Climate watch

Climate change is taking its toll on Assam’s cuisine and culture

Several traditional varieties of vegetables, fruits, and rice are disappearing from the flood-prone state, with tea produce also affected.

Can climate change affect our culture? A drastic thought on the face of it, but when you remember that food is an intrinsic part of culture, it may no longer seem so extreme. As local varieties of food, including types of vegetables and rice, disappear from the northeastern state of Assam due to climate change, the impacts show not just in the food palette – and palate – of the region. It also changes the culture of the place, however gradually.

Certain varieties of vegetables and edible ferns that are an integral part of Assamese cuisine and typically eaten by the indigenous population are fast disappearing due to increasing temperature and erratic rainfall, said Kushal Barua, senior professor in Tezpur University’s environmental science department.

“For instance, there was a time when several varieties of local kosu, or colocasia, were available in Assam and were a part of the indigenous population’s diet. Now, many of these varieties are vulnerable, and some have already disappeared,” he explained.

“Similarly, there are many varieties of dhekia xaak (fiddlehead fern), which is extensively used in Assamese cuisine. Now, many varieties of this fern have disappeared or are vulnerable. It’s a similar tale with lai xaak, another leafy vegetable which is consumed by itself or in fish preparations.”

Visible impact

Kushal Barua, who is studying the impact of climate change on agriculture, said that the flowering behaviour of plants has been affected, which in turn impacts the grain or fruit quality.

“Joha, Assam’s popular indigenous variety of rice, has also witnessed a drop in grain quality as a result of this. Some commonly available indigenous fruits like poniyal are becoming rarer to find.” Even seasonal vegetables are “losing their taste”.

Climate change is also a factor in the spread of new weeds like parthenium, affecting the growth of other plants. “Parthenium is an invasive weed that affects native vegetation. One of the factors for its rapid spread is climate change. In places where it has invaded, it is seen that local vegetables like kola kosu, dhekia xaak and maimuni have disappeared,” said Ishwar Barua, a scientist at the Assam Agricultural University in Jorhat.

Parthenium also causes bronchial and skin allergy. “It is not difficult to spot this weed,” Ishwar Barua said. “You can even find it on roadsides. It is a menace in Guwahati, Jorhat, Golaghat, Karbi Anglong and many other areas in Assam. On our part, we have been trying to educate the local population to identify and kill this weed which does not let agricultural produce grow and also causes health problems.”

There has been a spurt in other invasive weeds, too, which are causing havoc to agricultural produce, including tea, a cornerstone of the state’s economy. “Dicanthium is one such weed which is infesting the tea gardens in Assam. Temperature change has a direct role in the spread of this weed which has come from the tropical zone and which is, worryingly, resistant to weedicide. It is causing a major worry to tea planters,” said Jayanta Deka, principal scientist in AAU’s agronomy department.

Such is its invasive nature that dicanthium, according to scientists, has the capacity to replace the 165 other types of weed that are typically found in tea gardens. Its place of origin is said to be the Caribbean, from where its seeds were carried by migratory birds. Its presence was first reported in Mizoram, and in 2015 it was spotted in Hailakandi district in Assam, testifying to its rapid spread.

Forced to adapt

Indigenous Assamese people are typically rice-eaters, and climate change has had an impact on local varieties of rice too. According to Tapan Baishya of Lotus Progressive Centre, an NGO that has been working with farmers in Assam’s Nalbari district, erratic rains and frequent floods have forced tribal communities to change their food habits.

“Certain varieties of rice like khali dhan are traditionally eaten during the monsoon season. Because of the frequent floods, the harvest is seriously affected. Therefore, farmers are moving to different local rice varieties, like ahu dhan and bao dhan which are more ‘flood resistant’,” Baishya said.

A local variety like bao dhan, for instance, is tall enough to ensure that the paddy grains remain above water even if the field is flooded. Moreover, its roots are strong enough to withstand the water current.

According to Ishwar Barua, this grain is “not the typical bao of Assam. Some communities are trying to grow bao dhan in lower Assam, like in Nalbari and Morigaon, but it’s not the typical bao. The actual variety of bao dhan has almost disappeared from the Sibsagar to Dhemaji belt in Assam where it is typically grown. From being grown in 4,00,000 hectares, bao farming has reduced to 70,000 hectares. It’s a similar scene in Bangladesh where bao was grown on a similar large scale.” Some potato varieties have disappeared too.

The flood-prone state, through which flows the Brahmaputra, has seen an increase of 1.4 degrees Celsius (minimum temperature) in the last 100 years, and a loss of 22.1 cm of annual rainfall in the same period, reveals data provided by RN Bhagat, scientist at Assam’s Tocklai Tea Research Institute.

“There has been a gradual rise in temperature. The changes that these have brought about in agricultural produce and to food habits in people is still not drastic, but the fact remains that it is happening,” Deka noted.

This article was first published on thethirdpole.net.

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The incredible engineering that can save your life in a car crash

Indian roads are among the world’s most dangerous. We take a look at the essential car safety features for our road conditions.

Over 200,000 people die on India’s roads every year. While many of these accidents can be prevented by following road safety rules, car manufacturers are also devising innovative new technology to make vehicles safer than ever before. To understand how crucial this technology is to your safety, it’s important to understand the anatomy of a car accident.

Source: Global report on road safety, 2015 by WHO.
Source: Global report on road safety, 2015 by WHO.

A car crash typically has three stages. The first stage is where the car collides with an object. At the point of collision, the velocity with which the car is travelling gets absorbed within the car, which brings it to a halt. Car manufacturers have incorporated many advanced features in their cars to prevent their occupants from ever encountering this stage.

Sixth sense on wheels

To begin with, some state-of-the-art vehicles have fatigue detection systems that evaluate steering wheel movements along with other signals in the vehicle to indicate possible driver fatigue–one of the biggest causes of accidents. The Electronic Stability Program (ESP) is the other big innovation that can prevent collisions. ESP typically encompasses two safety systems–ABS (anti-lock braking system), and TCS (traction control system). Both work in tandem to help the driver control the car on tricky surfaces and in near-collision situations. ABS prevents wheels from locking during an emergency stop or on a slippery surface, and TCS prevents the wheels from spinning when accelerating by constantly monitoring the speed of the wheels.

Smarter bodies, safer passengers

In the event of an actual car crash, manufacturers have been redesigning the car body to offer optimal protection to passengers. A key element of newer car designs includes better crumple zones. These are regions which deform and absorb the impact of the crash before it reaches the occupants. Crumple zones are located in the front and rear of vehicles and some car manufacturers have also incorporated side impact bars that increase the stiffness of the doors and provide tougher resistance to crashes.

CRUMPLE ZONES: Invented in the 1950s, crumple zones are softer vehicle sections that surround a safety cell that houses passengers. In a crash, these zones deform and crumple to absorb the shock of the impact. In the visual, the safety cell is depicted in red, while the crumple zones of the car surround the safety cell.
CRUMPLE ZONES: Invented in the 1950s, crumple zones are softer vehicle sections that surround a safety cell that houses passengers. In a crash, these zones deform and crumple to absorb the shock of the impact. In the visual, the safety cell is depicted in red, while the crumple zones of the car surround the safety cell.

Post-collision technology

While engineers try to mitigate the effects of a crash in the first stage itself, there are also safe guards for the second stage, when after a collision the passengers are in danger of hitting the interiors of the car as it rapidly comes to a halt. The most effective of these post-crash safety engineering solutions is the seat belt that can reduce the risk of death by 50%.

In the third stage of an actual crash, the rapid deceleration and shock caused by the colliding vehicle can cause internal organ damage. Manufacturers have created airbags to reduce this risk. Airbags are installed in the front of the car and have crash sensors that activate and inflate it within 40 milliseconds. Many cars also have airbags integrated in the sides of the vehicles to protect from side impacts.

SEATBELTS: Wearing seatbelts first became mandatory in Victoria, Australia in 1970, and is now common across the world. Modern seatbelts absorb impact more efficiently, and are equipped with ‘pre-tensioners’ that pull the belt tight to prevent the passenger from jerking forward in a crash.
SEATBELTS: Wearing seatbelts first became mandatory in Victoria, Australia in 1970, and is now common across the world. Modern seatbelts absorb impact more efficiently, and are equipped with ‘pre-tensioners’ that pull the belt tight to prevent the passenger from jerking forward in a crash.

Safety first

In the West as well as in emerging markets like China, car accident related fatalities are much lower than in India. Following traffic rules and driving while fully alert remain the biggest insurance against mishaps, however it is also worthwhile to fully understand the new technologies that afford additional safety.

So the next time you’re out looking for a car, it may be a wise choice to pick an extra airbag over custom leather seats or a swanky music system. It may just save your life.

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