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Water and Climate Change: Challenges for India

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Indira Khurana, Simi Mehta, Ritika Gupta, Amita Bhaduri

To better understand the looming water crisis and its relationship with climate change, the Centre for Environment, Climate Change and Sustainable Development (CECCSD) IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, in collaboration with Tarun Bharat Sangh, India Water Portal, Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan, and UN Water hosted a #webpolicytalk on “Water and Climate Change: Challenges for India” as part of its series on #WaterandClimate.

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Dr. Indira Khurana Senior Expert, Water Sector began the session by talking about the importance of water in our lives. Water is essential for everyone’s lives and livelihoods. It is also a contributor to socio-economic growth and the foundation of peace. Dr. Khurana outlined the purpose of the talk series as a place to deliberate on our understanding of water- its accessibility, quality, adequacy, and sustainability of water resources.

Water was listed as the top risk faced by the world by the World Economic Forum. WEF also identified environmental degradation as the number one long-term risk faced by the world in 2021. The shift towards a green economy cannot be delayed. Understanding this interlinked challenge of water and climate change is essential and can help inform policy.

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Impact of Rising Sea Levels

Dr. Anjal Prakash Research Director and Adjunct Associate Professor, Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad in his presentation explained the key outcomes of the IPCC Special Report on oceans and the cryosphere and discussed the implications for India and its water resources. The IPCC Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC) 2019 found that the rise in sea level in the present was twice as fast as that in the 20th century. Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets are losing mass leading to this rise in sea level. Extreme sea-level events and intense storms will become more common and low-lying areas will be exposed to risks of land loss and flooding annually by 2050.

The ocean has absorbed more than 90% of the excess heat in the climate system, which will rise to 2 to 4 times by the end of the century, with global warming limited to 2 degrees Celsius. Ocean warming reduces the supply of oxygen and nutrients to marine life and increasing occurrences of marine heatwaves are further threatening marine life. The global catch potential of fish has fallen, creating problems for biodiversity as well as communities that primarily depend on seafood for survival. These effects will be exacerbated by pollution. Fisheries management and marine protected areas could be potential opportunities for adaption to such conditions.

The report emphasizes the urgency of ‘prioritizing timely, ambitious and coordinated action to address widespread and inducing changes in the ocean and cryosphere’ and seeks to empower people to deal with transitional changes. Education and climate literacy have been identified as important ways to reach out.

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Climate Change in the Himalayan Region

Dr. Prakash stressed the importance of the Himalayan region as a source of water in South Asia. It has been dubbed as the Third pole for storing the largest reserve of ice after the North and South poles. Its significance cannot be understated as it serves water to the hundreds of millions of people across the continent.

The effect of global warming on Himalayan glaciers will be magnified and under the extreme emission scenario, around 64% of glaciers may be lost by 2100. This has consequences for the economy of the area as well hampering the natural resource support that it provides. The rise in sea level is at 3.6mm per year and accelerating which has severe implications for India which has the 7th longest coastline in Asia. The coastal cities of Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, etc. face the highest risk.

To face these challenges, the following actions need to be adopted-

  • Climate proofing development programmes
  • Making infrastructure climate resistant
  • Constructing better early warning systems, sustained and long-term monitoring, sharing of data, information and knowledge and improved context-specific forecasts
  • Institutional innovation in tackling disasters and resilient livelihood practices
  • Mitigate and adapt

Management of Floods

Dr. Khurana asked Dr. Prakash to expand upon the threats posed by the melting glaciers. Dr. Prakash explained that changes in the mass of glaciers do not just create a sea-level rise but also affect the entire water system of the region. The glaciers serve as climate regulators too and their melting affects the monsoon patterns across the country which usually culminates in untimely floods. The flash floods seen in Bihar and Assam were evidence of this fact and the rising unpredictability of these floods is a major cause for concern. The melting of glaciers also affects the baseflow of rivers which disrupts the water supply for people living downstream.

Dr. Khurana remarked on the importance of traditional knowledge in handling the flow and intensity of water from rivers. High flow of water, if conserved properly, could help recharge the groundwater of a region. She expressed the need to get local people involved in conversation. Dr. Prakash mentioned his fieldwork in Bihar and the ancient systems of water management which connected various ponds or huls in ways that would divert and utilize the excess flow of water. These systems were poorly understood by both the British pre-independence and by the Indian government post-independence leading to their systematic destruction.  

Dr. Khurana spoke about the pressure on land leading to catchment areas being encroached. Ponds were being used as dumping areas and then taken over by real estate. It is essential to see that catchment areas are reclaimed and protected. Dr. Prakash agreed by saying that the drainage systems of Indian cities are old and it is disappointing that the haphazard nature of urbanization has not led to even one fully sanitized city. Urban planning created to adapt to the incremental challenges is of the utmost importance.

Question and Answer

In response to a question on the rising sea levels and coastal areas, he discussed the rising levels of arsenic and salinity in coastal areas creating problems for agriculture. He insisted on the need for young people to work towards protecting the environment and suggested that South-Asian political differences hurt the Himalayan region and had to be put aside. The lack of cooperation could endanger a shared future.

Dr. Prakash lauded the Jal Jevan Mission for its ambitiousness and ability to identify and isolate the important need to access clean water across the country. He recommended that the mapping of districts in the project should be based on climate risk. The sustainability of water sources had to be ensured.

He replied to a question on the problem of water management in urban areas by referring to his study of water in Hyderabad where they found that half of the city was not served by tanks. This created a water mafia that drained peri-urban areas of water to supply water to big companies in the city. This has worrying consequences for the urban poor and cannot be ignored.  He reiterated the need for the youth to be involved in environmental campaigns to safeguard our future.

Acknowledgement: Sonali Pan is a Research Intern at IMPRI.

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