Several parts of India are currently experiencing a deadly heatwave, which has claimed the lives of over 50 people so far. The intense heat has contributed to widespread water shortages across the nation. What steps can be taken by the Indian government in tandem with other South Asian countries to address the escalating water crisis and the existential threat of climate change?
The cryosphere is the second largest component of the climate system, after the ocean, that stores about 75% of the world’s freshwater. In terms of the ice mass and its heat capacity, therefore, it plays a significant role in the global climate. The Himalayas form the most important concentration of snow covered regions outside the polar region. The Himalayan glaciers are highly sensitive to the ongoing warming. The detailed glacier inventory of Indian Himalayas (GSI, SAC) indicates presence of 9579 glaciers in the Himalayas, some of which form the perennial source of major rivers. Changes in glaciers are one of the clearest indicators of alterations in regional climate, since they are governed by changes in accumulation (from snowfall) and ablation (by melting of ice). The difference between accumulation and ablation or the mass balance is crucial to the health of a glacier.
The Himalayas stretch for 2,500 km from West to East, spanning eight countries - Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Nine of the world’s 10 highest peaks, including Mount Everest, the highest, are here. Ten of Asia’s largest rivers originate here, three of which – the Indus, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra – flow through India.
Nearly 70% of the water in rivers such as the Indus and the Ganga comes from the melting of Himalayan glaciers in the summer. The rest is from the monsoon rains.
India has been facing water shortage issues annually for the past five years and this has resulted in the country being caught in what is known as a ‘drought cycle’. A drought cycle starts with meteorological drought resulting from insufficient rains; prolonged meteorological drought leads to hydrological drought marked by a reduction in water supply; hydrological drought leads to agricultural drought due to insufficient water for irrigation; finally, prolonged agricultural results in socio-economic drought wherein societies are affected by food insecurity, poor sanitation, and income losses as a result of water shortage.
While India is no stranger to hot weather, an intense heat wave across northern India has proven that the threat of climate change is very real and has some catastrophic consequences. Temperatures are reaching unprecedented highs and several parts have recorded some of the highest temperatures in the world. New Delhi witnessed temperatures of 48 degrees Celsius (the highest temperature recorded in the capital) while some parts of Rajasthan experienced temperatures around 50 degrees Celsius. The death toll in Bihar as a result of the heatwave has exceeded 60 and the number continues to rise.
The heat wave has left many cities without water and even more agricultural land bereft of sufficient irrigation. If the drought goes unchecked, the possibility of famine is a serious concern. In the short term, drought can lead to crop failures, but in the long term, food insecurity is imminent. In a nation with over 1 billion mouths to feed, this is a very serious problem.
The Indian Agricultural sector is a vital sector of the Indian economy contributing to 17% of its GDP and providing employment to around 60% of the Indian population. Over 70% of rural households depend on agriculture or agro-businesses for their sustenance. If the current trends in water shortages continue, the Indian economy risks a 6% decline in GDP by 2050 according to NITI Aayog, a government think tank. In Chennai, four main water reservoirs have run completely dry and IT companies are asking employees to stay home due to the unavailability of drinking water. Surely, such a situation would harm worker productivity. The economic implications of India’s water crisis alone should be reason enough for augmented efforts to mitigate the effects of water shortages.
The Indian government has been working towards providing relief to people in heatwave zones by increasing access to drinking water, offering school holidays, painting ceilings white to reduce heat absorption and opening up shelters for homeless people. India is also reaching out to other countries for support by creating Centres of Excellence across the nation. But with summer temperatures rising annually and a yearly decline in rainfall, combating water shortage and extreme heat is proving to be difficult. 21 major Indian cities are predicted to run out of groundwater by the year 2020. We are only one year away from the Indian water crisis turning into a national emergency.
India is not the only country facing the challenges of climate change. In fact, several South Asian countries including Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives are experiencing similar incremental increases in temperature. Perhaps it is time for these nations to consolidate their resources to combat climate change together.
It is our assessment that climate change in India poses an endemic threat to economic development and that the Indian government should accord it the highest priority. We feel that the increase in heat waves, floods, droughts, and famines over the past decade are merely symptoms of global warming.
Our analysis concludes that out of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region (HKH 8), China, India and Pakistan simply do not have sufficient water to ensure food and energy security, and also develop under the current export-led economic growth model. To achieve a per capita GDP of over USD 50,000, the US uses at least 1,543m3 of water/person which is only 16% of its total renewable water resources of 9,538 m3/person. Unfortunately, China and India are only endowed with total renewable water resources of 2,018m3/person and 1,458m3/person respectively; Pakistan has even less. We feel that governments in the region have no choice but to chart a roadmap to more GDP on less water and less pollution. This includes transitioning from agri-led to services-led economies, controlling total water use, revamping polluting and water - intensive industries, optimising crop mix and improving efficiencies. Experiences from developed G20 countries show that trade can also be used. Europe uses less water than the US as it is largely reliant on water - intensive imports, essentially using other people’s water, whereas the US is largely food and energy secure.
We also believe that regulating for water scarcity will clearly bring transitional and disruptive risks.