Change Will Devastate
By Daphne Wysham
& Smitu Kothari
18 April, 2007
final draft of a report leaked from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC) to the authors lays out shocking scenarios for India and
the rest of South Asia. The summary for policy makers that was released
by the IPCC on Friday is a call for urgent action globally. While shocking,
the fuller final draft version of the Second Working Group of the IPCC's
Fourth Assessment Report, which may be watered down before final publication,
makes for even more sobering reading: It lays out in explicit detail
what lies ahead for India and the rest of Asia. It also presents an
opportunity for the country to take the lead in defining a more secure
and sustainable future for itself.
Here are some of the devastating
consequences detailed in the provisional February 16, 2007, IPCC report
on Asia: Sea levels will rise by at least 40 cm by 2100, inundating
vast areas on the coastline, including some of the most densely populated
cities whose populations will be forced to migrate inland or build dykes
— both requiring a financial and logistical challenge that will
be unprecedented. In the South Asian region as a whole, millions of
people will find their lands and homes inundated. Up to 88 per cent
of all of Asia's coral reefs, termed the "rainforests of the ocean"
because of the critical habitat they provide to sea creatures, may be
lost as a result of warming ocean temperatures.
The Ganga, Brahmaputra, and
Indus will become seasonal rivers, dry between monsoon rains as Himalayan
glaciers will continue their retreat, vanishing entirely by 2035, if
not sooner. Water tables will continue to fall and the gross per capita
water availability in India will decline by over one-third by 2050 as
rivers dry up, water tables fall or grow more saline. Water scarcity
will in turn affect the health of vast populations, with a rise in water-borne
diseases such as cholera. Other diseases such as dengue fever and malaria
are also expected to rise.
Crop productivity will fall,
especially in non-irrigated land, as temperatures rise for all of South
Asia by as much as 1.2 degrees C on average by 2040, and even greater
crop loss — of over 25 per cent — as temperatures rise to
up to 5.4 degrees C by the end of the century. This means an even lower
caloric intake for India's vast rural population, already pushed to
the limit, with the possibility of starvation in many rural areas dependent
on rainfall for their crops. Even those areas that rely on irrigation
will find a growing crisis in adequate water availability.
Mortality due to heat-related
deaths will climb, with the poor, the elderly and daily wage earners
and agricultural workers suffering a rise in heat-related deaths.
This grim future awaits India
in the coming century. The irony is that much of this damage will be
self-inflicted, unless the country is prepared to make a radical, enlightened
change in its energy and transportation strategies.
We are truly at a crossroads:
Either we can be complacent or wait for leadership from a reluctant
United States, the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, or begin
to take action now, regardless of what other countries do.
The path that India has taken
thus far, of waiting until wealthy countries take action on global warming,
is understandable if viewed in isolation. The U.S., the U.K., and other
countries in the wealthy North, have developed their economies largely
thanks to fossil fuels. It is only fair that India be allowed to attain
the same standard of living before curbing its emissions.
But as the IPCC report makes
clear, while it may be "fair" to do so, it is also suicidal
for India to pursue any strategy but the least carbon-intensive path
toward its own development. Wealthy, less populous countries in the
North are very likely — and very unfairly — going to suffer
fewer devastating blows to their economies, and may actually benefit
with extended growing seasons, while India and other South Asian nations
will dramatically and painfully suffer if action is not taken now.
Today, much of India's energy
comes from coal, most of it mined in the rural areas of Orissa, Jharkhand,
and Bihar with devastating consequences. Tribals and small and marginal
peasants are being forced to resettle as these mines grow wider by the
day. Inadequate resettlement plans mean more migration of landless populations
to urban slums. The environment is being destroyed by these mines and
their waste products — among them fly ash laced with heavy metals
and other toxic materials. But the biggest irony of this boom in coal-fired
power is that much of the power is going to export-oriented, energy-intensive
industry. Look at Orissa's coal belt and you will find a plethora of
foreign-owned and Indian aluminium smelters, steel mills, and sponge
iron factories — all burning India's coal, at a heavy cost to
local populations — then exporting a good share of the final product
to the China, the U.S. or other foreign markets.
Add to the problem of export-oriented, energy-intensive industry the
problem of carbon trades, and you have a volatile mix. India is one
of the top destinations globally in the growing carbon market. In exchange
for carbon trade projects in India, wealthy polluters in the North are
able to avoid restrictions on their own emissions. Rather than financing
"clean development" projects as promised, many of these trades
are cheap, dirty, and harmful to the rural poor. Fast-growing eucalyptus
plantations are displacing farmers from their land and tribals from
their forests. Sponge-iron factories are garnering more money from carbon
trades earned by capturing "waste heat" than from the production
of the raw material itself. Toxic fly ash from coal-fired power plants
is being turned into bricks, and the carbon that would have been released
from traditional clay-fired brick kilns, is now an invisible commodity
that can be sold as carbon credits. These carbon trades are not helping
finance clean energy and development for India's rural poor.
Add to this the special economic
zones or SEZs — forcing people off their land, where blood, often
of the most vulnerable, is shed at the altar of development.
Global warming will tighten
this growing squeeze to a noose, as huge areas of Bangladesh go underwater
and environmental refugees flood across India's borders. The leaked
final draft of the IPCC report shows that Bangladesh is slated to lose
the largest amount of land globally — approximately 1000 square
km of cultivated land — due to sea level rise. Where will all
of those hungry, thirsty, landless millions go? Most will flock to the
border looking for avenues to enter, exacerbating an already tense situation
not only in the States contiguous to Bangladesh but in cities as far
off as Mumbai and Delhi.
Undoubtedly, global warming
is not fair. It is exacting the highest price on those least responsible
for the problem. But India can show the world that there is another
way forward: A self-interested, self-preserving way, focussed on clean
energy such as solar and wind; on energy efficiency; on providing for
its own population's energy needs ahead of foreign corporations; on
public transportation plans that strengthen India's vast network of
rail and bus transportation routes, rather than weakening it with public
subsidies to massive highways and to automakers. The IPCC final draft
report urges India and other Asian countries to prepare for the coming
climate apocalypse with crop varieties that can withstand higher temperatures,
salinated aquifers, and an increase in pests. It also advises better
water resource management and better disease monitoring and control.
While important, prevention is always the best medicine.
The IPCC final draft report
should be seen as a conservative assessment of what lies in store. It
clearly implies that incremental or palliative responses to reduce vulnerability
are not the answer. India and the other countries of the region need
to take a preventative approach by moving their economies away from
fossil fuels and toward clean, renewable forms of energy. This is the
only way of preserving a sustainable way of life that could be a model
for the world. If it pursues what is "fair" in a warming world
by continuing to argue that industrialised nation are to blame and need
to take urgent action, it will be placing the noose around its own neck
while the hangman looks on.
(Daphne Wysham is a Fellow,
Institute for Policy Studies, Washington and Smitu Kothari is Director,
Intercultural Resources, Delhi and Visiting Professor, Princeton University.)
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