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Climate Change Will Devastate
South Asia

By Daphne Wysham & Smitu Kothari

18 April, 2007
The Hindu

A 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.

Volatile mix

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.)

Copyright © 2007, The Hindu


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