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Monday, December 09, 2013

“An Invasive Species Outside Its Home Environment”: The Ubiquitous Water Hyacinth


Back in school in Kodaikanal, we'd heard stories about how the lake at Ooty, a sort of sister hill station to us, had had its lake overrun by a fast-growing weed that had been introduced into the local ecology. The effects of this “killer weed”, no pun intended, were lethal as it proceeded to take over the surface off the lake, blocking off sunlight to the fish and plants that depended on this resource to survive. So, how surprised was I when I returned to my alma mater some twenty years later and discovered that the Kodaikanal Lake had seen a near-loss in its battle against the water hyacinth, something that wasn't even remotely an issue while I was in school. So, how did this happen? Some say human intervention, and others point to more divine means, however, this post is more of an attempt to delve a little deeper into all the things that I've heard and read and seen with regard to this plant, the water hyacinth, particularly how it has been described as both a weed, as well as a plant of some benefit. Not a native species in India at all, one would think otherwise if one saw how prolific this little plant was, occupying prime space in not just many popular lakes and freshwater bodies, but in many ponds and streams practically everywhere, silently taking up prime positions and firmly entrenching itself for the long-haul before the people seem to realize what's happening. So, what is it really, an “invasive species” or a biological tool we can make use of in our survival? Perhaps only time and the curiosities of a civilized human existence will tell...

Water hyacinth flowers about to bloom, being grown in buckets at home.


Unwanted and Unmanageable...


The Water Hyacinth grows together in tight little clumps, it's circular leaves forming a thick, matted, turf-like cover across the water body that it is inhabiting. It takes only a couple of weeks for an existing population of plants to double in size, making the change at a visible pace that can easily go from “problem” to “crisis” in the blink of an eye. Such a prolific nature has turned it into the scourge of freshwater bodies and many navigable water ways around the world. There is information on government websites, such as the Department of Ecology, Washington State, and the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, that lists the water hyacinth as a “Non-native Invasive Freshwater [Plant]” and a “Weed of National Significance”, respectively. But no one is in a hurry to talk about how the plant was taken from its native habitat of South America, and grown in various colonies around the world as an ornamental pond plant. All was well, as long as there were teams of servants and gardeners to help keep it in check. But while home decorative water accumulations can be managed with a pull and a cut, enlarging the scale to bodies of water that are several thousands of meters across makes the gravity of any infestation that much more dire. So, while a team of servants and gardeners will be able to keep a minutely local infestation that was created for show in check, it becomes a wholly different ball game when blown out of proportion and ignored until too late.

I took the first part of the title from a line from one of the sources I referred to online, and if nothing else, it speaks of a sort of general mentality concerning this plant. It is said to block of sunlight to plant and aquatic life under the surface of the water, reduce the pH of the water, and once after having completely taken over the body of water, to render the water unfit for consumption by any creature, no matter how hardy it may be in general. It impedes the movement of small row and motor boats, and while there are some species of animal that naturally feed on water hyacinth plants, they are mostly endangered, and would really not have been in a position to combat this threat, once it was made a threat by earlier human intervention, of course, seeing as to how that such intervention never took into account ecological balance. And so, from India to the US to several countries in Africa, the water hyacinth has now become like a potential parasite that inhabits its host for the entire duration of that host's life. But are things all bad with water hyacinth?

Water hyacinth in full bloom


Or Useful and Unappreciated?

Back in the sixth grade a class field trip took us to Auroville, just outside of Pondicherry (now, officially, “Puducherry”), to introduce firsthand to what it meant to “live sustainably”. We saw solar cookers, and bio-gas plants, and at one of the houses, we even saw a gray-water filtration system that involved three tanks of water hyacinths. The process was simple, if I remember correctly. It involved all the used water from the washbasins, sinks, and bath areas in the house (there weren't any showers because that's a water conservation no-no) going into a central pipe that took it outside the house to the first of three tanks that had water hyacinth plants in it. This tank was raise above the others by a couple of inches, with the third tank being the lowest of all, allowing cleaner water at the top to overflow into the next tank, and so on, until it was ready to be used for the watering of plants around the compound, particularly the fruit trees and the vegetables in the vegetable garden. I remember thinking to myself that if I every built a house, I would have to include one of these in it, if nothing else, because it looked so cool. However, what the plant is really doing pulling the excess nitrogen, phosphorus and suspended solids out of the water, cleaning it up to be a little better than the state that it was in when it arrived

In places like South India where water shortages during Summer cause all kinds of upheaval to a person's daily lifestyle, and/or survival, it shocks me to have to say that any attempt at conserving water has not yet been widely implemented. In this light, rather than draw new water from a well, to water plants, there would be plenty of water available to do so without putting pressure on freshwater resources. This would of course work better in a household where the inhabitants didn't rely on chemical cleaning products that would otherwise turn the water poisonous to most living things, and in many cases, cause those plants and animals that did absorb them to accumulate similar compounds in their body and/or blood stream for tragic effects later on in life. Here's a company called HydroMentia that I came across. Turns out that they offer to help you set up your own “Water HyacinthScrubber” units with their proprietary technology.

Perhaps the most avoided question in these kinds of analyses is that of, “When did the love turn to hate?” or in other words and more specifically to the topic at hand, when did people switch from considering the water hyacinth a 'cultivable aquatic flowering plant' to thinking of it to be a 'dangerous weed'? More importantly, how have no lessons from other botanical 'meddlings' under the guise of 'colonial discovery' been learned? Much as it has been carried out before in our civilization, and to condense this history to a single sentence, people plucked this pretty flower from out of its own ecology and took it home to adorn their households, and make the neighbors jealous, where unhindered by natural enemies, and given vast expanses of freshwater to proliferate upon, the water hyacinth spread like veritable wildfire, confusedly celebrating its run of good fortune, as those who bestowed it upon this plant still seek to manage and manipulate it even to this day.

Anyone else think this flower seems to imitate a peacock feather a little?

The End is Nigh, Then?

Is there any hope for freshwater sources that while becoming more and more precious, see themselves targets of newer, more recent developments that promise to increase the burden on existing sources? Or will we find ourselves, veritably “swamped” with this plant, that unless we figure out a way to make a three-course meal out of, we're probably going to have to relinquish its next intended target of freshwater body to, silently and with nary a struggle? Probably none of the above, because like most dire situations in the world around us, there is always a handful, a pocket of people somewhere in the world turning lemons into lemonade. To make the connection, it turns out that my cursory research has revealed a number of furniture manufacturers who create woven wooden furniture, not from bamboo, but from the water hyacinth. Another solution seems to be to use the plant to fee dairy and other domestic animals, but concerns have been raised about the levels of harmful chemicals and poisonous suspended solids that would remain in the plants which would be turned into animal feed.

Like many other potential solutions, we are still on the path of discovering that magic fix-it remedy that will make all this seem like a bad dream, But how conveniently we forget that this nightmare was of our own making, as have been all the failures to set right this disaster. Indeed, how soon we move on to some other possible solution, never truly understanding the consequences, and inevitably setting up some kind of long-term fallout that will manifest itself as the next newest, biggest and most immediately pressing crisis a few years down the line. For the sake of these poor plants, and every other plant, animal, insect or bacteria that has been extracted to be made useful to us, I apologize at the ongoing nightmare. Forgive us, for we certainly do not seem interested in knowing what we do...



Sources:
  1. Eichhornia crassipes (Common Water Hyacinth) [Wikipedia] - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eichhornia_crassipes
  2. New South Wales Department of Primary Industries: Agriculture - “Water Hyacinth – Weed of National Significance” - http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/agriculture/pests-weeds/weeds/profiles/water-hyacinth
  3. Department of Ecology, State of Washingotn - “Non-native Invasive Freshwater Plants” - http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wq/plants/weeds/hyacinth.html
  4. Perfect Pieces – Water Hyacinth Furniture - http://www.perfectpieces.co.nz/
  5. Great Myanmar Island – Manufacturer and Exporter of Rattan, Water Hyacinth, and Wooden Furniture - http://www.greatmyanmarisland.com/
  6. 6) HydroMentia – Water Treatment Technologies - “Water Hyacinth Scrubber” - http://www.hydromentia.com/Products-Services/Water-Hyacinth-Scrubber/

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