By Joy Mitra:
In its report, Turn Down the Heat: Climate extremes, regional Impacts and the Case for Resilience, the world bank looks at the impact of warming on agricultural production, water resources, coastal ecosystems and cities across south Asia. The report finds that if the world warms by 2Â°C – which may happen within the next 20 to 30 years – widespread food and water shortages could unfold, together with prolonged droughts, unprecedented heat-waves, more intense rainfall and flooding, and a significant threat to energy production.
In fact India is already experiencing a warming climate. Unusual and unprecedented spells of hot weather are expected to occur far more frequently and cover much larger areas. Under 4Â°C warming, the west coast and southern India are projected to shift to new, high-temperature climatic regimes with significant impacts on agriculture.
This will also impact the rainfall pattern which may alter significantly. A decline in monsoon rainfall since 1950s has already been observed. The frequency of heavy rainfall events has also increased. A 2Â°C rise in the world’s average temperatures will make India’s summer monsoon highly unpredictable. At 4Â°C warming, an extremely wet monsoon that currently has a chance of occurring only once in 100 years is projected to occur every 10 years by the end of the century. An abrupt change in the monsoon may lead to triggering more frequent droughts as well as greater flooding in large parts of India. India’s northwest coast to the southern eastern coastal region could see higher than average rainfall. Dry years are expected to be drier and wet years wetter.
Evidence indicates that parts of South Asia have become drier since the 1970s with an increase in number of droughts. Droughts are expected to be more frequent in some areas, especially in north-western India, Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh. Crop yields are expected to fall significantly because of extreme heat by the 2040s.
More than 60% of India’s agriculture is rain-fed, making the country highly dependent on groundwater. Although it is difficult to predict future ground water levels, falling water tables can be expected to reduce further on account of increasing demand for water from a growing population, more affluent life styles, as well as from the services sector and industry.
Glaciers in the north-western Himalayas and in the Karakoram range – where westerly winter winds are the major source of moisture – have remained stable or even advanced.On the other hand, most Himalayan glaciers – where a substantial part of the moisture is supplied by the summer monsoon – have been retreating over the past century. At 2.5Â°C warming, melting glaciers and the loss of snow cover over the Himalayas are expected to threaten the stability and reliability of northern India’s primarily glacier-fed rivers, particularly the Indus and the Brahmaputra. The Ganges will be less dependent on melt water due to high annual rainfall downstream during the monsoon season. The Indus and Brahmaputra are expected to see increased flows in spring when the snows melt, with flows reducing subsequently in late spring and summer. Alterations in the flows of the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra rivers could significantly impact irrigation, affecting the amount of food that can be produced in their basins as well as the livelihoods of millions of people (209 million in the Indus basin, 478 million in the Ganges basin, and 62 million in the Brahmaputra basin in the year 2005).
Mumbai has the world’s largest population exposed to coastal flooding, with large parts of the city built on reclaimed land, below the high-tide mark. Rapid and unplanned urbanization further increases the risks of sea water intrusion.With India close to the equator, the sub-continent would see much higher rises in sea levels than higher latitudes. Sea-level rise and storm surges would lead to saltwater intrusion in the coastal areas, impacting agriculture, degrading groundwater quality, contaminating drinking water, and possibly causing a rise in diarrhoea cases and cholera outbreaks, as the cholera bacterium survives longer in saline water.Kolkata and Mumbai, both densely populated cities, are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of sea-level rise, tropical cyclones, and riverine flooding.
Apart from what is listed above, global warming will have some far-reaching geo-political consequences for India and its neighbourhood. As sea levels rise, Bangladesh is poised to lose huge tracts of land and so is Maldives which faces a more potent existential threat. When and if they lose land the populations of these countries might want to relocate to India and look for aid from India, possibly leading to a refugee influx in India. Apart from this India itself might face a situation of IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) which might lead to a spike in local ethnic tension and disrupt local economies giving rise to a further detrimental local political dynamic as migration acquires a political dimension.
Also as both Pakistan and India are water stressed nations and have already dragged each other to International Court of Arbitration over the construction of ‘Gurez’ dam on the Kishanganga River the animosity might increase in the coming years as the water stress becomes more acute and military adventures cannot be ruled out. China has already been constructing a lot of dams over the Brahmaputra which is speculated to be ‘run of the river’ dams which do not alter the current flow of water as they don’t hold water. However in future more dams can be constructed by China to allocate more water to its drier northern regions. This will threaten India’s water security and could lead to a military conflict.
As population rises and income levels increase the world food prices are expected to increase and so in India. But seasonal water scarcity and high temperatures could affect our food security. While we had a lot of food grains in our silos all this time thanks to improved agricultural practices and it could have been exported, some experts even contemplated using it as a strategic resource by exporting it to Afghanistan which is in the nascent stages of state-building. This could have been used to leverage a lot of influence and goodwill in that country. But global warming could substantially change this dynamic by reducing the yields of wheat and rice thereby making us import dependent as our population is slated to grow large in the coming years. Even energy security will be threatened as two of the dominant forms of power generation in India hydropower and thermal power generation depend on adequate water supplies to function effectively.
In India incomes are not very high and the gini coefficient is very high which indicates the wide disparity in the distribution of income in the country. In most middle income countries political order survives because of the promise to keep delivering growth to their people and pulling masses out of poverty. As India’s economy has slowed down we have seen the discontent and anger grow. Rising middle class aspires to a better life and social security, and the Indian political class must rise up to the challenge because when the effects of global warming acquire their fullest shape and the government fails to deliver, the economic pillar of this democracy will develop cracks.