Illustrations by Frits Ahlefeldt
An Indian Perspective
On 26 July 2005 Mumbai received well over 900 mm of rainfall, devastating the city and killing hundreds of people. It brought into sharp focus the topic of climate change. We then had the “cloud burst” event in June 2013 in the mountains of Uttarakhand, and a lot of attention was on the devastation in the Kedarnath shrine area. It is estimated that in addition to more than 5000 lives lost, the damage to infrastructure was at least several thousand crore rupees, apart from ripping apart jobs and livelihoods linked to tourism and pilgrimage. Subsequently we had the devastating floods in Chennai in November-December 2015, floods in Bihar and the Kerala floods in 2018. And just a few days back we had the terrible flooding in Hyderabad city.
India’s climate is warming and changing like elsewhere on the globe, but the complexity of the Indian Monsoon has been challenging for climate scientists to study. We have seen a decline in the overall Monsoon since the 1950s, and yet with an increase in the frequency and intensity of rains. But India is fortunate to have some of the best climate scientists in institutions such as our own IIT Bombay and IITM, Pune. We learn from them for example that the warming of the seas could be weakening the thermal contrast between the land-mass and the sea, a driver of the Monsoon. This could explain both the phenomena of a weakening Monsoon and rainfall falling in more intense spells with dry spells in between. The observed decline was not predicted by many climate models and is now an active area of research as we need to get better forecasts of the future of our Monsoon system over the next few decades.
India’s diverse ecosystems straddling the highest mountains in the world, the Himalayas, the forests of the Western Ghats and peninsular India to the coastal zones and estuaries and deltas are increasingly being stressed by climate change impacts. For example, emerging evidence from forests in the Himalayas suggests that they could be “greening” in some places due to warming but “browning” elsewhere in response to warming and moisture stress in the post-Monsoon period due to decline in winter and spring rains.
Our cities as we have seen from recent events are increasingly vulnerable due to loss of natural drainages, wetlands and the replacement of green areas with impermeable surfaces, a recipe for a climate-change-land-use time-bomb whose fuse is lit waiting for opportunities to manifest itself.
One of the dangers of the climate change discourse by government and in civil society is that almost all disasters are being attributed to climate change and much less due to other drivers such as land-use change and the development pathways we have embraced in the way we plan and manage our cities, our water resources and our rivers and wetlands. We know that climate change is indeed a big stressor that needs our attention, but often it is just the proverbial “last straw on the camel’s back.”
As an example, the fragility of the tectonically active and unstable Himalayan ecosystems was already known to environmentally literate folks and scientists, and yet post the Kedarnath disaster the Char Dham road-building controversy and business-as-usual ecologically damaging projects such as several large dams are being pushed through in the Himalayas. Why is our memory so short?
We now know from the scrutiny of some of the devastating floods in Kerala, Bihar and elsewhere that some of these are not just due to “heavy rain” but are human-caused due to the sudden releases from dams and reservoirs, and brave and bold engineers and activists are questioning the management mantras governing these reservoirs. So dams can, depending on how we manage them, cause or prevent floods.
And now we are beginning to learn that the disruption of sediment movement in our rivers due to trapping by dams and barrages is another cause of floods and poses severe threats to our river ecosystems, aquatic biodiversity and fisheries, besides depriving our sinking deltas of badly needed sediment deposition to protect against sea-level rise and to sustain the productivity of the estuarine and coastal ecosystems. One recent study has estimated that sediment reaching our deltas and estuaries may reduce by over 50% if we implement the interlinking of rivers. The removal of sand from rivers for our urbanization is a clear and present danger to the ecology of our rivers and deltas. Meaning full regulation and alternatives will emerge only if we recognize the magnitude of these drivers.
How can the government, citizens, and civil society respond?
In this year’s budget, the Government of Karnataka introduced for the first time a Green Index by which projects and programmes would be rated in terms of their environmental impact. Unfortunately, soon after it was announced the pandemic was upon us, and its fate in informing the choice and design of development projects is currently unknown. Let us hope more state governments move towards such scrutiny of projects from the point of view of irreparable ecological damage.
The Green Index was a welcome initiative, but will it be calculated based on a transparent mechanism that draws upon the best possible data and evidence and done by an independent body? The real test of this would be if large projects are dropped or redesigned if the multi-dimensional Green Index falls below a certain threshold in terms of irreparable ecological damage or poor climate change adaptation.
One of the features of an informed and concerned civil society is drawing the right lessons from disasters. We must take an urgent transparent approach to generation, monitoring and sharing of hydrologic and rainfall data to forge meaningful partnerships between government, academic and civil society to understand our climate and weather systems and implications for ecology, urban planning, food security agriculture.
Installing automated and telemetered rain gauges and stream gauges in head water catchments can give us advance warning of moisture buildup in remote locations in the head-waters of our rivers and reservoirs. We must salute the efforts of the Indian Meteorological Department and our weather and climate scientists which has now resulted in improvements in our short-term weather forecasts. Feeding these forecasts and data from telemetered rain gauge and stream gauge sensors into data-based hydrologic models within an AI early-warning system could help improve the response of our dam operators or warn farmers and citizens in advance of emerging extreme events, but technology can only play a useful part if all the pieces of our development and land-use approaches and our priorities are aligned towards recognition that non-climatic drivers and stressors need to be managed and not shoved under the carpet of the climate change bandwagon.
Can we reduce the over-exploitation of our ground-water and question plans to divert our rivers? This requires major efforts towards reducing water-use in agriculture by shifts to nutritious crops that consume less water. Fortunately, we have a rich agro-cultural and culinary tradition of millets in various parts of the country. These are now finding favor amongst many health-conscious folks in the cities.
Promoting these in our railways, school meals and increasing awareness through social media could help, but policies that incentivize these crops are required. Cities and towns need citizens to push them towards the treatment and recycling of wastewater.
However, reducing water use in agriculture, industry, or other sectors does not automatically imply recharge of our depleted groundwater and our rivers. Society often finds new uses for “saved water” and unless we decide that precious water-savings need to go to our depleted aquifers and our rivers through regulation and supportive policies it won’t happen.
We need to mobilise all our knowledge, harness civil society and political will to rethink our definitions of prudent development pathways and land-use zoning in different parts of the country if we are truly committed to increasing the resilience of India’s ecological, water and climate change security.