WATER HYACINTH: PROSPECTS OF A THRIVING RURAL ECONOMY IN THE CONTEXT OF ASSAM
Shabrin Raisa Rahman
Water Hyacinth: An Overview
Water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), commonly known as Meteka or Pani Meteka in Assam, is a floating perennial plant native to South America. The plant is recognized as one of the world’s worst water weeds – gaining the name ‘Terror of Bengal‘ because of its invasive nature. Its characteristic rapid growth rate causes considerable damage to water ecosystems.
It is considered a pest as 10 plants could produce well over 650,000 offspring within eight months. (1)
But in recent times, the plant has come to be known as one of the most dynamic raw materials with a plethora of possibilities, which can contribute to the economic growth of Assam’s rural economy in a sustainable way. It is considered as the most productive plant on earth as it yields more than 200 tons of dry matter per hectare per year under normal conditions. On water containing high concentrations of sewage, it yields up to 657 tons of dry matter per hectare. (2)
Water Hyacinth In Assam
Assam has an abundance of water bodies and Brahmaputra river is the lifeline that runs through the state. The state has 712 swampy/marshy areas, which have been identified from satellite data, and a total of 1,125 waterlogged areas. (3) Water hyacinth is ubiquitously found in these riparian habitats. The plant is also used in cooking traditional Assamese cuisine.
Despite its prevalence in the Assamese culture, one cannot deny the threatening impact of this plant to our ecology. One of the major concerns regarding its proliferation is that it diminishes the levels of dissolved oxygen required for the survival of fish and other aquatic species by blocking sunlight penetration into the water.
Additionally, a thick bed of water hyacinth hampers transportation and fishing. Deepor Beel in Guwahati, the only Ramsar site (wetland of international importance) in Assam, is one of the worst affected examples of the water hyacinth’s menace.
What Can Be Done To Bridge The Gap?
Water hyacinth is a blessing in disguise. By involving the local communities with handholding support, sources of livelihood can be generated in various aspects. At the same time, technical and market support under the umbrella of CSR and public private partnerships will build awareness and generate opportunities. Concerned authorities need to work in tandem to bring the requisite changes.
Initiatives So Far
In 2008, the North Eastern Development Finance Corporation and the North Eastern Council took the initiative of promoting water hyacinth as a raw material for handicrafts to the artisans as bamboo and cane resource depletion was making an environmental impact. 1000 craftsmen were aimed for the training and through capacity building, market linkage etc. they started their initiative. (4)
The initiative of NEDFi and NEC was further amplified by intervention from National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad (NID) by organizing a Strategic Design Input Training Programme in 2010.
With intensive training and facilitating technical and financial support, they started a brand called Aqua Weaves. The products include varieties of bags, baskets, laundry bins, caps, beautiful jewellery amongst others.
Assam State Rural Livelihood Mission under NRLM, with technical support from NEDFi, undertook a systematic approach to promote water hyacinth as a sustainable livelihood option among the Self Help Group members. Through handholding support, credit linkage and training, Assam State Rural Livelihood Mission is majorly focusing on women empowerment.
Water Hyacinth Craft
3. Water Hyacinth Yoga Mat
A six-women team called Simang took the initiative to train nine traditional communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, making 100% biodegradable and compostable yoga mats named Moorhen. Currently, they involve over 44 fishing communities in the production process to nurture their strong bond with the wetlands. (5)
Prospects In The Context Of Assam : Turning Waste To Wealth
While handicraft is the most widely experimented and accepted form of livelihood deriving out of water hyacinth, it has great potential to enhance and revive Assam’s rural economy. It can be used as a raw material to make eco-friendly products. Some of them are mentioned below:
Water purification: Water hyacinth has a strong capacity to absorb nutrients, heavy metals and organic pollutants and is an excellent candidate for the water pollution control and eutrophic water restoration. (6)
High quality bio manure/bio compost: Assam’s economy is fundamentally agricultural. The scope to switch to water hyacinth based bio manure, replacing agrochemicals and pesticides, and bio composts to condition the soil, can prove to be a sustainable alternative to significantly improve soil and crop quality.
Biofuel: Water hyacinth holds a great potential for use as a biofuel, that is, the use of bioethanol to power vehicles and motors, and biogas to generate electricity.
Raw material for grease-proof paper: Various possibilities have been explored to use the water hyacinth pulp as a raw material to make grease-proof paper. Further study and research is needed to facilitate livelihoods.
Water hyacinth in a controlled environment can prove to be a boon to our ecology and environment.
– There is immense potential in promoting it as the Plant of the Future Economy, considering Assam is abundant with rivers, lakes, wetlands and so on. The agriculture will receive a big boost under such an initiative.
– Building its importance from the grassroots to the way up will bring about a sea change in how we perceive the plant. The notion that the rural/semi-rural population needs to travel to big towns and cities can be proved wrong if we increasingly promote local crafts and livelihood activities.
– There is a big gap in the involvement of women in economic activities. Water hyacinth can prove to be a great start for someone in their self-sustenance journey, with proper handholding support, credit and market linkage, promotion and marketing packages etc.
It is time we weed it out for good and turn the waste into wealth.
(1)(2) Henrilito D. Tacio, Water Hyacinth Ecological Value, Environmental Impacts, 2009
(3) ENVIS Centre: Assam. Water Resource.
(4) Nandini Borah, Water Hyacinth Craft: A Livelihood Initiative by NEDFi, 2014
(5) Seema Rajpal, Edex Live
(6)Water Hyacinth: Environmental Challenges, Management and Utilization.
Editors : Shao Hua Yan and Jun Yao Guo
[ Shabrin Raisa Rahman is currently working closely with the Departments of P&RD(Assam State Rural Livelihood Mission) , PHED and FCS&CA of Govt. of Assam as a content writer.]
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