While many countries - even the US, belatedly, in its own sectarian fashion - have focused on how to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change, others are already forced to consider how they will adapt to it. Specifically, small island countries and those populations of developing nations which live along coasts will be severely affected, as ocean levels rise in the coming years. Already, inhabitants of tiny countries such as those in the Pacific islands are working out where they will migrate in the coming decades, as the oceans threaten to inundate them.
However, these are tiny populations and their colonial and other connections may well allow them to move to developed places like Australia that are prepared to accommodate some of these refugees. What will be the fate of people in poorer and more populous regions like Bangladesh and even on the Indian coast, whose options are more limited? Similarly, there are other people whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by massive flooding or severe droughts that have no parallels in their history. The densely populated Indo-Gangetic belt, for example, may witness dramatic changes as the upper reaches of the Himalayan rivers that flow through it appear to be losing their glacial sources rapidly.
A recent international conference in Delhi organised by the NGO Winrock International and the Colorado-based Institute for Social and Environmental Transition on adaptation to climate variability and change, focused on adaptations that may become necessary as a result of such change. Dr R.K. Pachauri of The Energy & Resources Institute in Delhi - he also heads the UN Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change - observed that social scientists have so far not been involved at looking at the consequences of climate change. South Asia is very vulnerable in this regard and countries in the region had very similar ecosystems, being dependent on the monsoon. A third of their combined population already faces environmental stress due to the shortage of water, and the situation is bound to grow much worse.
Dr Michael H. Glantz, from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, referred to how this would the "climate century", with an increasing number of catastrophes. These could not be explained away as freak events unlikely to be repeated, as was argued about the El Nino and its impact on the Peruvian economy. Dr. Glantz advocated "nature banks", where industrial countries would have to pay for, what is in effect, the environmental quality they have appropriated from nature in 250 years of industrial growth. Prof. Tony Allan of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London made a similar point when he pointed to how there was a virtual transfer of water and other resources to well-off societies, embodied in the export of agricultural produce from developing countries.
Prof Santosh Kumar, from the National Institute of Disaster Management, of the Ministry of Home Affairs, produced data to show how the biggest disasters in India, in terms of fatalities, were from earthquakes, followed by drought and then floods. The country's coastline extends for 8,000 km, which renders it particularly susceptible to negative consequences from global warming. As much as 68% of the net sown area in the country was drought-prone, a third of it chronically. Indeed, the country faced a loss of 2% of its GDP due to these natural and man-made disasters every year, amounting to Rs 23,000 crore.
After presentations by such experts the baton passed on to NGOs, mainly from this country, who detailed how they were in many ways helping to mitigate the impacts of climate change through their development work. According to Sudhir Katiyar of the Aajeevika Bureau in Udaipur, as many as 80 million people have migrated internally in the country, mainly due to drought, and this is not officially documented. Surat, for instance, recorded a population of 35 lakh, but a floating workforce from as far away as Orissa and other states added another 25 lakh.
Nafisa Barot of the NGO Utthan in Gujarat explained her organisation's intervention in three districts - Ahmedabad, Bhavnagar and Amreli - in providing water to the most vulnerable. These areas faced multiple threats from changes in the natural environment - deforestation, sand mining, limestone quarrying, water 'mining', construction of roads and dams, the establishment of polluting industries and ports. Due to the careless adoption of technology, saline water was creeping inland at the rate of 1.5 km a year. She criticized the type of centralized decision-making embodied in a 100 km pipeline which the World Bank had funded to provide water in a parched district. As her pictures showed, this led to squabbles between people and the water ran out soon. By contrast, Uttan's own empowerment of communities led to more equitable distribution.
Just as it was said years ago in relation to the population problem that "development is the best contraceptive", the overwhelming message of this conference was that the best way to adapt to environmental change is to make communities economically and socially resilient. More than sophisticated technology and large projects, this calls for making people depend on their own resources, as well as augmenting them.