The geographical location and diversity make India highly susceptible to climate change impacts. With over sixty percent of the population living in rural areas and banking heavily on agriculture for its livelihood, the vulnerability becomes acute as agriculture is the most climate sensitive sector. With six different climatic zones, the impact of climate change on India would be complex and significant.
Climate Change Risks
A recent report by the Indian government, yet to be submitted to the United Nations, has brought to light alarming climatic conditions and future trends (as reported by The Times of India, New Delhi, 29th April 2012):
- Some parts of India – Kutch and Rajasthan – can witness a 4 degree rise in maximum temperature as early as the 2020s. Kutch, in the State of Gujarat, popularly known as India’s Wild West, is the largest district in India and is an endless desert plain that attracts tourists for its rustic beauty. Rajasthan has a tropical desert climate and has the largest desert area in the country. Rajasthan falls in areas of greatest climate sensitivity, maximum vulnerability and lowest adaptive capacity. Already, water resources in the State are scarce and have a highly uneven distribution both temporally and spatially. The State also has the highest probability of drought occurrence in the country.
- It is predicted that a similar rise in temperature could take place in more than half of the country by 2080. Night temperatures are projected to rise by 4.5 degrees across a large part of the country by 2050 and the jump could spread to almost the entire country by 2080.The report also finds that three out of four weather stations across India have witnessed an alarming rise in intensity of rains (over 24 hours) between 1980 and 2009.
- Intense warming has been recorded from 1998-2007 and the intensity has been rising since 1970s. The mean temperature during winters has risen by 0.70 degree Celsius and post-monsoon mean temperature by 0.52 degree Celsius in the last 100 years.
- The mean temperature in India rose by 0.2 degrees Celsius every year between 1971-2007 with minimum temperatures rising more than maximum temperatures, which increased 1.02 degrees Celsius in 100 years.
- Although, trends show evidence of warming, there is no conclusive proof that these are linked to human-induced climate change. If greenhouse gas emissions would continue to rise unchecked over the coming decades, the future scenarios can be catastrophic. Projections show that the total monsoon rainfall could rise between 9-16% by the end of the 21st century. By that time, annual mean temperature could rise by 3.5-4.3 degrees Celsius with 1.7-2.0 degrees rise take place as early as 2030s.
- Number of rainy days could decrease but rain could become more intense, causing more damage. India has recently witnessed heavy rains that have caused massive floods in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. Erratic rains in places that were not known to have rainfall, such as the Leh-Ladakh region, have raised concerns about the preparedness of the local communities that are historically not accustomed to rains. This is happening because of higher average temperatures in high regions that is pulling the monsoon winds.
- Water scarcity levels will be crossed in Cauvery, Mahi, Sabarmati and rivers of Kutch, Sau and Luni, while Ganga, Tapti and Narmada basins will hit water stress limits. Ganga downstream, Brahmaputra and Surma Imphal show high vulnerability to climate change in the northern and eastern basins.
- The impact of unchecked emissions on agriculture is also worrisome. The worst hit could be one of the two major grain crops – wheat. If farmers are not able to adapt to changes, just a one degree change in average temperatures could bring down production by 6 million tones. The quality of crop would also be affected – reducing protein and micro-nutrient contents.
The over-dependence of rural communities on agriculture exposes them to climate shocks that can drastically reduce their incomes. It is well-known that developing countries like India would be facing the climate change impacts most and earlier than the developed world.
Water security is one of the major threats that can lead to food crisis. In the event of adverse climate change impacts on agriculture, loss of livelihood can trigger mass migration to nearby urban cities that cannot sustain larger populations. Already, these cities are rapidly losing out on natural wealth – shrinking water table and dwindling green cover – and are themselves highly susceptible to climate risks.
Climate change is already happening – Horn of Africa and Sahel region are reeling under critical drought conditions that have triggered severe food crisis in these regions. Bundelkhand, in Uttar Pradesh, India, is also facing persistent droughts.
We must not forget that the economic consequences of climate change would be staggering. According to the Stern Report published in 2006, the cost of action to reduce greenhouse gases would be close to one percent of GDP while the cost of inaction would be close to five percent, and in worst case scenario, rise upto 20 percent.
India needs to think beyond its celebrated stand at the global climate meetings as climate change does not respect territorial boundaries. The policy-makers need to look internally to factor environmental issues in major, if not all, policy-decisions to tackle climate change risks quickly and comprehensively – a tough call (as it seems), given the complicated political power struggles that seem to be occupying most of the action at New Delhi.
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