Some of the environmental issues associated with sustainable development are as follows:
Man, with his technological and scientific skills, has made rapid developments in agriculture, mining, industries, transportation, forestry, land management and other areas. Unfortunately, in doing so, there has been much disruption of the functioning of natural environment.
Now, people have begun to realise the side-effects of the developmental activities and have started their efforts in minimising these effects by adopting methods and technology for sustainable development. Some of the important environmental issues associated with development, and the role of ecology in possible solution of these problems, i.e., sustainable development, are as follows:
1. Food Production and Organic Farming:
The increasing demand of food for growing population has become a serious problem in many parts of the world, especially in developing countries like India, China, Indonesia, Egypt, Brazil and many other Afro-Asian countries.
Agricultural scientists have been successful in increasing the quantity and quality of food and other crops. This has been possible due to application of chemical fertilisers, high yielding seeds, crop rotation practices, weed control, pesticides as well as due to mechanisation in agriculture.
This resulted in the Green Revolution beginning in the late 1960s with an attempt to increase food production in developing countries. New varieties of wheat, rice and corn were developed that responded better than the traditional varieties to fertilisers, irrigation and chemicals for pest and weed control.
But, along with the increase in food production, there came an increased dependence on energy-based expensive technology and several ecological problems have emerged due to the excessive use of chemicals either in the form of fertilisers or as pesticides. Now, it has been realised throughout the world that use of chemical fertilisers and other chemicals is harmful to soil productivity and also a cause of water and air pollution.
The Green Revolution has not only disturbed the ecosystem but is also a cause of social revolution. In countries like USA, farmers are now shifting from routine use of herbicides, pesticides, fertilisers, etc., to organic farming in which no chemicals are used. The only fertilisers used are organic matter, such as manure, crushed limestone, etc. This system is similar to that of ancient Indian system which is more eco-friendly.
The adoption of organic farming is a way for sustainable development. By adopting proper management practices, one can develop high yielding varieties even in this system. Along with agriculture, aquaculture can also be developed. The best way is to develop fish farming, which fulfils the increasing demand of foods, especially that of protein.
The fundamentals of sustainability in agricultural production systems could be summarised in five major elements as displayed below in Figure 11.1:
Constraints and impacts.
2. Energy and inputs:
Energy resources, fertilisers, plant protection, ecological farming, techniques and technology.
3. Policy and management:
Political dimensions including economical, cultural and social issues, research and development as well as population control policy.
4. Genetic resources:
Identification, evaluation and utilisation of genetic resources.
5. Soil and water:
Resources and requirements.
2. Energy Crisis and the Ecosystem:
In the ecosystem energy plays a very important role. The sun is the original source of energy on our planet. All forms of energy, i.e., nuclear, wind, coal, electric, water, gasoline, etc., originate from the sun. The total energy received by the earth’s surface from the sun is enormous and much more than required by human beings.
But, in modern times, the uses of fossil fuels, hydroelectricity and to some extent nuclear fission are the sources of energy.
The following table indicates the production and consumption of various sources of energy in the world:
The rapid exploitation of these energy sources has resulted in an energy crisis. In coming times fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal will become scare. The impact of big dams and thermal as well as atomic power stations is a cause for concern to environmentalists. Therefore, for sustainable development, it is necessary to adopt non-conventional sources of energy like solar, wind, tidal, etc.
Of these, the best is solar energy, provided that we are able to harness it with cheapest possible technology. In tropical countries like India, solar energy is the only alternative, which will provide energy without any adverse impact on environment.
Steps have already been taken for the development of photovoltaic cells, solar energised water pumps, air conditioning units, solar water heaters, solar home-heating units, solar cookers, etc. Research in this field is also going on. What is needed is the development of cheaper technology to harness the solar and other non-conventional sources of energy.
Energy is directly related to the most critical social issues which affect sustainable development. These are poverty, jobs, income levels, access to social services, gender disparity, population growth, agricultural production, climate change and environmental quality, and economic and security issues.
Without adequate attention to the critical importance of energy and all of these aspects, the global social, economical and environmental goals of sustainability cannot be achieved. Indeed, the magnitude of change needed is immense, fundamental and directly related to the energy produced and consumed internationally.
The importance of energy in agricultural production, food preparation and consumption is evident and essential (UNDP, 1997). The world still continues to seek energy to satisfy its needs without giving due consideration to the social, environmental, economical and security impacts of its uses. It is now clear that current approaches to energy are unsustainable.
It is the responsibility of political institutions to ensure that research and development of technologies supporting sustainable systems should be transferred to the end-users. Scientists must bear the responsibility to understand the earth as an integrated whole and the impact of our actions on the global environment in order to ensure sustainability and to avoid disorder in the natural life cycle.
The key challenge in realising these targets is to overcome the lack of commitment and to develop the political will to protect people and the natural resource base. Failure to take action will lead to continuing degradation of natural resources, increasing conflicts over scarce resources and widening gaps between the rich and poor. We must act while we still have choices.
Implementing sustainable energy strategies is one of the most important levers the humankind has for creating a sustainable world. Most present trends in energy indicate a deteriorating situation (UNDP, 1997).
Furthermore, current energy patterns are aggravating this process by an over-preoccupation with centralised energy supply and fossil fuels to the detriment of energy efficiency, decentralised supply and renewable energy.
3. Pollution and Environmental Degradation:
Pollution is the result of human activities associated with industrial and automobile revolutions. Pollution is a man-made problem, mainly of affluent countries and now a serious problem of the developing countries as well.
The developed countries used to exploit the natural resources of developing countries and also export dump such materials and machines which have become a source of pollution.
The common forms of pollution are air, water, soil, noise and radioactive pollution, which can be divided into (i) non-degradable and (ii) biodegradable pollutants from ecosystem viewpoint. The main pollutants are deposited matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid droplets, hydrogen sulfide, fluoride and other halogens, metals like lead, iron, zinc, bromine, iodine, agricultural pollutants like pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilisers, complex organic pollutants, photo-chemical pollutants from automobiles, radioactive minerals, unwanted noise, municipal wastes, etc.
All these pollutants have become a threat to mankind, as they not only result in several diseases, but also environmental degradation and immediate steps should be taken to bring about a pollution-free environment. For sustainable development pollution should be checked first at source. The location of industries should be selected in such a way that their pollutants could not affect the nearby localities, and there must also be treatment plants.
There is now need for environmental education, monitoring, environmental management and also to fix accountability and responsibility for damages, if any. The production of eco-friendly products is an innovative concept in this direction.
4. Problem of Waste Disposal and its Management:
In developed countries enormous use of commodities in daily life is causing environmental problems. This problem is now not limited to developed countries but growing day by day in developing countries also. Wastes and toxic substances are accumulating at a rapid rate in our surroundings.
These substances enter the biogeochemical cycles. In man-made ecosystems, various types of wastes accumulate in the environment which upset the growth of micro-organisms. A variety of synthetic matter like plastic, rubber, glass, etc., are not degradable, thus, causing environmental problems. Wastes include domestic wastes, industrial and mining wastes and agricultural wastes.
Various types of wastes, if properly managed, can be used and steps have already been taken in this direction. Through gene engineering, new strains of bacteria and other micro-organisms are being bred, which can help to decompose various harmful industrial effluents into non-toxic agents.
Scientists have also developed methods and technology to utilise sewage waste for wood, cattle feed, fertiliser and fuel production. Municipal sewage treatment plants remove large objects, floating matter and settable solids and also through physico-chemical and biological processes break down the organic matter and remove harmful microbes before release of the treated sewage into water bodies.
Due to the lack of proper facilities sewage is allowed to enter nearby water bodies without any treatment. The untreated sewage causes serious water pollution and also damages the local ecology. It is, therefore, high time that sewage is recycled in an economically feasible and environmentally safe manner to meet the various needs of mankind. Several techniques have been developed for sewage treatment and to extract water for irrigation, fodder, fuel and fertiliser from it.
Efforts are also being made to use sewage on a large scale to improve farm lands, reclaim spoilt areas and create new recreational facilities. Use of sewage water for fish farming is common in countries like Germany, Poland, Russia, Hungary, Israel, China, USA, Indonesia, etc. Sewage is being also exploited for fuel; the methane gas released due to bacterial growth can be used as fuel. There is thus an urgent need to develop an efficient waste management system.
5. Irrigation and Problem of Salinity and Water-logging:
During the last fifty years, vast areas have been provided irrigation facilities. This has definitely increased the agricultural production throughout the world. But, due to the lack of water management and also due to illiteracy of the farmers and the geological structure of a particular region, vast areas are now suffering from the problem of salinity and water-logging.
Due to the gradual depletion of organic matter and microbial population involved in decomposition, there is increase in salinity and water-logging, which have adverse effects on soil fertility. Water-logging and increased salinity are mostly the outcome of poor drainage and mismanagement of water in areas covered by large irrigation projects.
The recent example is the Ganganagar and Bikaner districts of Rajasthan, where problem of water-logging has become serious and several villages have been evacuated and there is no possibility of crop production in these areas. This has happened due to the irrigation water of the Indira Gandhi Canal. In Punjab, the seepage from unlined canals as well as due to irrigation has raised the water table by 7-10 metres above the previous levels. Similar is the problem of salinity, which has damaged the irrigated land. These problems can be checked by proper water management system.
6. Deforestation and Desertification:
The problem of deforestation has arised mainly due to destruction of forests for various developmental or commercial purposes. The growth of population, rapid expansion of cities and other settlements, demand for land for new agricultural farms, mining, construction of roads, dams, etc., have all resulted in mass cutting of natural vegetation.
Many useful plants have been made extinct and several thousands are nearing extinction. In the absence of reforestation, the forest cover throughout the world is declining at a rapid pace. The dense tropical forests too are suffering from the problem of mass cutting for commercial purposes.
In order to protect the environment and ecosystem, action plans should be implemented not only to protect the present forest cover but also for large-scale afforestation, so that 30 to 33 per cent of the land area can be developed as natural and/or planted forests.
There is also need for the enforcement of present laws strictly to avoid illegal and indiscriminate felling of trees by businessmen, industrialists and rural masses. Both social and agro-forestry should be encouraged and waste lands be developed as forest lands. Besides, public participation should also be encouraged at all levels.
The threat of desertification and expansion of desert area is also due to overgrazing, loss of natural vegetation and other human activities. UNESCO studies have shown that approximately 43 per cent of total land area in the world has been affected by desertification.
The suggested measures for the check of desertification are improvement in landuse patterns, stabilisation of sand dunes, development of natural vegetation suitable to arid climate and reduction of population pressure, etc.
Sustainable development should essentially be based on maintaining the fragile balance between productivity functions and ecosystem. For sustainable development, our approach should be holistic on every resource sector and at all levels of local, regional and global scale.
Unless we adopt an approach for sustainable development, the problem of environmental degradation cannot be solved.