By Zafar Iqbal
Millions of people in South Asia are vulnerable to climate change because of depleting glaciers, increasing coastal erosion, frequent floods and other natural disasters associated with global warming, warn environmentalists and development agencies.
“We are extremely vulnerable to climate change threats.” Says Dr. Durga Poudel, Head of Department of Renewable Resources, University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He has extensively studied climatic patterns of South Asia.
“Our coping mechanism/resources are very limited and are dwindling, the level of public awareness is very low, and the national, regional, and local adaptation strategies and programs are insufficient and lack scientific rigors.”
Climate Change Vulnerability Index (CCVI) 2011, issued by risks advisory firm Maplecroft ranks Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, Afghanistan and Nepal amongst highest risk category of 16 countries that face ‘extreme risk,’ because of the climate-related natural disasters and sea-level rise; population patterns, agricultural dependency and conflicts and other factors.
‘Over the next 30 years their vulnerability to climate change willrise due to increases in air temperature, precipitation and humidity, report added.
Shrinking and retreating of the Himalayan glaciers is greatest environmental threat to the region. Himalayan glaciers are lifeline of Asia’s mightiest rivers — the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, Yangtze, and Mekong, upon which 1.3 billion people depend Several fresh environmental studies and findings indicate that Himalayan Mountains, encompassing Bhutan, Tibet, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, are receding alarmingly. As a result, livelihoods of millions of inhabitants of these countries living around the rivers which depend upon glacial waters are at stake. Emission of green house gases from China is the chief hazard to Himalayas. China is world’s single biggest emitter of carbon dioxide- the main greenhouse gas. Since 1961 sharp increase in the temperature has been reported in Himalayan glaciers adjoining to China. Chinese’s coal industry is blamed for this alarming surge. These deadly emissions cause irrecoverable loss to snow covered Himalayan peaks and responsible for death of 750,000 people every year in the country.
The high stakes of melting Himalayan glaciers cause environmental changes in Bhutan, India and Pakistan enormously. Pakistan’s Indus river system relies between 60 per cent and 80 per cent flow on Himalayan glaciers. Country has witnessed devastating floods during last two years, mainly caused by increased melting level of Himalayan glaciers and other weather related changes.
Bhutan is hub of 2,674 glacial lakes, and extremely vulnerable to glacial-lake-outburst floods (GLOF) when torrents of mud risk the lives of people living at mountains of this landlocked mountainous country.
Climate related natural hazards including sea level rise boost the likelihood of complete disappearance of two major South Asian countries- Bangladesh and Maldives.
The World Bank projects that sea levels of Maldives would be increased in the range of 10 to 100 centimetres by the year 2100. According to this estimate the entire country could be submerged.
Bangladesh faces the similar dangers as it is located under the sea level and is basin for 56 major rivers. Sea-level rise, floods, river bank and coastal erosion, saline inoculation and other environmental causes make Bangladesh an extremely risky region of the world. It could be diminished if immediate actions are not taken to mitigate climate change issues, scientists warn.
Washington based think tank -The Earth Policy Institute predicts that 1m rise in sea level will lead to landlessness of 14.8 million people, resulting widespread migration in the country. Also, Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan anticipate permanent displacement of 6-8 million Bangladeshis by 2050.
Development agencies also warn of further displacements and migration due to environmental disasters in the region.
In a recent report The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has warned of the risks of migration linked to climate change which will affect more the countries rely on agriculture and fishing. Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) has recorded that 38.3 million people were forced to move, mainly by floods and storms in last few years. It constitutes that 90 percent of all disaster displacement was caused by climate –related disasters.
The IDMC predict that Asian countries, home to about 60 percent of the world’s population, will be hit hardest by changing weather patterns and a degrading environment. Rapid industrialization, the increasing economic development and poor urbanization are increasing pollution levels in the region.
A scientific study published in British journal Nature reports that airborne pollution from South Asia is helping to infuse monster storms in the Arabian Sea that have claimed thousands of lives and cost billions of dollars. Scientists describe that a special cloud known as ‘the Asian brown cloud’ hangs over Northern Indian Ocean, India and Pakistan. It is disrupting monsoon patterns and in glacier loss in the Himalayas.
Similarly, a team of US and Korean scientists blames high level of atmosphere contamination in South Asia for a spiky mount in the greatness of tropical hurricanes over the Arabian Sea during and before the monsoon season.
Floods and other whether related disasters cause rise in food prices in a region which is home of half of the world poor. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries have witnessed sky rocketing hike in the prices of daily essentials in recent years. Floods, droughts, and other environmental changes have been bladed for price hike because most of agriculture zones are hit by floods and droughts.
Tackling Climate related disasters is costly tasks which eat upnational resources badly; consequently, governments divert national resources from regular human development activities which adversely impacted on national progress. A new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) finding predicted that in poor countries extreme weather events cause more deaths and represent a greater proportion of the gross domestic product (GDP).
Economic progress in many countries could be halted or even reversed by mid-century unless bold steps are taken now to slow climate change, says United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report 2011.
Regional tensions have long prevented scientific basic research and cooperation to mitigation and adaptation to climate change. Recently, Pakistan, China and Afghanistan were conspicuously absent from ‘Climate Summit for a Living Himalayas’ in Bhutan where four neighbour countries convened to address climate change impacts on bio-diversity, food and energy security and other environmental concerns of the region.
Experts say this lack of coordination and cooperation among regional countries will deteriorate joint mechanisms of handling global warming. They urge governments to accelerate regional initiatives to carry out scientific research and urgent actions about the mitigation of climate change.
In order to battle environmental challenges ‘a regional consortium on climate change research and innovation and serious commitment from the governments in the region for climate change adaptation is needed’, believes Dr. Poudel, an environmentalist.