Environmental challenge and opportunity*
By: Prof. C.K. Varshney**
Human civilization has, made an impressive progress to achieve economic wellbeing and all-round development that has certainly made life a lot more comfortable. However, this progress has come at enormous cost to the environment that often negates the advantages of economic growth. The term environment refers to everything that is around us, land, water, atmosphere, plants and animal life. In fact, environment is the main supplier of vital resources that we need to survive. It is no wonder that the other planets have no life simply because their environments cannot sustain life. It is a truth that ecosystems and its peoples are bound together in a tenuous symbiosis. The industrial society is increasingly destroying this relationship giving rise to many complex environmental problems of far reaching consequences. In addition, the unintended and unanticipated environmental and social damage caused by the prevalent paradigm of economic development has resulted in complex environmental problems that seriously undermine food security, water security and biodiversity. The main problems threatening life support system of our planet are elaborated in the following paragraphs.
The biggest issue facing the environment is over population of humans. The global population has more than tripled in the last 60 years placing stress on every aspect of the environment. Ever increasing area of land is being taken up by urbanization and human settlements to accommodate the fast growing population.
Rising levels of carbon dioxide and other gases, such as methane, in the atmosphere create a ‘greenhouse effect’, trapping the Sun’s energy and causing the earth and oceans to warm. The higher the amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the warmer the earth becomes.
There is clear evidence to show that climate change is happening. Since the industrial revolution, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) are now at their highest level for hundreds of thousands of years. There is an overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is primarily due to the use of fossil fuels, which releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is now, and the average temperature at the earth’s surface i now about 1°C higher over the last century. Ambient temperature data show that 13 of the 14 warmest years on record have occurred in the 21st century, and in the last 30 years each decade has been hotter than the previous one. Rising ambient temperature affect crop yields globally, with all other factors being equal. Some studies have estimated that the crop yields may drop by about 10 percent by 2050. Apple cultivation in Himachal Pradesh has suffered adversely from rising temperature, affecting livelihood of lakhs of farmers. For apple trees winter temperature and precipitation in the form of snow are critically important to ensure normal flowering and fruiting in apples. Apple trees requires over 1200 hr. of chilling for satisfactory flowering and fruiting. Relatively warmer December and January fails to provide the critical chilling requirements. Data of last thirty years show that apple crop is getting adversely affected in all apple growing regions (Shimla, Kullu, Lahaul and Spiti) as a result of relatively faster warming of the Himalayan region than most places in the world.
This year in early May, blistering summer heat melted the asphalt roads in Valsad, Gujarat, resulting into a life threatening situation for pedestrians, who found it difficult to walk as their shoes got awkwardly stuck in the melted asphalt and had to struggle to free their shoes.
Currently, one third of humans have inadequate access to clean, fresh water. The number is expected to increase up to two thirds by 2050. Some experts believe that in the near future water will become a commodity just like Gold and Oil. Some experts say that wars will be fought over who owns the water supply.
In India, water availability is becoming increasingly crucial because per capita availability of water in the country has sharply declined as a result of population growth. Most of our rivers are in varying degrees of decline and distress. Over seventy percent water bodies in the country have been polluted or drained. Large volumes of untreated effluents are drained into rives, and water bodies. Most of the Indian rivers are thoughtlessly used for disposing raw sewage and untreated effluents. It is obvious that water of most of our rivers is unfit for drinking, and in many stretches not even fit for bathing. Despite various efforts, pollution of Ganga and other rivers continue to remain a major challenge.
Sea level is rising:
The latest measurements show that the average sea level is currently 50 mm higher than in 1993. According to a United Nation’s forecast, sea levels are likely to rise well over 50 cm by 2100, posing serious threat to coastal communities. Half of the 10 largest cities in the world, including Mumbai, Kolkata, New York City, French Riviera and one-third of the world’s 30 largest cities are already threatened by sea level rise.
The Maldives, a chain of 1,200 islands and coral atolls, about 500 miles from the tip of India, is one of the lowest countries on the planet, with an average land level of 1.5 m above sea level, may disappear, if the present pace of global warming continues unabated.
The chemistry of the oceans is also changing as they absorb much of the excess carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere. This is causing the oceans to become acidic more rapidly than at any point in the last 65 million years. Increasing acidity is highly damaging to marine food-chains and ocean productivity.
Climate change promotes melting of polar ice-caps, which in turn contributes to rise in sea level. As the Arctic warms, sea ice is rapidly decreasing. Over the past 20 years the ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic have shrunk, as have most glaciers around the world.
India has 5243 glaciers covering an area of 37579 km2 and containing 142.88 km2 of ice. The Gangotri glacier, the source of the Ganga is receding at a rapid pace. Some of the most devastating effects of glacial meltdown occur when glacial lakes overflow and burst and give rise to disastrous floods downstream. The 2013 Uttarakhand disaster resulted from heavy cloudburst coupled with collapsing of an upstream glacial lake. Episodes of extreme rainfall events and cloudburst cases have increased and they are likely to be more frequent in the coming years.
Floods have become more frequent and affect the maximum number of people in the world. Many of the fastest developing cities in coastal areas, means that more people, infrastructure, and buildings are vulnerable to the flooding caused by storm surges or cyclones, and sea level rise. Even if not on the coast, cities have sprawled onto floodplains and wetlands. There is simply more stuff, more people, more industries, more infrastructures and more investment in coastal areas than few decades ago. Globally exposure and vulnerability of coastal communities have increased manifold.
Changing rainfall patterns will affect water supplies. Too much rainfall in some areas, and not enough in others, will contribute to both flood and drought conditions. We are already seeing increasing numbers of heavy rainfall events, and expect this increase to continue, with greater risk of river and flash flooding.
Growing populations and rapidly expanding urbanization and infrastructure are making the societies more vulnerable to extreme weather events. More extreme weather events are being seen around the world. Heat waves have become more frequent and are lasting longer. Warming is expected to cause more intense, heavy rainfall events. Recent devastating floods in Chennai were to a large extent due to the building of the cyber city in a low lying area without worrying about the local ecological and hydrological features. Accordingly, a heavy spell of rain flooded the area causing enormous hardships to residents and office goers, apart from substantial economic loss to individuals, institutions, entrepreneurs and public exchequer. In future extreme events are expected to become more common, more intense and more frequent and this needs to take into account in future development.
According to the UN projection, the global population is expected grow from 7 billion in 2012 to 9.3 billion by 2050. In spite of growing economic prosperity and technological progress approximately 870 million people remain undernourished even today. The question of food security, hunger, malnutrition, poverty and parity are high on the global agenda.
India with a population of 1.2 billion is the second largest populous country of the world and likely to touch 1.6 billion by 2030, surpassing China. Despite economic growth and self-sufficiency in food grain production, high level of food insecurity and malnutrition persists in the country.
Forests are natural sinks of carbon dioxide and produce fresh oxygen, help in regulating temperature and rainfall, but getting destroyed without realizing that there is no substitute for the services they provide. Trees are now dying globally at a rate never seen before. Since 1990 half of the world’s rain forests have been destroyed.
Currently, many plants and animals are in danger of becoming extinct, either from being forced out of their habitats by anthropogenic actions or by climate change. When a species become extinct, it has a knock on effect in the food chain upsetting the structure and function of ecosystem, which have developed through a long process of evolution. The biological, chemical, and physical interactions between the components of an ecosystem (e.g., soil, water, plants, animals and microorganisms) produce a variety of services in the form of oxygen needed for breathing and fuel combustion, clean water, carbon sequestration, soil fertility and control of soil erosion among others. Another critically important ecosystem service for humans is pollination. It is the transfer of pollen from the producing anthers to the receptive stigma which is an essential step for sexual reproduction leading to fruit and seed formation in flowering plants. Success of pollen transfer to stigma is directly related to yield for all crops in which the pollination is a prerequisite for sexual reproduction. Rapid and large changes in global temperatures, 4oC or more, above the pre-industrial temperature, could cause mass extinction of species and collapse of ecosystem services and jeopardize human survival.
The desperate scenario presented by the environment challenges can be reversed and turned into opportunity, provided urgent and concerted actions are taken simultaneously on multiple fronts. Environmental conservation and effective use of ecosystem services must receive highest priority and should be the under lying theme of all development activity. We have to make an all-out effort to decarbonize the economy, increase resource use efficiency, protect biodiversity and ecosystem services for the benefit of present and future generations. Paris climate agreement, and global agreement on sustainable development goals SGDs, are very encouraging developments. We must support these initiatives and resolve to protect Mother Earth – Our only home - from environmental abuse and commit to work for improving quality of life and human well-being.
*Reproduced from Employment News, New Delhi
**Emeritus Scientist, Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi,