How Climate Change is Going To Affect India. Specifically.

Nidhi Jamwal
Grist Media


The first thing that strikes you as you arrive at Nargol, a small village over 180km north of Mumbai, is its picturesque setting. The Arabian Sea spreads vast and breathtaking right before a clean beach dotted with stunning casuarina trees, separated from the village by only a tarred road. But it’s a sea that has been moving, and with scant regard for boundaries. In the last few years, the water has lapped closer and closer to this village in Umargaon taluk of Valsad district in Gujarat, swallowing up the land that previously served as a buffer between Nargol and the sea.

Jayesh Baria, sarpanch of Nargol, knows they have a problem on their hands. “In the last 5-6 years, the sea has undergone a major change and has moved at least 100m inward towards our village. During high tide, the water enters some households, and fishers, who live right next to the sea, are the worst affected,” he says. He’s held talks with the state government, and has managed to get a sanction of about Rs 8 crore for constructing a sea wall between the sea and his village. “Once the elections get over, construction of sea wall will begin. WithRs 8 crore, we will be able to protect 50 percent of the village, and for the rest, I will try to get more funds sanctioned from the state government,” he adds.

Baria is confident that a wall will save Nargol from being engulfed by the sea. But local action may not be enough, in this case – indications in the recently released climate assessment reports of the United Nations’ climate change body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), suggest that Nargol may be in much bigger trouble.

Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability’, the IPCC’s report by its Working Group II released on March 31, says with more confidence than ever what we’ve known for a long time – climate change is now taking place on every continent and its impact, such as incidents of extreme weather, is far more stark. On April 15, the IPCC released its Working Group III report, ‘Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change’. Along with the WGI report released last September, they form the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the IPCC, which periodically studies the latest data and research on climate change through its assessment reports. Indrajit Bose, a New Delhi-based climate change researcher, says the recent reports project a “doomsday scenario” for the world. “It is a strong warning bell for India, as we have a huge population of poor people, and the reports clearly say that the poor will be affected the most, as they are vulnerable and do not have the capacity to adapt.”

WGII mentions key information on the impact of climate change in India. Among the aspects it links to climate change is an increase in the number of monsoon break days (when normal rainfall increases suddenly and continues for several days); an overall decrease in seasonal mean rainfall; increase in precipitation in the Indian summer monsoon, and freshwater resources being influenced by changes in rainfall variability, snowmelt or glacier retreat in the river catchment, and evapotranspiration (sum of evaporation and plant transpiration from the Earth's land and ocean surface to the atmosphere).

Harjeet Singh, international coordinator (Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Adaptation) at ActionAid, says the IPCC reports are clear that human activities are leading to climate change, which will have an impact each one of us. But how much could climate change interfere with our daily lives, and what are the ways in which it might it affect us?

How climate change will affect Indians’ health

India has witnessed a resurgence of several vector-borne diseases long thought to be ‘controlled’. Environmental epidemiologists blame the resurgence of some vector-borne diseases in India such as malaria, dengue and chikungunya on the temperature fluctuations due to climate change.

WGII points out that outbreaks of vaccine-preventable Japanese encephalitis in the Himalayan region and malaria in India and Nepal have been linked to rainfall. The Economic Survey of Maharashtra 2011-12 shows that in the case of Mumbai, the number of dengue cases for the year 2011-12 (up to Jan 2012) has been the highest over the last five years. In that period, 7,898 cases of dengue were recorded, as opposed to 3,746 cases the year before. The deaths caused by dengue have risen from six cases in 2010-11 to 25 cases in 2011-12.

The first reported outbreak of chikungunya fever in India was in 1963 in Kolkata, with transmission continuing until 1973. After the lull that followed, the virus re-emerged in 2005, and has since spread rapidly.

“Both the parasite and the mosquito that houses the parasite are susceptible to temperature changes. At temperatures close to the physiological tolerance limit of the parasite, a small increase in temperature can kill the parasite, thereby decreasing malaria transmission. At lower temperatures, however, a small increase in temperature can greatly increase the risk of malaria transmission due to increased numbers of mosquitoes,” reads ‘Climate change & infectious diseases in India: Implications for health care providers’, a December 2013 paper in the Indian Journal of Medical Research.

The New Delhi-based National Institute of Malaria Research has undertaken studies to understand the link between malaria and climate change in India. Projections based on temperature reveal the introduction of new foci of malaria in Jammu and Kashmir and Uttarakhand, while the North-eastern statesare expected to see a rise in the intensity of malaria transmission. The institute also noticed an increase in transmission months in districts of Himalayan region, and found that the foci of chikungunya and kala azar in the country have changed too.

How freak weather affects the food on your table

“Today we are much surer than before that climate is changing due to human activities. There is enough evidence for the international scientific community to counter the allegations that the freak weather events are not climate induced,” asserts Meena Raman, co-director of Third World Network, an independent non-profit headquartered at Penang, Malaysia.

Possibly the biggest threat that climate change poses in India is to its annual monsoon, rightly termed “the real finance minister” of the country. The summer monsoon is increasingly erratic, interspersed with extreme weather events. On July 26, 2005, Mumbai received 944mm of rain in just 24 hours, flooding the entire city and completely cutting it off from the outside world. In March this year, freak hailstorms hit central and north India, destroying at least 5.5 million hectares of ready-to-harvest rabi crops.

In 2009, the Indian Meteorological Department’s Mumbai office came up with a report, ‘Environmental degradation, disasters and climate change, which analyzed 100 years of weather data from 1901 onwards and found a rise of 1.62°C in Mumbai’saverage maximum temperature. It also found that the 1990s witnessed a three-fold rise in natural disasters such as floods and thunderstorms when compared to the 1960s. And since the 1960s, expenditure on mitigation and reduction of such disasters has increased nine-fold.

The Pune-based Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology analysed data of more than 1,800 weather stations in central India from 1951 to 2000. It did not find any significant change in the seasonal mean rainfall in the region, but found that the number of extreme events – rainfall exceeding 150 mm per day – has doubled since the early 1950s. Heavy rainfall, exceeding 100mm per day, shows a 10 percent increase per decade.

“Climate science is still evolving. It is difficult to directly attribute one freak weather event to climate change. However, a series of unprecedented freak events, which we have witnessed in the recent past, is certainly due to climate change and global warming,” says Singh.

A direct impact of unpredictable monsoon and extreme weather events – and one that hits particularly hard – is the toll it takes on agriculture. WGII paints a dark picture for Indian agriculture, predicting losses of over $7 billion (around Rs 42,749 crore) in 2030. It foresees a 2-14 percent reduction in the yield of monsoon sorghum grain by 2020, with worsening yields by 2050 and 2080, and warns that the Indo-Gangetic Plains are under threat of a significant reduction in wheat yields.

Studies conducted by the Hyderabad-based Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture have warned that climate change will have a negative impact on production of rice, wheat and horticulture in the country. Potato production will decline by 4 to 16 percent in West Bengal and the plateau region by 2030. Moreover, apple cultivation will have to be shifted to higher elevation to fulfillthe‘chilling requirement’(the minimum period of cold weather after which a fruit-bearing tree will blossom. Apple trees have the highest chilling requirement).

Somewhat similar are the findings of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), which warns that a 1°C increase in temperature may reduce yields of wheat, soybean, mustard, groundnut and potato by 3-7 percent. It says productivity of most crops will decrease only marginally by 2020, but the decline will touch 10-40 percent by 2100. The rising temperature and heat will directly impact livestock, leading to animal stress and reduced milk yield – a loss of 1.5 million tonnes of milk by 2020.

Farmers are already facing the heat of climate change. A 2012 study conducted in Karnataka’s Dharwad district found that the net income of 86.67 percent of the farmers interviewed by the researchers had reduced over the years. Over 83percent said there was change in climate and rainfall patterns, and 54.44 percent said the seasonal pattern was changing.The study also reported that a large number of farmers were quitting farming and shifting to other professions.

This begs a serious question – how will the country meet the increasing demand for food, which will be 276 million tons in 2021 as against 230 million tons now?

The ‘controversial’ WGIII report

The WGIII report, Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change,’says that by 2050, fossil-fuel-caused greenhouse gas emissions need to drop 40-70 percent from 2010 levels, and be eliminated by 2100. It strongly recommends that the world move away from fossil fuels and adopt renewable energy technologies. But not all aspects of the report have gone down well with researchers and environmentalists in developing countries.

“It’s disappointing to see the WGIII report label the entire hydropower industry as renewable energy, and push it as a climate change mitigation measure. The impacts of these hydel projects are actually affecting the adaptation and mitigation capabilities of local population,” claimsParineeta Dandekar, associate coordinator at South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP). She thinks it is shocking that the WGIII report does not mention the multi-day cloudburst that lead to unprecedented floods in Uttarakhand in June last year. “The WGIII report does not say a word about the Uttarakhand disaster in which hydropower projects had a major role to play. The Supreme Court of India has already appointed a separate committee to look into disaster impacts of these hydel projects,” Dandekar adds.

Hydro power aside, climate change will affect water sources in the country. The ice and snow deposits on the Himalayan ranges provide a perennial supply of water through several rivers, which cater to the livelihood, drinking water, and other needs of people in the Northern parts of India. The available data on snowfall in Himalayan ranges show a recession in some parts. The river systems of the Brahmaputra, the Ganges and the Indus draw water directly from melting of the Himalayas.

Then there’s the rising sea level. A 2007 studyby the Goa-based National Institute of Oceanography says trends for mean sea-level-rise along the Indian coast indicate a rise of about 1.3 mm per year. The last 113 years of tide data indicate that Mumbai witnesses a 0.77 mm per year rise.

Another study estimates that one metre sea level rise will displace about 7.1 million people in India (such as the villagers of Nargol in south Gujarat), and cause land loss of nearly 5,764 sq km with nearly 4,200km of roads being damaged or inundated.

In his blog, Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of the New Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment lambasts the WGIII report for reeking of northern (developed countries) agenda. “The report stresses that about half of the cumulative anthropogenic CO2 emissions between 1750 and 2010 have occurred in the last 40 years. This overemphasizes emissions from developing countries...On the other hand, the report conveniently forgets to emphasize, let alone acknowledge, that between 1750 and 1970, most of the emissions happened in the developed countries to meet the consumption needs of just 20 per cent of the global population,” writes Bhushan.

Adaptation and mitigation

The challenge of climate change can be addressed in two ways – mitigation and adaptation. ‘Mitigation’ refers to measures to reduce emissions of green house gases (such as adopting renewable energy), whereas ‘adaptation’ involves actions that reduce the impact of the event without changing the likelihood that it will occur (such as relocating communities).

In response to the growing threats of climate change, the Indian government released the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) in 2008. It then directed all the state governments to prepare their own climate change action plans in sync with NAPCC. So far, only 12 states have prepared their plans.

SANDRP recently filed a Right to Information application and found that Maharashtra’s State Action Plan on Climate Change, which had to be ready by August 2011, is still nowhere in the picture. And the Maharashtra State Council on Climate Change, which had to meet “at least twice a year to review situation on climate change and adaptation strategy,” has met just once in the last 33 months.

“It is a well documented fact that events such as the 2005 floods in Mumbai will not remain a once-in-50-years episode. They will happen more frequently. Thus, both the Center and the state governments need to undertake urgent steps to adapt the country to climate change,” says Anand Patwardhan, professor at the Shailesh J Mehta School of Management, IIT Bombay.

Climate change, coupled with inaction, will cost us dear.

Nidhi Jamwal is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist with over 15 years of experience in environmental journalism.