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Bidding adieu to four decades of research – Syed Naqvi

Syed Wajih Ahmad Naqvi, who began his career at the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) in 1974, retired on 31 July as its Director spending more than four decades at the NIO Campus in Goa. Dedicating his life to two passions, ocean research and Urdu poetry, Naqvi apart from being the researcher, is fond of reading Mirza Ghalib and Mohammed Iqbal. In this last conversation as the Director with NT NETWORK, he cautions about the possible threats to the environment and water bodies in and around Goa.
Shoaib Shaikh | NT NETWORK

Q. Could you give a gist of your journey of 42 years at NIO?
I rose up through the levels of cadre, beginning from the lowest position that could be offered to a young ordinary graduate. I’ve been a director only for four years and before that a researcher for thirty eight years. To share a secret, I’ve no formal training in ocean sciences and everything that I learnt was here. In fact the first time I saw the sea was when I had stopped in Mumbai on my way to Goa in 1974. It was a very sleepy place then. I come from a densely populated area and here the population was very scarce. Surprisingly it didn’t take me long to adjust here and become a part of this place.

Q. Can you highlight some of your achievements during your tenure of Directorship?
In 2013 we got the new ship, Sindhu Sadhna, prior to that we had only second ships. It came in during my tenure as Director, and that has been satisfying. Despite the rainfall you see in Goa, water is pretty scarce. We have taken initiatives for water conservations and replenishing the ground water within the NIO campus and a water reservoir has been built here making us self sufficient for raw water.

Q. Could you tell us something about your days as a researcher?
Being a scientist it is a little different from a normal life especially with regard to family life. Oceanography is done in the sea and when you go, you are out there for anything between 20 days to 45 days and more. So you miss a lot of family time. But being at the sea is a different experience and I loved it.

Q. Do you feel the aquatic life in the Goan waters is at threat?
When I first came there was a major controversy going on. In 1973-74 the issue that the ZACL was releasing effluents containing arsenic substances into the water leading to large scale fish mortality, was a fear. People were very concerned with the pollution that was being caused. And as a result of that the very first time the Water Act came into existence.
Compared to that there is definitely more pollution now. For example, we used to get lots of green mussels in Goa earlier and they were very cheap. These have now disappeared completely. You don’t find them in the market anymore. Another example, you may recollect what happened in River Sal very recently comparatively, where we witnessed large scale mortality of clams. This too was also due to pollution.
Waters have definitely become polluted, not only the sea water but also the ground water. This is only going to get worse, and it is something that everybody should eb concerned about.

Q. What are your major concerns in regard to the ecology?
I’m concerned about three kinds of things; one is the bacterial pollution by the pathogens. This is largely because we are not treating the more than two-thirds of the municipal sewage waste. The other problem is the pollution caused due to oil and therefore you’ll find tar balls by the shore during monsoons. This is however not caused by the local population.
Then there is the plastic pollution which I consider as the most disturbing aspect of the human impact on the environment because the plastic doesn’t biodegrade. If you visit the Miramar or Caranzalem beaches and you will find tonnes and tonnes of plastic littered all along the beach buried in the sand. And this certainly is going to become a major issue as this mechanically breaks up into micro plastic and this gets ingested by fish. They also ingest what is known as persistent organic pollutants which are again very toxic and get into the food web. And fishermen have been stating that when you trawl there are tonnes of plastic that comes up which is embedded in the sea floor.

Q. What are the other major problems faced by the ocean waters?
The warming itself is the first major issue. We know the atmospheric temperature is rising due to carbon dioxide and other green house gases. But you should remember that only 20 per cent of these gases are being absorbed in the atmosphere and the rest of the 80 per cent is being absorbed by the oceans. As a result the surface water is becoming warmer and that has an effect on all the marine life. Many of the marine organisms are not adapted to live in high temperatures. For them an increase of even one degree of temperature is quite a lot. Also, if the ocean is warmer, it will absorb less oxygen.
In addition, the carbon dioxide will also lead to acidification. About a quarter of the generally acidic carbon dioxide that we generate goes into the ocean. And when water becomes acidic, it will have an impact on the ocean’s biology and chemistry again affecting the marine life. For example, pearls are calcium carbonate and the process of their formation will not take place if the acidification increases.
The ocean is losing oxygen, partly because of warming which is affecting the circulation and partly because of solubility decrease of the water.
In addition, to grow plants we use fertilisers which contain nitrogen compounds. The plants don’t absorb and utilize all the nitrogen. This is washed into the waters and fertilises the marine algae. This eutrophication leads harmful algae to grow, as seen in ponds and lakes.

Q. What problems do we foresee with our Goan rivers?
The problem is that our rivers are not very well flushed. Sal is one such example. It is not a river actually, originating from a water source. In addition there is a lot of siltation and therefore is more polluted. Mandovi and Zuari are relatively better than Sal. But to say that there are not polluted will not be correct. A lot of it is due to human interference. What we need is a plan from the government to treat our garbage. Fortunately we do not have large industries like in Mumbai which pollute the rivers.

Q. There are concerns raised time again about sea shores and river banks?
There are conflicting interests, as builders want to build, and hoteliers and people want to settle right next to water, without much concern to CRZ. I think we need to have strict enforcement of the rules that are in place. Very often we find ways to circumvent these rules and unfortunately the enforcement is not as much as one would expect. People have vested interests but we have to keep a watch on the environment and make sure that there is a balance between development and environmental protection.

Q. Is there an impact of El-Nino on the monsoons in Goa?
El nino is a natural phenomena and you can’t do anything with its variability. But it’s the change that we are more concerned with. If the change in the global temperature goes up, it will definitely affect everything including the monsoons. There is enough evidence to assert that in the modern world the monsoons are going to change. The total precipitation may not vary that much but the pattern both in space and time may change. There will be more frequent events like the Canacona floods of 2009, the Chennai floods last year, and also the Uttarakhand and the Kashmir tragedies. And through modelling, this fact has been established that such extreme events will be more frequent.
This definitely will affect Goa as well, though the total rainfall may not change but it will become more unpredictable.

Q. Are we prepared for any disaster?
No, I’m afraid we are not. It is happening globally, people are not prepared for a change of that magnitude but they have to adapt to the changes. For example, the sea level is rising at the rate of 3 to 4 millimetres per year so in hundred years the close estimates are that it will rise by a meter. If that happens, many parts of the coast will be inundated by high sea levels. We are still not prepared, as we can see we still build high rise buildings by the sea and low lying areas. At least in this country we don’t think about the future and we don’t consider the worst case scenario.

Q. What are the shortcomings you see in our research institutes?
We have been doing pretty well in science, but its application is something that we have not been so successful at. So we need to work on how to carry the results of all the scientific research to the people. The emphasis even with the government is to have optimal application of science. Whatever, we do should be useful to the people. There is a kind of disconnect between our work and the people. We may be talking a lot but we do not do anything because we are ill informed. And that’s the reason why everyone thinks, what difference will it do if I don’t or do something?

Q. What advice you have for the younger researchers?
Engage in basic research along with the right balance of applied research. Don’t do research only to publish papers but also for the application purpose in the society.

Q. As you pass on the baton to your successor, what expectations do you have?
We have not collaborated enough with our neighbouring countries and that has led to big gaps in information that is available from our part of the world. We don’t have any permission to access the waters of within 200 nautical miles of the respective countries. And sometimes it is within these regions that some of the very important processes take place. And that has led to major constraint in understanding the processes in these regions. For example if something happens on the coast of Indonesia, that can affect the fisheries of Goa. I tried hard for collaborative efforts but haven’t succeeded as much as I wanted.
The other is the manpower crunch. We need to find replacement for all the people who are senior now and they will retire. We need to replenish these experts.

Q. Being a fan of Ghalib, if I ask you to recite a couplet from his collection?
‘Ghalib’-e-Khasta ke baghair kaun se kaam band hain?
Roiye zaar-zaar kya, kijiye haay-haay kyon?

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