Effects of Climate Change are not Contained within Nations – The Impact on India: Nagraj Adve

Guest post by NAGRAJ ADVE

This post is the second part, excerpted and slightly adapted, from the booklet by Nagraj Adve, Global Warming in the Indian Context: An Introductory Overview (Ecologise Hyderabad 2019). The first part appeared in Kafila on 1 July 2019

While the earlier post covered the basic science of global warming, the roots of the problem, and how inequality relates to climate change, this part focuses on key impacts of climate change in India, on humans and other species, and the reasons for urgency in tackling the problem. 

Villagers try to catch fish in drying pond in West Bengal, image courtesy Science News

Before we consider impacts in India and elsewhere, a few things are useful to keep in mind:

– Unlike most other forms of pollution, the source of carbon dioxide and where its effects are felt can be very far apart. Carbon dioxide generated in the United States affects people on the Orissa coast.

– A significant portion of carbon dioxide emitted today will remain in the atmosphere for centuries, influencing future climates.

– Even after the world ceases to emit carbon, higher average temperatures are “largely irreversible for a thousand years” because the gains of lesser radiation being trapped gets offset by the reduced loss of heat to the oceans. Hence, climate change is the new ‘normal’.

– Impacts will worsen because of the time lag between emissions and warming. Some of it is unavoidable. Our urgent intervention is needed to make sure they do not get much worse, and that the situation does not spiral out of our control.

Major Impacts of Global Warming in India

Climate change adds on to all the other issues facing small and marginal farmers, the urban poor and other communities—higher costs of seeds, fertilizers and other inputs; falling groundwater levels; insufficient income from small agriculture; landlessness among Dalits; unequal distribution of water in cities; takeover of commons resources by industry; land alienation among adivasis; land and other property not being in the woman’s name; rising costs of health care in urban areas, etc. Climate change impacts are both affected by and worsen the many inequalities in Indian society. Millions of better-off people also live in cities and towns on India’s coasts and all over, and will face the effects of storm surges, sea level rise, flooding, and droughts. But it is one of the worst violations of justice that those least responsible for global warming bear its burdens the most.

The impacts presented below are almost entirely current impacts, not future impacts based on climate computer models. What I have written is based on published papers, IMD data, and conversations with people in different states.

  1. Less rain, yet more intense rain, and more variability: The most widely felt impact across India in recent years has been to rainfall patterns, with increased variability. Over 1901–2012, the southwest/summer monsoon (June–September, from which India gets 75% of its total annual rainfall) has reduced in northern, central, eastern, and northeast India, and the southern Western Ghats. In central-east India, the reduction is as much as 10–20%.

The distribution of rain within this monsoon season has also gone haywire. Moderate rainfall (50–100 mm of rain a day) has decreased over much of the country. At the same time, extreme rainfall events (more than 150 mm of rain a day) have been getting both more frequent, and three times as frequent over very wide areas, right from Gujarat to the Orissa coast, as compared to the early 1950s. No wonder farmers say that nowadays it does not rain for many days and then a lot of rain falls in a few hours or a couple of days! They first noticed these changes in rainfall 15–20 years ago, but it has worsened over the last 7–8 years.

A key cause of these changes is warming waters of the Indian Ocean, the western Indian Ocean in particular. The Indian Ocean is not just absorbing massive amounts of heat due to greenhouse gases, it is also receiving heat via ocean currents from the Pacific and the southern oceans. Hence, it is warming more than other equatorial oceans, and, oddly, more than India’s landmass. This has reduced the land‒sea temperature difference, and consequently affected summer monsoon rainfall in many regions. Ironically, it also causes extreme rainfall because there is more moisture transported following rapid rises in sea surface temperature. Other man-made factors also contribute to increased variability in rainfall, such as deforestation, urbanization, and increased pollutant particles in the atmosphere.

All of this causes widespread damage to Indian agriculture and water supplies. Nowadays, it often rains when it should not and does not rain when it should. Farmers sow crops expecting rains that don’t arrive or come late. Or there is intense rain at the time of harvesting or threshing, which affects the standing crops and fodder. More intense rain also damages the topsoil.It causes flooding, and adversely affects people’s access to water. Millions of farmers suffered crop damage and losses due to unseasonal rains and hail in successive spring seasons of 2013, 2014, 2015, and recently in February 2018 across a thousand villages in Maharashtra. In 2015, it devastated crops over 18 million hectares across 15 states, a huge 30% of all rabi acreage, causing losses worth Rs 20,000 crores. It triggered a spate of farmers’ suicides.

Droughts have also become more widespread. There’s a worrying relentlessness with which agriculture is being hit. Every season in the past 3–4 years has been affected: kharif, rabi, kharif, rabi. If it is drought in one season, it is unseasonal rains in another, intense rains in a third. Farmers are being constantly forced to react. Essential crops in India are still extremely rain-dependent: half the land under rice and wheat is dependent entirely on rainfall. Small and marginal farmers, those in dryland, rain-fed areas and without access to groundwater, poorer households mostly, bear the brunt of this. Often, they tend to be from Dalit or underprivileged caste households, or adivasi communities. And when agriculture gets hit on a huge scale, agricultural workers too suffer loss of earnings. At such times, scant attention is paid to them with no concept of their being compensated.

  1. Greater heat stress: Over the last fifty years, heat waves in India have become more intense, frequent, and last for longer,caused partly by a warmer tropical Indian Ocean and drier soils. This makes the soils even drier, has affected the yields of key crops such as wheat and fruits, stresses cows, buffaloes, and other livestock, and damages forests. It has also worsened water problems in many places. Night-time temperatures are also less cool than they used to be, hence offering little relief from daytime excess heat. Coping with too much heat adds to the stress that urban people face.

The elderly, the very young, and working people are particularly vulnerable to greater heat stress. Workers having to labour in stifling conditions, 12–14 hours a day in industrial areas, is common across India. Those in other occupations are also vulnerable: urban construction workers (often women), agricultural labourers, road-building labourers, miners, and those who sell goods in pushcarts, or work outdoors in cities. In the summer of 2015, over 2,500 excess people died in India in a deadly heat wave worsened by global warming. In 2019, an intense heat wave has seared many parts of North India these past few weeks. This deadly impact is going to become more frequent, widespread, and lethal because of extreme heat and humidity in the future.

  1. Sea level rise and other effects on coastal people: Any water that is warmed tends to expand and rise. Coastal communities across India have been facing sea level rise due to warmer oceans for many years. Relative sea level rise in the West Bengal Sunderbans, which includes other factors, is a staggering 8 mm/year. It has meant a slow erosion of their lands, villages, homes, and salination of wells and fields. People repeatedly have had to shift inland, and tens of thousands of people have migrated in a search for livelihood.

No occurrence brought home to me the reality of sea level rise more than the fate of a primary school on Sagar island in the Sunderbans. When a group of us visited four years ago, classes were on in full swing. A few hundred metres from the school stretched a mud embankment, broken in parts. And beyond that, the Bay of Bengal.In December 2017, a senior teacher sent photographs of the school building taken the previous month. It had been completely destroyed by the advancing waters. There is a lesson this school teaches us, for what is unfolding in the Sunderbans today will occur at that rate along thousands of kilometres along our coasts tomorrow. Sea level rise will definitely speed up, due to accelerated melting of the great ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica.

Global warming has other coastal effects. Fisher-people in Karnataka say that their going out to sea has become more uncertain because there is no clear pattern any more of rainfall and storms. Sea surface currents are changing in unexpected ways. Wind direction has become unpredictable. The space to do post-catch work, often done by fisherwomen, shrinks as the sea encroaches.

As it is, numerous ports, ultra-mega power coal plants, and other projects on the coast in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and elsewhere are damaging traditional occupations, and polluting agriculture, water bodies, and local ecosystems. Now climate change adds to this. Rising sea surface temperatures is causing stronger storm surges. The salt water that comes in with storms, and that which seeps into the groundwater harms coastal agriculture and drinking water sources.Tens of millions of people practice agriculture, fishing, and other livelihoods in fertile, biodiverse stretches along over 7,500 kilometres of India’s coasts. They are all vulnerable as global warming’s effects intensify.

  1. Extreme rainfall events and flooding: On 27 July 2005, 974 mm of rain fell in a single day in Mumbai. Lakhs of people had to wade several kilometres through chest-high water. Well over a thousand people died in the floods, mostly poor residents of North Bombay, as their houses and shanties on slopes collapsed. Some people drowned in their cars as waters rose above them.

In June 2013, a very wide region of Uttarakhand was hit by intense rains, that too for three days. The devastating floods that followed may well prove to be India’s worst climate change disaster. The extreme rain burst the wall (moraine) of a mountain lake (Chorabari Taal) just above Kedarnath. Its surging waters rushed downhill, destroying that town and villages below, submerging thousands of tourists, villagers, and workers. The National Disaster Management Authority said 11,000 people may have died. But the death toll could be even higher – the precise number of those who died will never be known – partly because there were so many Nepali and Indian migrant workers from elsewhere on duty then, at the height of the tourist season.

Hundreds of villages were devastated in Uttarkashi, Rudraprayag, Chamoli and Pithoragarh districts, and beyond. Homes were swept away, the standing crop destroyed, fields submerged in river water or mud and debris, animals on which locals depend for manure and milk, drowned. Tourism—on which lakhs of locals and migrant workers depend for jobs and earnings—was hit. Children’s schools were damaged. Women in particular were badly affected as they nurture households, cook food, get fodder.

Rainstorms, which occur over very wide areas and contribute to flooding, have increased in frequency and duration (by 15 days) since the early 1950s. Studies suggest these are caused by warmer seas, and more moisture due to a warmer landmass. Extreme rainfall events certainly seem to be happening regularly nowadays—Uttarakhand in 2013, Srinagar in September 2014, Chennai in December 2015. Kerala in August 2018 is the latest, which received over 40% more than normal rainfall from June to mid-August; 350 people died, with landslides in Idukki and Wayanad districts and numerous towns flooded and homes extensively damaged.

In every case, the societal impacts of intense rains are made worse by chaotic ‘development’ fuelled by the drive for profit—the builder lobby in Mumbai, run-of-the-river projects in Uttarakhand, and buildings shrinking the Pallikaranai wetlands in Chennai. In city and town in India, wetlands and water bodies are being shrunk and built upon. “Who is this ‘development’ benefiting?” is a reasonable question to ask.

  1. Droughts in many places: Studies show that there have been significant increases in the area and intensity of droughts in India since the mid-1950s. There are also more droughts of longer periods. Two key reasons are warmer temperatures due to global warming, and excessive warming of the Indian Ocean; it has reduced the temperature difference between India’s landmass and the sea, which is weakening our monsoon. Warming also causes already dry regions to get even less rainfall. But droughts are now happening in regions of India known for good rains—parts of the North East, Jharkhand since 2000, Kerala until the recent floods.

Global warming contributes to intensify droughts in interior regions. Some parts of Bundelkhand in central India (straddling Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh) have been experiencing droughts for most of the last twenty years. When a team of us visited Bundelkhand in 2009, we saw a complete collapse of agriculture. Large lakes had dried up for the first time, lakhs of agricultural workers, small farmers, poor women were migrating with their entire families. Livestock were being abandoned to a dusty death because of lack of water and fodder. Survey teams that visited Bundelkhand in 2015 found the same grim conditions prevailing.

Women face the brunt of this. We found old women unable to use the few functioning handpumps because the water levels had plummeted. Patriarchy induces them to eat less when food supply gets hit. Because poor women do all kinds of work inside and outside the house—procuring water, as marginal farmers, getting fodder and wood, as agricultural workers—they are the single largest social group and the worst to be hit by climate change in India.

  1. Across the Himalayas: The Hindu Kush Himalayan region– which includes Tibet and Nepal – has warmed by 1.24 degrees C over 1951‒2014, about twice as much as India’s average rise over the same period. The temperature rise is higher in the Himalaya because as snow melts, the now darker surface absorbs more heat. The rise is even sharper in winters; warmer, shorter winters are being felt all over India but in particular at higher altitudes.

Milder winters and greater warming are causing a change in snowfall patterns, in Kashmir, Ladakh, and Himachal Pradesh, and reduced snow at mid- to highaltitudes. Precipitation is happening less as snow and more as rain. Or it snows at the wrong time in the season. Small glaciers are disappearing, and large glaciers melting, both high up and below at their snout. Less snow gravely impacts people’s access to water for drinking during the summer months, and irrigation. Rainfall in the northeastern Himalayan states has reduced sharply in the last 15 years. Springs, on which locals depend for drinking, other domestic uses, and irrigation,are drying out. Forest fires are increasing, and there are greater pests in some hill regions.

Other species are affected too. Oak trees, apple trees, vegetables, reptiles, butterflies, birds and other fauna all try to adapt by climbing higher up mountain slopes, looking for temperatures to which they are accustomed. Meadows are shrinking, and alpine species face a risk of extinction. Many alpine plants and other species are already near mountain tops; how much further can they go?

  1. Impacts on Health: Many factors affect health; to isolate climate change is neither easy nor necessary.

But climate change could have a range of direct and indirect effects. The poor face reduced access to food and nutrition, either directly in rural areas when their crops get adversely impacted, or indirectly in urban areas because of the temporary spikes in food prices. This reduced food intake has resulted in increased rates of death and serious illness among the poor in parts of central India in recent years. It is also hitting the urban poor in numerous places.

Diseases such as malaria, dengue, and chikangunya have spread wider, in new areas, higher altitudes, or for a longer duration in the year, as winters get milder in the plains, or mountain places get less chilly.Viruses and bacteria generally flourish in less cold weather.

The increase in the number, area, and duration of heat waves, mentioned above, is causing acute heat stress, disease, and deaths, particularly of the poor and aged, the homeless, and those who work outdoors for long hours. One of the deadliest impacts of global warming in the future will be large areas across India, indeed across South Asia, becoming uninhabitable. It will become so hot and humid,this combination will interfere with our bodies’ physiological capacity to lose heat.

 8. Other impacts in urban areas: People in towns and cities are impacted by many of the effects narrated above: warmer daytime temperatures, milder winters, rising food prices. One serious issue for urban people is having to cope with longer and more frequent heat waves, which kills hundreds of people each year. Studies have shown that excess heat affects the urban poor excessively, because of their cramped homes, congested localities, and materials used in construction.

Also, water problems at both ends: by flooding during extreme rainfall (above) as occurred most recently in Kerala, and by droughts. The huge drought in parts of Maharashtra in 2016 resulted in the people of Latur town being supplied water by trains! Even as innumerable other small towns in Marathwada were panting for water. These droughts are accentuating the already unequal distribution of, and access to water in any Indian city. Urban water stress has intensified because the people and authorities in most cities have not nurtured their water bodies and wetlands, and the better-off recklessly tap groundwater. As we are currently witnessing in Chennai.

Cyclone Fani, fuelled by a warmer Indian Ocean, hit Orissa in early May 2019. Innumerable lives were saved due to prior warning and timely intervention by the state government. Yet, the severity with which water and electricity networks in Bhubaneswar and other towns were damaged reveals another way how vulnerable urban residents in India, particularly the urban poor, are to the impacts of global warming. Basti residents in poorer parts of Bhubaneswar got no water for several days after the cyclone hit, and they came out on the streets and blocked roads demanding water.

It is to me deeply worrying that the impacts described above have happened with little over 1 degree Celsius of average warming. We need to realise that these climate impacts are going to intensify and will happen simultaneously. Sea level rise in one place, drought in another, flooding close by, intense rains … . It will hit food security, access to water, livelihoods, lands, health, etc of people everywhere. Are we displaying the urgency the situation warrants?

Impacts elsewhere in the world

  • Sea levels are rising by an average of 3.2 mm a year over the last twenty years
  • Rise in ‘extreme events’ all over the world: floods in Pakistan and the heat wave in Russia in 2010; heat waves in Argentina in 2013; fires in California, the drought that affected parts of Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, and the blizzard that killed 43 people including 21 trekkers in Nepal, all in 2014; extreme rains in Wuhan, China in 2016; and the drought in Cape Town in 2018.
  • In September 2012, Arctic sea ice melted to its lowest area and mass ever; the Arctic is nowadays frequently several degrees above normal, affecting climates in Europe and North America
  • Oceans have warmed to a depth of 2,000 metres, and even lower
  • Of the 800 Himalayan glaciers being monitored in China, India and other countries, 95% are melting. Melting is happening at over 20,000 feet altitude
  • Food production is beginning to get hit in some of the poorest countries
  • The intensification and spread of forest fires and heat waves as the world gets hotter

Impacts on Other Species

In India, as ocean waters have become warmer, mackerel, oil sardines, and other fish species have moved north along both coasts. Earlier found up to Malabar in Kerala, mackerel have moved 650 kilometres north and can now be found off Gujarat. In the Bay of Bengal, earlier only up to Andhra, they are now found in Orissa’s waters. A similar shift of location northwards is happening with river fish in the Ganga.

– Migration of species to higher altitudes in the North Indian mountains, such as oak and apple trees, animal species, vegetables.

– Early or erratic flowering of many plants and trees, such as of mango in Orissa and Karnataka, rhododendrons across the Himalayas, saffron in Kashmir

– change in the timing of spawning of certain fish due to higher sea surface temperature

– Coral bleaching happens soon as sea water temperatures cross 31 degrees Celsius. Bleaching due to higher sea surface temperatures has occurred every summer off the Tamil Nadu coast since 2005

– Slow death on a large scale of cows and other livestock in times of drought; they also face greater heat stress and consequent illnesses

Worldwide, a survey of over 800 published papers covering hundreds of species showed similar effects:

– Species are moving northward, or away from the Equator, towards the poles, towards more suitable temperatures

– The annual migration of birds is happening earlier

– As it gets warmer, mountain species are moving upwards, but some mountain frog species have gone extinct having nowhere higher to climb

– Some birds are laying their first eggs earlier

– Disruption in timing between lifecycles of predators and prey, and of insect pollinators with flowering plants

– Scientists now believe that up to 40–70% of all species could become extinct because of heatwaves, droughts, more acidic oceans, having nowhere further to climb at the top of mountain slopes, and other effects of global warming.

The urgency of action

The urgency of global warming is because the window to intervene is fast closing.Global warming triggers feedback responses in some ecosystems that in turn cause further warming. For instance, Arctic sea ice has been melting away. Arctic ice acts as a giant mirror, reflecting sunlight. Ice covering a smaller area means that more heat is getting absorbed, contributing to a feedback loop.

Also, in the Arctic lands, beneath the frozen layer on top, are billions of tonnes of methane. Melting ice will release this methane, causing further warming. This feedback has already been happening for the last ten years. There are other, known climate feedbacks already recorded: more water vapour (traps more heat), warmer soils (release carbon dioxide instead of absorbing it), etc. A current debate is whether the amount of carbon dioxide being absorbed each year by some oceans has stopped increasing. If so, more carbon dioxide will remain in the atmosphere, and that would be catastrophic.

Some of these feedbacks have already gone out of hand. For instance, we will soon have Arctic summers with little ice, it can’t be prevented. Some changes in ecosystems cannot be reversed.The urgency to tackle global warming comes from the fact that these feedbacks will happen together and on a scale that makes it impossible for humans to prevent extreme warming, of a kind civilization has never experienced.

Nagraj Adve (nagraj.adve@gmail.com) works and writes on global warming. The booklet, of which this is an extract, has been translated into Hindi, Kannada, and Tamil.

2 thoughts on “Effects of Climate Change are not Contained within Nations – The Impact on India: Nagraj Adve”

  1. All Environment and no Sociology?

    While there’s something about Economics, accumulation and reinvestment (for further profit), I wish one could say something about people and national/regional populations (see for instance: John Hannigan_ hopefully the pdf is still free..(slim book).

    Also wish readers would go to Jason Moore (Academia.edu; Researchgate, his own website/publications)
    Further wish there would be greater focus on environmental justice. Mukul Sharma seems an exception

    This is hardly to deprecate current contribution/s. Thanks are due to both Dr Adve for his writing interventions, and Prof Nigam for hosting the paper


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