Now or never!


Climate change and the disaster it can wreak is no more a distant, amorphous event waiting to happen. The disastrous effects of climate change are upon us today, says Tirtho Banerjee giving examples of recent natural calamities which have taken a huge human and economic toll. The time to act is now.

More than 200mm of rainfall within just 24 hours swamped Kashmir on 2 September 2014. It was an extreme weather event that left a trail of destruction. On 4 January 2013, Delhi recorded the coldest day in 44 years. On 13 October 2013, Cyclone Phalin, India’s fiercest storm in two decades slammed Odisha, wreaking $4.15 billion havoc on the agriculture and power sector. In June 2013, devastating floods triggered massive landslides in Uttarakhand, leaving more than 6,000 dead and thousands missing.

The toll on India

India is feeling the impact of climate change with greater frequency and magnitude. Out of the 35 states, 27 are disaster-prone. The country ranks third in the world in natural catastrophes. It is among the extreme risk countries where economic impacts of climate change will be most keenly felt by 2025, says the British risk consultancy Maplecroft’s ‘Climate Change and Environmental Atlas’. The atlas puts Mumbai and Kolkata at high risk of exposure to climate-related events. Sea level rise due to faster glacial meltdown has already displaced a huge number of people in the Sundarbans, where salinisation and coastal erosion are growing rapidly. A one meter sea surge will displace 7.1 millions in India and about 5,800 square km land area will be lost, along with 4,200 km of road. India is also the most vulnerable among 51 countries in beach tourism. Places like Goa and Puri are staring at a massive tourism downslide in the days to come.

From debt-ridden Vidharbha farmers who are taking their own lives by the day, and increased flooding in Assam to Himachali apple growers facing losses and recurrent storms in the coastal belts – changes in climate are intricately affecting people across the country. There is a forecast that a 2 degrees Celsius rise in the world’s average temperatures will hugely affect India’s summer monsoon. The UN’s (United Nations) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says the gross per capita water availability in India will go down from 1,820 cubic metre per year in 2001 to as low as 1,140 cubic metre year in 2050. While Himalayan glaciers continue to recede, water resources decline and so does wheat production in the Indo-Gangetic plains. According to the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, if the process of global warming continues to increase, resulting climate disasters will cause a decrease in India’s GDP to fall by about 9%, with a slump by 40% of the production of the major crops. IPCC warns that India may lose up to 1.7% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) if the annual mean temperature rises by 1 degree Celsius compared to pre-industrialisation level, which will take a huge toll on the poor.

Rise of 0.5 degrees Celsius in winter temperatures could cause a 0.45 tonne per hectare decline in India’s wheat production. Rice output will plummet by 40% and potato production will go down by around 10 per cent in West Bengal in the next 15 years. Mustard and groundnut will have reduced yields during the same period, says studies conducted by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute. If production continues to decrease, more and more farmers will give up their profession or resort to desperate steps. Vidharbha Jan Andolan Samiti, a farmers’ body, reveals that 4,200 farmers killed themselves last year in Maharashtra. Loss of livelihood or unemployment will trigger more unrest and food crisis.

Changes in the climatic patterns will force the agricultural land to shrink too. India also faces extreme weather conditions – like drought and flood. Today, of the total agricultural land in India, about 68% is prone to drought, of which 33% is chronically drought-prone, receiving rainfall less than 750mm per year. At the same time, India is the most flood-distressed state in the world after Bangladesh, accounting for 1/5th of the global deaths every year. Around 40 million hectares of the land is vulnerable to floods. A report of IPCC says India will get more intense rainfall even as the number of rainy days decreases due to changing weather patterns.

The fishing community will bear the brunt of climate change, as there will be a huge loss of Asian coral reefs – which are home to around one-fourth of the annual fish catch and food to about 1 billion people. India has over 7,000 km of coastline and so the massive impact on the country can be gauged from the declining fish catch.

Many diseases that had gone into a sleep mode are rearing their ugly heads again, thanks to the extreme climatic conditions. New diseases are also emerging. Dengue cases in 2011-12 went up alarmingly in Mumbai. New strains of swine flu are gripping many parts of India. Chikungunya is also back with the bang. Outbreaks of water and mosquito-borne diseases such as diarrhoea and malaria are rebounding.

Move away from fossil fuel?

Better adaptation to climate change and long-term prevention measures can only help India to stave off an impending crisis. The country will have to move away from a fossil fuel economy, change farming methods while changing to crops suitable to weather. Sustainable farming is the key to sustainable development. It is imperative that India takes a low carbon and coal approach towards development. The greenhouse gas emission targets have to be strictly followed.

It is praiseworthy that India has managed an eight per cent growth with only a 3.7 per cent growth in energy consumption. But carbon dioxide emissions have increased more than fourfold-from 0.4 tonnes in 1972 to 1.7 tonnes in 2010. So, energy efficient technologies and fuel-efficient vehicles are the need of the hour. These will go a long way in tackling the challenges of climate change.

Recently, India was ranked 120th in its readiness to meet the threat of climate change. It has to shore up its climate-related disaster preparedness and management strategy. Corporates should raise a fund that contributes towards mitigation of climate-related disasters. The Modi government’s renaming of the Ministry of Environment and Forests as the ‘Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change’ shows it has done so in earnest. But this should not get reduced to a mere gimmick or rhetoric. The government’s actions must reflect its seriousness to move towards a greener future. Urban planners need to devise ways where less energy-intensive alternative buildings are promoted. Renewables in rural development have to take a leap. While bringing electricity to 300 million poor people currently without power, India has to focus on alternative energies like solar and wind. The Modi government has set a target of having 100 gigawatts of solar capacity by 2022. This will require a Herculean effort.

United Nations (UN) dubbed 2014 as the hottest year on record. Against such a backdrop, the next meeting of UN climate negotiation to be held in Paris in December this year assumes much importance. The world has to unite against climate change and global warming. And India has to lead from the front. Our time is now or never.


Tirtho Banerjee

The writer is a freelance journalist who specialises in environmental issues.