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India and climate change: an overall view

Centre for Education and Documentation

08 / 2010

Government, Civil Society and Climate Change

India was a signatory to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as far back as June 1992 and it acceded to the Kyoto Protocol on 26 August 2002 but it came out with its National Action Plan on Climate Change only in July 2008; and that too in such a great hurry, so as to be a hotchpotch of business as usual and lip service platitudes on renewable energy, sustainable development and a low-carbon pathway to growth.

A few civil society organizations and resource agencies supporting development work in India were involved directly in work on Climate Change even at the time of the Earth Summit. They were just a handful. But these handfuls were to have a great impact on the interpretation of the understanding – ‘common but differential responsibilities’ of the Parties to the Convention. Together with a few Northern NGOs, they were instrumental in bringing the equity and justice issue to the UNFCCC negotiations; right up until the finalization of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

Anil Agarwal, founder director of the Indian think-tank - Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), New Delhi, was arguably one of our best-known environmentalists. He and his team were probably the first to put environmental issues on the political and policy agenda in India and abroad. The CSE highlighted environmental risks faced by poor people in India at a time when livelihoods were being challenged by the decline in traditional biomass-based rural economies and when industrialization was growing. They also demonstrated how justice, as a concept, could be integrated into environmental policy between North and South.

The most significant early contribution to the debate over climate and development was in a path breaking paper by Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain (1990) (1) who proposed an agreement on equitable rights to the global commons. It helped inform the preambular language of the UNFCCC both on the commitment to sustainable development and the acknowledgment of the primary responsibility of the North.

The success was in confirming unequivocally that ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ meant that the developed countries, the industrialized countries, were primarily responsible for this phenomenon, and were thus primarily responsible for doing something about it – mitigation of their green house gases (GHG) emissions; supporting adaptation efforts in developing countries; transfers of technology to assist these poorer countries to go down the low-carbon pathway; and provide financial assistance to the poorer countries for sustainable development under the climate change convention – the UNFCCC.

The Scientific Community

The issue of climate change has been a topic of intensive scientific and political debate. In 1987 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) set up the Inter governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to assess the problem of Global Warming.

The IPCC « assesses on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the latest scientific, technical and socio-economic literature produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of the risk of human-induced climate change, its observed and projected impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation » (IPCC site).

Indian Scientists participated in this great venture. The main institutions involved were, CSE, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), Indian Institute of Science (IISc), some of the Indian Institute of Technology (IITs), etc.

Dr.R.K.Pachauri, the then Director General of TERI, became the Chairman of IPCC in 1992. In 2007, the IPCC headed by Dr.Pachauri was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Al Gore, Former US Vice President, for “their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change”. This gave a big boost to the international campaign for action against global warming.

The Fourth Assessment Report of IPCC released in 2007 noted many observed changes in the Earth’s climate including atmospheric composition, global average temperatures, ocean conditions, and other climate changes.

There is a significant body of literature on the assessment of global warming and its impact on India that has been useful in preparing the IPCC reports. But this was confined to the four walls of these research institutions. This did not in any significant manner reach the general media, the political establishment or civil society, or even the universities and academia!

The Physical and Ecological Impacts of Climate Change on India:

Melting Himalayan Glaciers

The Himalayas contain the largest store of water outside the polar ice caps, and feed seven great Asian rivers: the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Thanlwin, Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. The glaciers, which regulate the water supply to these rivers, are believed to be retreating at a rate of about 10-15m each year (2).

Millions of people throughout China and the Indian subcontinent - most of whom live far from the Himalayas - rely on water supplied from these rivers. Many live on flood plains highly vulnerable to raised water levels. Large numbers of farmers rely on regular irrigation to grow their crops successfully.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), in India, the Gangotri glacier that supports one of India’s largest river basins is receding at an average rate of 23 meters every year. The rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers will first increase the volume of water in rivers, causing widespread flooding but in a few decades this situation will change and the water level in rivers will decline, meaning massive eco and environmental problems for people in western China, Nepal and northern India. As water flows in glaciers dwindle, the energy potential of hydroelectric power will also decrease causing problems for industry, while reduced irrigation means lower crop production.

Sea level rise

India has been identified as one amongst 27 countries which are most vulnerable to the impacts of global warming related accelerated sea level rise (UNEP, 1989). The high degree of vulnerability of Indian coasts can be mainly attributed to extensive low-lying coastal area, high population density, frequent occurrence of cyclones and storms, high rate of coastal environmental degradation on account of pollution. Most of the people residing in coastal zones are directly dependent on natural resource bases of coastal ecosystems. The rise in sea level could result in the loss of cultivable land due to inundation, salt water intrusion into coastal ecosystems and into groundwater systems and loss of terrestrial and marine biodiversity.

Erratic rainfall

The livelihood of a vast population in India depends on agriculture, forestry, wetlands and fisheries and therefore strongly depends on monsoon rains. Changes to India’s annual monsoon are expected to result in severe droughts and intense flooding in parts of the country. Changes to the water cycle may also cause an increase in water borne diseases such as cholera and hepatitis, as well as diseases carried by insects such as malaria.

Impact on river basins

The National Communication (NATCOM) project undertaken by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, conducted a study “Climate change impact assessment on hydrology of Indian river basins” to quantify the impact of the climate change on the water resources of the country.

The study has revealed that under the GHG scenario the conditions may deteriorate in terms of severity of droughts in some parts of the country and enhanced intensity of floods in other parts of the country. However, there is a general overall reduction in the quantity of the available runoff under the GHG scenario. Luni with the west-flowing rivers Kutch and Saurashtra which occupies about one fourth of the area of Gujarat and 60 per cent of the area of Rajasthan shall face acute water scarce conditions. River basins of Mahi, Pennar, Sabarmati and Tapi shall also face water shortage conditions. River basins belonging to Cauvery, Ganga, Narmada and Krishna shall experience seasonal or regular water-stressed conditions. River basins belonging to Godavari, Brahmani and Mahanadi shall not have water shortages but are predicted to face severe flood conditions.

Many of these rivers have experienced dramatic changes in flow, reducing their natural ability to adjust to and absorb disturbances. Given expected changes in global climate and water needs, this may lead to loss of native biodiversity and risks to ecosystems and humans.


Droughts, floods, tropical cyclones, heavy precipitation events, hot extremes, and heat waves are known to negatively impact agricultural production, and farmers’ livelihood. The projected increase in these events will result in greater instability in food production and threaten livelihood security of farmers.

Water stress will be a critical feature of global warming. It will modify rainfall, evaporation, surface runoff and soil moisture storage. If temperatures and rainfall patterns turn adverse, soil moisture stress will result from increased evaporation from the soil and accelerated transpiration in plants. Moisture stress during flowering, pollination and grain-filling is harmful to almost all crops, but the most susceptible crops are corn, soybean and wheat.

Increasing glacier melt in Himalayas will affect availability of irrigation especially in the Indo-Gangetic plains, which, in turn, has large consequences on our food production. Small changes in temperature and rainfall could have significant effect on quality of cereals, fruits, aromatic, and medicinal plants with resultant implications on their prices and trade.

Climate change is likely to aggravate the heat stress in dairy animals, adversely affecting their productive and reproductive performance. Pathogens and insect populations are strongly dependent upon temperature and humidity. Increases in these parameters will change their population dynamics resulting in yield loss.

Human Health

It is predicted that the impact of climate change on human health will include increases in temperature related illnesses, vector borne diseases, health impacts related to extreme weather events, and health effects due to food insecurity. The increase of Chloro Fluoro Carbons in the atmosphere, leading to global warming will increase UV radiation in the atmosphere, affecting the immune systems and leading to infectious diseases. There might be an increased number of cases of skin cancer. Perhaps the greatest long–term danger to human health from climate change will be the disruption of natural ecosystems, which provide an array of services that ultimately support human health.

Impact on communities

India is a vast country with a population of nearly 1.14 billion. Nearly 2/3 live below or just above the poverty line. There are various eco-systems ranging from the evergreen forests in parts of the Western Ghats in South western India and in the Northeast, to the semi-arid regions of the Deccan plateau that extends from the Southern peninsula towards the arid regions of Western India, to the highest mountain areas of the Himalayas and its foothills. There are mighty River Basins, which drain into the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal with a huge network of estuaries that litter the vast coastline – nearly 7000 kilometers.

There are huge populations in each of these eco-systems. Most of these populations are carbon-light in their consumption. They are dependent on their natural resources – land, water or forest based for the livelihoods and survival. It is these communities that will bear the brunt of the impacts of climate change – floods, drought, desertification, food shortages, changing vectors of insect populations affecting food productivity and health, etc.

These communities are not the culprits in GHG pollution. But they are amongst the worst sufferers of the ill-effects of this potential catastrophe that is climate change – and they are among the largest numbers in the world. They need to be informed about the changes that are taking place, the reasons for these changes, and what is being done about it, and their role in these processes.

They are also very resilient – they have been living at the margins, eking out a fragile existence, coping with the creeping changes in their eco-systems. So there is much to learn from them too. We need to listen to their understanding of the changes that are taking place, their coping mechanisms, and the lessons from these practices for a low-carbon path to growth and development.

(1) Anil AGARWAL, Sunita NARAIN, « Global warming in an Unequal World », CSE, 1990
(2) See « An Overview of Glaciers, Glacier Retreat and Subsequent Impacts in Nepal, India and China », World Wildlife Fund, 2005


changement climatique, climat, influence du climat sur l’agriculture, eau

, Inde


L’Inde et le changement climatique


This article is available in French: L’Inde et le changement climatique

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