Seen from the air, the lush bamboo-covered hills of Mizoram, in northeastern India, give the impression of an undulating green ocean. But the beauty of the landscape obscures a looming disaster. In the next several years, in a natural phenomenon known locally as mautham, millions of acres of bamboo will burst into flower and die.
The life cycle of muli bamboo, the predominant species in India's northeast, is about 50 years. In 1959, the last time the bamboo forests of Mizoram flowered, the abundance of seeds produced by the plants created a plague of rats, which in turn devoured rice paddies, leading to widespread famine in the region. As many as 15,000 people died, and festering resentment over the lack of help from the government in Delhi led to a violent separatist rebellion that lasted 25 years.
One suggestion offered by the state government has been the preemptive harvesting of bamboo. But logistical problems, such as how to transport or use the bamboo, are daunting, and the bamboo forests of the region have become something of a ticking time bomb, say observers.
"It is a natural disaster of the same magnitude as a flood or an earthquake," says M.P. Ranjan, head of the Center for Bamboo Initiatives at the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad, India. Professor Ranjan is part of a coalition of botanists, engineers, architects, and civil servants who are attempting to turn the impending catastrophe into a source of economic opportunity.
The big question: What can you do with millions of acres of a plant that's soon going to die? To listen to the bamboo faithful, there are few things this "wonder grass" cannot be used for.
Lightweight, durable, and more easily renewable than wood, bamboo can be woven, mashed into pulp, and pressed into fiberboard. Bamboo's utility, and its ubiquity in some of the world's poorest regions, has led some, including India's former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to refer to the plant as "green gold."
The numbers speak for themselves: A single clump of bamboo can produce as much as 10 miles of usable pole in its life cycle. The fastest-growing species can gain a meter in a single day - almost enough to see the growth with the naked eye. Nearly 1 billion people worldwide live in some sort of bamboo structure, including 75 percent of the population of Bangladesh.
There have been more than 1,500 documented uses for bamboo, and by one estimate the annual economic value of total bamboo consumption is $10 billion. By 2015, that figure is expected to double.
Ranjan has dedicated his career to exploring innovative uses of bamboo. He recently gathered 100 architects at the NID, who came up with 150 designs for objects including beds, chairs - and even an abstract bamboo rocking horse. Another of Ranjan's concepts involves molding laminated bamboo fibers into almost any object.
He suggests that bamboo car bumpers are not too far off. Ranjan takes his cues from traditional methods: In a book on indigenous bamboo crafts of northeast India, he documented 400 native designs, from fish traps to musical instruments.
One of the more futuristic uses of bamboo was recently tested at the Earthquake Engineering and Vibration Research Centre in Bangalore. The center has a state-of-the-art "triaxial earthquake simulator" - a computer- controlled 3-by-3-meter platform mounted on hydraulic shocks.
A prototype house built entirely of bamboo - with bamboo-reinforced concrete walls and a waterproof, resin-coated bamboo roof - was subjected to five consecutive 30-second pulses equivalent to 7.8 on the Richter scale.
"We subjected it to the highest level of earthquake to be found anywhere in the world, and it didn't even crack the paint," says Paul Follett of the Timber Research and Development Association (TRADA), based in Britain, which helped conduct the tests with funding from the British government. TRADA's mandate on this project is to design safe, affordable, sustainable housing for the developing world. Whatever developments are made will be "open source" - freely available to whoever wishes to use them.
According to Mr. Follett, this bamboo-based housing technology has the potential to provide disaster relief around the world. Easily prefabricated, the structures can be put up in three weeks, and last 50 years. At $5 a square foot, costs are roughly half of traditional "brick-and-block" construction, and mass production would probably drive the costs down further. With the wide variety of goods that can be produced from bamboo, Follett sees it as being able to provide not only housing, but a sustainable livelihood. He dreams of an entire social economy based around the plant.
The Indian government, in an attempt to boost bamboo harvesting before flowering begins, has eliminated all export duties until 2007. It has also launched an initiative to invest $500 million in bamboo development in the next decade, with the aim of creating 8 million jobs.
As ambitious as these initiatives are, the likelihood of staving off the disaster is slim. "Will we be prepared to deal with this by 2006?" asks Ranjan of the NID. "Unlikely. We must start planning now for the next flowering of the bamboo in 50 years. These are problems that will keep returning. They are part of the natural order."