Knowledge and technology for the socio-economic benefit of the nation : An interview with Dr. Harsh Vardhan, Union Minister

The mandate of the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MOES) is to provide services for weather,  climate, natural hazards, ocean, coastal state, hydrology and seismology and explore the marine  living & non-living resources and the polar-regions for the socio-economic benefits to the nation. The services provided by the ministry are being effectively used by different agencies and state governments for saving human lives and minimizing damages due to natural disasters.

1) Your Ministry has been excelling as knowledge and technology enterprise in the field of Earth Sciences and giving socio-economic benefit to the society. Kindly give your views?

Over the past few years, the quality of weather, climate, ocean and seismological services provided by the ministry has improved due to systematic efforts in augmenting atmospheric, coastal and ocean observations and survey, geophysical observations, polar research, developing adequate modelling strategy, conducting cutting edge research and investing in human resources development.

The Ministry in collaboration with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR)provides the crop-specific Agromet Advisory Services (AAS) to about 21 million farmers (as compared to about 7 million farmers in 2014), resulting in annual economic benefits worth Rs. 42,000 crore for farmers cultivating 4 principal crops (wheat, rice, sugarcane and cotton).

IMD is planning to improve these services further and take them to about 60 million farmers by 2019.

Fishermen have made an annual profit of Rs. 3000 crore from PFZ advisories by the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) which reach 2.75 lakh fishermen (as compared to about 1.05 lakh fishermen in 2014).

In addition, cumulative economic benefits exceeding RS. 370,000 have accrued from Ocean State Forecasts (forecasts of waves, currents, sea surface temperature, etc.) to fisher folk, shipping industry, oil and natural gas industry, Navy, Coast Guard and other stakeholders have improved considerably during the last 3 years. The cumulative economic benefits exceeding Rs. 370,000 crores have been accrued from these ocean state forecasts.

INCOIS has also been designated as Regional Tsunami Service Provider (RTSP) by IOC/UNESCO entrusting the responsibility for providing tsunami advisories to Indian Ocean rim countries.

2) What are the new developments in the area of improving forecasting of weather in India?

Under the successful National Monsoon Mission, dynamical and improved prediction systems have been implemented for generating short-range to seasonal monsoon forecasts over the country. This was possible due to systematic research, investments in infrastructure development like observations, high performance computers and training of young scientists. The loss of lives during the last 3 years due to tropical cyclones has reduced to less than hundred as compared to the thousands during the previous decade.

Forecasts for heat waves

To provide adequate warnings about heat waves and associated health hazards, MOES for the first time started issuing forecasts for heat waves over the country, which were very successful.

Observational Campaigns

Many observational campaigns have been taken up as special atmospheric observations help us to understand model deficiencies and to improve prediction models. As part of it, a large-scale joint India-UK observational campaign was carried out during the period June-July 2016.

3) What has been your Ministry’s policy towards exploration and exploitation of ocean resources, both living and non-living?

An area of 75,000 sq.km has been allotted to India by the UN after India conducted an extensive survey of 150,000 sq. km of Central Indian Ocean where exploration and harvesting of minerals such as gas hydrates, polymetallic sulphides and polymetallic nodules rich in Cobalt, Nickel and Copper is being carried out.

As a first step towards harvesting the nodules, a seabed crawler based mining machine was developed and demonstrated at a water depth of 500 m. A mining machine is now being developed for 6000 m water depth. To test the strength of the soil at those depths an in-situ soil tester that goes up to a depth of 5462 m also has been developed.

A deep water work class Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) was developed to aid the exploration of deep ocean minerals up to a maximum depth of 5289 metres. A shallow water remotely operated vehicle (ROV) rated for 500 m with scientific payloads was developed and used for exploration in lakes and to examine the health of coral reefs in Andaman Islands. That was also modified and put to work in the polar regions of Antarctica.

Also, the Ministry through its constituent unit, the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) is developingindigenized technologies for producing clean drinking water from the ocean. Currently there are three desalination plants operational at Kavaratti, Agatti and Minicoy which are individually producing 1 lakh litres of water per day. NIOT is providing technical support to the Lakshwadeep administration in installing six more desalination plants in the islands each with a capacity to produce 1.5 lakh litres of water every day.

Efforts are also on to establish an Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) powered desalination plant of 1.5 lakh litres of water every day capacity at Kavaratti in U.T. Lakshadweep (identified as priority program by NITI Aayog) by 2019. The demonstration could lead to viable OTEC powered large scale desalination systems.

 4) Can you brief on how the Ministry has been translating the knowledge and insight themes gained into services for societal, environmental and economic gain?

Scientific deep drilling in the earthquake prone Koyna-Warna region of Maharashtra is one area where our services are directly benefiting the society. Scientific Deep Drilling in Koyna, Maharashtra was initiated in 2016, aimed at setting up of a borehole observatory at depth of 3 km for direct geophysical measurements leading to a better understanding of the mechanics of faulting, physics of reservoir triggered earthquakes and preparing an earthquake predictive model. The drilling has now reached up to a distance of 3 km.

Air pollution is a serious social problem, affecting our environment. To understand the gravity of air pollution problems, a System of Air Quality forecasting and Research (SAFAR) provides location specific information on air quality in near real time and its forecast 24 hours in advance. The Ministry has also commissioned the fourth SAFAR system at Ahmadabad recently. The advantage of this system is the capability of predicting air quality during next 2-3 days in addition to real-time monitoring of air quality.

As regards to the socio-economic benefits that accrue from Agro-meteorological Advisory Services(AAS), Potential Fishing Zone (PFZ) Advisories and Ocean State Forecasts(OSF), we have already talked about it earlier.

Another area is the establishment of Desalination Plants in the Lakshadweep Islands, which are extremely useful inserving the drinking water requirements of island community.

 5) What are the Ministry’s future plans?

A National Mission on Deep Ocean Research is being implemented as a comprehensive, holistic mechanism, which will bring in more economic benefits through living and non-living resources, attract young students and researchers to challenging and exciting areas of Ocean Science and Technology thus creating many jobs and business opportunities.

A new program has been launched for improving the weather and climate services in the north-eastern region by commissioning of the state of art systems like Doppler Weather Radar, GPS sonde system, Heliport Automated Weather Observing System (HAWOS), etc.

A Decision Support Systems (DSS) has been developed based on predictions of a) Tropical cyclones and associated damages over the Indian Seas and 7 days in advance with the 24/48/72 hour Land-fall errors of 30/60/100 km respectively, b) Severe weather (heavy rainfall, urban floods, fog, air pollution emergencies, heat and cold waves) at district/block level 3-5-days in advance and c) location specific now-casts of thunderstorms, lightning, wind storms and flash floods (3-12 hours in advance). Similar system has been developed for detecting earthquakes of magnitude 2.5 and above and dissemination of information within 3 minutes of occurrence.

Coastal Mission for an integrated coastal multi-hazard warning and dissemination system for addressing Hydro-meteorological (Storm Surge, Sea-level Rise, High Waves), Geological (Tsunami and coastal erosion) and Ecosystem related (Coral Bleaching and Harmful Algal Blooms) hazards and related services too has been developed.

A Marine Observing System has been set up along the Indian Coast (MOSAIC) for providing water quality monitoring and warning services for coastal regions.

Aziz Haider