Written by Ranjit Barthakur, President of Balipara Foundation
In the last couple of decades, India has witnessed rapid changes in weather conditions across its length and breadth, and the subsequent impact on life and economy is laid out in plain sight. While approximately 70 percent of the country is dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods, they face the brunt of frequent natural calamities like artificial floods, droughts, low rainfall, among many other disasters, resulting in severe land degradation, heavy exploitation of natural resources, loss of income, migration and poor quality of life, as the developmental indices reveal a spiraling crisis.
The Global Climate Risk 2020 index ranks India the 5th most affected country in the world due to the climate crisis, amidst a burgeoning growing population dependent heavily on nature capital for their sustenance.
A recent report by the World Bank states that the failure to protect our fragile ecology – including pollinators, keystone species, fisheries, natural forests – will risk setting the global economy back by 2.7 trillion USD annually by 2030. Global businesses and countries now realise that there is an increasing need to transition to an economic paradigm that recognises the interdependence of ecology and economy, as well as integrate nature capital into value accounting systems and indices of development and growth.
Small developing countries that are majorly at risk to the effects of climate change, like Bangladesh, argue that the ‘ecology is economy’ model is the only way for such countries to face the high risks that climate change poses.
Climate risks & the Indian economy
Approximately 60% of India’s economy is highly to moderately dependent on nature, according to assessments by PWC and World Economic Forum. Research by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water indicates that more than 80% of India’s population lives in districts that are vulnerable to extreme weather events from floods to droughts.
2019 research by the Department of Science and Technology indicated that one of the biggest risk factors for climate vulnerability were high rates of dependency on rainfed agriculture – widespread across the country, but particularly among small farmers – and the low relative levels of forest and green cover per capita, particularly in states like Assam.
Based on current 2030 NDC targets, the world is expected to reach 2.4 degrees of warming by 2050. For India, this means cataclysmic extreme weather events like heat waves, droughts and extreme flooding as the monsoon shifts, will occur even more frequently.
In a country where the majority of the population lives in rural areas and depends heavily on an agricultural economy, this will have devastating effects.
The links between vulnerability to climate risks and damaged ecosystems presents an opportunity to manage climate risks through natural climate resilience techniques. Both the Glasgow Climate Pact and the Sharm-el-Sheikh Implementation Plan recognize the role of nature-based solutions in building resilience for rural communities, while also meeting climate targets.
In India, forests have a role to play in resilience especially against flood risks in regions like the North East, where deforestation has led to silting of rivers – increasing the devastation of floods during the monsoons.
Creating natural climate resilience
Investment in nature-positive economy building is essential to restore and recover the underlying cost of environmental destruction faced in India and the South Asian region. With over 250 million people in India alone either fully or partially dependent on forests for their livelihoods, a full-scale restoration plan for forests across the region and shared borders could easily create enough jobs and strategic opportunities to minimise the pressures for the growing populations to move to urban centres.
Encouragement also needs to be given to businesses building environment-positive and adaptive models that actively create future resilience. This can be achieved through a regulatory framework for environment impact assessment that positively grades businesses creating positive impacts on the environment – paving the way for smoother clearances and tax benefits.
India’s push for agroforestry is also a step in the right direction. Designed correctly, agroforestry is more climate-resilient than traditional monocrop cultivation practices – and ensure replenishment of soil nutrition to ensure crop growth.
As the frequency and dynamism of heatwaves and floods increase, both forest restoration and agroforestry ensure that agricultural soil continues to be healthily replenished, while also reducing the erosion that leads to desertification.
Building transboundary cooperation to manage climate risks
Transboundary cooperation is essential as the key component and driver of lasting change. The development of effective trans-boundary governance strategies is based on the common risks and threat perceptions of the neighbouring countries, and improving policies for communication that could build climate resilience in the regions as well as enhance the adaptation capacity of
vulnerable populations. Transboundary cooperation is especially critical for regional management of watersheds: one of the major climate risks facing the Himalayan belt.
The Northeast of India shares its borders with several other developing nations such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal, all of which are home to myriad communities which are facing the brunt of the climate crisis in the face of rapid development and economic pressure.
With majority of the population heavily dependent on a diminishing forest cover for their livelihood and sustenance, it is critical to build regional cooperation on climate action that targets regional-specific risks.
A nature positive economy goal is now not only extremely necessary, but a prerequisite to meet net zero commitments – and create resilience against climate risks. Working on natural resilience techniques is low-hanging fruit to manage the three key climate risks facing the subcontinent: heatwaves, flooding and drought.
With rapid and intensifying climate disasters that are putting a grave risk to people across the region, it is up to the regional leadership to act with urgency, leverage emerging global opportunities and reshape policy to meet current challenges.