One cyclone, 100 dead. 53 lakh affected. 5.5 lakh houses wiped out. Hundreds of kilometers of embankments damaged. The Government assessed the loss of life and property to be around Rs 1,500 corer. Cyclone Aila that hit the east coast of India on 25th May gifted India with all this.
Devastating images from Sunderbans floated in the national and international media. Experts inferred that Cyclone Aila was a grim consequence of climate change. Does that ring the alarm bells in the mind of Indian policy makers and normal citizens also who in one way or the other contributing to the global warming which will have disturbing repercussions over a country like India?
If you wonder how India will suffer from global warming, then sample this: Monsoons have become harder and less predictable. With many of the glaciers melting, rivers are flooded and droughts occur more frequently than two decades ago. Forest cover is disappearing at an alarming rate. And not just that, reasearchers feel that within a short span of time, the change will have drastic impacts on public health, biodiversity, agricultural production, access to drinking water, and even national security of the country.
Several reports, including the latest one by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change note that India will be among the countries worst affected by rising temperatures. Lehman Brothers have estimated India will suffer an estimated 5% loss of GDP due to climate change. This is twice the cost to the European Union, the biggest OECD loser, and more than one percentage point higher than the cost to Africa.
No wonder the effects of climate change are already on display in different forms in the Indian map. The rising sea level floods the densely populated 7500 kilometre long coast line. Coral bleaching, extreme weather events like glacial lake outflows flooding the downstream villages and affecting the water resources, fall in agricultural productivity, altered configuration and productivity of forest eco-systems etc., are fast becoming realities in India.
A glimpse of effects that are already showing colours..
According to a study, published in the April 2004 issue of IMD journal Mausam: More areas suffered frequent heat waves in 1991-2000 compared to earlier decades, an average of 22.7 subdivisions in the country were hit by heat waves per year. According to the report, the number of heat wave days per year in central and north-west India increased from three to 12 between 1969 and 2005. And that means a lot for a simple reason that every year heat waves kill dozens of people across South Asia, which typically runs from April to June before the annual monsoon season arrives and cools the temperatures. A Times of India news article on 12th May reported about 126 suspected sunstroke death cases in Orissa alone in 2009.
The actual figures for the entire country can never be known, as the government health officials more often than not, declare the reason of death as anything not heat stroke, especially in rural India. More so, because, the increased figures reflect lack of proper health system in the remote areas of the country.
Official figures indicate at least 137 people were killed during last summer’s heat wave in India. In 2007, about 150 lost their lives to these scorching heat waves, mostly in June. The statistics are just indications of tougher days ahead.
The study conducted five years back also said that the increase in heat waves may be due to increase in global warming in the last decade which was the warmest decade in the past 140 years but local factors like deforestation and urbanization may also have contributed to it. Scientists are yet to find much on the science involved in theses alterations nevertheless precious lives are getting lost to the vagaries of nature.
If increasing heat waves is worrying the Indian environmentalists, then equally disturbing is growing erratic mood of the monsoon. It’s a well-known fact that monsoons are an essential part of the Indian climate, bringing months of steady rain to the subcontinent. In some of regions, up to 80 percent of all annual rainfall comes during the monsoons. An article published in the journal Science states that heavy monsoons in central India have become more frequent and intense since the mid-20th century. No prizes for guessing that the increase in all possibilities is linked to global warming.
The research, published in Science in December last year reinforces claims that global warming is boosting the power and number of storms and other extreme weather events across the world. It says: Heavy monsoon rains in central India between 1981 and 2000 were more intense and frequent than in the 1950s and 1960s, and increased by 10 per cent since the early 1950s. Severe rains doubled over the same period.
Only a few mumbaikars would forget what they experienced in July 2005 when the heaviest monsoon rains ever recorded left almost a third of Mumbai, India’s biggest city and commercial capital, under water. That was global warming teaching just one of its lessons!
But what is also surprising is the increase in droughts in India in last two decades. There are predictions that in eastern Maharashtra, two-three million people are likely to be displaced by the end of this century due to droughts. It’s basically the swinging of the atmospheric weather between the extremes that makes experts worry most about the changing mood of the seasons.
Climate change studies undertaken so far reveal that immediate action is essential in order to prevent long-term damage to India’s water cycle. India already struggles with water scarcity. The livelihood of a vast population in India depends on agriculture; forestry, wetlands and fisheries and land use in these areas is strongly influenced by water-based ecosystems that again depend on monsoon rains.
The country has 16 percent of the world’s population, but only four percent of its water resources. And moreover changes to the water cycle may also cause an increase in water borne diseases such as cholera and hepatitis, as well as diseases carried by insects such as malaria. And one of end results of the water crisis would also be food shortage that could become worse in non-irrigated, rural areas that are dependent on increasingly unpredictable rainfall. Irrigated farmland could suffer from dried-out rivers and depleting water tables.
The effects of climate change infact forms a complete cycle. Not to forget an important link of that cycle that the change is expected to wreak havoc on the world’s health.
Anthony Mcmichael, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently told in an interview that most of the outbreaks of diseases across the world tell a story about the impacts of climate change.
And India certainly does not stand as an exception in that. A country where more than 240 million people officially live below the poverty line, there is a huge chunk of population that is vulnerable to the potential health impacts of climate change, such as reduced food security and availability of water.
About the potential health threats, one theory clearly says that in India, the frequency and severity of heat waves are acute in big cities which severly affects people living in poor-quality housing societies and slums and that in turn provides a breeding ground for number of diseases like diarrhoea, cholera, chikungunya and dengue, just one of the many frightening facts about the health threats posed by the climate change.
In short, climate change in India represents an additional stress on ecological and socioeconomic systems which are already overburdened because of rapid urbanization, industrialization, and economic development. With its large and growing population, and an economy that is closely tied to its natural resource base, India’s population is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
A recent World Bank report titled “Strengthening Institutions for Sustainable Growth: Country Environmental Analysis for India”, has therefore identified environmental sustainability as the next great challenge that India faces along in its path to development.
Understanding the climate change scenarios for India, and their impacts, is therefore critically important for policymakers to protect lives, as well as the assets upon which India’s economy is dependent. But do the policy makers actually care?
India is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and currently the sixth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG). With nearly a quarter of its population living below the poverty line, the government needs to make serious efforts in setting things in order.
Hopes are high with the arrival of new ministers but the need of the hour is action. It’s high time that well formed strategies move from policies in pen and paper to realities on the ground. And the reason for that is simple- the changes are occurring faster than predicted 15 years ago.
Preventive strategies to reduce the risks are a compulsion now despite the fact that scientists are still to have a complete understanding of the risks But India as a country does not have choice. In no time we are heading for catastrophic situtaion. Disappearing islands of Sunderban is just one of the discomforting truths. Experts and NGOs who are aware of the Sunderban story say, that half of the 97-odd islands dotting the Sunderbans delta might meet a watery grave within less than a decade, rendering thousands of people environmental refugees, if the authorities do not take on the task of protecting these islands on a war footing.
Mumbai , Chennai and even Kolkata for that matter are not too far away from the sea. It is time that policy makers better understand that and get going.
A reminder of the fact climate change has arrived in India!
- The Gangotri glacier, the source of the River Ganges, is retreating at a speed of about 30 meters a year, with warming temperatures likely to increase the rate of melting.
- According to the World Bank, India’s carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 88 percent since 1990.
- On an average, floods affect about 5,000 square kilometers of land and 4.2 million people in India each year.
- According to the 17th Electricity Power Survey of the Indian government, India’s peak electricity demand was 75,756 MW in 2003, and will more than double to 152,746 MW by 2011-12.
- A one-meter rise in sea level could displace millions of people in India, a country with a coastline of several thousand miles.
–R Ashirbad. An independent journalist, who writes on environment and social issues.(Courtesy India Insight).