Like the mystical Neelakurinji flower, which carpets the Nilgiris every twelve years with its purple foliage, the water hyacinth also manages to catch the eye of passers-by with its dense spread of beautiful purple flowers.
But don’t let its vibrant hues fool you, for the plant happens to be one of the most noxious aquatic weeds in the world with its toxic ability to engulf vast expanses at an exponential pace and making inland navigation almost impossible.
However, the killer weed’s final onslaught comes in the form of choking the life out of every freshwater ecosystem it manages to infest.
By forming a dense layer across the surface of ponds, lakes or even rivers, water hyacinths restrict sunlight penetration that is required by the underwater fauna for sustenance.
This amounts to a state of absolute decay and the plants eventually die out. What follows is the trickling down of dissolved oxygen levels, which ends up killing the fishes and other aquatic beings in the water bodies.
The impenetrable foliage also stands infamous for being the ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes, owing to a low oxygen region right below the floating mass.
Over the years, civic bodies have formulated different methods to keep the invasive species under control.
The most commonly used forms are chemical and physical. While the former leaves behind drastic and longstanding effects on the environment and human health, the latter only manages to clear the dense growth for a short duration.
Also, mechanical removal emerges as an expensive investment for a short-term solution to tackle the pernicious weed.
Recently, a professor and group of students from Sanatana Dharma College in Alappuzha, Kerala, have developed various strategies that can put the useless weed to a good and lucrative purpose and save civic authorities across the country from shelling out their coffers on a regular basis.
The group is led by Dr G. Nagendra Prabhu, Associate Professor, PG Department of Zoology and Principal Investigator, Centre for Research on Aquatic Resources (CRAR) of the college.
The research and development are modelled on concepts like “eradication through utilisation” and “use to reduce” and many award-winning papers that corroborates their research have been published by the group.
As part of his doctoral research, Dr Prabhu had initially developed a method that could produce L-Glutaminase — a medically and industrially important enzyme — using lignocellulosic material found in water hyacinth under solid-state fermentation.
As an independent researcher, he put together new lab-scale techniques for the production of cellulase enzyme from bacteria using the common aquatic weeds like water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) and water moss (Salvinia molesta).
And thus began a quest to find different uses for the weed, and various student researchers and professors teamed up with Dr Prabhu.
“Through parallel research, we learnt that the plant could be efficiently used to make biomass briquettes and as a bedding material for mushroom cultivation and modified hydroponics,” Dr Prabhu informs The Better India.
A biomass briquette is a biofuel that is made of green waste and organic materials and acts as a green and frugal substitute for electricity generation, heat, and, cooking fuel.
Using water hyacinth as a briquette could emerge as a gamechanger in the renewable energy sector, given the amount of water hyacinth infestations that is prevalent across the country’s water bodies.
Further into their research, the group found that pulp generated from water hyacinth could be used as craft base to make handicrafts, utensils and 3D models besides crafting utility articles like egg and fruit trays, disposable plates, multipurpose boards, coasters, and painting canvases.
Another significant study was conducted by G Gopika, an MSc student, and V Anoop Kumar, a research scholar, who noticed the vibrant hue that these flowers have.
They separated natural colours from the flowers and found that the pigments could be used for dyeing clothes and fabrics. Mentored by Dr Prabhu, the researchers had put up their pathbreaking work as a research paper and bagged the top award at the 27th Swadeshi Science Congress last month.
Given his expertise in the field concerning aquatic weeds, Dr Prabhu is no less famous. In 2009, he was inducted by the state government to be part of the expert committee to suggest ways and means of controlling and utilising water hyacinth in the backwaters of Vembanad Lake, a Ramsar site along with districts of Kottayam, Alappuzha, and Ernakulam.
Also, he was awarded the first FLAIR Research Excellence Award (Fostering Linkages in Academic and Innovative Research) by the Department of Higher Education in Kerala during 2015-16.
The award is conferred in recognition of the research activities of college and university teachers in the state.
Dr Prabhu utilised the prize money of ₹50,000 to launch the website of CRAR. In recognition of his outstanding contribution, he was awarded the prestigious Vishwa Konkani Seva Puraskar held at Mangalore on November 20.
“My ultimate aim is to develop and commercialise the eco-friendly technologies for the control and value addition of the problematic aquatic weeds of Kerala,” he adds.
Dr Prabhu has also launched a community training centre in the college that offers training on the value addition of aquatic weeds, which is supported by Kerala Biotechnology Commission under its Biotechnology Innovations for Rural Development (BIRD) programme.
The training workshops are open for all and are attended by women from self help groups like Kudumbasree, inmates of Alappuzha district jail, teachers of special schools for differently-abled and students.
As for future endeavours, he intends to transform CRAR into a global facility that will undertake extensive research and development projects pertaining to the aquatic resources.
Instead of spending exorbitant amounts to manage the water hyacinth infestations through chemical and mechanical control every year, if municipal bodies across the country adopt the strategies put forth by Dr Prabhu and his research group, the water hyacinth would be relieved of its titular monikers and finally be put to good use.
To know more about the research, you can write to Dr Nagendra Prabhu at email@example.com or visit the CRAR website.