Monday, June 23, 2008

Bundelkhand Water Refugees and More To Come?

I often have conversations with friends about global warming and how it will affect India. One popular scare scenario is the rise in sea-level of a metre or more. That, many experts say may be enough to inundate large areas of the low-lying deltaic regions of Bangladesh, resulting in an exodus of hundreds of thousands to millions of "water refugees" into India. Now this scenario is just one on the more extreme end of the spectrum of sea-level rise projections, not likely to unfold until end 21st century if at all, but its a scary story regardless. Reading some recent news of the water crisis in Bundelkhand region of U.P and M.P what struck me is that the internal displacement of people in India due to water problems has already started. We already have water refugees poring into our cities from affected regions like Bundelkhand. In the case of Bundelkhand, people are not fleeing a sea-level rise and a water excess but an acute water shortage. It has not rained enough for more than 5 years in this region, ground water levels have dropped and agriculture has taken a huge beating. The water shortage has reached such desperate levels due to a total neglect of water conservation measures and government policies skewed in favor of solving the problem by encouraging more drilling and extraction of groundwater.

Unlike a sea-level rise and coastal inundation, which is a more nebulous scenario that might take place century end, this movement of people, the abandonment of homes, fields and an agricultural heritage due to water shortages is unfolding here and now. It is a serious problem today, and during the next drought or next year in some other region, something that will demand immediate action in not just providing relief to any particular individual incident but in drawing up more effective mitigation strategies for future water shortages that are likely to become more common due to global warming. Some time back the planning commission issued a report on the national ground water situation with recommendations for improving ground water deficits, but it admits that there are political road blocks for implementing changes in ground water law. Besides this report did not take into account the changes in rainfall patterns expected to occur due to warming induced monsoon variability nor an overall drop in summer availability of water due to a decline in Himalayan glaciers.

Climate models suggest that an overall warming trend in this century will intensify the Indian monsoons, but rainfall will not increase uniformly across India. Parts of western Indian and northern India will receive less rainfall. Thus the contrast between wet and dry areas will increase. How will the long term warming trend overlay on the natural variability of rainfall in across India? Will global warming increase rainfall in a particular region or will it make prolonged droughts like the one Bundelkhand is experiencing more common? Just last month, the U.S government released a summary of federal and independent research pointing out region specific impacts of human induced global warming. This was followed by another report on extreme weather and how that may impact different regions in the U.S. We too badly need a thorough region-specific scientific assessment of how global warming will affect different regions in India. Only with such a geography sensitive study can we start making long term plans on how to combat the effects of changing climate on availability of water and its impact on agriculture. That may mean giving a big impetus for reviving traditional water harvesting methods in some areas and clamping down on excessive drilling for ground water, to changing the crop type planted in a particular region with considerations for climate suitability and water availability. These decisions will require a lot of political courage and I am not so confident that our politicians will take the required steps for a radical overhaul on how we use and manage our water resources. A national action plan on climate change is due to be released soon and I hope that besides the obvious focus on reducing carbon emissions, increasing energy efficiency and concerns on rising sea-levels, it spares some thought to warming induced rainfall variability across part of the country and the impact of large scale displacement of our own citizens within.

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