The Impending Crisis in Aryavarta

Apr 4th, 2014 | By | Category: Advocacy, Development and Climate Change, News, Vulnerability, Weather

wheatfield--621x414From the age of the Vedas—Hinduism’s oldest scripture—to modern graphic novels which revisit that idealized past, the word Aryavarta has come to define India. As an area, Aryavarta stretches from the western frontiers of modern Pakistan to India’s eastern edges, watered by three mighty rivers, the Indus, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra. This vast alluvial land is the Indo-Gangetic Plain, arbiter of numerous civilizational and individual destinies, which is why prime ministerial hopeful Narendra Modi seeks election from its spiritual heartland.

This week, a multinational group of scientists warned that the Indo-Gangetic plain was approaching a more dramatic epochal cusp; a dangerous one, borne this time not of invading armies, empire makers and glory seekers, but on the arcane, intensive—and sometimes uncertain—laboratory work that goes into predicting climate change.

Released earlier this week, the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warns that the Indo-Gangetic Plain will be one of the earth’s focal points for climate change. “About 200 million people (using the current population) in this area whose food intake relies on crop harvests would experience adverse impacts,” says the report. India, in general, is highly vulnerable and regardless of what government takes charge of Delhi this year, the long-term prospects include less food, lower economic growth, persistent poverty and more disease.

Climate change is sometimes criticized as an inexact science, and that it is. Yet, the inferences climate scientists draw attract a growing consensus: Humanity is changing the world’s climate and perhaps not as slowly as we previously thought. While some areas, such as Kazakhstan, may grow more food as the land warms, the overall effect will manifest itself—if it hasn’t already—in uncertain weather and more severe storms, from winter freezes to heat waves. These conclusions are not easily reached. The IPCC report has 243 lead authors, 436 contributing authors and 66 review editors and 12,000 scientific references cited from at least 70 countries. The fields of expertise called on include the physical and natural sciences, management, engineering and public policy.

Food demand is likely to double by 2050 in India, but yields of rice and wheat will likely be hit. Overall crop yields are already faltering. In 2013-14, India—the world’s largest rice producer—expects a 5% drop in output, largely because of Cyclone Phailin, which may or may not be one of the extreme weather events predicted for a warming world. What is clear is that extreme weather is increasing.

Although production has almost doubled since 1990, wheat yields in the granaries of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have fallen in the past three years, agriculture ministry data show. On these great plains, responsible for 15% of the world’s wheat output, “there will be a a 51% decrease in the most favourable and high-yielding area due to heat stress” the IPCC report predicts.

“There is a growing concern among policymakers and researchers about the vulnerability of the (Indian) wheat crop to global warming and changing climatic conditions, particularly the rise in temperatures during March/April at the grain filling stage,” says the India Grain and Feed Annual report for 2014, released in February by the US government.

Are we doomed to this fate? Can we do nothing?

Actually, the IPCC report says doomsday scenarios are optional—if governments act. In the case of wheat, that means new, hardier varieties, raised to withstand the new climate, and the construction of support infrastructure, from warehouses to roads.

“In India, the estimated countrywide agricultural loss in 2030 of over $7 billion that will severely affect the income of 10% of the population could be reduced by 80% if cost-effective climate resilience measures are implemented,” the report says.

It isn’t only agriculture that may fail. Living in Aryavarta’s dirty, disastrous cities will become hell—if it isn’t already—regardless of climate change, which will only exacerbate matters. Mitigation measures have wide-ranging benefits. For example, failing public health in India could be boosted by fewer fossil-fuel vehicles and more trees would make cities cooler. Metro railways (under expansion or construction in Chennai, Kochi, Jaipur, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi) and urban mass transit are finally getting significant attention in Indian cities, notwithstanding serious planning and implementation flaws.

If electricity production in India and China can be decarbonized, a great decrease in mortality due to tiny, toxic particulates is possible; so, too, if more people are provided the means to walk and cycle. Last week, the World Health Organization said air pollution was a contributor to 7 million deaths in 2012, more than a third of those in India, China and Asia’s other emerging nations.

Currently, the outlook is bleak. “The question is whether India is prepared to face the climate-change challenge and develop resilience,” Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of the advocacy Centre for Science and Environment, wrote in a recent blog. “The answer is no.”

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