Plastic Pollution and Poverty in the SundarbansFrom space, the “Beautiful Forest,” or the Sundarbans, looks like a dreamscape — dark mangrove forests nestled among a lacy lattice of luminous streams that snake into the Bay of Bengal. Zooming closer reveals grimmer realities. The Sundarbans are a part of the world’s largest delta, the Ganga-Brahmaputra delta, covering most of Bangladesh and large amounts of West Bengal in India. Home to more than 100 million people, it is one of the most densely populated regions globally and faces extreme poverty and plastic pollution.

Fringed by the large arc of the Bay of Bengal, the coastal population here relies on the ocean, upstream rivers, rich delta soils, monsoons and mangrove forests for its livelihood. Primary industries are marine and freshwater fishing, rice farming and tourism. Life here teeters on a fragile balance with nature. Annual monsoons cause floods and rising ocean levels threaten to submerge the lands. However, they also bring fertility and rich aquatic life that are vital to the livelihood of millions.

A particularly grave human-made threat to this delicate coastal ecosystem is plastics. Plastics pour into the bay from upstream rivers and neighboring areas and choke the coastal lands with the locally generated waste.

Impact of Plastic Pollution in the Sundarbans

The plastic in the food supply chain gravely impacts the fishery industry of the delta region, as evident in its clogged mangroves and plastic-choked fish farms. Plastic also pollutes the population’s primary food source: fish and other aquatic life. As plastics disintegrate into fundamental particles, they make their way into the biota and eventually into humans, causing many health issues.

The area’s waste-blanketed beaches also deter tourism. Accumulations of plastic mar beautiful coastlines due to poor infrastructure and waste management.

Additionally, increasing plastic use by ever-growing populations depletes natural resources and poisons life-giving food sources. This creates conditions for poverty and unsustainable living in the Sundarbans. Reducing plastic accumulation in the ocean and coastal areas of the Bay of Bengal is critical and needing concerted, multi-pronged actions.

Addressing the Plastic Pollution Issues at the Source

Measuring and identifying pollution problems upstream, as with the National Geographic-led Ganges Sea to Source Expedition project, will be vital to deploying preventive solutions closer to their source. Projects such as this one seek to understand the plastics’ journey in the river, tracking the patterns, volumes and trajectory into the ocean. The Ganges, one of the world’s largest rivers, is a principal source of water into the Bay of Bengal and a principal source of its plastics. The Ganges and two other rivers are estimated to empty one to three billion microplastics into the Bay of Bengal each day.

Waste Management Programs

Waste management programs to reduce plastic in the ocean and neighboring coastlines are critical in this fight against poverty and plastic pollution. Such programs can include installing waterway bins and collectors in the bay and plastic collection programs in coastal areas. Such programs have the added benefit of employing local labor in building these infrastructures. However, solutions such as installing obstructive bins in the ocean have their limitations. A push to longer-term restructuring and design will be necessary while relying on short-term solutions.

Awareness and Innovative Products

Large-scale education campaigns on anti-littering and plastic-use awareness are also crucial to addressing current pollution challenges. Encouraging reuse, responsible disposal of wastes and moving to environment-friendly alternatives in daily life can help slow the current plastic pollution rates.

In the long term, establishing programs that focus on bio-friendly products and innovations offers the best route out of the current predicament. Boosting programs and research in topics that rethink current practices and modes of plastic-dependent systems can also stimulate the local economy and employment while generating viable solutions. Levying taxes to deter plastic use should also be considered within a broader governance and policy framework.

As gloomy as the Sundarbans’ current pollution circumstances seem, there are many paths to reversing plastic’s impacts in the Bay of Bengal while boosting labor in local populations with innovation, research and collective action.

– Mala Rajamani
Photo: Flickr

Ro-Boats are Cleaning Water Pollution
The Ganges is sprinkled with human excrement, idol remnants, raw sewage, industrial waste, ceremonial flowers coated with arsenic and even dead bodies. The New Yorker said the Ganges absorbs more than one billion gallons of waste each day making it among the 10 most polluted rivers in the world. The magazine said three-quarters of the waste is raw sewage and the remaining waste is treated industrial wastewater. The Indian government has attempted to clean up the Ganges several times over the last 30 years. Recently, Ro-Boats are cleaning water pollution instead of direct human intervention.

The Holy Water in Despair

The Ganges holds spiritual importance in Hinduism. The Ganges is considered the personification of the goddess Ganga – the goddess of purity and purification. Hindu men, women and children decorated in garlands and bright robes are common sights along the shores of the Ganges. They bathe, wash their clothes, defecate and dispose of the corpses of their loved ones. Hindus bathe in the Ganges for spiritual purification – releasing them from their sins and freeing them from the wheel of reincarnation. Bathing and drinking the waters of the Ganges pose a risk to its visitors’ health. The current sewage levels of the Ganges spread a variety of diseases among the population including typhoid, cholera and amoebic dysentery.

The Indian government believes an automated water device solution, a fleet of robotic boats (Ro-Boats), may aid the clean-up of the Ganges. Ro-Boats are cleaning water pollution by being self-propelled riveting river raider robots that churn through water and collect and dispose of sewage and other waste.

Omnipresent Tech

Omnipresent Tech is the creator of the Ro-Boats. The Indian government gave Omnipresent a $200,000 contract to build up a fleet of these Ro-Boat vessels to clean up the river. The Indian government’s investment in Omnipresent is part of its efforts to combat the waste level deposits of the Ganges. The Indian Government began the Ganges Action Plan in 2015. This plan is among the most recent of the decades-long efforts to clean up the river. Narenda Modi, the Prime Minister of India said, “The Ganges will be clean by 2019.”

Omnipresent’s official website claims the company is India’s leading robotics, industrial UAV/Drone and Video Analytics solutions provider. Omnipresent produces industrial inspection drones, river cleaning robots, logistical robots emergency response drones and defense drones

Omnipresent also produces the drone software, as well as 3D modeling machine learning surveillance and a variety of other industrial and consumer high-tech. A Ro-Boat device costs $21,057.75 to build. The bots run without human intervention – neither during the day nor at night. The Ro-Boat has a capable arsenal. Each riveting river raider has fog lights, a pan-tilt-zoom camera, a solar-powered battery and twin-propelled engines

GPS commands guide the Ro-Boats. A drone that flies above the bot gives commands to the machine. The drone flies ahead, scouts debris and pollutants in the water and gives a signal to the Ro-Boat to drive over, scoop up and dispose of the waste. The drone also serves as a spy to catch companies spewing pollutants into the Ganges.

Ro-Boats are cleaning water pollution by collecting sewage through robotic arms and depositing the waste. The riveting river raider is capable of cleaning 200 tons within a 24-hour period. This means that the device could remove 1,400 tons of waste material from the Ganges with a week. Overture estimated that the bot could remove 200 tons from the Ganges in a year.

A Ro-Boat looks like the offspring of a dump truck and a fighting robot from the television competition “Robot Wars.” Not only can Ro-Boats swim across the surface of the water and clean the waste floating on the river surface, but these self-propelled riveting river raiders can also submerge and dig out the river-bed lodged pollutants. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology declared the Ro-Boat to be among the top 20 innovations.

Currently, the Ganges remains filthy. Overture says that 1.3 billion gallons of untreated sewage continue to flood into the river each day. Finding vendors to create sewage treatment plants is also problematic. Land cost, bad management and bidding practices halt progress.

How the Ganges Can Get Help

One way to help is for the United States government and companies to invest money in Omnipresent Tech and the Indian government’s waste infrastructure building projects. With enough support, these projects may purify India’s Ganges river.

Purification will help India’s poor who bathe in and drink the water of the Ganges. If the Ganges is clean, this should decrease the level of diseases in the country and prevent their spread. Investment in companies, such as Omnipresent, should aid the growth of India and increase the production of Ro-Boats. The increased production of Ro-Boats will demand a workforce to keep up with increased production and contribute to hiring, increasing poverty reduction among the Indian population. If successful, these riveting river raiders may be a key contribution to India’s efforts to become a leader in the world economy.

Robert Forsyth
Photo: Flickr

Religious Flowers in indiaThe idea of profiting from recycling religious flowers in India and receiving recognition from the U.N. for it may seem ludicrous, but cofounders of Indian startup Kanpur Flowercycling made it possible. Ankit Agarwal and Karan Rastogi saw an opportunity in these religious flowers in India on the day of Makara Sankranti, an ancient Indian festival celebrated by bathing in the sacred water of the river Ganges for the end of the winter solstice.

Toxic Flowers in the Ganges

People worship, bottle and drink these waters, even though it has become visibly carcinogenic. Agarwal and Rastogi noticed small, colorful flowers discarded from the temples nearby turn into mulch in the river waters. Research shows that the flowers are filled with pesticides and insecticides. In the river, the chemicals mix with the water, making toxic compounds, suppressing the oxygen level and endangering marine life.

After a year and a half of pitching their temple-waste maintenance idea and countless hours in a makeshift laboratory, Agarwal and Rastogi’s idea came to life. The flower recycled incense and vermicompost that would open the door to conserve the Ganges, provide livelihood and employment for people even of lower-caste were born.

Livelihood and Employment Opportunities

HelpUsGreen, the brand over this project, grew to receive recognition as one of the young leader projects that helps achieve the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. Although the vision of HelpUsGreen might have started at preserving the river Ganges, it didn’t stop there. The startup, supported by Tata Trusts, uses its flower-recycling technology to also provide employment for people. HelpUsGreen provided a livelihood for 73 scavenging families that now earn six times what they earned before. It also sent 19 children to school and provided a predictable livelihood for almost 200 women.

The startup makes empowering women specifically of lower-caste a priority by employing 1,200 women to collect flowers. “Many of them are more confident now,” Agarwal told Fast Company, “They’re earning more than their husbands. They got some say in the decisions that are made in the home and they’re saving money so they can send their children to school.” Making women a priority for their business taps into a global poverty reduction strategy of putting women in the workforce. The significance of this strategy stems from the gender disparity in the workforce which made women an untapped market to downsize global poverty.

India’s Pollution & HelpUsGreen’s Plan

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cities in India suffer from particulate pollution more than anywhere else in the world and Kanpur comes first. Poor governance, kerosene lighting and cookstoves are major sources of pollution in big cities in developing countries. Kanpur, located in an industrial region of India, suffers severely from particulate pollution.

HelpUsGreen decided to set goals that will make a difference in these circumstances. The 8 million tonnes of showering flowers annually are symbols of devotion discarded in toxic ways to water bodies, groundwater and the Indian civilization. “Kanpur Flowercycling already collects some 7.2 tons of flowers a day from two dozen sites but it’s just scratching the surface,” Agarwal explained. Agarwal believes the startup can gather 50 tons a day and branch out into new products. These religious flowers in India represent a symbol of devotion but more than 420 million people use the Ganges where they are dumped. People rely on it for food, water, bathing and agriculture. If the river is dying, it will put the Indian civilization in a very vulnerable position.

Fighting Pollution Is Fighting Poverty

HelpUsGreen considers Kanpur and India’s environmental challenges in the vision for its business. This vision aligns with the Sustainable Development Goals of life on land, sustainable cities and communities, clean water and sanitation, good health and well-being, zero hunger and no poverty. The startups’ priority for women employment creates alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals of gender equality, decent work and economic growth and reduced inequalities. The values of Kanpur Flowercycling matching over half of the U.N.’s goals justifies their nomination for a UNICEF award by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim also recognizes cleaning the Ganges river as part of the poverty fight. Kim visited the Ganges to observe an Indian government initiative supported by the World Bank to clean the river. Kim recognized reducing the number of sources of pollution entering the river as a way to reduce poverty in India. HelpUsGreen has already begun to gather tons of flowers away from the river to eliminate factors polluting it. These religious flowers in India can still represent a symbol of devotion and be discarded in sustainable ways that will also help reduce poverty.

Janiya Winchester
Photo: Pixabay