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[JAKARTA] Communities blighted by water hyacinth may soon view the aquatic weed as an asset rather than a scourge, thanks to a technique devised in the Philippines to turn the plant into a textile.

Scientists from the Philippine Textile Research Institute (PTRI) at the country's Department of Science and Technology have made fibres from the stems of the water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes). These can then be blended with polyester to make clothing and domestic textiles.

E. crassipes is almost 60 per cent cellulose — a complex carbohydrate. To turn the stems into usable fibres they must undergo a series of treatments, including boiling to soften them and reduce their moisture content, explains Nora B. Mangalindan, officer in charge at the PTRI's research and development division.

Water hyacinth is a fast-growing, free-floating plant of Latin American origin which has invaded water bodies throughout Asia and Africa. The plant's rapid spread in many parts of Africa over the past decade has caused great concern.

When not controlled, the plant's leaves block sunlight, reducing the water's oxygen levels and killing fish. In addition, the plant chokes waterways, reducing biodiversity and hindering water transport. It also provides an attractive habitat for malaria-carrying mosquitoes and snails harbouring the schistosomiasis flatworm.

Holia Onggo, a researcher at the Research Center For Physics at the Indonesian Institute of Science says that, handled well, water hyacinth can be transformed into a source of income for communities.

She says a number of practical uses have been found for the plant. Stems can be turned into furniture, paper and handicrafts, for instance, or used to create fertilisers or biogas gases derived from the decay of organic matter in the absence of oxygen.

"The technology required to produce raw materials from water hyacinth is not demanding," says Onggo, who has been involved in training communities to turn the plants into profitable ventures.

But she adds that local governments need to provide more support for such initiatives, offering training and the necessary infrastructure for business to flourish