A ticking time bomb
As 'climate change' consistently keeps manifesting the worst realities, we need to adapt and find ways to mitigate the crises — but, how prepared are we?
The relation between two decisive components of the planet Earth — nature and humans — has changed over the ages. Today, the point of discussion is as to what extent nature's resources should be exploited, presuming that the remote is in our hands. From the deification to the commodification of nature, one thing has been constant — the occasional hostilities.
There could be no disagreement over the fact that the pandemic is the worst crisis living humans are witnessing in their lifetime — no less than a nightmare. The challenge posed by the pandemic is undoubtedly paramount but a quick flashback will bring us to the realization that a whole lot of smaller dangers are overshadowed by the pandemic. So, why should one even talk and think about petty problems when we have a massive one staring at us in our face? The first reason is that they won't remain smaller for a long time and will take monstrous forms, if not abated timely. The second is that all the smaller crises are not standalone but can be subsumed within a single colossal environmental crisis. What is more worrying is that by all indications they will keep coming over decades.
The ravages caused by the two tropical cyclones last month need no recall. We need to fix our grammar if we say that damage 'has been done' by the cyclones. The damage 'is being done' as many faces the disappointing challenge of starting from scratch, struggling to forgo 'the all' they have lost. It is high time we retrospect how resilient we are to mitigate these risks? How comprehensive and encompassing our plan is to minimize the scale, intensity and frequency of such disasters, that experts say will see 'an upward trend'?
Scale of the problem
It comes from two aspects:
- Studies around the world are establishing the link between the enhanced intensity and frequency of environmental disasters to climate change. This is particularly problematic because the climate, to a large extent, has been through 'irreversible damage'. Until the time we straighten our tangled actions to make sure that more carbon is not dumped into the environment, we have no other option but to live with existing carbon levels and keep adding more of it substantially. Any significant development will only come after a few decades if things go according to pledges and plans. The direct link between climate change and environmental disasters simply means that we have to live the new reality to restructure our lifestyles and revamp our plans for the best we could achieve under restraints.
- The second aspect is India's diverse topographical features. The peninsular south is exposed to the Indian Ocean. The length of its coastline is 7,156 km — which is half of the total frontier. The narrow elongation towards the south leaves us with nine coastal states. The eastern coast has been historically more prone to tropical cyclones but, over the past few years, the western coast is also not spared on account of increased Sea Surface Temperature (SST) of the Arabian Sea. The average SST of 28 degree Celcius during the last few decades of the 20th century is now known to average over that. The Indian Ocean has warmed by 0.6 degree Celcius between 1960 to 2014. As per the 2019 CEEW Report, in the decade 2010–19, a total of 58 severe cyclonic storm events affected 258 districts. The penetration of cyclones was deeper as even the districts like Araria, Bijnor, and Bareilly, which are located in the centre-north, were also affected. For comparison, the decade 1970–79 recorded a total of 24 cyclones. Cyclones are just one type of extreme weather events. On an overall basis, the CEEW report stated that India saw a total number 478 extreme weather event between 1970 to 2019 — 250 events between 1970–2005 and 310 extreme and its associated events after 2005. Evidently, the acceleration has been exponentially steep after 2005.
Taking forward the topographical aspect of the Indian subcontinent, India is home to many revered rivers — out of these, 12 major rivers are spread over a catchment area of 252 million hectares. Changing climatic and environmental patterns are accelerating flood and drought conditions. The rivers are now more than ever prone to devastating flooding. One thing that requires particular mention at this point is swapping between drought and flood incidents in particular districts. The flood-prone regions are alternately witnessing draughts and vice versa. This phenomenon has compounded the situation by great proportions.
Aftermath: the real problem!
After the cyclone passes away wreaking havoc in a short span of time, and politicians have made their assessments and announced reliefs, the natives return only to find their homes destructed. They would look at debris for all that was their possession a few days back but now there is hardly any trace of those left. Filling the stomach of their own and their families would now be their first and greatest challenge. But are they left with the means to do so? How long will it take to start from scratch?
Similar is the situation with massive floods. If frequent cyclones, floods, droughts, heatwaves etc. are taken into account, one could find that a large part of India is subjected to a perpetual problem, which is now more routine than sporadic. The reason? Partly, climate change. There is no point in fixing responsibilities but it is a fact that the 'worst-affected rural masses' have least to do with the emergence of the current situation.
Mitigation and adaptation
These are the two strategies through which we respond to environmental disasters — mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation refers to reducing climate change in actual terms by reducing the flow of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its 2014 report, described mitigation as a measure that will stabilize GHGs level so as to provide room for development to proceed sustainably. The level of GHGs can be stabilized in two ways:
- By reducing the GHG emissions; and
- By sinking the existing GHGs, particularly carbon dioxide, into CO2 absorbing systems.
In view of the former, major countries have recently pledged to curtail their emission to a specific extent within a timeframe ranging over the next couple of decades. Carbon emissions can be soaked in natural ecosystems through widespread afforestation; or it can be pumped into the earth surface, the application whose scale is very limited in comparison to the problem. However, apart from allowing development to take place at a sustainable rate, it buys time for the human race to make changes in their lifestyle, infrastructure and social systems. This is where adaption comes in. The World Bank has defined adaption measures as "responses to climatic conditions that may be used to reduce vulnerability." By adapting, we make adjustments so as to be least affected in case an environmental disaster occurs; or also to take full advantage of benefits, if offered by climate change. Further, adaption could be anticipatory — making adjustments for a disaster that may likely hit us — or reactive — making swift adjustments in case of actual disasters. It can be easily understood that mitigation and adaption are mutually complementary. Mitigation efforts and pledges in India are more visible than adaption. Unless and until both are taken in a full-fledged manner, the desired outcome will remain out of sight.
India was one of the early starters in proposing and formulating these measures. Way back in 2002, the country had highlighted the need to assess the vulnerabilities and take adaptive measures. In 2008, we formulated the National Action Plan on Climate Change. The priority areas include solar energy; energy efficiency; sustainable housing; water; preservation of ecosystem in the Himalayas; reforestation; sustainable agriculture; and strategic knowledge management. Most of the above-listed priorities (six of them) are adaptive. The real problem, however, has been the ineffective implementation of these measures over years. Furthermore, the environmental and climatic challenges have undergone radical change. There is a need to look much beyond the existing framework to identify new challenges and rework and implement adaptive and mitigative measures. In the subsequent section, we shall see where does India stand in adopting mitigation and adaptation measures in the present-day context under a broader sub of India's preparedness.
Preparation against the set climate change-related disasters, that are all-encompassing, could be termed lacking whatsoever be its magnitude and extent. Taking the writers' discretion, we shall focus on preparedness around three crucial aspects — preparation to reduce the damage caused by frequent cyclones, floods and droughts; preparedness of healthcare systems to deal with post-disaster health issues and most importantly; the fundamental mitigation efforts to balance between the use of fossils and renewables.
Critical infrastructure: The infrastructural character of disaster-prone areas still awaits to be evolved to match the enhanced risks of natural disaster. There is no dearth of planning in this regard but the problem once again is implementation. Taking the particular case of infrastructure related to cyclones, the National Risk Mitigation Project was initiated way back in 2011. The project is aimed at building critical infrastructure in 13 cyclone-prone coastal states of India — including both the eastern coast around the Bay of Bengal and the western coast along the Arabian Sea. The infrastructures include construction of shelter homes, saline embankments, ground wiring of electric lines etc.
Healthcare: The onslaught of the pandemic has not only exposed but also over-stressed the already crumbling healthcare infrastructure. The pandemic-related expenses have engulfed a major share of scanty healthcare allocation. The 2017 health policy stated that the Central budget must allocate 2.5 per cent of the GDP to the health sector. At the same time, health being a state subject, states should spend at least eight per cent of their budget on the sector. The proposed allocation remains dismally elusive for both the states and the Centre. Further, there is a shortage of doctors in the country. Primary healthcare is ill-prepared. How on earth could this system be trusted to provide care to people affected immediately, or in the long term due to post-flood/cyclone vector-borne diseases and other ailments?
Renewables or fossils: Ever since the onset of the pandemic and the imposition of nationwide lockdown, when the world found the lost privilege of breathing fresh air, the talks towards renewables have intensified. Renewables are certainly at the centre of mitigation efforts. But, the government's support for the coal sector doesn't seem to fade away. Reckless environment clearances to fossil-based industries and dilution of Environmental Impact Assessment notifications doesn't seem in sync with the country's resolve to tackle the impact of global warming.
A joint report by the International Institute of Sustainable Development (IISD) and Council of Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) found that the level of coal subsidy remained stable from USD 2.6 billion in 2014 to USD 2.4 billion in 2017. Though there has been a significant shift towards subsidising renewables in the past few years, these may fall short to achieve our ambitious climate change targets.
The sooner we realise that the time to act against climate change is passing by swiftly, rather threateningly, the more damage control we can do. The environment around us has helped us all throughout history to be what we are today. If the relation between humans and nature is not made to return to a cordial level, it could very well mean doom.
Views expressed are personal