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OPINION: Submerging economies – What rising seas and melting ice mean for India

Indian policy-makers should rather consider ‘submerging economies’ as well as ’emerging economies’ – by recognising the very significant risks posed to the country’s growth and human development by climate change, says CDKN’s Geeta Sandal.

India has emerged as one of the fastest growing economies in the world with estimated GDP growth of 7% in 2018-19[1]. Currently home to 1.37 billion people (almost 17.7% of the world’s population) the country is continuously pushing for economic fortunes for its rapidly transforming urban areas (377.1 million urban people). The vast spectrum of geographical diversity in India – from the Himalayas in the north, coastal plains, and the great Peninsular Plateau – provides ample economic opportunities to its residents. But it also exposes these flourishing economies to numerous climatic events. Any alteration in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, due to global warming, accelerates the impact of natural calamities in these regions.

Besides, over the last few decades the burn of unprecedented population, haphazard urban spread to eco fragile areas and overexploitation of natural resources has accelerated the impacts of climate change.

The recent observation by IPCC “The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate” report published on 23rd September 2019, highlights the widespread shrinking of the cryosphere (Earth’s frozen lands), with mass loss from ice sheets and glaciers and reductions in snow cover due to global warming.

Glaciers and ice sheets worldwide lost mass at an average rate of 220 Gigatons per year (which has driven sea level rise of some 0.61mm per year) in the period 2006–2015[2].

The report highlights the exposure of communities in close connection with coastal environments, small islands (including Small Island Developing States, SIDS), polar areas and high mountains to the changes in ocean and cryosphere and impacts of delayed action to combat climate change.   Sea level rise and the shrinking cryosphere pose a great threat to India, especially to the country’s emerging markets and developing economy.

Impacts of climate change proliferate in India

India still depends heavily on climate-sensitive sectors like agriculture, forestry and fisheries for livelihoods. The glacier retreat or snow cover changes will directly impact the water availability in Indian Himalayan region (home to over 50 million people)[3] and the perennial rivers like Ganges (70 per cent of the summer flow of the Ganges comes from snowmelt) that supports population of about 600 million and generating over 40% of India’s GDP[4] . The densely populated lowland states that depend on mountain water for their domestic, agricultural, and industrial needs will be directly impacted by changes in cryosphere. Poor infrastructure and haphazard development in the mountainous regions will increase the vulnerability of these mountain economies to extreme events like flash floods or debris flows resulting from rainfall and excessive waters from melting snow caps.

On the other hand, the coastal regions are hub for investments and supports nearly 560 million people in India. Mega cities such as Mumbai (pop.18, 414,288), Kolkata (pop.14, 112,536) and Chennai (pop.8, 696,010) along with other approximately 4,427 urban centres that attract massive investments in the coastal regions are extremely vulnerable to sea level rise.

Some of the most urbanised states in the country viz. Goa (62.2%), Kerala (47.7%), Tamil Nadu (47.7%), Maharashtra (45.2%), Gujarat (42.58%), Karnataka (38.57%) and West Bengal (31.89%) respectively have extensive coastlines and so are exposed to rising sea level, storm surges, coastal flooding etc. It is evident from the past events experienced in coastal cities that these natural events can cripple the developing economies and result in massive human and economic losses. But even then, the measure seems to be limited to planning and development of infrastructure in silos.

The climate threats to coastal regions reverberate well beyond the shoreline. The recent report highlights that the oceans have taken up between 20–30% (very likely) of total anthropogenic CO2 emissions since the 1980s causing further ocean acidification. The increasing sea levels will exacerbate saltwater intrusion into the rivers and aquifers that furnish freshwater to coastal settlements.

Higher ocean acidity menaces the productivity of the aquaculture and fisheries sectors that contribute around 1% to India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and over 5% to the agricultural GDP[5] . Warmer water temperatures and acidifying oceans will degrade the ecology of coral reefs and threaten the artisanal and commercial fisheries that nourish many seaboard communities.

Opportunities lost

India developed and submitted a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the UN Convention on Climate Change. It also launched a National Adaptation Fund on Climate Change (NAFCC) in 2015 with an initial outlay of Rs. 350 Crore[6] to meet the cost of adaptation to climate change for the State and Union Territories of India that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. To date only 23 projects have been approved at a total cost of Rs. 483.80 Crore and Rs. 263.31 Crore have been sanctioned. The projects approved under the scheme are also in the initial stages of implementation.

100 cities in India are set to become ‘smart’ and investments worth Rs ₹98,000 core (US$14 billion) [7] for ‘smart city’ projects (almost 18 smart cities are in coastal regions). These projects could have brought positive achievements, but the planning and poor approaches adopted to developing infrastructure might cripple these investments and raise questions about their worth. In the rage of development cities has jeopardised the viable functioning of ecosystems, over exploited natural resources, degraded social wellbeing, and most importantly lost the opportunity of not adopting an alternative climate adaptive approaches in development planning.

The way forward

Integrated approaches must be adopted to combat multi faced threats posed by climate change. India needs concrete, realistic plans in line with greenhouse gas emissions reductions focusing in transforming economies to be more sustainable. Focus must be on strengthening the existing programmes, regulations and implement these initiatives with conviction to achieve its ultimate purpose. Development in silos will make Indian economy defenceless to combat climate change hence collaborative actions are required by decision making authorities and scientific communities/ academia together. Markets influence mindsets, hence it is time to integrated climate change into the development planning and processes and all present and future development projects should include climate change in their designs. Integrated approaches (institutional as well as well as in sectors) must be adopted to develop integrated adaptation and mitigation measures needed to support sustainable development and investments in renewable energy, resilient infrastructure and inclusive economies should be promoted. In its recent UN General Assembly address the government pledged to work towards achieving the target of 450 Giga Watts of renewable energy and initiative to create the International Solar Alliance. India needs to push boundaries to implement these targets and adaptive solutions to save its fragile economy.

[1] India Brand Equity Foundation, Ministry of Commerce & Industry, Government of India

[2] IPCC, 2019: Summary for Policymakers. In: IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate [H.- O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, M. Tignor, E. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, M. Nicolai, A. Okem, J. Petzold, B. Rama, N. Weyer (eds.)].

[3] Niti Ayog, Report of Working Group II, Sustainable Tourism in the Indian Himalayan Region,2018, retrieved from http://megplanning.gov.in/circular/WGR/Report%20of%20WG-2.pdf

[4] The World Bank Report No. STEP705, 2011

[5] Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare, 08-January-2019, https://pib.gov.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=187305

[6] Ministry of Forest and Climate Change, http://moef.gov.in/environment/climate-change/

[7] Fund released status till 31 March 2018, Smart City Mission , Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Government of India, http://smartcities.gov.in/upload/uploadfiles/files/Fund%20released%20status%20till%2031%20March%202018.pdf

Image: Praveen Ramavath – Indian glacier

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