Teaching Environment with Meta Data

I went to see my Professor friend on a Sunday morning. Idea was to chit chat and have delicious dosai prepared by his wife with a tangy green chutney and ending the breakfast with a strong south Indian filter coffee.

Professor was busy as usual and was glued to his laptop doing some frantic Google search.

I asked “Professor, what’s your search today, You look real desperate”.

“Well Dr Modak, I am looking for data on sales of Asthalin in the city of Mumbai over past 10 years.” Professor responded while glaring at the computer screen

Some of you may know that Asthalin is a product of Cipla Pharmaceuticals that has been a life saver inhaler to combat asthma.

I was surprised about Professors interest in sale of Asthalin.

“I am teaching the subject of air pollution tomorrow and I badly need this data” Professor said

I did not want to disturb him and so kept shut.

A few minutes passed by and Professor seemed to have found that he was looking for.

“Aha, I finally hit on the data I wanted, now let us get to the dining table for the breakfast” Professor seemed to be relived

While relishing the Mysore plain dosai, I asked Professor the connection …

“Well, Dr Modak, You probably know that I always teach the subject of environment with the help of meta data.” Professor said.

Meta data – what’s that Professor? I knew a bit about this term, but wanted to have a better explanation

“Metadata is simply data about data. It means it is a description and context of the data. It helps to organize, find and understand data. In most instances, meta data is used to search data, but I use meta data to make understand data better.” Professor explained

Take a case of continuous air quality monitoring data. When we see sudden spikes in the concentration levels, then you may check the “meta data” that tracks the “surround” situation e.g. may be a truck was standing next to the monitoring station puffing emissions over 10 minutes. This meta data could be in the form of a video file that records the surrounding as much as the air pollutant concentration is recorded by the monitoring instrument. Another example could be an instance of a sudden fall in the particulate concentration. This  may indicate a shower of rain (like a spell of a drizzle) washing out the particulates. So, records of the rain events become a useful meta data.

“Oh yes,  understood Professor” I said. “So, what you are saying is that meta data is required or is very important to understand the environmental data we monitor. In many instances. we don’t pay attention to this kind of data. We don’t record or we overlook”.

“Indeed. So, tomorrow when I teach air pollution, I will be showing map of city of Mumbai with air quality trends over 12 monitoring stations and show at the same time the information or trend in the sale of asthalin inhaler at some of the major chemists. Probably, the air quality (especially the particulates) near to the chemist shops may be correlated with the sale of asthalin. But I am not very sure. I plan to show last 10-year trend between the two, based on monthly average data. It may throw interesting relationship between PM10 or PM2.5 or ratio between PM2.5 and PM10 with the sale of asthalin”

Professor showed me a map that he was attempting to prepare. I thought this was a great idea to make students understand the air pollution in Mumbai and raise a debate. Merely looking at the air pollutant concentrations wouldn’t  perhaps give a deeper understanding of the problem.

I  thought of similar associations. I remembered that we got some statistics from Western Railways in Mumbai about the frequency of cable coating they had to follow to combat cable corrosion. When Mumbai had moderately high Sulphur dioxide concentration, the frequency of cable recoating had increased. A plot between average seasonal Sulphur dioxide concentration and expenditures on per unit length for recoating showed an interesting proportional relationship.

Professor continued. ”There are known relationships that show coupling e.g. per capita income and per capita waste generation. So richer you get more becomes the waste generation. But if you start digging more, you may find even more interesting relationships. For instance, value of goods purchased through e-commerce websites may explain the rising fraction of plastic in the Municipal Solid Waste (MSW). So, it may worth to expose the student to the meta data on e-commerce platforms to understand the changing composition of the MSW. Patterns and modes of consumption help to know the generation of waste”

Professor was right. I remembered that increasing cost of raw water treatment reflected the deteriorating quality of river water. More dosage of flocculants and disinfectant had to be used to combat the pollution released upstream of the raw intake works.

Professor had another example. In the city of Hubli in India, he had found that high concentrations of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) in drinking water were related to the insurance claims made by patients for the treatment of kidney stones.  That showed serious health and economic implications to justify investing in a TDS management plan.

Sometimes we assess the effectiveness of a regulation and a degree of enforcement by examining the trend in the fines collected or number of non-compliance cases filed. I analyzed the data on the number of cases filed to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) over 5 years across India and this statistic showed the “hot spots” or the “troubled areas” that we should worry.

Extent of night illumination at industrial estates (detected through the satellite imageries), the amount of octroi collected on the road entering the industrial estate and the water cess records provide a good measure to assess the resource intensity. These are interesting elements of meta data to serve as a proxy. You can then compare the resource intensities and potential environmental impacts of two industrial estates on this basis.

Professor said that it is necessary that the Teacher should use the “associativity” and appropriate meta data to make students think beyond the silos, be creative and learn to question or inquire. This style is perhaps most desirable to explain the complex subject of environment and its management. Remember that examining meta data also helps to check the “quality” of the data and validate some of the hypothesis. We need to build a number of interesting teaching case studies for this purpose.  Professor lighted his cigar

“Oh Professor, since you mentioned about validating the hypothesis, I must share with you something funny” I said while sipping the filter coffee.  Generally, higher is the number of environmental professionals available in a country, the national Environmental Performance Index (EPI) should improve. [EPI is a measure developed by the Yale University. EPI for each country is estimated every year and the index has been published for more than 15 years].

And so, what was your finding for India data Dr Modak? Professor asked.

“Well, I found that as the number of environmental professionals increased, the levels of EPI for India  deteriorated! Quite contrary to the hypothesis”

“Aha, you did not use the right meta data Dr Modak. Professor exclaimed. “If you had used meta data on corruption and scams in India, then you would have certainly found a relationship between corruption in the country and the deteriorating EPI”

I thought Professor was absolutely right.


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Making a Career in Environment

I receive on an average five applications with Curriculum Vitae (CV) every day from students and young professionals who are interested to make careers in the field of environment. Out of the 100 CVs that I examine, I would say that less than 5% of the CVs look promising – or worth taking the discussion ahead.

I worry about the remaining 95%. I see that many of this category do not get jobs or advice (in the right time!) and subsequently run into a frustration and many a times even drop their plans of working in the field of environment. The ever-hungry IT sector offers them alternate opportunities.

I am writing this blog today to guide the students and young professionals on how should one build a career in the field of environment. I don’t have a remarkable story to tell about myself, but still I will use my career as an illustration wherever relevant.

The starting point is that you must be sensitive and have a passion towards environment. As you learn more, you should get even more excited. Does this make you restless? If it does, then great. I remember environment was always my passion. I was clear that this is what I want to learn about right in my undergraduate days.

You need to meet with people who work in the field of environment. You need to ask them questions and listen to what they have to say. I remember I met practically all those who mattered across the country. I travelled.

Think who you want to be? Identify personalities that may inspire you. Read my blog on who you want to be?. But be careful as it is a satire but has a lot of hidden messages.

See how can you add green (or more green) in your undergrad/grad program. Take electives and mini-projects that expose you to different topics of environment. I remember the second year elective offered by Professor S M Khopkar of Chemistry Department at IIT Bombay on “Environmental Pollution”. We had a choice to take 4 electives in the fourth and fifth year of BTech. You could do 4 electives on Systems and Control or  Humanities or Environmental Science. I chose the latter.

If required, audit the courses that are “lateral” but are important e.g. a course on mass communication. I remember during my doctoral research I took lots of such lateral courses such as system simulation, combinotorial optimization.

Internship is very important. Carefully plan your internship. Ideally look for two internships – one with an industry and another with a research organization or a science based environmental NGO. If you can manage getting internship outside India, then go for it. Intern where you have someone to mentor or the program is well laid out. Practice based learning is the essence. If you are asked to produce a document only through Googling, then this kind of internship is not worth at all.

At Environmental Management Centre LLP, we have been running a serious internship program for more than 15 years. So far nearly 80 students have completed their internships. Visit www.emcentre.com and I would recommend you to browse through the internship topics we offered.

Selecting your project (bachelors/masters/PhD) and the Guide are very important decisions. The project should give you research as well as project management experience. It’s the experience that is more important than the outcomes. So, select a topic such that you meet lots of people and travel in the field. Aim for a good publication – ideally two – one in a national and one in an international refereed journal. Read my blog on the fuss that will tell you my story how I chose my bachelors project. You may enjoy my another blog on how to carry out  “inconsequential research

It is a clever idea to take part or start green campus initiatives. This could mean setting up of a solar hot water system for the college canteen or replacing incandescent bulbs with LEDs or designing and installing a waste to compost facility. These initiatives will expose you to the practical aspects of design, costing, getting the sponsor (such as alumni) and getting involved in the implementation. Use your summer vacations for such a project implementation experience. In some cases, you could even link these campus projects with your research interest and formulate a bachelors or masters dissertation.

Become secretary of the student association on environment –set up FB /LinkedIn pages, bring out a newsletter and organize lectures of external faculty. Consider holding a national workshop – learn event management, make contacts and maintain them post the event. I remember working for a national workshop on environmental management that we conducted at IIT Bombay during my Masters. Professor P Khanna was the convener.

At bachelors and masters level, don’t overly specialize – look at all media (e.g. air, water, land) and get the nexus right. That will distinguish you from others. Give Indian statistics as much importance as the international. Familiarize with local and national situation, challenges and opportunities. Blend both theory and practice. Be comfortable in working in the lab and be familiar with instruments.

Pick up a job before moving to Masters or Doctoral – work for at least 2 to 3 years preferably at an institution that gives you a rounded experience.  Getting the right experience is more important than the salary. Do read my blog on three interviews I faced during my job hunting! Oh, this was hilarious.

Small organizations with great people should be the first choice. Opportunity of working on “unconventional” projects should be the priority.

Join a professional association. Get involved. Help the association and learn. Get elected. Take a position in the organization of the association, Patronize the association and Grow. For last several years, I have been closely associated with the Indian Water Works Association. I edited the Journal over 8 years, organized national and international workshops and this helped me a lot.

Continue referring to the “library”. Identify the problems and opportunities you see in practice (as of today and as anticipated in the future), talk to to seniors/experts and see whether answers are already there. You may hit on something where solutions need to be evolved. Write two pagers on your ideas. Communicate and get them peered. I remember that I wrote my first two pager on the research needs on water supply engineering and sent the note to Professor Daniel Okun, legendary professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Professor Okun replied and offered me research assistanceship. That was amazing.

Find the best place where you want to research. Don’t compromise the university. Wait and have patience. Brand of the university where you do advanced learning is extremely important.

Make the best of your Masters/PhD program. Shape yourself well to face the world as you complete. You will never get such a time again.

Pick up a career stream based on your passion and the skills. Teaching? Research? Consulting? Technology Development? Technology Marketing? Project implementation? Policy and Regulations? Financing? You may experiment for a while if you like but all this should be done within the first 5 years max. In my case I tried to do all! But I must say I have been lucky to be the “free radical”

When you work take additional qualifications to update and build more skills – keep annual and five-year cycles for learning. Avoid templated work to the extent possible. As you grow, learn to manage teams and build experience on project management.

Become a mentor – keep connections with the Academia as the subject of environment is so dynamic. Look for visiting professor appointment. If required, spend your half Saturdays.

Continue working for professional associations, build your network – nationally and internationally

Publish to create impact. You will automatically be visible. Maintain high quality with no compromise. Keep a balance between individual and group publications, conferences and refereed journals.

Aspire to bring in a change that is impactful and measurable. You need to have patience and doggedness to pursue.

Finally, money should not be the objective of what you do. Money will chase you as much you stay away! Stay humble and celebrate others success. Have a compassion.

And finally, give back to the society. Environment is such a great subject that giving back enriches everybody’s life and makes your life worth living.  And only those who are fortunate, take environment as their career.

I have said a lot and everything what I have said may not be possible. You may “delete” and “add” and “adapt” depending on your opportunities and situation. Feel absolutely free and if you need any advice then do reach me on prasad.modak@emcentre.com

Each year, I hold a one-day counseling workshop on making careers in environment called as Disha. We will hold Disha this year after the academic sessions are over around April end or so.

I will notify and if you are interested, then please do attend Disha.

I will be glad to help.


I will be on on Facebook Live on Sunday 28 9:00 AM India time/ Sat 27 10:30 PM US EST. If interested then do join me


 

Cover image sourced from http://wolhawaii.com/the-journey-of-my-destiny/


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The Joy of Teaching

In my professional career, I have been a Professor, a Consultant, a Corporate Head, an Entrepreneur and have worked with UN Bodies, Governments and Financing Institutions across the world. Amongst all these roles that I played, it is teaching that has given me the most satisfaction. Teaching to me has always been a joy – and a never-ending opportunity for learning. You feel blessed.

I remember days at Centre for Environmental Science and Engineering at Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay where I was a lecturer in 1984. All of us, as teachers, used the blackboard then with a box-full of chalks to “construct” what we wanted to say and “communicate” to the students. Use of Overhead Projector (OHP) and the plastic foils was just emerging.

Using the blackboard required teachers thorough understanding of the subject, confidence or the command to convince and of course the creativity. There were no “props” like the plastic foils where the content to be spoken was already written. You needed to ensure that your writing on the blackboard is neat and in the right font size so that it can be read by a student who is sitting on the last bench. You also needed to draw well, especially the diagrams and use chalks of assorted colors for the required emphasis. A big advantage of blackboard based teaching was that it made the students write and take their own notes as you erased the board once done with your point or topic. Today students are not simply writing!

OHPs are now replaced by LCD projectors where teachers use PowerPoints, animate the slides and insert videos to make teaching interesting. This is great. But still, I find writing on the blackboard very effective and challenging.  You feel more of an Actor in the classroom as your voice modulation, pauses, movements across and towards the blackboard matter.

When you draw a stretch of river and show discharge of untreated wastewater and then “narrate” what happens to the Dissolved Oxygen (DO) profile by drawing the DO-Sag Curve, you essentially build the “situation” step by step. You speak as you draw. The communique to the student therefore “brews”. Its not the matter like instant coffee!

Well you can do this rather dramatically with the help of animated PowerPoint slides. But to me developing the situation real time on the blackboard is like offering a freshly squeezed juice as against providing a canned juice! The fizz of the subject is simply lost when you have something already prepared or cooked that you many a times “mechanically” deliver.

I remember each time I taught the DO-sag curve, the visualization on the blackboard was different – as ideas came to my mind on “real time”, sensing the pulse of the class and more so as I kept on learning.  In this process, many “lateral” questions used to come up as I would sometimes show a case of Sag going below 2 mg/l of DO and then question the students whether the first order kinetics of BOD degradation was still valid.  On some occasions, I would invite a student to draw DO sag due to discharge of a non-point source such as fertilizer laden runoff from agriculture fields. Posing these situations would make students a bit uncomfortable, but then such “expansions” created ground for me to slowly build the complexity of water quality modelling beyond the basic equation of Streeter and Phelps. This matter was however put rather logically and humbly!

When we talk about complexity, teaching subject like environment, requires out of the box thinking on part of the teacher and an innovative strategy. The sheer complexity and uncertainty of environmental science is really exciting to teach. Nexus is the crux that needs to be “taught” and that is where a teacher is needed to introduce the relationships, generate discussions and motivate building of scenarios. It’s the free thinking that is to be introduced. The cross-connect in teaching environmental management of today and for tomorrow is to emphasize on the nexus. I hate teaching in silos like air pollution, water pollution, solid wastes etc.

Nexus is best communicated through story telling. You don’t start teaching atmospheric chemistry of smog formation first – instead you tell the story how the flights to Delhi in the winter are significantly delayed. And how these persistent delays affect people’s lives and the economy. Then ask why does this happen? The story “compels” the students to unfold the science behind the smog episodes and so the relevant chemistry comes in.

You tell the students a story where recycling of plastic was used to make toys for toddlers. Isn’t recycling of plastic waste a clever idea? You ask the students. In this story you then tell how the recycled plastic when used to make toys led to adverse impact on the neurological functions of the toddlers who loved to chew these recycled toys ! These adverse impacts were found much later. Well these adverse impacts could well be questioned and argued. The probable reason was the use of flame retardants in the used plastic that had remained “unabated”. The story illustrates the case of ”irresponsible recycling” and throws up several technical and policy related matters for a discussion.

A teacher is needed to tell such stories in the right or clever sequence pointing out the science, economics, social concerns, policies and of course the politics behind. Imagine if a teacher uses a bank of 30 such well identified and researched stories to “teach” students a full course on environmental management. While stories open up the minds and makes one aware of the realities; the underlying science is read by the students as essential supplements – but not in the class but “off-line” – by reading notes, research papers on googling the web. Meeting in the Classroom is to get narrative of the story from the teacher, discuss and appreciate complexity of the subject to understand the nexus and multiple or different points of view. I enjoy teaching when I run a course full of stories. And indeed, this is close to the “flip” method of teaching.

I have prepared a matrix of “teaching stories” covering local, sub-national, national, regional and global scales across various thematic. Examples in the thematic of air pollution-health-economics nexus are

  • Did Substitution of Petrol by CNG in Delhi work at all? (Local scale)
  • Asia Brown Cloud over East Asia – Is it a significant issue? How much has it affected the health and economies of the ASEAN? (Regional scale)
  • What are the new challenges due to phase out of ODS, especially on the formation of Short Lived Climate Pollutants? (Global scale)

We have several newspaper headlines and articles on such questions and they often become the starting points of the stories.

But teaching does not have to be only in the class room. A lot happens when you take students on a field trip that is well planned. These field trips or “yatras” provide great experiential learning opportunities, in a group, and often in an implicit manner. So, if you organize a field trip to Ralegaon Siddhi (a transformed village in the State of Maharashtra in India), students understand the linkages to the development and environment and the complexities. They experience the story.  Perhaps in a course of 36 lectures on environmental management, spending weekends at 4 interesting locations for such learning will be very effective.

I must tell you about my experience and experiment at one of the State Pollution Control Boards (SPCB) in India. When the Member Secretary (the Administrator) of the SPCB asked me to train some of Boards staff, I told him that I would do this a bit differently. I asked for a desk on the first floor to sit and parked myself there. “Let me first be part of your staff Sir” I told the Member Secretary.

On the first floor, I was in a room of few Senior Environmental Engineers. One of them was Bala. I saw a heap of files on Bala’s desk. I noticed that Bala stayed late every day clearing the files and carried several files home in his car. He looked stressed.

I walked up to him next day and talked to him about his problem. “Is there a way that we could make three heaps, one heap of files that requires your priority attention; one that is of cases that do not need your attention and your sub-ordinate can manage and the third heap that is simply not relevant to you and hence is to be returned”.

“Oh, you have a point Dr Modak, my assistant stacks all the files as they come in. Can you help?”

There was a blackboard in the room which did not seem to be used much. I walked to the blackboard and started ideating the schema of prioritization for applications made by the industries. As I started developing the criteria, Bala joined and started commenting and making suggestions. Others in the room noticed this discussion and pulled their chairs around us. It  soon became a classroom of “students” and I was the “teacher”.

In the next two hours we developed a schema that Bala and his assistant could use to stack the files in three heaps. I then unfolded the science behind and exposed the team to some of the criteria and tools used by other regulators in the world. When we ended the session with a tea, few asked me for some reading materials. Next week onwards, Bala’s desk had only one heap of files and he did not carry files home anymore.

Member Secretary understood my method of teaching. He asked me to move and take a table now on the second floor! “You may like to teach there like you did on the first floor” He said with a smile. Thats the joy of teaching.

I wish my “last lecture” is in a room with a blackboard with students sitting around me – eager to learn.  I will enjoy teaching them through “story telling” and it will be a great joy to  see their faces getting slowly illuminated. This makes life worth living.

God – bless me please.

 


Cover image sourced from https://ctl.yale.edu/teaching


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My New Book – Environmental Management Towards Sustainability

I have written in my space of three decades of career a few books and publications. But I was always craving to craft a book on the subject of Environmental Management & Sustainability. I wanted to structure a book that could meet the needs of academia, professionals in practice and communities. I also wanted to position the efforts taken by the businesses, financing institutions, policy makers and regulators; compile some of the success stories and cite leadership examples. In addition, I thought that the book should serve as a textbook to run a 36-lecture post graduate course at the universities.

Since 2015 I started working on this project with CRC Press (Taylor & Francis Group). The task was arduous and challenging. It took several iterations of re-structuring and re-writing. Nothing is perfect when you write! And your quest to be good, often plays the devil! All of us have experienced this uneasy process when you want to create something different. You struggle.

In 2016 I suffered from a cardiac stroke and then several setbacks came along on the health front that led to interruptions and delays.  I doggedly continued and finally the book was completed by August 2017 for processing at the publisher’s end. My last twenty years of consulting practice at my company –  Environmental Management Centre LLP – greatly helped me in this endeavor. My colleagues at EMC played a key role in helping me to pull the examples, doing proof-reading and in referencing. Sustainability has been dear to all of us. Way back in 1996, we wrote our mission statement as “Practicing Sustainability to the Advantage of All”.

I am happy to inform you that the book will now be released by end of December 2017. I hope I will receive a set of copies of this book on my birthday – January 4, 2018!

The book has been structured in six Chapters. The first Chapter introduces the critical issues the world is facing today with relevant statistics, underscoring the importance of recognizing the nexus. The key concerns on polarization of population due to urbanization and skew in the global material flows are discussed. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are outlined highlighting importance of Resource Efficiency (RE) and Secondary Material Recycling (SMR). The Chapter ends by introducing the concept of Circular Economy (CE).

Chapter 2 introduces the stakeholders to sustainability such as G (government)-FI (financing institutions)-B (business)-C (community). It lists the key governing principles that need to be put into practice.  Responses from the national governments at policy level are then described – introducing examples of constitutional provisions. Next, the planning related interventions are illustrated with case studies such as zoning, eco-cities, eco industrial parks or eco-towns. Regulatory frameworks are then dealt with, citing examples of standards and their evolution in the life cycle perspective.

Chapter 3 is devoted mainly to Development Financial Institutions (DFIs) and Private Sector Financial Institutions (PSFIs).  Examples are cited of the operations at the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, followed by PSFIs who have adopted Equator Principles. This chapter also introduces various financial instruments, trends and opportunities such as Sustainable Stock Exchanges, Adaptation Funds and Green Bonds

Sustainability in the Business organizations (both manufacturing and services) is discussed in Chapters 4 and 5. While Chapter 4 introduces the strategies practiced by the business across the sectors and Chapter 5 presents more of sectoral experience with numerous case studies

In Chapter 6, the focus is on the role played by the communities. Communities play an extremely key role when it comes to achieving results on the ground. Sometimes the community plays a role as a watchdog, sometimes a facilitator and sometimes takes a leadership which we often call as Community Driven Development (CDD). Chapter 6 also underscores the importance of awareness, education, training and innovation. The topics such as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and eco-entrepreneurship are also introduced in this context. The Chapter presents several case studies where social enterprises have been set up for the benefit of community at large. The importance of linkages between sustainability and innovation is brought out where we show how businesses and the governments along with the local community are moving on the path of innovation. The Chapter presents case studies that emphasize importance of partnerships across communities, government, financing institutions and the business.

The book uses around 140 examples/case studies in the form of boxes. In each box, there are discussion questions and references for further reading for the interest of the students and the faculty. I put considerable efforts and emphasis on examples and discussion questions as I thought that this feature would make understanding, learning and teaching more effective and interesting.

The book may be used as a textbook or a principal reference to design and conduct a 36-lecture course at graduate level on Environmental Management and Sustainability. The instructor could intersperse these lectures with practicums, discussion sessions and brainstorming events. For each of the case studies the book has the lead references given. So, the student is encouraged to go through the original references from where the case studies have been drawn and then discuss the case studies in much more detail.

One could also use the book selectively depending on the audience. The content of Chapters 4 and 5 which are little more focused like on Business could be used in combination with Chapter 1 (as an introduction) to conduct short term training programmes. Similar approach could be used to train offers of the government, financing institutions and the communities.

The book does not delve in detail on specific environmental management tools. However, concepts of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), practices in Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), ISO 14001 Environmental Management System (EMS), frameworks such as Sustainability Assessment of Technologies (SAT) are introduced. The book cites number of references to gives directions to the reader on how to deepen knowledge on some of these tools. The students and practioners are encouraged to follow the references. The instructor can even consider exposing the students further by setting up reading assignments and prepare notes. For example, students may be encouraged to do a study on the application of LCA on some of the interesting products like washing machine, or plastic bags and then present these assignments in a group work and share with each other the methodologies used.

I must say I was fortunate to receive consent of Dr Bindu Lohani, my doctoral research guide and Ex-Vice President of the Asian Development Bank in Manila to write the Foreword for the book. His words of encouragement in my book are a result of our long relationship over past 35 years!

This book in summary makes an attempt to present an interesting and useful compilation of experiences put in the perspectives of key stakeholders such as government, financing institutions, business and the communities.  I do hope that you find this resource useful and help to put sustainability in practice.


The book is now listed on Amazon. Visit crcpress.com to avail 20% discount. Enter the code FLR40 at checkout.

For more details, or to request a copy for review, please contact: Gagandeep Singh, Senior Editor, +919646026201, gagandeep.singh@taylorandfrancis.com


I plan to conduct a series of lecturers based on this book on Saturday mornings in Mumbai, commencing from January 2018 till March end, 2018. I am keeping these sessions FREE just for the joy of speaking on this subject and to be in the company of people who are interested in sustainability.

I am looking for a sponsor who will lend me a lecture room with video recording facilities as  I plan to set up a website for this book with video clips of my lectures for potential e-learning. If there is any progress on this front, I will send you a notification.

Modelling with Parsimony and Living with Prudence

 

[A bit of a technical blog – but with messages for you to decifer]

I went to see my Professor Friend at IIT Bombay. I had not taken his appointment. He was in the class teaching Water Quality Modelling to the postgraduate students.

When Professor saw me waiting outside, he paused and asked me to join.” Come in Dr Modak” he said, “I have just begun the first class”.

I took a seat in the last row.

Professor was introducing the basics of Streeter-Phelps model for modelling Dissolved Oxygen (DO) and Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) in rivers.


For those who don’t know about the Streeter and Phelps  DO-BOD Model. The Streeter and Phelps model describes how DO decreases in a river or stream along a certain distance by degradation due to presence of BOD. The equation was derived by H. W. Streeter, a sanitary engineer at Cincinnati in the US, and Earle B. Phelps, a consultant for the U.S. Public Health Service. The model was built in 1925 based on field data from the Ohio River. The model makes use of two parameters viz. reaeration rate that depends on the hydraulic variables like depth and velocity and the deoxygenation rate that depends on the level and type of the organic matter present in the river.


Professor used few slides to explain the Streeter-Phelps model and the governing equations that attempted to explain the oxygen deficit. The model looked simple and rather straightforward asking for minimalistic data to help predict the outcomes.

“You can use this model for deciding the concentration of BOD that you could allow to ensure that we do not run into situation of high DO deficit that could affect the aquatic life”.

Professor solved one example problem the showed how limits to BOD can be set on this basis. He then expanded the problem statement to the case of multiple discharges of wastewater over a long river stretch with water withdrawals and tributaries joining.

He explained how the model can be used to decide not just the level of treatment of BOD but also decide on the minimum flow needed in the river to ensure dilution and assimilation of the wastewater.

Students enjoyed the application potential of the Streeter-Phelps model. Models must be taught with application perspective I said to myself.

Professor then paused and asked the students to critique the model. “Are we missing anything?” He asked one of the brighter students.

“Sir, I think the model misses the fact that wastewater contains suspended solids. These solids when settle in the bottom, the particulate BOD will reduce. We must include a sedimentation rate in the model. This rate  will depend on the river velocity at the point of wastewater discharge”

I thought he was right.

Another student commented “Well, whatever settles will still remain part of the system – the sediments at the bottom will continue exert an oxygen demand, albeit at a different degradation rate perhaps because the organisms responsible could be different”

“You are right” Professor said – we will recognize this aspect as Sediment Oxygen Demand (SOD).

A girl with spectacles got up and said – “How about the process of nitrification Sir?”

Professor said “Dr Modak, can I ask you to elaborate on this very important point?”

I liked this idea of participatory teaching. So, I walked to the blackboard and wrote the following

Ammonium in the wastewater is oxidized to nitrate under aerobic conditions as

NH4+ + 2O2 → NO3− + H2O + 2H+

Ammonium oxidation can be treated as part of BOD, so that BOD = CBOD + NBOD, where CBOD is the carbonaceous biochemical oxygen demand and NBOD is nitrogenous BOD.

The change in oxygen deficit due to oxidation of ammonium can be described with help of the nitrification rate and ammonium-nitrogen concentration. The model must expand.

The original humble Streeter-Phelps model thus started to look more complicated. And as if this was not enough, Professor introduced the role of photosynthesis and respiration. Photosynthesis and respiration are performed by algae and by macrophytes. Respiration is performed by bacteria and aquatic animals. Inclusion of photosynthesis brought the role of sunlight.

After some more brainstorming, all of us developed a bit monstrous water quality model (QUAL II) as shown below

Architecture of QUAL II model

“You can if you wish even further complicate this model – Professor said. “Maybe you like to build a model for a lake that is tending to be eutrophic (i.e. overloaded with nutrients and algae) and partially stratified during winter. This can be challenging” Professor winked.

The class was now about to end.

While summing up, Professor said “And friends, we can continue building more and more complex  water quality models for the interest of completeness. But remember that there is an optimal model complexity that we must recognize. Simpler is the model, more is the model uncertainty in prediction due to its frugal structure. But more is the model complexity, more are the parameters that come into play and hence predictions can become uncertain due parameter uncertainty. Imagine the complex model like QUAL II that requires data on more than 20 parameters (rates). Our poor understanding on these parameters can  lead to a “chaos” or “noise”, leading to a performance close to the simple  Streeter Phelps model. You must realize that your degradation rate in the simple Streeter and Phelps model will now become a surrogate with sedimentation and the reaeration rate will factor contribution due to photosynthesis on a “lumped basis”

I did know how much of this philosophy of modelling was understood by the students, but I was sure at least few did as the Professor projected his last slide.

When we reached Professor’s office, I asked for a coffee. Professor lighted his cigar.

“The most important message is understanding the Parsimony. The parsimony principle is basic to all science and tells us to choose the simplest scientific explanation that fits the evidence i.e. involves fewest entities. When scholar William Ockham wrote “Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate” which later became known as the Law of Parsimony, it wasn’t to describe tightfisted stinginess but to say that all things being equal, the simplest explanation may times tends to be the right one. This realization is most important for a happy, successful and sustainable life”

I realized the topic had transcended the subject of water quality modelling

Professor took a deep puff

“I’m not saying that we don’t try to push ourselves to do the difficult or complex things in life. What it means is that we should look for the simplest way to achieve our goals and focus on the minimum but relevant tasks … while still doing them well. Remember – sometimes Streeter Phelps model can lead to same management decisions as arrived by a complex QUAL-II model”

He continued

“Some say parsimony means being stingy. I disagree. By saying “No, I can’t do that” may allow us to do what we want – that is really must be done or we would rather do – with our available time and energy. It has taken me many years to get my head around to “listen to myself”, look at my health and priorities of life”

“So, Professor, are you now living life on the principles of parsimony – that is hovering between complexity (due to your inherent curiosity) and a modest completeness (just good enough for your inner satisfaction?”. Professor did not answer. He looked outside the window.

I could not hesitate but ask “And have you reached the optima?”

“Well, Dr Modak, we will talk on this some other time. Needs another round of coffee” Professor got up from the chair. “I have to leave now as I have reach the meeting point for carpooling. See, I haven’t given up the comfort of riding a car but I am taking a simple step of sharing resources to reduce travel costs, curtail emissions and converse with new friends on topics other than environment. Its parsimony with prudence that makes life worth living and interesting

I understood now the significance of Streeter-Phelps equation. “Professor, when is the next lecture on water quality modelling?” I asked.

Professor smiled


Cover image sourced from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/partial-least-squares-structural-equation-modeling-ali-asgari


Lift Kara De (LKD) is a carpooling initiative taken up by the enthusiastic residents of Whispering Palms Society in Kandivali, Mumbai, India. The group consists of about 256 carpoolers so far with numbers increasing every few months. Santosh Shetty, one of the key members of the Lift Kara De group had approached Ekonnect (my section 8 company) for calculating their individual/group emission reductions, fuel and money savings achieved so far from their ongoing carpooling activity.

Ekonnect team members estimated these values based on the data received from the LKD group members which comprised of number of rides, distance traveled, number of individuals in a car, type of fuel and years of carpooling.

The results showcased that in a short duration of 5 years LKD members had achieved 1, 91,000 Kg of Carbon dioxide emission reductions.

If you want to read this fascinating story , then do download this presentation


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Sustainability Considerations while Making Technology Choices

 

Technologies are always evolving and present several options while making decisions. Generally, costs are given prime consideration as a selection criterion while meeting the required target of efficiency and yields. Costs include the capital and operating costs on a life time basis.  We calculate the Present Worth of the two options by amortizing the operating costs and help us to make a comparison to select the technology of the least life cycle cost.

It has been now realized that costs alone may not be the sole criteria. While cost could be one of the critical and deciding factor, there could be other considerations as well, especially on the environmental and social frontiers.

One of the important environmental factors is the generation of wastes and emissions. We consider this perspective by adding the costs of pollution control and monitoring to the base costs of the technology. These costs include installation as well as operating costs. A technology may not be preferred when costs of pollution control are added to the base costs. We see this situation when comparing biological processes with those following the thermal or chemical routes.

Use of technologies that have low Material Intensities or MI (including embodied energy as well as factoring virtual forms of water) is sometimes preferred. These decisions are taken by performing Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to helps to arrive at the estimates of MI. You may like to visit “databases” created by Wuppertal Institute in Germany. A paper on Assessment of wastewater treatment technologies: life cycle approach by Pradeep Kalbar, Subhankar Karmarkar and Sham Asolekar will be an interesting read.

Another criterion is the emissions of Greenhouse gases (GHG). While there are no emission limits legally prescribed, most would like to choose technology option that has minimum emissions of GHG. Such technologies are often called as low carbon technologies. Technologies that use more of renewable energy get preferred as compared to those which may use of fossil fuels. You may find Buyers Guide to Renewable and Low Carbon Technologies as an interesting read published in the UK.

Exclusion
is another environmental criterion that could decide the choice of technology. For example, we may not like to prefer technologies that use mercury or chlorine in any form. On the other hand, there could be preferences. We may prefer technologies that can make maximum use of the locally sourced materials to avoid transportation and boost local entrepreneurs.

We also need to factor the costs of disposal of the end of life of the equipment. In some cases, because of the use of non-biodegradable or potentially hazardous materials –costs of disposal of the used or abandoned equipment could be substantial. This aspect could influence the final decision between technology options.

Environmental risk
is another perspective. Some technologies may be compliant to the waste/emission standards that are legally prescribed but may pose risks of process upsets even leading to disaster during operations. These risks may arise due to process abnormalities that may occasionally arise – albeit rarely, posing certain restrictions on continuous operations or requiring on-line monitoring with process control or investments on the back-up systems. These considerations could add to the total costs.

Social considerations could also play an important role in the selection of technologies. These considerations include local employment. When one of the objectives of investment is to improve livelihoods of people, then technology options that generate local jobs may be preferred. Here low to moderate scale of technology and associated investments, especially in offering decentralized solutions get preferred. These technologies should be easy to understand and operate.

Generation of odor and noise and safety become additional considerations in the interest of workers and the neighborhood. Technologies that lead to nuisance during operations, shut down and startup operations are not preferred

When we address all the above considerations, we generally come up with design of a “system” that incorporates a “mix or combination of technologies”. In this system design, we ensure that technologies are in place for pre-treatment (that may include separation), main processing, with add on pollution control and recovery units and process control instrumentation (monitoring and interlocks) for ensuring safety during operations.  This entire system then needs to be assessed based on economic, environmental and social parameters.  For this purpose, quantitative or qualitative schema are used such as weighted scoring and Analytical Hierarchical Process (AHP). You may like to read paper by Tung  Nguyen Nhu on Application of Analytical Hierarchical Process Method to Select a Technology Option for Water Treatment in Rural Settings. 

When investments are sourced from public funds, a transparent process of technology assessment needs to be followed. I developed for the International Environment Technology Center (IETC) at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a methodology called Sustainability Assessment of Technologies (SAT). Figure below shows the steps followed.

 

Methodology for Sustainability Assessment of Technologies

 

SAT methodology operates in tiers such as screening, scoping and detailed assessment. It follows a PDCA cycle as implemented in the most management systems to ensure that feedbacks on the use of technology is factored. Importantly it involves expert and if appropriate a public consultation. Lastly, the methodology could be used to select options at both strategic and operational level e.g. whether decentralized solutions are better suited than the centralized option.  More details on SAT can be accessed from the manual available online.

Applications of SAT methodology have been carried out for making choice of technologies across sectors such as water treatment, wastewater recycling, waste recovery etc. The SAT manual cited above includes a solved example that could be perused for better understanding.

I spoke to my Professor Friend about how sustainability could be factored in the technology selection. I told him that the “costs” incurred due to wrong selection of technology could be more than the apparent savings! Professor let me speak while enjoying his cigar. After I finished, he extinguished his cigar and said “Dr Modak, what you said is worth in a conference. The world would have been different or the research would have changed its course – if sustainability considerations were actually considered while making the right choice on technologies.

He then paused, smiled and said while patting my back

“Don’t forget Dr Modak, today it is the L1 that counts!

I realized that there are hardly any choices to make!!


Image sourced from http://creativeeducator.tech4learning.com/2015/connections/give-students-choices


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Enfographics

“Global Carbon Footprint”

An infographic is a popular form of content communication that can simplify a complicated subject or turn an otherwise boring subject into a captivating, learning and inspirational experience. Ideally, an infographic should be visually engaging and contain a subject matter with organized or processed data that is appealing to your target audience.

Today, we prefer to make reports and presentations using infographics. The infographic speaks thousands of words and provides an insight more than just the data. In creating infographics, we often “crunch” the data and present associations between various data elements. This analyses  with right visualization leads to astonishing interpretations. Unfortunately, not many are skilled or experienced in creating meaningful and captivating infographics.

I asked my Professor Friend for an example. He was completing a report on water quality data analyses on river Godavari in Maharashtra, India.

“Well, Dr Modak. The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board gave me water quality data on 18 stations over 10 parameters sampled every month over 8 years. The interest was to know whether the water quality in Godavari was improving between 2012 and 2013. So, I thought of creating an infographic. The first step I had to do was to crunch the 10 parameter water quality data into a single parameter. I selected  for this purpose a Water Quality Index (WQI). I looked at many options and chose a structure recommended by the Central Pollution Control Board. I generated a time series of WQI at all the 18 stations for 2012-2013”. Professor showed me an MS Excel sheet where all the required number crunching was done.

He then lit his cigar.

“The main interest was to know whether the water quality was improving or worsening. So, I realized that I had to do some quantitative trend analyses. I applied Kendal-Tau test to assess for each station the trend in WQI which gave me the direction of the trend (upward or downward) and its significance. So, the time series data on WQI was converted into a single number at each station viz. trend”

“Clever – Professor. So, you essentially reduced 24 x 10 data points into just one number for each station” I exclaimed

“Well, that was not enough. I had to bring in visualization now to help understand the changes” Professor projected a slide that depicted river Godavari with locations of monitoring stations and the results of the trend. So, this was the infographic. It not only communicated the trend but opened discussions on why the trend reversed in the adjoining stations and possible field investigations that were needed. Showing on the map the key points of wastewater discharges would be have been very useful but MPCB did not have such data”

 

The example of infographics for water quality in Godavari showed how techniques of data crunching and spatial visualization were used for effective communication and actioning.

Let us now look at the power of data association in creating infographics.

Figure below shows a construct of time series of data collected at two automatic air quality monitoring stations (BT4 and HR1) for parameters PM10 and NOx .  The time series can be viewed to see the outliers (values crossing four times of standard deviation per Dixon’s test) as well as spot values crossing the applicable ambient air quality standard. But it is perhaps more interesting to find instances when both PM10 and NOx   are simultaneously exceeding over the standard.   These instances (red dots) tell us more about the associativity of PM10 and NOx emissions for better source diagnosis.

Similar extensions could be made. The time series of stack emission data can be plotted and “associated” with time series of ambient air quality data. Hourly observations on wind directions could be then used to estimate the “stack influence” and a time series plot of stack influence could be generated by setting an “influence function”. A time series of stack influences can be used to assess the relevance of ambient air quality monitoring station (i.e. siting) and importantly take actions for controlling the stack emissions. See Figure below.

The data association approach can be effectively used to communicate “causation”, especially to the non-scientific community by preparing striking visualizations. I remember Professor showing me a map where concentrations of PM10 were plotted along with information on sale of inhalers at the shops of chemists. We could see here interesting association between PM10 concentrations and the sale of inhalers – wherever PM10 was found to be high, there was high sale of the inhalers. See Figure below.

    

Sometimes we run into a situation where the management is interested to get a top view of the “situation” and then go into the details for actioning. In a typical Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) audit, the Team after the plant visit writes a report, generally in the form of table that states the Non-Compliances (NC). While such tables are needed, an infographic that presents a quick snap shot in the form of a summary is always useful as the first slide of the presentation. Figure below shows application of a Fish-bone diagram where NCs are shown in perspectives, in a manner easy to grasp and importantly help prioritize and take actions.  The strategy in creating such infographic is to capture the key perspectives of the “problem” (or the eye of the fish) and then overlay on the fish-bones the “highs or lows” or “good or bad” performance against the benchmark or standard.

 

 

Sometimes, we need to prepare “popular” and easy to understand infographics, especially when conducting awareness events in schools and for citizens. These infographics follow the principle of cascading information where issues are flagged in a step-wise manner, material/energy flows are shown and outcomes or impacts on health for example are stated with damage in economic terms. Here icons, colors and data points in large fonts are used to get the needed focus or attention of the eye. Two examples of such infographic are shown below.

 

Finally, there are challenges when we create infographics for concept communication. Such infographic is generally hard to make. Couple of years ago, I created an infographic to communicate the concepts of Project EIA, Regional EIA and Strategic EIA. See Figure below

The crux of this infographic are the three baloons shown for each category of project, Category A for most sensitive, B – moderately sensitive and C – Not sensitive. The infographic communicates EIA at project level, for plans and for policies using the impact typology of direct, indirect, cumulative and induced impacts. The most important communication was to bring out limitations of project EIAs for area wide projects and need to use Environmental & Social Management Framework (ESMF)

“Dr Modak, creating infographic is more of an art or creativity than just data and science. It is a stimulating exercise. Our environmental students should learn this art of science” Professor was ordering some coffee.  “Data crunching, data association, structuring infographic based on perspectives and cascading information in the form of cause-effect or input-outcome are some illustrations. But there are numerous other possibilities, especially in the complex and multidisciplinary subject of environment”

I couldn’t disagree with Professor.  I wish we did with students, group sessions on how to create the infographics from seemingly drab data into something exciting and innovative– These teaching sessions will certainly lead to some out of the box thinking – I thought

“Should we  run a competition on infographics in environmental management Professor” I suggested

“Oh, clever idea. But call the competition as Enfographics” Professor said while finishing his coffee. I realized that he just coined a new term!!


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Cover image sourced from https://in.pinterest.com/pin/492651646708569178/