World Environment Day is observed annually on June 5th to commemorate the importance of conserving our environment from the many threats it faces.
For India, World Environment Day offers a valuable opportunity to recognise one of the major issues confronting the nation: its poor environmental health, ranked as the worst in the world in the past. It is easy to see why this is the case.
Seven of the ten most polluted cities in the world are situated in India. This carries disastrous implications for health ranging from elevated risks of a plethora of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) to shearing a year and a half off of life expectancy. In 2017 alone, the effects of air pollution killed a staggering 2.1 million people in India.
“Inclement weather patterns are becoming rote in the country, with climate change driving severe natural disasters and weather events…The calamities themselves are far from unusual but their violence and intensity have been increasing in recent years – enabled by a perfect storm of rising temperatures and a preponderance of moisture in the atmosphere. This facilitates a more unstable and volatile atmosphere which, in turn, lends itself to the very real probability of increasingly ferocious catastrophes.”
Thanks (at least in part) to pollution, rates of lung disease are skyrocketing – including among non-smokers. Pollution can additionally be linked to India’s growing burdens of conditions such as dementia, diabetes, and heart disease. Research also identifies a potential link between exposure to ambient air pollution and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. Given recent findings that even a short stay in a polluted city could have negative health effects, the prospects for those exposed to severe air pollution on a daily basis are horrific.
Pollution comes in a multitude of forms. The most obvious thing which comes to mind when pollution is mentioned is emissions from factories or exhaust fumes from cars. However, pollution also comes from the burning of crop waste and garbage at landfill sites and the combustion of unsafe biomass fuels. The sheer range of air pollution sources entails that it is not a problem confined to India’s cities: indeed, 75 percent of pollution-related deaths occur in rural India. It is vital to acknowledge pollution as a problem affecting all Indians and to respond accordingly, identifying the root causes and undertaking steps to tackle them.
India’s environmental woes do not stop there, however. Inclement weather patterns are becoming rote in the country, with climate change driving severe natural disasters and weather events. The extreme flooding in Kerala last year arrested global headlines as hundreds were killed and millions displaced in the state’s worst floods in a century.
Meanwhile, dust storms last year swept across northern India, killing more than 127 people and causing significant destruction and devastation to homes, livelihoods, and communities. Dust storms returned this year and wreaked similar devastation.
The calamities themselves are far from unusual but their violence and intensity have been increasing in recent years – enabled by a perfect storm of rising temperatures and a preponderance of moisture in the atmosphere. This facilitates a more unstable and volatile atmosphere which, in turn, lends itself to the very real probability of increasingly ferocious catastrophes.
“Extreme temperature rises could make entire regions of India uninhabitable, causing mass displacement and social upheaval. Reduced crop quality and water shortages could also arise owing to the environmental impact of increased temperatures on agriculture and groundwater reserves.”
In recent weeks, the climate change-enhanced severity of natural disasters has become evident in heatwaves. Every year, the summer proves to be a sweltering season but in the past few decades, it has become an increasingly deadly occurrence. Since 1992, heatwaves killed more than 22,000 people. 2015 notably witnessed thousands of deaths due to extreme temperatures. Between 2013 and 2016 alone, heatwaves claimed the lives of 4,000 people. This was during a period – the 2008-17 decade – which ranked as India’s hottest ever on record.
This year, India is again grappling with blistering heatwaves which have been ongoing for weeks. Saturday, June 2nd saw India home to eight of the fifteen hottest places on Earth. This is far from the first such occurrence of India dominating global temperature lists this year. At the beginning of May, the world’s fifteen hottest cities were located in India.
Dozens of deaths have already been reported this year. Temperatures exceeding 50℃ have been recorded in some parts of the country and are anticipated to persist into the middle of June. Worryingly, the situation is posed to get worse.
The United Nations predicts global temperatures to increase by 1.5℃ by 2040. As Health Issues India has previously noted, this temperature increase could have a severe effect on living standards of hundreds of millions of Indians.
Extreme temperature rises could make entire regions of India uninhabitable, causing mass displacement and social upheaval. Reduced crop quality and water shortages could also arise owing to the environmental impact of increased temperatures on agriculture and groundwater reserves. This, it must be stipulated, assumes a 1.5℃ rise. A rise of 3℃ – which is anticipated if India fails to take action to reduce its carbon emissions in a bid to control climate change – would cost India 2.8 percent of its GDP and affect the lives of 600 million Indians.
“42 percent of the land in India faces drought. This area is home to approximately 500 million Indians, representing almost forty percent of the country’s population”
What is important to remember is that the consequences of these trends are not a far-off occurrence. They are happening now. Nowhere is this more apparent than water shortages. Water shortages have become an issue of significant alarm for many Indians in recent months. India has long been warned of a major crisis of water scarcity. This is rapidly taking shape.
As reported by Health Issues India earlier this year, 42 percent of the land in India faces drought. This area is home to approximately 500 million Indians, representing almost forty percent of the country’s population.
Among the worst-affected places in Tamil Nadu state capital Chennai. Health Issues India reported in March that 9.8 million people were dependent on the Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewage Board to dispatch water tankers as reserves in lakes, reservoirs, and wells depleted. Yet, at that time, these tankers were able to only provide 550 million litres of water daily, against a demand of 850 million litres daily. This situation has worsened in the months since.
Water levels in the city’s four main reservoirs have depleted to their fifth lowest level in 74 years, with the cumulative capacity of the four reservoirs standing at just 1.3 percent at the time of writing. The water tankers many Chennaites are reliant upon are expensive. Private suppliers charge up to Rs 6,000 per load of tanker dependent on the vehicle’s water storage capacity. This is against the backdrop of a water crisis affecting great swathes of Tamil Nadu as a whole. The state government has declared drought in 24 of Tamil Nadu’s 32 districts.
Water crises are not limited to Tamil Nadu. Health Issues India reported in March that state governments in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Odisha, Rajasthan, and Telangana had declared droughts in their districts. Residents in parts of Bihar, Jharkhand, and Maharashtra were also known to be grappling with dry spells.
In these states, the lack of access to water is causing real misery in everyday lives. In Chandigarh, villagers from thirteen villages say they are not receiving water despite paying their water bills – and contending with price hikes and private sector vendors to boot. Some villagers have reported not having received water for as long as two months.
In Karnataka, water shortages forced school closures. Maharashtra saw 5,000 villagers plagued by the lack of drinking water. The slums of Delhi have seen dwellers go without water for ten-day periods. These are microcosmic portraits of a national crisis government think tank Niti Aayog recently portrayed in a grim light.
The most alarming findings include that more than 600 million Indians face “acute water shortages” and that, by 2030, 500 million Indians face the reality of having “no access to drinking water.” Groundwater reserves in the country could run dry for 21 cities as soon as next year, including in Bangalore and Delhi.
“World Environment Day offers an opportunity for outside observers and policymakers to raise awareness, but no such effort is needed for those who grapple with the day-to-day realities of India’s environmental crises. The nation’s health is at risk because of these issues, which often coalesce into full-blown catastrophe on every level.”
This is to say nothing of groundwater contamination, which Niti Aayog says accounts for seventy percent of the country’s water supply and is responsible for 200,000 deaths annually. Many of India’s rivers are too polluted to sustain human life, the River Ganga being a major example of this. Contaminants such as arsenic, human waste and industrial runoff are found in vast quantities of India’s groundwater, further exacerbating the country’s water crisis and posing great risks to health.
Going forward, action is clearly needed. A new cabinet-level ministry under the name of Jal Shakti has been founded to address India’s water woes, merging the Ministries of Water Resources, River Development, and Ganga Rejuvenation and the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. With its inauguration, the ministry faces one of the biggest challenges facing any branch of the new government and time will tell if it is up to the task. However, the consequences if it is not cannot be overlooked.
World Environment Day offers an opportunity for outside observers and policymakers to raise awareness, but no such effort is needed for those who grapple with the day-to-day realities of India’s environmental crises. The nation’s health is at risk because of these issues, which often coalesce into full-blown catastrophe on every level. Occasions such as the observance of World Environment Day are important, but must translate into year-round action. As has been repeatedly highlighted by experts, and as is repeatedly shown by the day-to-day lives of the citizenry, there are dire consequences if India refuses to act for its environment.