A vital pivot
Rivers have a central role to play in building adaptation and climate resilience in the backdrop of frequented extreme weather events
One major manifestation of climate change is the impact on water. So, how is climate change affecting our rivers, and through rivers, us?
For a start, rapid melting of glaciers will increase flow in rivers, causing floods, and as glaciers melt away, glacier-fed rivers will gradually run dry.
This year, up to August 2021, India witnessed several extreme weather events, affecting humanity and the ecology across the country.
With the symbiotic relationship between groundwater and rivers disrupted in most places, rivers will turn seasonal, dry up, and lead to drought. These are no longer projections and predictions. Droughts, floods and other extreme weather events are increasing in intensity all the way from Madagascar in Africa to Iran in the Middle East, to Asia and South America's Pentanal.
Climate change is already affecting the lives, livelihoods, health and other social indicators of people in the river basin. As disasters increase, so will displacement, distress and migration, with incalculable health, psychological, social and economic burdens.
According to the UNFCCC, adaptation refers to adjustments in ecological, social or economic systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli and their effects or impacts. Climate resilience can be loosely defined as the adaptive capacity of a socio-ecological system to absorb stresses and maintain function in the face of external stresses imposed by climate change.
Climate resilience and adaptation are now key, and for this, the role of rivers needs to be understood.
A river, its catchment, basin and floodplain form a water course made by nature over an evolutionary time scale of millions of years. Himalayan rivers such as the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi — both tributaries of the Ganga, the Indus and the Brahmaputra are probably older than the mountains they travel through.
Rivers are living ecosystems that link various elements of nature including humans. Ancient civilizations such as Mesopotamia in the Tigris-Euphrates River system, Egypt along the Nile and the Indus valley, all grew and drew sustenance from the river.
Apart from supporting life in all forms, rivers provide bare essentials of drinking water and food and, when allowed to flow unfettered and pure, enable clean water to flow into wells. Rivers help maintain a balance with groundwater aquifers, enabling water availability during water scarcity and drought. Rivers and their floodplains help soak up excessive rains, thereby reducing flooding intensity, sometimes even preventing it.
The health of rivers is linked to human health: Without rivers there will be no life. And yet, this wisdom fails to inform policy, behavior and action.
Is only climate change to blame?
For years, humankind has ruthlessly tampered with river systems. Floodplains have been encroached upon, catchments have been destroyed and forests cut. Over-extraction has affected their flow and several perennial rivers have now turned seasonal. Some have even disappeared. Dams and barrages have affected the river ecology and the habitat of river species, caused disasters and displacement. Sand mining has altered river beds, resulting in a river changing course and causing floods. Domestic, sewer and industrial pollution have affected water quality and turned to receptacles of human generated waste.
A paper on the location and extent of the planet's free flowing rivers published in Nature in 2019, informs that only 37 per cent of the world's longest rivers remain free flowing. Nearly 60,000 dams have been built worldwide, with more than 3,700 under construction or planned.
As interventions in the name of development grew, the health of rivers declined. This decline has led to an increase in diseases such as cancers. As species disappear and the food chain gets affected, threats of new diseases and even pandemics loom large.
A balancing factor
Rivers and groundwater aquifers share a mutually beneficial relationship. Replete aquifers provide base flows in rivers. During the monsoon, it's payback time for the river as it replenishes the aquifer. Floodplains provide space for rivers to spread their water. In the dry season, as river levels fall below groundwater levels, it gets its flow from the aquifers. There are underground interconnections between the two below the ground and it is important that the two remain connected.
The above is an ideal scenario. As groundwater levels fall, the link between the symbiotic connection snaps. As river flows continue to be tampered with on one side, and groundwater extraction continues unabated on the other, water resources simply run out, tipping the balance towards water scarcity, or floods.
Resilience and adaptation through rivers
Climate change adaptation and resilience are yet to be taken seriously. Climate finance is another example that points towards this.
In the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, 2015, rich countries pledged to provide USD 100 billion a year from 2020 to help the poorer countries tackle climate change through mitigation and adaptation action. While some 80 billion USD seem to have been delivered, for 2021, the figure now will be USD 120 billion. There has been a major demand from vulnerable countries that 50 per cent of the climate finance be provided for adaptation – so far only 20 per cent has been provided towards adaptation. However, funding alone will not be enough, since the quality of expenditure, and where it is spent also matters.
If climate action adaptation plans are to be effective, these will need to incorporate rivers into their plans.
Climate resilience is strengthened through healthy ecosystems, of which rivers are key. Says Magsaysay award winner, Rajendra Singh: "We must link the hearts, minds and action of the people with rivers for a healthy ecosystem and for our own health, peace and security."
The first step is to understand rivers. According to the late GD Agarwal, who sacrificed his life for the Ganga, "A river is self-flowing, carrying water from the snow, rain, under the ground, flowing continuously, pure and free from the origin to the confluence. From ages, freely touched by the sun, air and soil, a river is never bound, given life by nature and giving life to nature.'
A river is much more than water. From understanding a river and connecting to it, will emerge appropriate action.
Views expressed are personal