Friday, June 21, 2013

As Secretary Kerry Heads To India, Deadly Floods Demonstrate The Urgency Of Climate Change

A monsoon triggers flooding in India. (Credit: AFP/Getty Images)

While the monsoon season brought relief to drought-stricken farmers across India this week, extreme flooding killed nearly 150 people and displaced thousands in Northern India. At the same time, a new World Bank report released yesterday finds that the drought and flooding whipsawing that India experiences will become more frequent and extreme with climate change - causing more displacement, loss of life, and potentially trapping millions into poverty in the coming decades.

Secretary of State John Kerry's upcoming trip to India next week provides an opportunity to strengthen cooperation between our two countries in response to these dramatic and devastating changes.

The monsoon season is a long-awaited and celebrated time in India, determining the crop output and economic stability of the 70 percent of Indians who either directly or indirectly depend on farming for their livelihoods. Farming makes up nearly 15 percent of the country's $1.83 trillion GDP, making drought a huge threat to the overall economy. The Indian Space Research Organization found that 68 percent of India is prone to droughts, with a third categorized as "chronically drought prone."

Last August, India was in the midst of its second drought in four years, with rainfall 20 percent below average nationwide and 70 percent below average in other states like Punjab. Many experts believe the drought was a factor in the July 2012 blackout that left over 600 million Indians without power. Low rainfall led farmers to irrigate crops with water pumps, drawing more electricity from the grid than usual.

Considering these factors, this year's monsoon coming one month ahead of schedule was welcome news in parched areas across India. But the extreme flooding in the Northern states demonstrated why India is considered one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change. The flooding left over 71,000 pilgrims stranded in the state of Uttarakhand and thousands of others displaced and missing across the region. Dozens of buildings and bridges collapsed under water pressure and landslides stranded hundreds. An Indian Army team of over 5,500 is leading rescue operations and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a $170 million aid package for the state of Uttarakhand on Wednesday.

Droughts, floods, more intense heatwaves, sea-level rise, stronger cyclones and storm surges - this is the new climate reality for India's 1.2 billion people. Climate change will undoubtedly impact the economy with shifting drought and monsoon patterns and create complex environmental, humanitarian, and security challenges in India.

In a recent report, the Center for American Progress examines the nexus of climate change, migration, and security in South Asia. The video below from this report explains how climate change will impact existing tensions with migration in Northeast India.

While India is starting to prepare, the daunting breadth of climate impacts the country faces will require forward-thinking, innovative adaptation and resiliency measures.

Next week, Secretary of State John Kerry heads to India, already promising to put climate change at the top of his agenda. The U.S. should take this opportunity to strengthen our existing bilateral relationship through enhanced cooperation on climate change resilience.

A good model for Kerry would be to take the template of our existing bilateral agreement on clean energy with India, which has proved to be the strongest point of climate related cooperation between our two countries. The U.S.-India Partnership to Advance Clean Energy (PACE) has put $125 million toward a U.S.-India Joint Clean Energy Research and Development Center, $20 million toward collaboration on deployment, and mobilized more than $1.7 billion in public and private resources for clean energy projects in India. Cleaner energy sources will help prevent 100,000 deaths in India from coal-fired power plant pollution each year.

A similarly structured venue for cooperation on climate change resilience, focused on strengthening response and recovery to events such as this week's deadly floods, would be ideal. The U.S. and India are already working together through the Indian Ministry of Earth Sciences and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to enhance monsoon forecasting. As with the PACE programs, the focus could be on building joint capacity from Indian and U.S. public and private institutions for research that would benefit both countries. While the disruption of the Indian monsoon cycle amply demonstrates the need for better forecasting and response capacity in India, the same need exists in the United States.

There are strong indications that such a move would be welcome In India. A recent Yale-Shakti Foundation poll found that only 7 percent of Indian respondents knew "a lot" about global warming - but when it was explained to them, 72 percent believed global warming was happening and 56 percent believed it was caused by human activity. What the Indian public is apparently responding to is changes in weather events and the new unpredictability of monsoons.

Source: Yale-Shakti Foundation poll

Source: Yale-Shakti Foundation poll

Yesterday, President Obama described our future if the world failed to address climate change:

The grim alternative affects all nations - more severe storms, more famine and floods, new waves of refugees, coastlines that vanish, oceans that rise. This is the future we must avert. This is the global threat of our time.

India and other regions of the world are already acutely experiencing this climate reality. The time to act is now.

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