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1.5 degrees and what it means for India

A recent UN report has predicted a 1.5 °C temperature rise globally by 2040 – with potentially devastating implications for India.

The state of the environment and the health of a nation are closely tied. This is being brought to the forefront of India’s attention currently with ever more evidence arising linking the country’s catastrophic levels of air pollution to its rising rates of noncommunicable disease.

There are, however, far more ways in which the state of a nation’s environment can affect the health of its populace. The impact of shifting climates on crop quality and groundwater reserves is one notable example. Extreme weather patterns can even reduce crop capacity to below what is needed to support the population.


Extreme weather conditions, a not so rare phenomenon
Smog pictured over Connaught Place in New Delhi.

This is worrisome as extreme weather conditions are becoming more common, both in India and around the globe. In this year we have prominently witnessed flooding in Kerala that has been marked as a “once in a century” occurrence, displacing around 1.5 million people and leaving hundreds dead in its wake.

The flooding in Kerala is far from the only natural disaster to befall India this year. The country has also witnessed dust storms in the north of the country and heatwaves in the north and east.

“India is highly exposed to a range of natural hazards” says Alexandra Bilak, director of Geneva-based non-profit Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre’s (IDMC), ”These physical factors, combined with the country’s high population density, poverty, rapid urbanisation, and environmental degradation, make India most at risk of disaster-related displacement in all of south Asia.”

Heatwaves alone have claimed well in excess of 22,000 deaths since 1992. With average temperatures set to get progressively hotter in the coming years these heatwaves are likely to become more common and potentially more severe, leading to far more deaths.


The after effects of these weather conditions are just as deadly


In the wake of heatwaves and flooding are the after effects to the local environment. In many cases it is not simply business as usual once the event is over. In the case of flooding there may be a lengthy rebuilding process. Displaced people may never be able to return to their homes due to the inability to afford the repairs.

Heatwaves can cause just as severe an after effect. Due to the lack of rainfall it is not uncommon for crops in the area to fail. This in turn can ruin the livelihood of farmers, resulting in food shortages that can cause severe malnutrition.

Further issues may arise in the future when accounting for rising sea levels and population displacement due to flooding. A large portion of the Indian population resides in areas close to either the sea or on rivers. These areas are prone to flooding and if water levels rise in the future, mass migration could occur.

This could potentially displace millions into previously rural, inland areas. Food production may not be able to keep up with these numbers as rural areas would need to be repurposed into accommodation for the displaced people. As with many refugee camps currently in existence, such an event would be catastrophic for human health as the closely confined areas would likely become a hub for infectious disease.


Can agricultural and water outputs sustain the population?


Overpopulation is a considerable issue placing a strain on national budgets globally. Population figures are set to rise alongside the potential temperature increase, a factor which could even speed the process of climate change up.

Studies have projected that Indian groundwater supplies are depleting. Many areas could run dry by 2050 according to a study published in The Lancet. This can be partially attributed to irrigation and sewage systems. In India, depletion is highest in areas of high agricultural output. This huge amount of loss of groundwater is entirely unsustainable. Within a few decades, it could have devastating effects. A country with a population numbering over a billion is expected to produce a vast amount of food to avoid shortages. Without the necessary water supply, this is simply impossible.

A UNESCO report confirms the results of the study, conflating the situation in many Indian cities with that experienced in Cape Town, South Africa. There, citizens were facing a potential “Day Zero” in which water scarcity becomes so severe the city’s municipal government will be forced to shut off the city’s water distribution supply.

The situation for food supplies may be more dire than just the shortages due to lacking water capacity. One study has suggested that tens of millions of Indians face nutritional deficiencies in the coming decades because of carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution. Research has indicated that as CO2 concentration rises, carbohydrate content of the plant increases, but nutritional density falls. This could leave the population nutrient deficient and therefore prone to many diseases.

India faces a dire situation in which problems related to climate change will be multi-faceted and come with the potential to overwhelm the country through a combination of food shortages, population displacement and healthcare issues. It is evident that more needs to be done both in India and globally to address the issue and attempt to avert catastrophe.

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