South Asia is water-rich. But in the coming years, this wealth could lead to disasters of all kind and also cause wars between nations. This situation can be controlled if conservation measures are taken now and the population is involved at all levels.
The relationship between climate, agriculture, energy and water is vital for the sustenance of life. Nature has endowed mankind with the proportional balance but human beings themselves have disturbed this balance to the detriment of their very existence. For decades, environmentalists have been raising alarm bells that misuse of natural resources is causing an imbalance which will jeopardize food, water and energy security but this counsel has apparently fallen on deaf ears.
The result is an impending catastrophe, in which, due to global warming, as the earth’s temperature continues to rise, there is a significant impact on our fresh water supplies; limited snow on the mountains, the melting of glaciers and lesser rains affecting crops which compounds the challenge of food as well as water security. The earth’s average land temperature has warmed nearly 1°C in the past 50 years as a result of human activity.
While world leaders meet regularly to study the devastating impact of global warming and devise policies and means of stemming the onslaught of the phenomenon, there appears to be limited cognizance of the devastating effects of climate change in South Asia.
This sad state of affairs has resulted due to the careless attitude of human beings in a more pronounced manner in South Asia because of the lack of comprehension of the crisis and gross negligence of the impact on environment. The obliviousness of humans towards the harmful stress on the environment arising from industrialization, by which carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide are emitted in the atmosphere has harmful after effects. This trend leads to climate change, which means the earth is becoming warmer as its ozone layer continues to be adversely affected by greenhouse gas emissions. The situation is further aggravated by deforestation, desertification, polluted atmosphere due to burning of fossil fuels and poor water management.
In South Asia, the depletion of water resources has become a looming crisis which may have resulted partly from climate change but more so due to mismanagement of the scarce water resources. In this region, environmental degradation has endangered the most fundamental aspect of human security by undermining the natural support system given by water, on which all human activities depend. The situation has exacerbated to the extent that future conflicts in South Asia may arise due to water shortages.
In South Asia, which is home to the world’s highest mountain ranges, the Himalayas, its lofty glaciers and regular monsoon rains have ensured ample water in its three main rivers – the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra. The climate change emanating from inadequate snowfall during winters and irregular rainfall has contributed to acute water shortages.
Environmentalists have pointed out that climate change combined with rapid population growth and urbanization is placing intense pressure on South Asia’s most precious resource: water. According to the Asian Development Bank per capita water availability in the region has decreased by 70 percent since 1950.
Compounding the problem, rainfall intensity and variability make South Asia highly susceptible to floods, droughts and other natural disasters. Over the last decade, devastating floods have displaced millions of people in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. Changing rainfall patterns and retreating glaciers are expected to further worsen the situation in the years ahead.
Meteorologists define the changing weather conditions as the El-Nino effect, which is complicating the potential outcome and leads to the prediction that in a warmer environment, more precipitation will occur as rain rather than snow. This apparently is a paradox because prima facie, more rain than snow may seem like a plus but it could mean more frequent water shortages. When snow and ice collect on mountaintops, water is released slowly into reservoirs as it melts throughout the spring and summer. When rain falls, reservoirs fill quickly to capacity with the water, which can also result in excess water runoff that cannot be stored. Because rain flows faster than melting snow, higher levels of soil moisture and groundwater recharge are less likely to occur. Areas that rely on snowmelt as their primary freshwater source could increasingly experience water shortages, like having low water supplies by summer’s end.
The relationship between climate change and water doesn’t end there. The systems used to treat and move public water supplies require large amounts of energy, produced mainly by burning coal, natural gas, oil and other fossil fuels. Thus when we use water we also use energy and contribute to climate change. Additionally, bottled water is a small but real contributor to greenhouse emissions, because it takes fuel to make plastic bottles and ship them around the country (and even the world). This appears to be an unnecessary step because bottled water is often just filtered tap water.
Environmentalists, especially opin-ion builders in South Asia need to inculcate the realization in the people that there is a lot we can do to reduce emissions, prevent climate change and protect our threatened freshwater sources.
One discipline that can be emphasized is using less energy. This can be achieved by turning off lights, better insulating our homes to conserve heat and air conditioning, driving more fuel efficient cars and commuting less. In addition, eating lower on the food chain, even going meatless for two to three days a week can have a significant impact on environmental resources because industrial meat production has significant greenhouse emissions associated with it.
Conserving water, food and other resources is an important step towards reducing overall energy use, because almost everything that is manufactured, transported and disposed of requires the use of fuel and water. Governments in South Asia can discourage the use of personal vehicles for commuting and instead provide suitable transportation, which are environment-friendly. Each individual can make an impact on curbing greenhouse gases.
Fresh water is crucial to human society – not just for drinking, but also for farming, washing and many other activities. It is expected to become increasingly scarce in the future and this is partly due to climate change.
Understanding the problem of fresh water scarcity begins by considering the distribution of water on the planet. Approximately 98% of our water is salty and only 2% is fresh. Of that 2%, almost 70% is snow and ice, 30% is groundwater, less than 0.5% is surface water (lakes, rivers, etc.) and less than 0.05% is in the atmosphere. Climate change has several effects on these proportions on a global scale. The main one is that warming causes polar ice to melt into the sea, which turns fresh water into sea water, although this has little direct effect on water supply.
Another effect of warming is to increase the amount of water that the atmosphere can hold, which in turn can lead to more and heavier rainfall when the air cools. Although more rainfall can add to fresh water resources, heavier rainfall leads to more rapid movement of water from the atmosphere back to the oceans, reducing our ability to store and use it. Warmer air also means that snowfall is replaced by rainfall and evaporation rates tend to increase. Yet another impact of higher temperatures is the melting of inland glaciers. This will increase water supply to rivers and lakes in the short to medium term, but it will cease once these glaciers have melted. In the sub-tropics, climate change is likely to lead to reduced rainfall in what are already dry regions. The overall effect is an intensification of the water cycle that causes more extreme floods and droughts globally.
South Asian environmentalists need to involve the media in planning campaigns to create awareness among the masses. They need to define the problem, conduct analyses and research to devise a comprehensive plan to tackle the issue. The awareness campaign can be successful if partnerships are formed and support of other interested individuals, companies and institutions is sought. They can commence by determining campaign goals and objectives, analyzing the target audience, selecting communication channels and delivering the message in an effective manner.
The media can invite celebrities to participate in awareness campaigns as well as motivate conglomerates and business houses to sponsor campaigns. They can coordinate with energy producers/distributors to expose defaulters who waste energy and produce shows featuring content based on highlighting energy conservation. State media should take the initiative in propagating energy conservation. In South Asia, awareness campaigns to protect the environment can commence at an early stage from the pre-school phase, while teachers and mothers also need to be brought into the loop.
The writer is a practising journalist. He contributes to the print media, conducts a TV show and produces documentaries.