SUMAN SAHAI | 24 JUNE, 2020
Our most powerful institutions seem to have a death wish
First we had cyclone Amphan on the east coast, then cyclone Nisarg on the west coast within weeks. Not so long ago we had cyclone Hudhud pounding Vishakhapatnam. Hudud came with such force and fury that after finishing with the coast it swept 2,000 km inland to collide with the Himalayan range and trigger avalanches there.
Along with these disasters we are having a locust attack, for the first time in 30 years. Locust swarms have streamed in from neighbouring Pakistan and are active in Rajasthan, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, mowing down 50,000 hectares of crops and creating a possible food crisis even as we try to survive the COVID19 pandemic.
So is there a common thread running through these disasters? There is: it’s climate change.
The world has been talking about global warming and climate change for years. Scientific evidence has been pouring in for the last 35 years showing us how pollution, deforestation and the large-scale stripping of the Earth’s biodiversity cover is causing the planet to get warmer.
Scientists have also been predicting for at least a quarter of a century that global warming would bring greater climate turbulence like extreme weather events. A spate of hurricanes, cyclones, bushfires and forest fires due to extreme heat and floods in parched deserts was forecast, and it is happening right before our eyes now.
Global warming has caused ocean temperatures to rise with a concurrent increase in the intensity of the strongest storms over recent decades. The strongest cyclones have now become more common across the world and scientists project that climate change will continue to make the strongest cyclones even more powerful.
In Asia and India in the past few years we have seen a higher frequency of post-monsoon tropical cyclones over the Arabian Sea, but disturbingly we now also see an increase in cyclonic trends in the pre-monsoon season as well. The cyclones Hudud, Amphan and Nisarg bear testimony to this trend.
And what do locusts have to do with climate change? If you join the climate dots, there is a clear link between the current locust outbreak and the unusual storm and rainfall activity around East Africa which is the traditional breeding ground of locusts:
The Arabian Peninsula witnessed a series of exceptionally severe cyclones in 2018 and 2019, which created freshwater lakes in the desert where luxurious vegetation was able to grow in an otherwise barren landscape. The vegetation attracted desert locusts hunting for food and provided them optimal breeding grounds.
By the time the next cyclone came, swarms of adult locusts were ready to fly out on the strong wind currents of the cyclone and reach new regions. The swarms moved through Iraq and Iran, and finally to South Asia. Feeding on grasslands, crops and vegetation thriving in the uncharacteristic and plentiful rainfall, the locusts could multiply into hordes through multiple breeding cycles by the time they reached Pakistan and India.
In India the damage to crops is estimated at Rs.100 crore so far and anticipated to go up because the locusts are still active.
Actually the FAO had already warned in mid-April 2020 that the unusual, widespread March rains in East Africa were likely to cause a dramatic increase in locust populations in East Africa and southern Iran.
Despite the early warnings however, it was not possible to control the insects because of movement restrictions imposed after the Covid-19 pandemic. Insecticides could not be delivered in time and the locust hordes moved unimpeded into western India from Pakistan and Iran around mid-May.
Climate change unfortunately portends worse for crop safety. Today locusts have received a climate fillip, tomorrow it could be another insect. One thing we know for certain is that new pests will emerge and old pests will change their behaviour as the climate changes.
The only way to stay on top of this is to be vigilant in detecting emerging trends and being prepared to stop a surge in insect populations in the earliest stages, before they can take the shape of full blown attacks. India must do all it can to protect its food supplies.
And how has India prepared itself to face the climate upheaval? Not very well I am afraid.
In 2008 the central government responded to the looming climate crisis by establishing an eight-pronged National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) comprising the National Solar Mission, National Mission on Enhanced Energy Efficiency, National Mission on Sustainable Habitat, National Water Mission, National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Eco-system, National Mission for a Green India, National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture and National Mission on Strategic Knowledge for Climate Change.
The formulation of the NAPCC was followed by a spate of State Action Plans on Climate Change (SAPCC). Sadly little work has happened under these national and state plans, or at least not enough to make a dent anywhere. It’s almost as though the climate emergency was not taken as seriously as it should have been.
Granted there is a global dimension to climate change, but we can do much more than we have done to adapt to the new conditions.
Despite the repeated warnings by experts, why have “we” allowed things to come to such a pass? Why, when the first signals were flashed did states disregard them and continue stripping forests for mining, logging trees for timber, clearing land for industrial estates, choking the streets with motorised vehicles spewing greenhouse gases?
The most powerful human institutions seem to have a death wish. We have been landed in this situation, where climate change is reaching a point of no return, because of the determined refusal to rectify this “hurtling-into-the-abyss” model of development.
Even as we battle the new coronavirus, cyclones and locust swarms, the Union environment minister has opened up the mining sector without any regulations, so that the remaining green lungs, our forests and our biodiversity can be ravaged by industrialists wanting endlessly to dig out bauxite, iron ore, manganese and coal from the bowels of the earth.
Far from putting in place protective measures, we seem to have launched ourselves on an accelerated path of destruction.
Dr Suman Sahai is a geneticist and chairperson of Gene Campaign