September 6, 2023

‘Core blimey!’ A PhD fieldwork trip to India

‘Core blimey!’ A PhD fieldwork trip to India

PhD student Hamish Duncalf-Youngson recently visited Manipur, India, to assess the effects of aquaculture, environmental change and pollution at this internationally important site.

Arriving in Manipur in north-east India jolts your senses to life, from the heat and dust to the chaotic driving practices (which heavily require dodging cows in the middle of four-lane roads). Perhaps none of this should have surprised me, given I’d just arrived in India for the first time, but I soon learnt that Manipur is a place completely unique and wonderful. The state sits as one of the seven north-east Indian ‘sister states’ nestled between Bangladesh and Myanmar and it would be the site of my fieldwork for the next two weeks.

Lake Loktak and the circular phumdi floating islands. Hamish Duncalf-Youngson, BGS © UKRI.


On our first day in Manipur, my supervisors (Dr Rajiv Kangabam and Dr Virginia Panizzo) and I organised a local stakeholder meeting on the shores of Lake Loktak. The lake is the largest in north-east India and one of the largest in all South Asia. It is a place of enormous beauty and is critically important to the local culture and traditions. The latter is made abundantly clear by the circular ‘phumdi‘ scattered across the lake and the fisherman meticulously tending to the nets surrounding them. Phumdi are a bizarre phenomenon unique to Lake Loktak; they are floating islands composed of vegetation and organic matter that have been used by local people for centuries for traditional fishing practices. Some even have small villages built on them.

The stakeholder meeting provided an opportunity for local people to voice their concerns regarding the lake and for us to explain the research we would be undertaking, with the event even managing to gain publicity with the local media. One local person explained to us that a meal in Manipur is not considered complete without fish, highlighting the importance of the lake to the people here.

Houses such as this have been built on the phumdi by the local fishermen. Hamish Duncalf-Youngson, BGS © UKRI.

The lake is not only the lifeblood for the Manipuri people, providing food, drinking water and jobs, but also for a diverse range of flora and fauna. Over 57 species of waterbird depend upon the lake, alongside a number of rare animals including the Indian python and several species of endangered deer. None are as symbolic of the plight of Lake Loktak as the sangai deer, whose fate is deeply entwined with that of the lake. Only 260 individuals of this species remain globally, all of which live in the Keibul Lamjao National Park in the southern part of the Loktak wetlands.

The future of this species (and many others that call Lake Loktak home) is precarious. The main threat to their existence is the rapid deterioration in the lake’s health, largely due to increased human activity. Pressures that have already caused harm to the system continue to be instrumental in its present-day degradation. These pressures include pollution from upstream urban settlements such as Imphal (the state capital, with a population of over 200 000), fertiliser and pesticides from agriculture, increases in fishing (and pesticide use in fishing practices) and the construction of the Ithai Dam, which prevents the phumdi draining on a seasonal basis, reducing their surface area and altering the biogeochemical cycling of the lake.

I was lucky enough to spot one of the extremely endangered Sangai deer. Hamish Duncalf-Youngson, BGS © UKRI.

Various other anthropogenic pressures, including climate change, have resulted in the lake experiencing a severe reduction in ecological health. Though there are sincere concerns amongst the locals, up to this point little has been done reverse any of the damage. Unless measures are undertaken, it is likely that the lake will continue to deteriorate. This will happen at the expense of both the already fragile flora and fauna and the people who depend on the lake to live.

A local fisherman in a traditional dugout canoe. Hamish Duncalf-Youngson, BGS © UKRI.

The fieldwork itself was an amazing immersion in the nature and culture of the lake and its surrounding area. It broadly consisted of taking sediment core and water samples, which would be analysed back in the UK. Often it required the use of traditional dugout canoes, as larger boats would either not fit down the narrow gaps between phumdi or would cut the fishing lines with their motors. Taking sediment cores from these vessels proved to be a strong test for our athleticism, although fortunately none of us ended up in the beautiful but potentially pesticide-filled lake.

The sediment cores will allow us to reconstruct the past ecological and geochemical conditions of the lake, whilst the contemporary water samples will let us assess the current health of the lake. The techniques will involve using carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes alongside biological indicators such as algal pigments and diatoms to evaluate the health of this vastly important wetland. Overall, the research will highlight the most pressing threats to the lake and guide future conservation efforts.

Finally, I would like to extend my sincerest gratitude to my supervisors, Ginnie and Rajiv, for their support during fieldwork, alongside the delightful people of Manipur for making this trip possible.

Hamish (right) and his supervisors Dr Virginia Panizzo (centre) and Dr Rajiv Kangabam (left). Hamish Duncalf-Youngson, BGS © UKRI.

About the author

Hamish Duncalf-Youngson is a NERC Envision DTP PhD student hosted at BGS in collaboration with the University of Nottingham and KIIT Technology Business Incubator.