewell water). The more deeper we go it costs more (electricity for pumping and higher horse power motors). As the ground water crises deepens, at some point in time the costs of water could become so high that we may end up buying it from rationing shops. Hopefully water riots could still be avoided.

Crude oil is no different. My introduction to the world of sustainability or rather un-sustainability was through my research on oil as a commodity in the stock markets. My own modeling projections revealed that the rate at which we are able to extract oil would peak soon and then the supply would be unable to keep up with the demand. This means that the demand would have to adjust. Either by choice or force. The case is pretty similar to water. The demand for water could automatically get managed if we have to purchase it through open markets or if it gets rationed.

So joining the three dots that I mention above, wood, water and oil, today I again think of the issue of peaking of resources and how they are due to transform our lives. Richard Heinberg wrote a book on this called Peak Everything, 11 years ago. I had also read on the issue of peak gold where the underground extraction of gold peaks in a similar fashion like oil and water. The only difference is gold is a non consumable item and hence would still be available in the markets. But oil and wood are being burnt and converted into CO2 while ground water is extracted, evaporated and converted into waste through industrial, agricultural and household consumption.

While it can be argued that freshwater is renewable and thus if we reduce our consumption then we could have more of it. But one must remember that the ground water that we extract is a resource stock build up over centuries which we have exploited in great hurry. In order for that stock to build up again it could take a long long time. Hence, for our day to day purposes ground water is somewhat non renewable.

During my first encounters with the resource depletion issues I thought re-localisation would be a strategy to defy all odds. One relocates to a resource abundant small geography and maintains it through a community driven process. It has been close to 10 years and in reality I have only gone farther away from the idea.

But these recent news of water crises has got me thinking again.

My Journey of Systems Thinking – Part V

There is a famous saying, “It takes a village to raise a child”. This week I saw it in action. What I also saw was the relatively inefficient and purposefully expensive way of bringing up children in urban ecosystems back home. I then took help of systems thinking to synthesize my observations and feelings. Some of them I am writing down here below…

In the hills of Devprayag there is a small village called Kim Khola. Until last month it would take a 45 min trek to climb a mountain to reach this village. But I was lucky. There is a road under construction which goes right upto the village. The taxi guy was generous enough to drive the car into the kachcha road. He took us as far as he thought was safe, not for us but for the car. We got down on the top of the mountain. We then went downhill to reach the village and went to the house where I was to spend two nights and two days.

Early Morning View from the Porch

 

It was in a nice setting. East facing porch, toilets, a traditional kitchen (with a wood stove) and one new kitchen with LPG. Two nice big rooms and a breathtaking terrace.  The owner of the house also maintained a garden with newly planted Rosemary. He was a nice progressive chap. The house cooked amazing food. I ate with great satisfaction. Pleasant weather made my stay even more comfortable. It was a relief to be away from Delhi heat.

I was there for a purpose. My job was to uncover the reasons for disappearance of water springs of Kim Khola and how it has affected life of villagers, what they are thinking to do now and what kind of future do they envisage. I should say I was able to uncover some key things that I would not have if I was in Delhi reading on internet about Kim Khola and its springs. What I understood would be out in the publications as part of the project and I would share those when ready.

Apart from all the intelligent stuff, for which I get paid, I also observed social and cultural dynamics which were not part of my questionnaire or so called research scope. The home I was staying in was of a family having two teenagers, one boy and one girl. I would see the girl in house more often than I would see the boy. She would assist her mother in household chores with great skills and purpose. My mind first went towards categorizing this in the gender imbalance research theme, which we researchers jut love to spot every now and then. Its kind of that we are programmed. With some difficulty I tried to unlearn the gender stuff and started observing the structure more closely.

First, I think what I saw was a gender system evolved over time. It was not that the village was trying to copy an alien culture. Second, I think the boy use to be out of house through out the day but I did not feel any sense of discomfort in the family. They were at great peace with his behavior, partially because they were focused on doing what they do and more importantly they knew that the whole village is one big family. In cities we call them care takers. They are now increasingly being found inside day care set ups. One has to pay hefty money to be partially sure that their kid is in safe hands. Forget about things like learning by doing, interacting with nature, socializing etc. just finding a safe place to park your kids is enough. And this does not guarantee that the parents and family would feel no sense of anxiety.

How does systems thinking help understand what I observe? At a meta level, I am essentially comparing two systems here, village and city. The former acts more like a coupled system of Nature and Humans. Both interact and shape each other. Eg. The forests change in response to humans (massive deforestation for wood) and humans change in response to forests (loss of livelihood forcing out-migration). In between these interactions evolves the culture of the human network of friends and family. Cities act like a coupled system of Economy and Humans. Both interact and shape each other. Eg. The jobs change in response to humans (higher spending creates more jobs) and humans change in response to jobs (high paying jobs lead to increased spending). In between these interactions evolves the culture of the human network of friends and family.

If you observe, both the examples I give are reinforcing in nature. If forests go up the livelihood opportunities go up and so people help the forest grow. While if forests go down the livelihood opportunities go down and people start consuming the forest for sustenance. Similarly more spending creates more jobs leading to even more spending while fewer jobs create poor business growth further weakening the job market. The place based culture evolves through a combination of multiple such reinforcing and balancing processes. It is the combination of such processes that leads to the behavior of the system. Raising children in cities is becoming more expensive, high paying jobs are few, simultaneously social fragmentation is increasing leading to more spending on buying social services. Depleting forests and loss of traditional springs is leading to spatial fragmentation of the households causing increase in labor. The gender dimensions in the village or cities are not isolated events of this system. They also get affected and evolve over time with its changing environment.

Using such multi loop reflection I told myself that what I see, observe or collect information is just tip of the iceberg. Drawing conclusions based on that would be silly. Even though I may be able to jot down a hell lot of facts (like the time spent by boys and girls on household chores etc.). But reaching conclusions based on data/information that we are able to measure or see at a point in time is not uncommon. We are always tempted to run campaigns based on facts and data, often leaving out the deep structures, the reinforcing and balancing processes, whose interactions lead to events that we see.

“It takes a village to raise a child”. Of course it would, where else would a child be able to learn through the dance of interactions between human, economic and natural systems in a safe environment.

That too for Free!

Run Away Climate Change Begins

I read this news article just now, “http://www.deccanherald.com/content/665648/world-glacier-melting-passes-point.html” titled World glacier melting passes point of no return: study.  And this prompted me to write this post.

Sushil Bajpai had introduced me to this concept of climate tipping points by explaining the reinforcing processes present in the Earth’s climate system. (more could be found at https://www.climateinteractive.org/insights/climate-tipping-points/) Back then (it was year 2009 I think) listening to this gave me a feeling of Apocalypse. Then I saw James Hansen’s paper (https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/0804/0804.1126.pdf) and it seemed like there were some people who were highlighting the warning signs and the science behind the warning. You can read more by searching books on this subject (storms of my grand children, 6 degrees: Our future on a hotter planet).

The news article I mention suggests that even if humanity reduced emissions to keep the temperature rise to well below 2 C or 1.5 C the glaciers would continue to melt over the coming century and beyond. It mentions that “Around 36 percent of the ice still stored in glaciers today would melt even without further emissions of greenhouse gases”.

Some questions that come to my mind, “Does this mean that we should stop working toward mitigating climate change?”, “Should we stop worrying and enjoy mindlessly by indulging ourselves in senseless consumerism?” I don’t know. May be not yet. But what I definitely know is that the window of opportunity to act is closing really fast. A district 100 kms away from Pune recorded 40 C on 23rd Feb 2018. (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/pune/bhira-hottest-place-in-india-at-40-c/articleshow/63052311.cms) This is not a common phenomena, but it could get more common as we head into a warm and uncertain future.

I think the question that I would like to ask myself and to everyone is “Are current mitigation efforts proving to be enough? Should we seriously consider adapting to climate change and begin the process of redesigning our cities, economies and lifestyles?”

The earlier we begin the farther we can sustain.

Weatherproofing Farmers Through Climate Services

Unpredictable weather variations and extreme events are now being seen as signs of the coming of climate change. This variability in climate, as also highlighted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), poses risks for food security. This calls for evaluation of various adaptation and mitigation options that can secure farmers’ livelihoods and provide food for all.

Our farmers’ presumptive analysis of the weather through traditional knowledge and age-old experience has long held them and their crops in good stead. Today, climate information and advisory services sent to farmers, on their mobile phones, are helping make agriculture more resilient towards the impacts of a varying climate.

The 2 Ts boost – technology and telecom

In India, these services have seen a giant leap of a change in last 10 years. The traditional “Farmers’ Weather Bulletin” and TV broadcasts including All India Radio have now evolved into sophisticated climate products and services delivered using ‘techno-social’ tools – smart phones and mobile apps.

The years 2006-07 saw a surge in agro-met services with companies like Nokia Life tools and Reuters Market Light (RML) entering the Indian market, which for a long time was served only by the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD). Today, weather information is also accompanied with market-related information, helping farmers get fair bargains for their produce.

The growth in number of farmer subscribers for climate services has been overwhelming. Over 50 lakh farmers have been reached in the state of Maharashtra only, while the number across India is in excess of 1.5 crore.

Technologies for effective dissemination and outreach are kicking in and are being implemented at scale by IMD’s Agro Meteorology Programme, GKMS (Grameen Krishi Mausam Seva). Innovations at local levels are also being experimented with. For e.g. Watershed Organisation Trust’s (WOTR) Agro-Meteorology program uses Automated Weather Systems (AWS) to improve the effectiveness and accuracy of local weather information. The farmers are informed about their local weather conditions almost real time through AWS, allowing them take more weather informed decisions.

Scaling and Downscaling

Scaling up of such experiments is a must but it poses several challenges. Since India has diverse topography and climatic conditions, the extent of village-level, farmer -specific data available is very limited. Also, there are limitations for downscaling district level or block level weather forecasts right up to the village-level.

What makes scaling further complicated are the institutional challenges that arise due to the amount of coordination required for generating and delivering advisories. The climate services sector in India is an example of a consortium of knowledge networks made up of private, public and not-for-profit institutions, including universities. This means that every advisory service requires collaboration between at least 3-4 different institutions!

Bottom up Responses

Farmers at their end are also using technology to battle the forces of weather variations. Using their smart phones they have formed crop-specific Whatsapp groups, which act as hyper-local communication platforms for and by farmers. This is an example of a bottom-up process of development and implementation of adaptation measures. Farmers can self-advise and readily share information among peers, such as response to pest attacks, differences in market prices etc.

TERI has been studying climate services system in India through its Indo-Norwegian Research Project on Governance of Climate Services. The project is a three-year study that analyses conditions for effective governance of climate services in India. It compares 4 Indian agro-meteorological service systems, both public and private to study how they are governed and if they provide rural farmers with tailored and participatory services in Maharashtra.

The project’s findings would be up for discussion at this year’s World Sustainable Development Summit from 15th to 17th February 2018. Do join us!

For more information visit – http://wsds.teriin.org/