The 16th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit held earlier this year in Bhutan focused on climate change. The subcontinent is facing unprecedented disasters with extreme precipitation events in many locations and public perception seems to link these with climate change. Single events like those occurring in Pakistan, Ladakh and Uttarakhand can’t, on a scientific basis, be ascribed to human-induced climate change. But on the basis of assessed observations the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has come up with clear findings.
It’s been stated clearly that the frequency of heavy precipitation events has increased over most areas. There is also an increase in the frequency and intensity of floods and droughts apart from the incidence of extreme high sea level having increased worldwide (defined as the highest 1 per cent of hourly values of observed sea level at a station for a given reference period). The situation in a large area of Pakistan is tragic. At the same time, a cloudburst in Ladakh has led to intensive damage to property and many deaths. Children in Uttarakhand have lost their lives as a result of a massive downpour. Pakistan, in particular, needs global assistance on a gigantic scale because over 20 million people would need to be rehabilitated and fed.
The threat of large-scale outbreak of diseases, as a consequence of floods, would overwhelm the ability of existing services and infrastructure to deal with the problem. India’s offer of $5 million for emergency relief is a welcome gesture, which, fortunately, the Government of Pakistan has accepted. However, given the scale of requirements of assistance that Pakistan now faces, it’d be appropriate for India to increase this assistance to a much higher level.
Nature sees no political boundaries, and in this respect it’s heartening that the summit in Thimphu chose climate change as the central theme. In the final declaration from this summit, the leaders of Saarc nations emphasised the need to initiate a process to formulate a common Saarc position for the forthcoming Conference of the Parties (CoP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to be held in Cancún, Mexico.
On the eve of the Rio Summit in 1992, all the Saarc nations requested India to organise a briefing workshop in New Delhi, conducted by The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri). A similar request by Pakistan and Sri Lanka was also met through a similar workshop organised by Teri before the CoP in Kyoto in 1997.
The impacts of climate change, though diverse across the subcontinent, have several commonalities. The AR4 found that climate change is expected to exacerbate existing stresses on water resources stemming from population growth and economic and land use change, including urbanisation. While this is an observation applicable to most parts of the globe, it’s particularly relevant to South Asia. Furthermore, on a regional scale, mountain snow pack, glaciers and small icecaps play a crucial role in fresh water availability. Widespread mass losses from glaciers and reductions in snow cover over recent decades are projected to accelerate throughout the 21st century, reducing water availability, hydropower potential, and changing seasonality of flows in regions supplied by meltwater from major mountain ranges (e.g. Hindu-Kush, Himalaya, Andes) where more than one sixth of the world population currently lives.
Unfortunately, the extent of research and monitoring of glacier activity related to the Himalayas is inadequate in South Asia. On the other hand, there is a considerably higher level of measurement, monitoring and research on glaciers in Tibet. In a well-researched paper, a group of Chinese scientists have concluded, “It’s possible that the warm-dry trend in the Central Himalayas will continue under the projected future warming and that glacier retreat will accelerate”.
South Asia is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and a coordinated and cooperative approach for meeting this challenge across the Saarc region would benefit every member-country, through pooling of expertise and consolidation of experience.
The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee — a well-known non-governmental organisation from Bangladesh — is active today in the flood-hit areas of Pakistan, using a wealth of expertise gained from tackling perennial floods in Bangladesh.
The first step is to ensure linkages among research institutions in the region because we need to assess projected future impacts of climate change using sophisticated modelling with downscaled global climate models. This is being carried out by Teri for many Indian states where the diversity of ecosystems and topography is such that the impacts of climate change are also diverse. Through the creation and dissemination of relevant knowledge related to climate change, the public and governments of this region can be sensitised to action that is needed for adaptation to the impacts of climate change and appropriate mitigation measures.
The Bhutan summit needs an urgent follow-up by bringing various institutions and organisations together to meet this common challenge, and as a unique confidence-building measure. Political barriers should not come in the way of ensuring the welfare and livelihoods of the current and future generations.
R.K. Pachauri is Chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Director-General, The Energy & Resources Institute (Teri)
The views expressed by the author are personal