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Climate impact, risk uneven due to unequal society, are mediated by non-climatic factors

By Garbhit Naik*, Mansee Bal Bhargava** 
Climate change induced devastations of all the life forms on earth have begun by hampering the natural processes and their ability to adapt. Water, which has its own natural process of availability through water cycle is heavily impacted. Climate change is directly affecting the ability to predict the periodic availability of water which forms the basis of life on earth.
According to UNICEF, around 74 per cent of natural disasters between 2001 and 2018 were water-related, including droughts, floods and cyclones. The frequency and intensity of such events are only expected to increase with climate change.
In addition, the rising water epidemics comprising of almost 80% of world diseases (World Health Organization, WHO) is making water a serious issue equivalent to pandemic. The increasing natural disasters and diseases have to be further seen through the lens of inequity in access to water and sanitation. In aggregate, climate crisis can be considered as most manifested in water crisis.
Much of the climate crisis discussions, debates and discourses now are officially maneuvered through the reports and meetings. As the Seventh Assessment Report of the IPCC and meeting are in the making, we took an opportunity last year to dig into the nuances of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report 2022 with a few contributing authors.
The Wednesdays.for.Water conversations titled, ‘Climate Change and the IPCC report’, discussed some of the water concerns that are covered in the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report 2022. The session speakers are Dr. Aditi Mukherji, Prof. Subimal Ghosh and Prof. Vimal Mishra and the session is moderated by Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava.
Through the discussion with the authors during the session, we also get to understand the current approach of how water is perceived, studied and conveyed across disciplines, sectors and regions with respect to climate change and crisis.

Intergovernmental panel on climate change

The IPCC, alias Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change. It provides regular assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation.
The IPCC was created in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The objective is to provide governments at all levels with scientific information that they can use to develop climate policies. IPCC reports are key inputs into international climate change negotiations.
The IPCC is divided into three Working Groups. The scope of Group I is on The Physical Science Basis of Climate Change, Group II is on Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, and Group III is on Mitigation of Climate Change.

Climate Change impact, adaptation in water, agriculture

Climate Crisis is Water Crisis yet water is neglected in most climate change negotiations. Climate change has led to changes in all layers of the water cycle, be it precipitation in the form of rainfall or snowfall, evapotranspiration or melting of Glacier, each of those components of the water cycle has been affected.
Since water is the basis of life, these impacts in the water cycle have transferred to almost every aspect of social-economic, culture and even politics in the society. A huge evident is on the sector that is humanly created, we are totally dependent on and that it is entirely dependent on water, i.e., Agriculture.
Though in the urban areas people experience climate change through extreme heat but when it comes to agriculture, climate change is experienced through delayed monsoon due to higher variability in rainfall, floods and droughts.
Mitigation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions is currently a known strategy to combat climate change, however water also plays a critical role in adaptation through strategies such as, irrigation, rainwater harvesting, other water conservation and management approaches. ‘If mitigation is about carbon, then adaptation is about water’, Aditi has a strong argument to defend the phenomena.

The monsoon paradox

With variability in the duration of rainfall, the amount of precipitation is also adversely impacted. Heavy precipitation is increased over many areas in the world and approximately over 700 million people globally are experiencing heavier precipitation conditions as compared to 1950s.
At the same time, 700 million people globally are seeing longer dry spells conditions as compared to 1950s. The dry spells have increased creating the paradox of monsoon, i.e., more rain but also longer drier spells. Thus, concurrent appearance of floods and droughts of is now common in climate change.
Both result in crisis to water, sanitation and importantly agriculture. For example, the drought of 2017 across Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya and Eastern Africa was a result of similar phenomenon that contributed to extreme food insecurity where human induced climate change is likely the main driver.
Along with creating more intense droughts and floods, the ability of the earth’s atmosphere to hold more water vapor can also amplify the warming effect of climate change. This is because water vapor, the gaseous form of water, is considered a greenhouse gas.
The drought of 2017 in the Northern Plains of USA where the chances of drought increased due to increased evapotranspiration which was clearly due to climate change. It is severely affecting the agricultural practices and pushing people to rethink and explore new approaches.
The IPCC report identifies four major climate risks across South Asia which in combinations and combined altogether have devastating effects, heat stress, water scarcity, food security, and flood risk.
Exposure to extreme heat will increase heat-related morbidity and mortality along with decreased labor productivity. With rising temperature, lack of access to water for irrigation will result in decrease in addition to the rising drought.
In India, 20% possible decline in availability of water for agriculture may impact rice production up to 30% by 2050. Higher warming also means higher flood risks and especially coastal population severely affected. All these attributes to infrastructure losses, crop damages and increased diseases, epidemics and pandemics.

Unequitable impacts of the climate risks

Ironically, the climate impacts and risks are uneven and are mediated by non-climatic factors and not everybody will face these climate risks equally due to the unequal society that we have built over the time. 
For example, the class difference can be simply understood as the heat waves do not affect those who have the luxury of working indoors and in air-conditioned spaces while it has a profound impact on day laborers or people who are out in the fields. The additional layers of caste and gender are other important dynamics around which these vulnerabilities actually manifest.
No wheat crop will be able to endure when temperature reaches 50˚C in March and we are close to that
Hence, climate change impacts are not only about physics but equally about justice and equity issues. In addition to micro scale at a macro scale, often those who are most vulnerable and are facing the maximum impacts are actually the ones who have not even contributed to carbon emissions or global warming.
For example, there are many communities just like the one in Ladakh who are solely dependent on the ice capped Himalayas are currently facing a huge water scarcity as climate change is resulting in the variability in the water availability in these regions.

Climate change extremes, adaptation in India

Subimal argued that unlike the western countries where there is a continuous fight to prove that climate is changing, in India there is comparatively more acceptance about and people/policymakers are looking for solutions and adaptive tools to improve the adaptive capacity. Climate extremes are realized under 2 situations, i.e., hot extremes or heat waves, and precipitation extremes (floods and droughts).
Anthropogenic activities have led to an increase in heat waves in the South Asian region. We are already living in a 1.2˚C world and the situation will be out of our hands beyond that. This simply suggests that adaptation also has its own limits.
For example, no wheat crop will be able to endure when the temperature reaches 50˚C in March and we are already close to that. The major ways in which people are adapting are changing cropping patterns on farms, irrigation as well as water and soil moisture conservation. However, despite all the efforts, we will have to focus on cutting down our emissions.
Many studies show rising trends in terms of extreme precipitation in South Asia however, many scientists have limited agreement to say that human contribution has resulted into change of this extreme precipitation. This is because, precipitation is a very difficult variable as it is extremely difficult to predict it. Indian Monsoon has seen a lot of periodicities and because of that the mean looks very similar but extremes have increased so essentially. The low to medium rainfall have reduced resulting into extremes such as more soil moisture and drought.
The concept of compound extends, which means when two of the extents are occurring together like sea level rise and storm surge or precipitation in combination with strong winds, seems inevitable for now. Such extends are critical in terms of planning for adaptation to disaster related risks.
The IPCC Sixth Report suggests that the Indian coast will be under the combined threat of increasing cyclones plus extreme rainfall plus storm surge and plus sea level rise. To deal with such complex issues, some major strategies identified are:
  • Urban flood forecasting
  • Flood risk forecasting considering the vulnerability and exposure kind of component
  • Flood evacuation
Urbanization caused due to increasing migration into the floodplains has substantially increased the trend of devastation due to floods in a developing country like India. For example, in Chennai and the surrounding suburban areas, torrential rainfall associated with low-pressure systems engulfed the city during December 2015, affecting over 4 million people along with economic damages that costed around 3 billion USD.
In view of the above-mentioned extreme event and disturbance in Chennai, it was felt necessary that an expert system be designed for flood forecasting along with flood inundation maps and possible means of flood management through appropriate interventions for dealing with any such future events (Ghosh et al., 2019).
Predictions in Flood evacuation is a very complicated process and combining it with situations such as Covid19 makes it even more critical. For example, when the cyclone Amphan was about to hit the coast of Odisha during the spread of coronavirus, the authorities had no idea how to carry out the evacuation as the risk of spread of virus was also to be considered.
Talking in terms of preparation for forecasting and evacuation as part of adaptation is stressed by scientists all over. Forecasting the risks already becomes part of adaptation to climate change impacts.

Water sustainability for adaptation to climate change

Vimal argued that human induced climate change has driven detectable changes in the global water cycle since the mid-twentieth century. Anthropogenic activities have further driven detectable large-scale changes. Local and regional water cycle responses are also influenced due to unplanned land-use changes and over exploitation of ground water for irrigation.
Under these circumstances, when already known that the precipitation projections are very complex, it is a huge challenge for policymakers to find out most suitable strategies for adaptation.
Water sustainability and adaptations to climate change involves understanding the inter-relationship between climate and human interventions (aerosols, Land-use changes and unsustainable irrigation practices) affect the changes and variability in the summer monsoon. This is also linked with the capacity of ground and surface water sources in future. A major reason in the case of India is also the presence of aerosols.
Most of the projections say that there will be increased rainfall in the future but more than 80% of the country-level flash droughts occurred during the monsoon season in India.
Similarly, four out of six homogeneous precipitation regions experienced more droughts during the monsoon season than the non-monsoon season (Mishra et al., 2020). Low intensity rainfall has declined across the country and this is a significant change because that is crucial for groundwater recharge.
During the drought years when groundwater recharge goes down, abstraction goes up with roughly 15 to 20% increase in pumping and about 20 to 30% decrease in recharge. This combined with extremely warm conditions put pressure on the groundwater systems.
It is therefore, very important to work on the prediction models and understand whether future monsoon will be able to recharge the ground water sources to explore and plan to re-establish some of the natural water cycles in the drought prone areas in India.

Conclusion

Water remains at the center of adaptation to climate change. We need to certainly do more to know the impacts of climate change on and device technologies such as early warning systems and real-time monitoring besides crucial policy changes on water, agriculture, energy and even lifestyle. Considering agriculture as a profession to explore innovation is extremely helpful to get over the social taboo of class-based profession and solutions.
We have to improve our climate services which is an urgent challenge on hand. Addressing water services through SDG 05 and SDG12 are certainly way out. Importantly, we have to see development not in silo from adaptation.
The development has to be in a way that helps us adapt and become more resilient. Also, important is to resolve the dilemmas involved in decoding valuable reports like IPPCC into simple decisions, actions or suggestions for people at large. For example, forecasting and evacuation strategies are crucial.
For humanity, the biggest challenge and task on hand is to work on the long-discussed (not yet well negotiated) disparity in the society through the impacts. The focus on vulnerable communities to have sustainable development as climate distress is now more about disparity and discrimination. Adaptation is not only optimism but it is only the way out from the biggest threat to the existence of (human) life on earth.
***
Wednesdays.for.Water is an initiative of the WforW Foundation, a think tank, built as a Citizens Collective. The idea of Wednesdays.for.Water is to connect the water worries and wisdom with the water warriors through dialogues/discussions/debates. The objective is to get in conversations with policy makers, practitioners, researchers, academicians besides the youth towards water conservation and management. The other team members of WforW are, Prof. Bibhu P Nayak (TISS-Hyd), Dr. Fawzia Tarannum (Climate Reality India) Ganesh Shankar and Vasantha Subbiah (FluxGen-Blr), Megha Gupta, Monica Tewari, Harshita Pathak, Proshakha Maitra, Monami Bhattacharya, Anubhuti Shekhar (ED®C-Ahmd), Vandana Tiwari, Kalpana Patel, and counting. The Wednesdays.for.Water is reachable at wednesdays.for.water@gmail.com and WforW Foundation is reachable at hellowforw@gmail.com and hello@wforw.in. The WforW Foundation social media are reachable at Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn.
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*Independent scholar and fellow at ED(R)C Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation; **Entrepreneur, researcher, educator, speaker, mentor. Environmental Design Consultants, Ahmedabad (www.mansee.in and www.wforw.in)

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