Under the weather in India

Climate change will bring India the wrong rain in the wrong places. Fierce flooding will ruin lives, while India’s rivers and soil are sucked dry by drought, write Terry Slavin and Malini Mehra.

2007 brought ‘wild weather’ to South Asia. The worst floods in living memory killed thousands and displaced over 20 million more. But they were just a taste of what awaits India as the planet heats up, say climate scientists.

Average summer rainfall across the subcontinent could increase by about 10%, largely because a warmer Indian Ocean will be able to hold more water. But it will be the wrong kind of rain and in the wrong place. It will fall less frequently, but much more fiercely; there will be fewer rainy days, but the number and intensity of destructive rains, such as those which triggered last summer’s floods, will increase.

Since rain-fed agriculture makes up 70% of farmed land, increased drought will have a devastating impact on India’s rural economy. It will struggle to feed its fast-growing population – expected to hit 1.5 billion by 2030. By the end of this century, crop yields could be 70% less than they are now, raising the prospect of mass starvation.

The misery will be compounded by sea levels, which are set to rise by at least 40 centimetres by 2100, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), inundating vast areas, including some of India’s most densely populated cities, whose populations will be forced to migrate inland, or build defensive dykes. Already, islands and villages in the Bay of Bengal have been lost to sea-level rise, causing a drift of ecological refugees to Kolkata.

Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC [see “We need a new Gandhi”], last year warned that the rural poor, who make up 70% of India’s population, would have no choice but to migrate to larger towns and cities, compounding existing problems of inadequate urban infrastructure and burgeoning slum populations. Meanwhile, temperatures will increase all year round, with heat during the dry pre-monsoon months of April and May (already so high some years that they kill thousands), soaring to dangerous new levels.

Scientists are quick to acknowledge that predicting the Indian weather is a notoriously inexact science. A background report for the Stern Review admitted that current climate models fall short in this area, where ocean, atmosphere, land surface and mountains all interact. But that very unpredictability is in itself one of the most worrying aspects for India.

There’s a growing consensus, however, that one of the most severe effects will be on the glaciers of the Himalayas. Their meltwater currently supplies up to 85% of the flow of the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Indus rivers. Latest IPCC estimates suggest that they may shrink to one-fifth of their volume within a few decades. Initially this will cause floods as the waters melt – and then a water crisis of unprecedented proportions as the rivers dry.

Analysts tell us that future wars will be fought around resources such as water. Seven of the world’s major river basins originate in the Himalayan and Tibetan plateaus. They are the source of water for 40% of humanity. China, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Burma all share these borders. If the rivers do run dry, a more serious cause of regional destabilisation can scarcely be imagined.

For the 700 million Indians who live on the land, climate change brings confusion and helplessness, as people lose their traditional capacity to ‘read’ the weather and adjust accordingly. When the rains don’t come and when the natural world doesn’t behave as it should, societies which have survived by observing the world and adapting to it lose essential coping skills. Climate change, at a most profound level, disempowers by rendering traditional knowledge useless.

So how well is India planning for these multiple assaults from a changing climate? On a scale of 1 to 10, says Pachauri, India’s preparation stands at 0.5.

Terry Slavin is a freelance journalist based in London

 Malini Mehra is the founder and chief executive of Centre for Social Markets. In 2007, she was named as an “Asia 21 Young Leader” by the Asia Society. She has been featured on CNN and BBC World, and in Time and Fortune magazines.

This article appears in “Monsoons & miracles: India’s search for a sustainable future”, a special supplement produced by Green Futures magazine

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