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India adapting to climate change chaos

Oct 22, 2009

As a developing nation with hundreds of millions trapped in rural poverty, India’s adaptive capacity is weak compared to others, writes Dr D.K. Giri, Director, Schumacher Centre. He feels adaptation is already an unfortunate necessity, even if it appears to some like surrender.

To some, it sounded like a fatal acceptance of defeat. Back in February 2009, the UK’s globally influential Institution of Mechanical Engineers released a report expressing deep pessimism about the ability of international Kyoto-style agreements to fight climate change.

The organisation said it was "realistic enough to recognise global CO2 emissions are not reducing and our climate is changing.”

The report summarised with the words: “Unless we adapt, we are likely to face a difficult future."

Global attempts at climate change mitigation (i.e. lessening emissions) have achieved little or nothing so far. The 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference will take place in Copenhagen in December to much fanfare. But we should not be too hopeful, considering the gaping loopholes that are a feature of any international climate-related deals.

This is why a focus on adaptation rather than mitigation alone is now the philosophy of many in India, and worldwide, who are facing up to the terrible threat of climate change.

But there are also some prominent environmentalists who view the adaptation philosophy as the true road to global ruin.

The UK climate change campaigner George Monbiot has said: “We cannot abandon mitigation unless we have a better option. We don’t. If you think our attempts to prevent emissions are futile, take a look at our efforts to adapt… The costs of stopping climate breakdown – great as they would be – are far lower than the costs of living with it.”

Monbiot cites the colossal cost of adaptation projects such as coastal floodwalls to defend cities against rising sea levels, before pointing out that no adaptation fund can help humans continue to develop when climate change reaches critical predicted levels of ecosystem failure.

He simply says: “The world won’t adapt and can’t adapt. The only adaptive response to a global shortage of food is starvation.”

The Indian government, alongside an increasing number of Indian civil society groups, nevertheless sees climate change adaptation measures as vital. As a developing nation with hundreds of millions trapped in rural poverty, India’s adaptive capacity is weak compared to others. Why, therefore, should we jump on the bandwagon? Should we, arguably, demand that mitigation alone is the only true escape from disaster – even if international agreements are not yet up to scratch?

But climate change is a phenomenon that is disrupting human development right now – so I believe adaptation is already an unfortunate necessity, even if it feels to some like surrender.

India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests recently released a paper entitled Relative Vulnerability of Indian Coastal Districts to Sea Level Rise and Climate Extremes.

The paper, which carried a focus on cyclones and floods, said that India’s circumstances means it must be at the forefront of adaptation efforts. It explained that “from the developing country perspective the vulnerability due to natural disasters… makes a strong case for focus on adaptation options as part of climate change policy.”

Besides costly floodwalls, the paper pinpointed possible large-scale government adaptation measures including wetland restoration and afforestation.

Meanwhile, development and environment-focused NGOs are focusing on smarter, cheaper small-scale adaptation policies. Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group (GEAG) has called for government absorption of NGO strategies that promote indigenous adaptive capacities and technologies.

Examples of these are given by GEAG as “promotion of additional seed varieties that require less water and are less disease prone… and adjustments made by farmers in terms of crops that have shorter/different cycles to combat the effect of droughts or floods.”

Such efforts are in key with the work of Schumacher Centre, my own NGO. We believe that alongside mitigation efforts, the implementation of small-scale adaptation policies across India is the best way forward. A perfect example would be the teaching of rain-water harvesting techniques in rural areas.

Such an emphasis on small-scale adaptation also helps to fend off the prospect of maladaptation – ie. colossal corporate-funded ‘adaptation’ policies that actually exacerbate the negative effects of climate change upon human development.

International Rivers has consistently warned of the maladaptation threat of corporate bodies pushing for large dams. The organisation says that ‘large dam interest groups are pushing for climate adaptation funds to pay for huge new reservoirs and water diversion schemes.’

Adaptation does have to be embraced – but we must beware those that could exploit or misunderstand the concept.

Dr D.K. Giri blogs at 'The Burning Issue', which focuses on climate change and development.

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