Let us be aware
From the beginning of this year, the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) have replaced the human development goals. Among 17 of these goals, an important one is number 14 “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” In fact, sea water constitutes 97 per cent of world’s water resource. Therefore, contamination of sea water can cause a lot of harm to the ecological security of coastal areas and livelihood security of coastal communities. The impact of recent oil spill in the Tamil Nadu coast is being examined by scientists for possible damage to marine biodiversity, including micro-flora and fauna. Steps are being taken to clean the ocean water from the oil spill. But our preparedness for dealing with such ecological disasters in the ocean is not adequate.
There is need for more work by the biotechnology department on bioremediation techniques. For example, the very first patent for a living organism was given to professor Ananda Chakrabarty in USA for his work on the development of organisms, which can gobble up oil spills. He produced a strain of Pseudomonas capable of clearing oil spills. Our biotechnologists should be encouraged and enabled to take up such work. Tamil Nadu’s two major industries are textiles and leather. Unfortunately, both are characterised by soil and water pollution. Therefore, as part of our agenda for terrestrial and marine ecological security, we should encourage more work on the development of bioremediation techniques.

Indumathi Nambi of the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, has undertaken a detailed study of the impact of oil spill in the Chennai coast. In her report, she has pointed out that the recent spill has exposed a host of irregularities in protocol and technology. The roles and responsibilities of the authorities involved such as shipping company, coast guard, municipal administration, pollution control board and Environment department are not clearly spelt out. Other major gaps identified were lack of emergency response mechanisms in the ship and port, lack of spill cleanup technology, lack of awareness on the chemicals to be used for dispersing the oil, cleaning the shorelines and lack of guidelines for the safe disposal of oil recovered from the sea. The long term impact on flora and fauna in the coastal ecosystem has to be studied. A lot of questions on the health of cleanup teams, health impact of beach goers, fishing community who live on the shore and fish consumers are still unanswered, according to Nambi.
Many of the other sustainable development goals also face threats from either environmental degradation or damage due to pests and diseases. For example, goal 2 aims to “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”. A recent issue of Nature (February 9, 2017, Vol. 542, No. 7640) points out that wheat rust has come back in Europe. Last year, the Sicilian wheat crop was damaged by a new variety of stem-rust fungus. Earlier there was a threat of a new strain termed UG99 since it came from Uganda.

Fortunately, our scientists were proactive and had identified wheat varieties resistant to UG99. Unfortunately, in the case of the new strain harming harvest in Europe, the identification came after the pathogen destroyed tens and thousands of hectares of crops in Sicily last year. Scientists are also concerned with the fact that the new strain of the pathogen can infect many varieties of wheat. Thus, eternal vigilance is the price of stable agriculture.
Another of the SDGs is taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. The major collision between two ships resulting in the release of fuel oil in the Bay of Bengal occurred on January 28, 2017. Unfortunately, the public awareness of the implication of this spill with reference to the safety of the fish harvested for consumption is not so widely known. There is need for more public education on the consequences of pollution.
­Science communication is becoming very important in democratic societies where important decisions particularly in the resource allocation area are taken by duly elected bodies. The absence of effective science communication gets reflected on opposition to important projects like the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant as well as many river linking projects. The late CV Raman was a very effective communicator and could explain even to young children clearly why the sky is blue.
While a separate cadre of science communicators would be useful, it will be even more useful if those working in the forward edge of science themselves explain to the public, the significance of their findings. This is particularly true, as Nature has pointed out, in areas like climate change and gene editing. Already it is clear that the new administration in the US has some apprehension relating to facts concerning climate change. Scientific organisations should also provide facilities to those young scientists who are able to communicate in local languages the significance of new developments in science.
(The writer is an agricultural scientist who led India’s Green Revolution)
M S Swaminathan