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The impending environmental disaster

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The impending environmental disaster

Saturday, 07 July 2018 | Hiranmay Karlekar

Climate change is a global phenomenon and the prognosis is grim worldwide; people who do not act against a looming disaster are fated to be consumed by it

According to a report by Archana Jyoti in a recent issue of The Pioneer, the latest World Bank report, titled “South Asia’s Hotspots: The Impact of Temperature and Precipitation Changes on living Standards”, has an ominous message for India. Defining a “Hotspot” as a location in which changes in average temperature and precipitation will have a negative impact on living standards, the report says that hotspots are necessarily zones where temperatures are higher than those in the surrounding areas and which also reflect the local population’s socio-economic capacity to cope with climate change.

According to the report, by 2050, unchecked climate change, causing high temperatures and poor rainfall, would diminish the living standards of half of the county’s population, particularly farmers in Central India. The report further says that by 2050, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh will be the country’s top two States in terms of the number of hotspots in them.

Both are likely to experience a decline of more than nine per cent in living standards, followed by Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. The Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, according to the report, would have seven — Chandrapur, Nagpur, Gondiya, Wardha and Yavatmal — of the 10 worst-hit of the country’s hotspot districts.

The report scripts a grim scenario. India’s average temperature is expected to rise by one degree to two degrees centigrade by 2050 even if preventive measures are taken along the lines of those recommended by the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. Without measures, the increase will be between one-and-a-half and three per cent. About 600 million people will be affected if the report’s prediction comes true, the likelihood of which is very considerable. There are other indications that climate change has begun taking its toll on India. The retreat of the Himalayan glaciers is one of them.

A joint research of scientists from Kumaun University, Uttarakhand Space Application Centre, Dehradun; and Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Kolkata, have found that the Pindari glacier, which feeds the Pindar River, a major tributary of the Alaknanda River, has retreated cumulatively by 1,569.01 metres over the four decades, which means an average retreat rate of 51.23 metres each year.

A team from Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune, reported in Annals of Galciology in 2016, that the lengths of 43 Himalayan glaciers, including the Pindari, had changed between 1850 and 2010. Referring to the Pindari glacier, their report stated that the retreat had amounted to a total of 3.08 kilometres from 1850 to 2010.  This indicates an increase of 30 metres each year against the Pindari glacier’s 51.23 metres. Clearly, there has been an acceleration during the last four decades.

Another study by scientists from Indian Space Research Organisation and geologists from Andhra University, Visakhapatnam, has shown that the Khatling trunk glacier, which feeds the Bhilangna river, a tributary of the Bhagirathi, has retreated by 4,340 metres between 1965 and 2014, besides increasing the number of glaciers fragmenting from it from 20 to 33. The Himalaya being the source of water in the case of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, the retreat of the Himalayan glaciers has serious implications for water supply and storage in the region.

This, in turn, has serious implications for agriculture in the entire region spanning the basins on both rivers stretching over almost the whole of northern and central parts of the country. What this means for living standards of farmers and all others involved in the distribution of farm inputs (fertilisers, for example) and products hardly needs elaboration.

Nor can there be any doubt that the continuing retreat of the glaciers is a result of global warming. According to the IISER report, the Himalaya and Karakoram ranges have warmed up by 1.5 degrees Centigrade between 1850 and 2010. The question is: What is to be doneIJ

One needs to remember here that climate change is a global phenomenon and the prognosis is grim worldwide. A report titled The Global Climate Change Regime by the United States-based Council on Foreign Relations’ International Institutions and Global Governance Programme, cited, in 2013, the American Meteorological Society as mentioning a 90 per cent probability of global temperatures rising by 3.5 to 7.4 degrees Celsius in less than 100 years, with even greater increases over land and the poles.

The consequences would include rising sea levels, drowning of island nations, extreme and volatile weather patterns, desertification, diminishing food production, famine, water shortages the flooding of cities, mass migrations of humans and other living species, creation of climate refugees, extinction of plant and animal life, mass destruction of forests, and a situation in which playing and working in the open could be dangerous for people in the hottest parts of the year. The worst victims would be the poor who would be the hardest hit both by rising food prices following declining production and intensified weather disasters.

The Paris Agreement on climate change raised hopes that at least some action would follow. Unfortunately, the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has dealt a severe blow these. While, one needs to see how damaging its impact will be. India needs to focus on what it can do. Curbing the emission levels of Greenhouse gases is important and efforts in that direction need to be accelerated. The same applies to the transition to more environment-friendly sources of energy like solar power. The civic bodies could play an important role in this by switching over to solar street lighting.

Unfortunately, the most important cause of global warming, increase in human activity, is not being attended to. A survey, published in The Environment Research letters, found that 97 per cent of scientific studies on climate change concluded that human activity, due to the consumption of fossil fuels, was causing global warming. India is sitting on a population bomb. Its population,40.9 crore in 1955, rose to 100.3 crore in 2018 (latest figures). Surpassing China’s as the highest in the world in 2021, it is set to rise to 170.5 crore in 2050.

It is not difficult to visualise what impact increasing population, leading to increasing activity, would have on global warming. Worse, very little is being done worldwide to counter the continuing phenomenal increase in world population, which is set to rise to over 10 billion by 2060.

This is hardly surprising. As early as 1967, Desmond Morris had written in The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal, “At the end of the 17th century the world population of naked apes [humans] was only 500 million. It has now risen to 3,000 million. Every twenty-four hours it increases by another 150,000. ….In 260 years’ time, if the rate increase stays steady — which is unlikely — there will be a seething mass of 400,000 million naked apes crowding the face of the earth.” He adds, “To put it another way, the densities we now experience in our major cities would exist in every corner of the globe. The consequence of this for all forms of wild life is obvious. The effect it would have on our own species is equally depressing.”

People who do not act against a looming disaster are fated to be consumed by it.

(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)

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