Our Ecosystems : Soil

A farm, a rain forest or a residential colony..what is the similarity between these three? Well, the answer is that none of these familiar scenes could exist without soil. We simply can not survive without it. Soil is not just ‘what crops grow in’ as we know or not just ‘what full of bacteria’ as we see in soap advertisements; but it is much more besides. The reality is it plays an important role in producing our food, clothing and shelter we need. It also provides a base for our industries and many of our leisure activities. In spite of this dependence, we often treat the soil as if it were an inexhaustible resource which we do not need to care for! We take it for granted!!

Nowadays, most people are more aware of environmental issues. Acid rain, air pollution, global warming, conserving endangered plants and animals, to name but a few, have all received a great deal of attention in recent years. Yet why do we rarely consider that the soil beneath our feet may be affected by an equally diverse range of problems? To many people, soil is just ‘dirt’, something that is used for growing plants in the back garden, or that farmers use for producing crops. But there is far more to soil than this. Without soil, life as we know it simply would not be able to exist. Without a range of soils we would not be able to enjoy so many different habitats, plants and animals, nor would we be able to put the soil to the number of uses that we do to benefit society.

Soil is a vital part of the natural environment. It is just as important as plants, animals, rocks, landforms, lakes and rivers! How?

It harbors all of the plant species and provides a habitat for a wide range of organisms. It controls the flow of water and chemical substances between the atmosphere and the Earth, and acts as both a source and store for gases (like oxygen and carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere. Soils not only reflect natural processes but also record human activities both at present and in the past. It is therefore part of our cultural heritage.

Soil, together with the plant and animal life it supports, its position in the landscape and the climate it experiences, form an amazingly intricate natural system - more powerful and complex than any machine that man has created. Soil may look still and lifeless, but this impression couldn’t be further from the truth. It is constantly changing and developing through time. Soil is always responding to changes in environmental factors, along with the influences of man and land use. Some changes in the soil will be of short duration and reversible, others will be a permanent feature of soil development.

A difficulty with soils being underneath us is that we cannot really see when things are going wrong, as we can when plants and animals disappear or die.

But why we need to know all this?
Soil can look after itself, can’t it?

There is a tendency of humans to assume that everything is ‘all right’. But, in many parts of the world, misuse of the soil has brought about a whole list of major environmental disasters. In both the past and at present, this neglect has led to catastrophic consequences. The effect of drought on over-farmed land is a familiar example, but there is good evidence that the collapse of several ancient civilizations were influenced at least in part by mismanagement of the soil.

Whilst the situation around us is not like this, there are still several issues of concern. Soil erosion, pollution, acidification, loss of fertility and loss of organic matter all occur in different parts of the country. These problems result either directly or indirectly from using inappropriate management techniques on particular soils.

It should be evident that when we talk about nature conservation and environmental protection the well-being of soils must also be a major consideration.

Soil is essential for many of mankind’s activities. Yet it is a part of our environment which is frequently taken for granted. We only start to take notice when it becomes damaged in some way, for example by pollution or erosion.

Even then, the damage to the soil itself is not always the main issue. Instead, it is the follow-on effects on other parts of the environment that receive much of the attention. We must understand that the rate of soil development is extremely slow. It has taken hundreds, thousands and, in some environments, millions of years to produce the range of soils that exist today. The soil is not an unlimited resource to be lost or damaged by poor management as just a few years of inappropriate use can, in some instances, seriously harm a soil which has developed over centuries.

Soils are also home to an amazingly large number of different organisms. In fact, scientists believe that there are probably more individual species living below ground than above the surface. We have as yet only identified a fraction of them. Worms, beetles, caterpillars, ants and larger animals like rodents are all obvious soil creatures. However, just one teaspoon of soil will also contain up to several million protozoa (probably the simplest form of animal life), bacteria, algae and nematodes. Many of these species are vital to the proper functioning of soils.

The life sustaining ability of soil is best understood by appreciating the complex cycles of decay and erosion. Its natural formation occurs in a series of layers starting at the surface but gradating down to the deepest bedrock. The surface layer is where active decomposition begins. Exposure to atmospheric elements, surface warmth and moisture helps to break organic matter into loose mulch like material. At the microscopic level, this layer is teeming with a diversity of bacterial, fungal and algal life forms. In combination with larger organisms like beetles and worms they provide the additional recycling activity to enable minerals and nutrients to be retrieved from the decaying organic matter and returned to the soil. Another family of soil based micro-organisms are involved in relationships that enable plants to absorb nitrogen from their roots.

Ideally the layer directly beneath the surface will be humus rich topsoil. The quality of this topsoil will depend on the amount of organic material available near the surface and the activity of the recycling organisms. So if there is enough of organic matter and organisms, the soil there must be healthy and fertile.

But what do we actually do near our house..?

We don’t want the fallen leaves near our residence. So we either burn the leaves or do not allow the plants to grow there. Burning the garden leaves not only pollute the air & remove the moisture from soil, but it disrupt the soil biology also. We also want our surrounding to be clean and free of dirt. So we cover the soil with garden tiles.  And then, as per our eco-friendly gesture (???), we have no other option but to plant in pots or containers, & to buy the fertile soil from nurseries. If one really want to see how ‘eco-friendly’ this act is, then he/she should visit the site from which the nursery soil comes. The more effective, worthy, easy and cheaper way will be to protect & impregnate the soil we have..!

How?

One of the ways to achive this is by planting native trees on the ground soil and not in the garden pots. Composting and Mulching (the application of organic or inorganic material such as plant debris, compost, etc.) help to slow down the surface run-off, improves the soil moisture, reduces evaporation losses and improves soil fertility.

A coastal rainforest provides almost ideal conditions for the creation of richly fertile topsoil. With increased temperatures and humidity an abundance of organic material reaching the ground begins to decompose almost immediately. It is then broken down by organisms which thrive under the conditions. The entire process is accelerated resulting in a generous layer of finely blended topsoil.

From the perspective of the organic grower, good soil structures need to be protected. This can be achieved by minimizing digging, replacing disrupted layers in their correct order when necessary and renewing surface layers by providing a supply of organic material such as compost and manure. The addition of organic material will improve the water and nutrient holding ability of the soil.

Our future depends on the soil beneath us. In some countries, particularly like United States and Netherlands, soils are believed to be worthy of conservation. Both of these countries have specific legislation to protect soils and the Dutch express this by saying that we should regard ourselves as “guests in our environment, not masters of it”. Soils are far more important to human and environmental well-being than we often give them credit for. Just because they are out of sight, they should not be out of mind!

Our Ecosystems : Water

When pure, it is odorless and tasteless. It is the only substance that is found naturally in all three states. It's in your body, the food you eat and the beverages you drink. You use it to clean yourself, your clothes, your dishes, your car and everything else around you. Many of the products that you use every day either contain it or were manufactured using it. All forms of life need it and if they don't get enough of it, they die. Political disputes have centered around it. In some places, it's treasured and incredibly difficult to get. In others, it's incredibly easy to get and then wasted. It is an essential element to life on Earth. Our Blue planet's most of the surface is covered with lots of it.

Water... We have plenty of it. What if I tell you that we have limited water on our planet like petroleum. I shall thought to be a nut. But the fact is, Earth has less water than you think!

More than 97% of the water on the Earth is salt water. Remaining is categorized as fresh water; about 70% of which is frozen in glaciers and polar ice caps. The remaining unfrozen freshwater is found mainly as groundwater, with only a small fraction present above ground or in the air.

If you were to take all of the water on Earth - all of the fresh water, sea water, ground water, water vapour and water inside our bodies.. take all of it and somehow collect it into a single, giant sphere of liquid, how big do you think it would be?


According to the US Geological Survey, it would make a ball 1,400 km in diameter. That’s it. And this takes into consideration all the Earth’s water… even the stuff humans can’t drink or directly access, like salt water, water vapour in the atmosphere and the water locked up in the ice caps. If you were to take into consideration only the fresh water on Earth which accessible to humans, you’d get a much smaller sphere of about 56 km across..!

So there is small fraction of water, and we need water for almost everything we do. Agricultural, industrial, household, recreational, environmental activities etc...virtually all of these human uses require fresh water.

Thanks to rain, fresh water is a renewable resource. Yet the world's supply of clean, fresh water is steadily decreasing. Water demand already exceeds supply in many parts of the world and as the world population continues to rise, so does the water demand too.

Day-by-day demand keeps growing, further draining water sources, from great rivers to underground aquifers. We are going deeper & deeper into soil for groundwater, and that has very significant impacts for global water security. Groundwater resources have been heavily over-used worldwide. The rate of groundwater depletion has doubled in last 4 decades. Still we are pumping many of the aquifers out faster than they are recharged. Somehow, we need to bring withdrawals into balance with recharge.

Summer comes to India every year. Along with it comes water crisis. As our rivers start running dry a way before summer, Water is becoming a cause for social conflicts. Recently you might have noticed a survey in newspaper & media showing global water shortages that will be particularly felt in India and China. Rainfall patterns altered by climate change and worsened by inequity in the water distribution system has led to a water crisis in the Central India and many other parts. The poorest areas are being affected the most because of inequitable water distribution. If this isn't a wake-up call of what water scarcity can do to a society, may God bless us!

Is there any solution for these Water Wars..?

Rain, of course!

Water in rivers, lakes, ponds and wells, underground water, tap water & even bottled water..The source of all water is Rain.

Let us apply this understanding: in order to meet demand, then, what we actually need to do is harvest the rain. In India the monsoon is brief. We get about 100 hours of rain in a year. It is this 100-hour bounty that must be caught, stored and used over the 8,760 hours that make up a year.

But..

In urban areas, the construction of houses, societies, footpaths and roads has left very little exposed earth for water to seep in. In parts of the rural areas of India, floodwater quickly flows to the rivers, which then dry up soon after the rains stop. Furthermore, floodwater also cause erosion.

How to harvest Rain???

We have to catch water where it falls.

In the forests, water seeps gently into the ground due to roots of the trees. This groundwater in turn feeds wells, lakes, and rivers. Protecting forests means protecting water catchments. In ancient India, people believed (and the modern science has proved) that forests are the 'mothers' of rivers and must be worshipped the sources of these water bodies. Flora also prevent floods.

Planting of trees, grass and bushes breaks the force of rain and helps rainwater penetrate the soil. It slows down run-off and minimizes evaporation losses. Shelter belts of trees and bushes along the edge of agricultural fields can help water seep into the ground and recharge the groundwater supply. They also slow down the wind speed and reduce evaporation and erosion.

Implementation of Urban rain water harvesting systems has proved to be effective in recharging the aquifers. The CSE Water Campaign, when it looks into the future, sees only hope. From rain will come local food security. From rain will come biomass-wealth that will eradicate ecological poverty. From rain will come social harmony..!

Water is a precious resource, not a commodity. But we need to understand that every drop is important or someday, we will be forced to pay heavily for it...

World Environment Day!

One more Environment Day has gone. Few more events of tree plantation, some award functions for working for environment and few speeches by influential people about our degrading environment..that's it! So we have done our bit for nature and till next 5th June, we need not worry about our environment. This is all what the Environment Day mean to us. But actually, there is much more beyond that..!

Let us try something different this time... Go and trail round your neighborhood garden or forest and explore. This is the best time to see trees, loaded with fruits or pods; like Mango, NeemJava Plum, Indian Coral tree, Mahua etc. Identify and collect seeds from the many different trees that grow naturally in your area. You may plant few seeds. You may even stock up them for the next year.

Planting a tree seed is the smallest thing but possibly the grandest gesture you can do today..! It can be a pip from a Golden Apple, a samara from an Indian Rosewood or a winged seed from Drumstick tree. Monsoon is all set to arrive. The rain brings new life..especially for trees. This season, seeds are eager to sprout, dreaming to become a tree and trees tend to grow at higher speed.

All you have to do is make sure they are the seeds of trees that found naturally or native to the place in which you live. Your one single action gains significance as it grows.

Just remember and make sure that you plant it where it won't be causing problem for anyone in future. After all, in a few years we don't want someone cutting down what you have so carefully sown all those years ago. Planting near your home, on a private land or alongside of the roads might be fair enough.

Doing small things can achieve big things. The very seed you planted in the soil is proof of that. A living example of how from small things even greater things emerge and grow..! :)

Each one of us has a place and a role to play in the incredible web of life and each one of us can make a difference.

Let this be the idea, the thought, perhaps the hope that you can do something for environment..and for ourselves. That you can help to maintain our ecosystem. An ecosystem is not made up only of living components like animals, plants, microbes etc, but also of non-living components like water, soil, sun-light, atmosphere etc; respectively known as Biotic and Abiotic components. Our next few posts will be dedicated to understanding the inter-relation of these abiotic factors with the biotic ones. It will be one more step to know the ecosystem we live in, better.