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"There needs to be greater recognition of the new risks due to climate change"

Dec 04, 2012

India has fairly detailed disaster management plans – down to the district level – but there needs to be greater recognition of the new risks due to climate change, says Ulka Kelkar, Fellow, Earth Science and Climate Change, TERI.

OneWorld South Asia: It is believed that one of the big effects of climate change is the increase in occurrences of disasters. How far is that true?
Ulka Kelkar: Disasters or extreme events, like floods, droughts, or cyclones, are part of the natural variability in the climate. But in a warmer climate, will such events become stronger or occur more frequently? For instance, will more cyclones form over a warmer ocean? Will there be several successive years of drought? It isn’t easy to answer such questions conclusively because extreme events are rare and there is relatively less data on which to predict future changes.

The Special Report on Extreme Events (SREX) published earlier this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has examined recent research on such questions. The SREX finds that heat waves are likely to become longer, stronger, and more frequent. Based on certain scenarios of growth in greenhouse gas emissions, the SREX projects that a 1-in-20 year hottest day is likely to become a 1-in-2 year event by the end of the 21st century in most parts of the world.

As far as India is concerned, data shows a sharp increase in the intensity of extreme rainfall events in the last 30 years. What is important to note is that our current patterns of development – ever greater concentration of people and economic assets along the coast, or construction on lake beds and drains in cities – are making us more vulnerable to extreme events when they do occur.

Apart from disasters, even small or gradual changes in climate can have significant impacts on sensitive ecosystems. Higher temperature or erratic rainfall will also put greater stress on managed systems like water supply and introduce uncertainty in decision-making. It is imperative that we build our capacity to deal with these diverse challenges.

OWSA: To what extent is India susceptible to social, environmental and economic impacts of climate change? How does India fare in terms of disaster preparedness?
UK: Although the bulk of India’s GDP originates from the manufacturing or services sectors, the majority of our population is still employed in agriculture – a very climate-sensitive sector. Dependence on rainfed cultivation, stressed water resources, long coastline – these are just some of the factors that make India vulnerable to climate change. Erratic rainfall and unreliable reservoir levels will also affect the performance and efficiency of thermal, nuclear, and hydroelectric power plants.

India has fairly detailed disaster management plans – down to the district level – but there needs to be greater recognition of the new risks due to climate change. Infrastructure investment in India over the next five years is expected to amount to $1 trillion: this should be resilient to the additional range of risks due to climate change. Sub-national governments in India are developing action plans on climate change, but we need to build capacity to devise and implement district-level or city-level adaptation plans.

OWSA: It is believed that climate change impacts the poorest of the poor. How do we reduce effects of climate change on agriculture and livestock to cushion the poorest sections?
UK: Field research by TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) in different parts of India shows that while farmers take various measures to cope with climatic variability – such as modifying cropping practices, borrowing, selling livestock, migrating to towns in search for wage labour – these efforts may not be adequate to deal with future climate change. In fact, by eroding their assets and disrupting social networks, some of these coping measures may even increase the vulnerability of farmers over time.

Many things can be done to increase the resilience of farming communities. Water availability is a key constraint, which needs to be urgently addressed through watershed development – by constructing rainwater harvesting structures, storage tanks, farm ponds, check dams, etc. Animal husbandry and dairy production can help rural households supplement their incomes, but fodder availability has to be ensured in the dry season. Farmers can be educated about and encouraged to adopt drought-tolerant and salinity-tolerant crop varieties, and agricultural techniques that reduce evaporation losses and minimize the need for water and nutrients. Hardy traditional crops like millets, which need little water, need to be promoted through price incentives.

In consultations conducted by TERI with farming communities in various parts of India, an important need that has emerged is the establishment of village-level agri-processing units that make it possible for rural communities to enhance their incomes through value addition. In fact institutional support is vital – in terms of credit, markets, storage and transport. Various public and private sector initiatives that provide farmers with weather advisories, agricultural information, disease surveillance, and market intelligence, can be scaled up. Greater penetration of crop insurance can help farmers not only recover from bad rainfall years but, more importantly, allow them to invest freely in agricultural inputs so that they can reap higher yields in good rainfall years.

OWSA: How are the South Asian countries, besides India, faring on climate change adaptation?
UK: There are many relevant policies and programmes in South Asian countries. Most countries in the region have developed climate change plans or policies at the national level, as well as National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs). These countries, however, have a lot of potential to collaborate on climate change adaptation – e.g. through joint monitoring of glacier retreat, conservation of shared vulnerable ecosystems, regional collaboration on climate modeling, sharing research on rainfed agriculture, drought-tolerant and salinity-tolerant crop varieties, etc. An example that is often cited about the importance of experience and preparedness is that of the vastly different fatalities resulting from two similar cyclones – cyclone Nargis in Bangladesh in 2007 and cyclone Sidr in Myanmar in 2008. It illustrates that there is a lot of scope for sharing knowledge and experience among the countries of South Asia.

OWSA: Can the DSDS 2013 throw more light on adaption? For example, can it provide solutions or answers to how vulnerable regions can adapt to climate change?
UK: DSDS 2013 can highlight many vital questions and concerns related to climate change adaptation. For example, many measures that promote adaptation in vulnerable areas are also intrinsic to development in those regions. How then can development policies and programmes be best dovetailed with efforts to adapt to climate change? How can the growing cities and economies of India and other developing countries be made resilient to climate change? Which technological innovations can be harnessed to build adaptive capacity? What new business models can attract private capital to invest in adaptation? By bringing together key stakeholders from government, business, civil society, and academia, DSDS 2013 will debate these and other questions, and articulate ideas for the way forward.

(Ulka Kelkar is an economist who has been working with TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) for the last 13 years. She has conducted field-based research on vulnerability and adaptation to climate change in agriculture and water resources in Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Karnataka.)

Kishore Kumar Sinha says:
Dec 12, 2012 08:09 PM

While drafting Development policies the first question we have to ask is this policy is just for the development sake? or What is the aim of that policy? Poverty reduction, job creation, more drinking water, more food production, better transport or something else? Now non of the objectives can be taken in isolation, totally dis regarding the realities of Climate change. Any development activity that destroys environment, adds to pollution, increases Stress on Planets natural resource boundaries, has to be first tested if it is needed at all? Is there another model available. What is the use of a policy that ultimately makes life worse.

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