Time runs short in India's climate crisis
text size

Time runs short in India's climate crisis

The banks of the Yamuna river along the Taj Mahal in Agra, India are flooded on July 17. Flooding and landslides are common and cause widespread devastation during India's treacherous monsoon season, but experts say climate change is increasing their frequency and severity. (Photo: AFP)
The banks of the Yamuna river along the Taj Mahal in Agra, India are flooded on July 17. Flooding and landslides are common and cause widespread devastation during India's treacherous monsoon season, but experts say climate change is increasing their frequency and severity. (Photo: AFP)

'I have never seen climate carnage on the scale of the floods here in Pakistan. As our planet continues to warm, all countries will increasingly suffer losses and damage from climate beyond their capacity to adapt. This is a global crisis, it demands a global response," wrote UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in his tweet at the end of his two-day solidarity trip to Pakistan in September last year.

His warning stands vindicated. Now, this year, destructive flooding wreaks havoc in India, Japan, China, Turkey, and the US. The year 2023 emerges as an ominous departure from preceding years, presenting a stark exacerbation of climate-related woes. Forecasts indicate an impending worsening as further climate warming is expected in the coming days, amplifying the grim possibility of relentless deluges.

In the grim tapestry of 2023's monsoon inundation, India finds itself on the frontlines of devastation. With torrential rains triggering flash floods and landslides, the country is grappling with an environmental crisis of epic proportions. Preceded by a heat wave, these intense monsoon showers have unleashed their wrath upon northern India, leaving death, destruction, and inaccessible regions in their wake.

Television screens bear witness to haunting scenes of landslides, flash floods, and the merciless obliteration of vehicles, buildings, and bridges. Devastating floods ravaging northern India have also encroached upon the iconic Taj Mahal, marking an unprecedented event that experts caution might morph into a distressing regularity amid the intensifying climate crisis.

The fingerprints of human-induced climate change leave an indelible mark on India -- particularly in the northern states like Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh. Recent floods in the northern states stand as a stark testament to the heightened devastation such events inflict upon hilly terrains compared to their plains counterparts -- a poignant reminder of nature's fury in an altered world.

South Asia, an expansive region with over a billion and a half souls, grapples with the dire consequences of climate change. As downpours, droughts, and scorching temperatures become recurrent nightmares, this area nestled between the Hindu Kush and the Himalayas faces vulnerability on an unprecedented scale. Unforgiving natural disasters may afflict nearly 750 million people, painting a distressing portrait of the grim reality gripping South Asia. A ticking time bomb of global warming is afoot, putting this region at the mercy of an altered climate, pleading for urgent attention and action.

India's lifeblood, the summer monsoon, nourishes the land with around 70% of its yearly rainfall. Vital for agriculture, which drives 11% of the economy but engages 40% of the labour force. Yet this works as a double-edged sword, frequently triggering havoc through floods and landslides. Ongoing climate change has lent volatility to the monsoon, rendering predictions difficult. Its amplified strength and unpredictability exacerbate the ferocity and recurrence of floods, casting a shadow of uncertainty over the nation's future. A warming planet and fast melting glaciers, fuelled by escalating greenhouse gas emissions, looms over a future marked by intensified extreme weather events. Though high-impact floods may not occur every year, their potency heightens whenever they strike, having the potential to surpass the impact of past calamities.

In 2022, New Delhi's Center for Science and Environment undertook a grim assessment of India's extreme weather encounters. Astonishingly, 314 out of 365 days bore witness to such events, with each day witnessing at least one region affected. These harrowing figures served as an alarming reminder of the escalating impact of climate change, inflicting a multi-faceted crisis upon the country's inhabitants and environment.

The 2022 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report delivered a grim forecast for India. It forewarned of a multitude of climate change-induced calamities over the next two decades. The report suggested that unless urgent action is taken to drastically curtail greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, it might result in an unprecedented climate catastrophe. As the atmosphere warms by 1C (1.8F), it embraces 7% more moisture, according to Nasa data. Since 1880, the global temperature has surged by at least 1.1C, sounding an alarming climate alarm. Climate change poses a pressing water conundrum for the Himalayan region, having the highest number of glaciers in the world. Alarming findings from a 2021 University of Leeds study reveal glacier ice melt occurring in the Himalayas is at least 10 times higher than the average rate over past centuries.

The Himalayas, which cover countries such as Pakistan, Nepal and India, has lost 40% of their ice over several hundred years. Melting glaciers and shifting rainfall patterns could disrupt irrigation systems, heightening water scarcity and jeopardising crop growth in this vulnerable region. Climate change shatters the delicate crop growth balance, portending grave implications for food security in South Asia. A 2021 study on wheat production's future unveils a 16% yield decline in the region. Escalating temperatures, altered precipitation, and extreme weather events compound challenges for agriculture, livestock, and fisheries. As the region grapples with these formidable changes, ensuring resilience and sustainability in the face of climate shifts becomes an urgent imperative.

Climate scientists sound an urgent alarm as extreme weather worsens health crises in impoverished regions, including South Asia. Heavy rainfall and flooding create a breeding ground for vector-borne diseases like malaria, chikungunya, and dengue fever. Rising temperatures compound the threat, setting the stage for a marked surge in these health challenges. Another major negative impact on the social system is the mass internal displacement from the flood-affected areas.

The spectre of declining food production and climate-induced catastrophes haunts South Asia, compelling millions to be internally displaced. A 2020 ActionAid report warns that up to 63 million people in India could become migrants by 2050 due to extreme weather events. Economic migration from rural to urban areas compounds this crisis, with South Asia emerging as a major hotspot, particularly in low-lying coastal regions.

The unfolding situation in India, akin to the devastating floods that struck Pakistan last year, demands unwavering attention from the global community. A grave reminder of the escalating climate crisis, it serves as an urgent call to action for concerted efforts to tackle this pressing issue on a global scale.

The crux lies in reducing the carbon footprint through energy conservation and making sustainable transportation choices. Protecting and restoring ecosystems like forests and wetlands is crucial for carbon sequestration and climate resilience. Sustainable land-use practices can help balance the competing demands for food, resources, and climate protection. With each fleeting day, our planet hurtles closer to menacing climatic catastrophes; time is running short, urging us to act urgently.

Dr Imran Khalid is a freelance contributor based in Karachi, Pakistan.

Do you like the content of this article?