Updated: Jun 21, 2020
Written by Jessica Song and Stuti Sharma
With over 6 million cases, the world seems to have stopped in the face of the novel coronavirus. The once popular tourist locations and chains of highways now look like idle deserts, with no sign of humans in sight. As countries continue closing borders and issuing travel bans, human mobilization is decreasing exponentially, shutting down air travel. Event after event– from the NBA to Coachella– cancelled, the global economy is plummeting. Around the world, educational institutions are closed, and unemployment is at the highest it’s been since the second world war.
The global pandemic has already claimed the lives of over 360,000 victims, placing millions others in danger. Yet it's only natural to assume that this unprecedented level of human immobility must have a substantial impact on the environment. No war, no recession, no previous pandemic has had such a dramatic effect on emissions of CO2 over the past century as Covid-19 has in a few short months. India, being the second largest country in terms of population has seen one of the largest changes in its environmental prosperity with the last quarter.
(Source: Sikh Gurdwara)
India is engaged in a desperate bid to flatten the curve of coronavirus cases before they overwhelm the health system in this nation of more than 1.3 billion people. In the meantime, the two month lockdown has been able to combat a completely different problem — India’s stubborn air pollution. The speed of the change has surprised even experts, who say it is proof that dramatic improvements in air quality can be achieved, albeit at an enormous human and economic cost. Days after the lockdown began on March 25, the level of particle pollution considered most harmful to human health fell by nearly 60 percent in New Delhi, India’s capital, according to an analysis by experts at the nonprofit Center for Science and Environment. Similar drops have occurred in other major Indian cities. In normal times, Delhi is the world’s most polluted megalopolis. For much of the winter, air quality readings remained at levels that in the United States are considered unhealthy or worse. Last November, the city experienced its longest spell of hazardous air since such record keeping began. These days, Delhiites are stuck at home except when picking up essential goods. But above them are blue skies, the moon and the stars, seen without the usual barrier of smog.
In other parts of India, the Himalayan mountain range is visible from a distance for the first time in years. Waterways choked by industrial pollution, such as Delhi’s Yamuna River — full of gray foam just months ago, are flowing uninterrupted. Ayush Khurana, a 21 year old engineering student told HNP Canada about the shift in his lifestyle since the beginning of the quarantine. “Life seems slower now, which can be good depending on which viewpoints [you] use. For me, I have finally had a chance to spend the much needed downtime with my family, as I have returned from my college and live with my parents again.” Aayush remarked. He also commented on the change in his daily consumption of resources such as food and other essentials; “I think people, who have the opportunity to, buy food and other products in bulk now, which just reduces the packaging. In my home, we have started buying bags of wheat and rice rather than single use packs that lasted a week or so and came with enormous amounts of plastic.”
Environmental Changes to Air Quality and Pollution Levels
Many before/after lockdown photos have been shared on social media, displaying a striking difference in the clarity and colour of the skies. The capital city of India, Delhi, which was featured on a list of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, has seen remarkable changes during lockdown.
A team of researchers, led by Sarath Guttikunda, head of Urban Emissions, began an analysis of data from air quality monitoring stations in Delhi and its suburbs. You can read the full report here.
The analysis found a definite improvement in air quality. During the lockdown period, levels of PM 2.5 — a particle that increases the likelihood of respiratory diseases — decreased to 20 micrograms per cubic metre in a 20-day average. This was as much as four times lower than the monthly average between 2017 and 2019.
Additionally, the study discovered a marked dip in PM 10, a particle primarily caused by construction dust and nitrogen dioxide. Optimistically, Chief Executive Officer of the Council on Energy Environment and Water has stated that:
“The experience of blue skies and fresh air could be a trigger to create a democratic demand for clean air in India.”
(Source: BBC News)
Changes to Biodiversity
There has been an increase of viral videos and images which show wildlife “returning” to big cities. In India, this has appeared in the form of misinformation.
Fact-checking websites, such as Snopes, has examined footage of such claims. A video has surfaced claiming that [INSERT TWITTER THING]
It is true that the video shows “an animal resembling a civet crossing the street in March 2020 in India.” However, it’s been conclusively confirmed by Parveen Kaswan, an India Forest Service member, that the animal is not the endangered Malabar civet. Rather, the creature is a small Indian civet native to the area, able to walk freely due to less traffic.
Despite having gone viral, misinformation is being fact-checked by credible sites to ensure that misleading information does not remain. On the other hand, a true occurrence includes a report of olive ridley sea turtles mass-nesting during the daytime in Odisha.
(Source: The Yuca Times)
However, it is important to note that this happening is not directly a result of lockdown. olive ridley turtles usually hatch at night due to high numbers of tourists at the beaches during daytime — now that lockdown has restricted movements, these turtles have been spotted day-nesting. Over 70,000 turtles have been seen nesting, which experts explain is a result of marine conservationists being able to dedicate more attention to the turtles with no tourists around.
When asked to explain the connection COVID-19 may have had on nesting activities, S.N. Patro, president of Orissa Environment Society, states:
“I do not think the lockdown period can have any impact on the nesting activities of the olive ridley turtles. But what the lockdown can do is that it can reduce the casualties of the sea turtles or the damages their eggs undergo in normal days. However, in the absence of human movements, pest attacks and attacks from other animals, can increase as well.”
A Local Take on the Topic
[For our first feature, HNP Canada interviewed the Environmentalist Foundation of India to hear their expert thoughts on India's environmental changes.]
To begin, could you give a brief introduction of the Environmentalist Foundation of India and what you do?
The Environmentalist Foundation of India (E.F.I) is a wildlife conservation & habitat restoration group. In our 13 years of operation, we across 14 states in India have restored 108 lakes/ponds. In an effort aimed at reviving water bodies as habitats. These lakes/ponds are home to several life forms and it is important to conserve them through scientific parameters. All our efforts focus on community based collaboration for conservation.
Could you briefly describe how lockdown has affected India’s wildlife population and natural landscape?
The lockdown happened during the peak summer which meant that on one hand due to the lockdown the industrial effluents and contaminants reduced on the other the excess heat due to natural conditions prevailed. There has been considerable fall in the amount of pollutants in the air and water bodies. With reduced human activity and excess heat, more wildlife sightings were possible. The lockdown has been sudden and unprecedented, however it has not been a considerable time to see an increase in population of wildlife or regrowth of habitats etc...
Could you briefly describe how lockdown has affected India’s air quality and pollution levels?
With thermal power plants, heavy vehicular movement, large industrial activities and in some cases even due to burning of garbage India has always battled air pollution. From major cities to rural neighborhoods have had this problem for decades now. The complete lockdown meant that all the above activities stalled for nearly 70 odd days. The air has cleared up to the extent that distant peaks are visible from foothill villages, blue skies are back in our cities and the dust deposition rate has considerably reduced.
Overall, would you say that lockdown has had a negative or positive impact on India’s environment?
There is a widespread debate on the health, economical and political aspects of the lockdown. Environmentally it has been a great opportunity to get a mass population to realise our action and its impact on nature. Until now for organizations like mine the challenge has been to virtually introduce how it would be to breathe in fresh air or to see freshwater run in our streams. Now there is a live example that we can refer to, things will take the polluting turn again at the end of the lockdown. However, with an experience in a cleaner environment it will be now easier for us to convince more people to adapt to a sustainable lifestyle. There is a growing interest towards planet friendly living and this experience will boost that interest is my hope.
Do you believe that these changes will last, even after lockdown ends?
Unfortunately, no. There will be economic activity which means mass transportation, mining, energy needs, waste generation etc... I only hope that we do not go back to where we were 70 days ago. Also sincerely hope that we do not cause more damage to the planet in a rush to an economic boom amidst these difficult times.
What do you encourage citizens to do in order to continue fighting for the environment?
Self discipline towards usage and disposal of all sorts. From solid to liquid waste, to transportation choices to energy choices, food choices to clothing choices, if people can become sensitive towards these and make planet friendly choices we can sustain at least a portion of what we have gained in these 70 days.
[Thank you to the Environmental Foundation of India for working with us!]