South Asia is an interesting theatre for understanding the impact of climate change. There is India, which with its sheer sub-continental size faces almost all the climate change issues of the region — glacial melt, floods, droughts, sea level rise, black carbon, sea level rise and salinisation. In the past decades, India has also grown into an emerging economy, with an increasing share in the global carbon footprint.
Pakistan faces most of the climate change issues that India faces, not to mention glacial lake outburst floods and large-scale floods in the Indus river system. The massive floods of August 2010 not only resulted in much death and destruction, but also left a strong impact on the country’s economy.
Three locational disadvantages dominate the climate change narrative in Bangladesh. Being located at the tail end of the drainage of two massive riverine systems — the Ganga and the Brahmaputra — it is vulnerable to flood waters coming from upstream. The low-lying coastal regions could experience tidal surges, sea level rise and salinisation. Plus cyclones, the frequency of which is expected to increase with climate change.
Sri Lanka, which emerged from civil war half a decade ago, has started working on climate change issues relatively recently. Coastal issues of rise in sea level, salinisation and impact on agriculture and tourism are the main issues for the island nation.
Nepal and Bhutan, two land-locked countries in the Himalayas, are sandwiched between two major greenhouse gas emitters — India and China. However, their similarities end here. Nepal has a larger population with a struggling economy that also generates its own black carbon. Bhutan, with a more closed politico-economic system, has 70 per cent of its area under forests. It is also a carbon-neutral country.
There are some factors that are common among all the South Asian countries, though. A substantial part of the population in all these countries is poor, and the impoverished communities are disproportionately more vulnerable to climate change.
The Environments of the Poor in South Asia gives a bird’s eye view of the links between poverty, environment and climate change in the South Asian countries. Through a collection of essays, the book looks at how the interface between the three elements in the drylands, coasts, lands prone to flooding, uplands (mountains) and slums.
“As a result of broad-based economic growth in the past decade, the region has seen a rapid decline in income-based poverty,” write Anushree Sinha and Armin Bauer, two of the editors of the volume. “But this successful development will be difficult to maintain because of changes in the environment. There is an increase in the incidence of poverty that can be attributed to environment factors and to climate change.”
If environmental degradation aggravates poverty, climate change can make it even worse. And the irony is that the adverse impact of climate change is felt most by the poor whose low-consumption lifestyles usually have a low carbon footprint. Therefore, adaptation becomes a poverty reduction strategy.
Thus, when the farmers living in the drylands of Rajasthan migrate during the dry months or if they take to diversification to non-farm activities, it becomes a strategy for poverty reduction. Governmental and institutional support to strengthen their ability to adapt would be to use programmes such as watershed development and rural employment generation. These could be used to build climate-resilient infrastructure like check dams and seed banks.
Also, research to develop crop varieties that require less water and are pest-and-disease-resistant would help dryland farmers adapt to the changing climate.
In the Sunderbans, the largest mangrove delta in the world stretching into India and Bangladesh, the struggle to survive is made worse by frequent cyclones. In the islands, communities can take only one agricultural crop. In the lean months they venture into the forests and the rivers for collecting resources. Both these can be dangerous since the water and the forests are also home to crocodiles and tigers. If this was not bad enough, Cyclone Alia of May 2009 submerged islands, damaged houses and embankments and made farming impossible for a year.
Rice cultivation along the coast of Sri Lanka has been at risk to increasing temperature and salinisation. Since climate-related studies are young in Sri Lanka, adaptation is hampered by limited technical knowledge. Some rice farmers in Bundala have successfully overcome salinisation problems by planting traditional rice varieties.
South Asia is also urbanising rapidly with people from the hinterlands migrating into the urban centres in search of employment. The poorer among the migrants move into the slums of the cities and join those already living there without much access to infrastructure support. This makes them vulnerable to flooding and climate-related health issues. A warming world could mean increase in both water-borne and vector-borne diseases.
“Cities need to find solutions accommodating more poor people, and for making their current settlement areas more secure and resilient against climate change risks,” writes Banashree Banerjee. “Moving out the poor to alternate locations, which are safe from environmental hazards is often not a good solution, as such places mostly do not provide income opportunities and access to social services.”
The book provides many such examples of how poverty is linked to environment degradation and climate change in South Asia, and how adaptation can help the poor overcome the situation. However, adaptation itself is only one end of the spectrum. To put the brakes on climate change, there has to be strong mitigative action. Like with the human body, degenerative problems affecting planet earth cannot be dealt with only by treating the symptoms.
The Environments of the Poor in South Asia:Simultaneously reducing poverty, protecting the environment and adapting to climate change; ed. Anushree Sinha, Armin Bauer & Paul Bullen, Asian Development Bank & Oxford University Press, India, Rs.995.