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Climate Change and the Indian Ocean Region By Raakhee Suryaprakash

C3S Monthly Column M002/15

Even as the Keystone XL pipeline bill in the U.S. Senate made news questioning human contribution to climate change making the debate about whether “some people think… they can change climate” rather the reality that is the planet’s changing climate, news surfaced that the largest glacier in East Antarctica, Totten Glacier, was melting. The melting of the Totten glacier could lead to a six-metre rise in global sea levels. What was previously thought to be a stable – frozen – region is now melting! The effect of this will definitely be felt by island and coastal nations of the Indian Ocean.

The warming of the earth affects rainfall, winds, sea temperature and currents which in turn affects the economy. The resultant natural disasters take a bigger bite of the national and international busgets. It’s all connected. Did you know,  according to the Climate Reality Project – Russia is heating up 2.5 times faster than the rest of the world and water is becoming the superpower’s most precious resource? Even as we recover from wars fought over oil the ‘climate changes’ to make way for wars over water! Yet when talking climate change the powers-that-be continue to count the wrong costs. Economy and the environment are pitted against each other. International climate negotiations continue across the globe annually with small wins (especially when the negotiation happened in coastal and island locations, e.g., Copenhagen, Bali, Lima, Kyoto) but little real change.

When one takes into account the devastation wrought by natural disasters in the region – a symptom of climate change – perhaps the powers-that-be will be willing to work harder and invest smarter in order to avert global warming. Take the two cases of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and the Uttarakhand Floods in India both in 2013. These two stand out as the most devastating natural disasters in the Indian Ocean region in a long time and are attributable to climate change as well as human impact on the environment.  Super Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines on November 7, 2013, killing 4,200 people. The 595km wide typhoon devastated the Philippines making landfall six times at wind speeds of over 375km/hr. The typhoon churned up waves up to 5 metres and led to almost 70 cm of heavy rainfall.  The super storm affected 13 million people and displacing 3 million and the effects on the Filipino economy continues to be felt to this day despite the aid flowing into the archipelago.

The Uttarakhand Floods in June 2013 were a result of a continuous cloudburst during the southwest monsoons that mainly devastated the hill state of Uttarakhand in India although Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Nepal were also affected. The Ganges and its many tributaries – especially the Mandakini – broke bounds and devastated the region. In addition to flooding, landslides devastated the state and hindered rescue efforts. According to most estimates the Uttarakhand floods were the most devastating natural disaster since the tsunami of 2004. As of July 16, 2013, according to the official Uttarakhand government figures and estimates, more than 5,700 people were “presumed dead”; destruction of bridges and roads left about 100,000 pilgrims and tourists trapped in the valleys; the Indian Air Force, the Indian Army, and paramilitary troops evacuated more than 110,000 people from the flood-affected areas. A lot of the blame for the flooding and landslides could be attributed to the unauthorized and unregulated damming of the rivers as well as deforestation. Any regular visitor to the foothills of the Himalayas can personally vouch for the deterioration in forest cover over the decades, despite the state capital Dehradun housing the prestigious and awe-inspiring Forest Service Institute. Grass-cover burning and unregulated building accompanied by unauthorized felling of tree-cover devastates the stability of the hills. Meanwhile ‘virtual forests’ float in government files – a result of the compensatory afforestation that is said to counterbalance regulated felling for developmental purposes.

When both the Chinese president and the Indian prime minister visited Fiji in November 2014 following the G-20 summit in Brisbane, Climate Change and the threat of rising sea levels were an important issue put forth by the leaders of Oceania. When Obama visited India to be the first American chief guest at the Republic Day parade again Climate Change and clean energy were central to the agenda. The Indo-US joint statement outlined the focus areas – “Energy and Climate Change,” “Clean Energy Goal and Cooperation,” and “Climate Change” and the controversy ridden civil nuclear agreement has its roots in supplying clean energy alternatives.

The American embassy in New Delhi monitors air quality as the capital city “has the world’s highest levels of PM2.5 – tiny, toxic particles that lead to respiratory diseases, lung cancer and heart attacks.” According to a Cambridge University statistician that’s the equivalent of 8 cigarettes per day. Ahead of the visit of the American president it was reported that the embassy purchased 1,800 Swedish air purifiers! Haze, fog, smog and mist are cross-national environmental problems that in the ASEAN even go so far as becoming regular irritants to regional cooperation. The forest fires in Indonesia affect the quality of air in the neighbourhood. The poor quality of air in Singapore, for example, has a debilitating effect on children under the age of seven. Reports link air quality to the prevalence of wheezing in children there. A lifestyle disorder like wheezing takes quite a toll on family budgets.

The fact that insurers and reinsurers flock to climate change conferences can be explained by the scale of pay in insurance payouts as a result of natural disasters and pollution. Yet for the administrations of the countries development and environment remain pitted against each other. The obvious synchrony is ignored as a result of the lobbying and money muscle of interest groups.

The Indian Ocean region has a blend of developed and developing nations that could work together to arrest climate change. The need of the hour is to reduce humanity’s ecological ‪footprint – the amount of land and natural resources needed to supply our food, water, fibre and timber, and to absorb our Green House Gases (GHGs) emissions. By 2020, humanity’s global footprint should fall below its level in 2000, and continue its downward trend to avert the climate crisis. The qualitative plans of developed nations and quantitative plans of developing nations to curb GHGs is not enough. Common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities sounds could as does having access to adaptive and alternative technology but ground realities are vastly different and worrying. And in most cases both government and nongovernmental organisations are high jacked by interest lobbies with unlimited cash. Examples span from hydro-electrical projects to the Kudankulam nuclear power station to something as efficient as a waste-to-energy plant. Scientific and technological communities find solutions to our problems while almost simultaneously protests spring up to denounce the technology.

Interest groups have successfully managed to pit development against the environment and the only loser is mankind! Did you know that through regenerative agricultural practises in agricultural economies can sequester 100 percent of current carbon dioxide emissions in three years? The know-how is there, the access to information is available yet such sustainable practices do not replace the status quo. The change inertia can drag out too long for the tipping point approaches inexorably. Mankind stands against nature – and in this faceoff we are defenceless as seen repeatedly during natural disasters. The obvious solution of standing with nature and natural practises seems to elude the masses and the governments that guide us.


“Warm ocean melting East Antarctica’s largest glacier,” AFP, January 26, 2015.

“Concern over Climate, Compromise on Nature,” Neha Sinha, The Hindu, January 27, 2015.

World Wildlife Fund:

Climate Reality Project

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