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February 23, 2021

Development Strategy|Climate Change

Adapting to Climate Change

By Nitin Desai



Climate change requires a high pace of adaptability in the institutions and policies that shape ecosystem use The floods that hit Uttarakhand are a symptom of two critical ecological and developmental emergencies that we need to address with a sense of urgency — climate change and development activities that aggravate the impact of climate change.

As has been reported, the flash floods may have been caused by the melting of the glacier which is the source of the Dhauliganga river. This could well be the result of temperature changes attributable to the climate change, induced mainly by accumulating global carbon emissions. This of course is a global problem which India cannot tackle on its own. But what it can and should do on its own is to try and ensure that development projects which involve substantial changes in land use and water management are designed after a full consideration of their impact on natural processes and how they will be affected by the likely impact of global warming.

The frequent Uttarakhand disasters indicate that this imperative has been ignored. Uttarakhand is where the Indian tectonic plate goes under the Eurasian tectonic plate making the region susceptible to earthquakes and landslides. It has several fast moving rivers whose source is in glaciers whose premature melting can lead to flash floods. The decision making processes ignored this environmental fragility when constructing dams that disrupted the natural water flow, mountain roads that activated landslides by disturbing the natural slope of hills and construction activities that encroached on areas exposed to rapid flash floods. These disasters are going to get worse as the average global temperature goes up by much more than what we have experienced so far.

In fact it has even been suggested that the temperature change in the Himalayas and Tibet may be higher than the global average. A recent study about the impact on glaciers in this region concludes: “Heterogeneous glacier retreat is changing streamflow patterns, in turn, affecting the incidence of glacial-lake outburst floods and exacerbating the risk of flooding and water shortages associated with future climate change. These changes could negatively impact downstream populations and infrastructure, including the thriving hydropower sector and some of the world’s largest irrigated agriculture systems, by making water flow more extreme and unpredictable.”

Given these grim prospects, we need to adapt the design of projects and policies that affect land and water use to take into account the likely impact of climate change. Most of these are infrastructure projects in the realm of the State governments. The most important requirement is for objective, reliable and timely data on environmental parameters.

Ideally these should come from scientific agencies like the Survey of India, the Geological, Botanical and Zoological Surveys and the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology who are not directly involved in designing or implementing projects. This reduces the risk of data being distorted to justify unwise decisions. Unfortunately, the responsibility for quantitative and qualitative data on land and water rests largely with agencies which also have regulatory or planning responsibilities. In recent years the remote sensing capacities offered by the Space Commission have improved greatly the availability of environmental data.

All the sources of objective data need to be strengthened and research on climate change impact in universities and research institutions has to be greatly expanded. Beyond better data the criteria for approval need to be reconsidered. The evaluation of direct benefits for infrastructure projects is fairly straightforward - the value of increased production for irrigation projects, the value of power supply in Hyde projects, cost and time reduction for travel in road projects and so on.

The real challenge is at the cost end which is still dominated by the old civil engineering approach that focuses mainly on the costs of construction. This is where an eco-system approach is necessary. The potential impact of these interventions in natural systems must be evaluated, taking into account the prospects of climate change. The costs of remediation or adjustment associated with these should be taken into account. If neither remediation nor adjustment is possible then the project must be dropped. The big challenge here is the management of water resources.

An infrastructure project that alters the water flow in rivers will have an impact all the way downstream. A river serves multiple uses — irrigation, drinking water, hydroelectric power, water transport, fisheries and so on. It has to be managed to contain flood risks, control pollution and protect biodiversity. All of these are handled today in isolated silos. These multiple uses of a river also interact with each other. Sewage and industrial effluents compromise its use as drinking water. Dams to hold water for hydroelectric generation reduce the scope for water transport and also affect fisheries. Water flow in rivers will be affected not just by glacier melt but also by changes in precipitation which, in summary terms, will involve more rain on fewer days increasing the risks of both flash floods and long dry spells. These governance challenges are becoming more acute because of demographic, economic and ecological changes.

Every river-based project should be designed and approved in the context of the entire river basin, an approach that is difficult to implement as all major rivers are shared between States. Article 262 of the Constitution does give Parliament the right to set up machinery for Inter-State water disputes and this has been done. We need to go beyond dispute settlement to cooperative decision making by the riparian States based on a shared understanding of the hydrology of the river.

The basis for this can the Supreme Court Judgement in the Kaveri case which states that “the waters of an inter-State river passing through the corridors of the riparian States constitute national asset and cannot be said to be located in any one State.” The management of water resources is the perhaps the most serious challenge for adaptation to climate change.

But there are other areas of infrastructure development which also need to be seen in an eco-system context and take into account the likely impact of climate change. Road construction in mountain areas, urban construction in coastal areas, land use projects in dryland areas are some examples of projects that need to look beyond construction costs into ecosystem impact in the context of climate change. The pace of climate change is going to lead to a rate of eco system change that far exceeds anything that human societies have experienced. The greatest challenge it poses is the pace of adaptability of the institutions and policies that shape ecosystem use.

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