Depending on the geography and ecology, the water-related impacts of climate change are experienced in different ways. What is common is the increase in extreme weather events, all leading to deepening poverty; dwindling of livelihood opportunities; disrupted access to basic services and entitlements like education, drinking water, and sanitation; displacement; and, migration. These climate-related water challenges also widen the socio-economic and gender inequality gap. In some cases, this is also leading to increased child trafficking.
For coastal communities, especially the poor, with their minimal carbon footprint, climate change is wreaking havoc on their lives and livelihoods. As the rising sea levels and coastal land erosion literally swallow their fields and their homes, they also face severe storms and cyclones and for the last two years, also Covid-19.
India was the seventh-worst hit country in terms of climate change in 2019, as per the 16th edition of the Global Climate Risk Index 2021, published annually by the Bonn-based environmental think tank Germanwatch. The index analyses and ranks countries and regions affected by impacts of climate-related extreme weather events such as storms, floods, etc.
According to a June 2021 review paper from ODI, the economic costs of climate impacts in India are already immense. Declining agricultural productivity, rising sea levels, and negative health outcomes were forecast to cost India 3% of gross domestic product at 1°C of global warming.
IMPRI and TBS workshops
In order to understand the implications of climate on water, Impact Monitoring and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS), and India Water Portal (IWP) are organizing a series of talks to understand, consolidate and propose policy and action that take into account the challenges posed by different climate change on different ecosystems and communities. One of the discussions was organized around the need for a suitable rehabilitation policy for sea-induced displacement in the Bay of Bengal in June 2022 with Ranjan Panda of Odisha Water Initiatives as the Speaker.
The importance of oceans
Oceans cover 72 percent of the earth’s surface and produced 50 percent of oxygen on earth; absorbed 50 percent of all anthropogenic carbon emissions over the last two centuries, given that mangroves, seagrass beds, tidal marshes, and other coastal vegetated ecosystems (blue carbon ecosystems) are among the most intense sinks.
Says Panda, “It is unfortunate that there is a constant threat to these ocean ecosystems and biodiversity that help us fight climate change. There has also been a rampant loss of mangroves. Just since 1980, 20 percent loss estimated.”
What do high temperatures mean for oceans?
Rising amounts of greenhouse gases are preventing heat radiated from Earth’s surface from escaping into space as freely as it used to. Most of the excess atmospheric heat is passed back to the ocean. As a result, upper ocean heat content has increased significantly over the past few decades.
The ocean is the largest solar energy collector on Earth and covering cover more than 70 percent of our planet’s surface, can absorb large amounts of heat without a large increase in temperature. This tremendous ability to store and release heat over long periods of time gives the ocean a central role in stabilizing Earth’s climate system. The main source of ocean heat is sunlight. Additionally, clouds, water vapor, and greenhouse gases emit heat that they have absorbed, and some of that heat energy enters the ocean. Waves, tides, and currents constantly mix the ocean, moving heat from warmer to cooler latitudes and to deeper levels.
Heat absorbed by the ocean is moved from one place to another, but it doesn’t disappear. The heat energy eventually re-enters the rest of the Earth’s system by melting ice shelves, evaporating water, or directly reheating the atmosphere. Thus, heat energy in the ocean can warm the planet for decades after it was absorbed. If the ocean absorbs more heat than it releases, its heat content increases.
More than 90 per cent of the warming that has happened on Earth over the past 50 years has occurred in the ocean, with studies estimating that warming of the upper oceans accounts for about 63 percent of the total increase in the amount of stored heat in the climate system from 1971 to 2010, and warming from 700 meters down to the ocean floor adds about another 30 percent (See Figure below).
Physics at work
Warming of ocean water is raising the global sea level because water expands when it warms. Combined with water from melting glaciers on land, the rising sea threatens natural ecosystems and human structures near coastlines around the world. Warming ocean waters are also implicated in the thinning of ice shelves and sea ice, both of which have further consequences for Earth’s climate system.
Warming ocean waters threaten marine ecosystems and human livelihoods. For example, warm waters jeopardize the health of corals, and in turn, the communities of marine life that depend upon them for shelter and food. Ultimately, people who depend upon marine fisheries for food and jobs may face negative impacts from the warming ocean.
Why is this important for India?
India’s coastline stretches across 7,500 km along with nine coastal states, two Union Territories, and two island territories, 70 coastal districts. According to the Centre for Coastal Zone Management and Coastal Shelter Belt, the coastal state population is 560 million. The coastal district population is 171 million and makes up a significant 14 percent of India’s population.
The Bay of Bengal and states along the Bay the Bengal (West Bengal, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu) deserve special mention:
- Between 1993 and 2012, the north Indian Ocean rose by an average of 3.2 mm per year. It rose at above-average rates within the Bay of Bengal: Over 5 mm a year.
- The Bay of Bengal is a well-known breeding ground to some of the deadliest cyclones in history. Eight out of ten deadliest tropical cyclones in the world have originated over the Bay of Bengal.
- The states of West Bengal, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu (along the Bay of Bengal), highly prone to storms and cyclones and a cyclone hotbed. With sustained wind speeds of over 240 km per hour, 2020’s Cyclone Amphan was the most powerful ever recorded in the region.
- Cyclones in the Bay of Bengal are projected to nearly double by 2070-2100, compared to 1961-1990. These storms will be characterised by faster wind speeds, but also greater storm surge due to higher sea levels. Low-income urban households are particularly susceptible, as they often live in dense settlements that lack basic services and infrastructure that could reduce risk: piped water, stormwater drainage, paved roads or decent housing.
- This region is experiencing the largest relative increase of flood risk and ingression of sea into the land with increasing frequency of cyclones.
According to Ranjan Panda, “Odisha bears the major brunt of cyclones and sea-level rise for its geographical location on the Bay of Bengal. According to data from the Indian Metrological Department, between 1981 – 2007, some 48 percent of total cyclones that hit eastern coastal areas occurred in Odisha. Already Odisha has lost 153.8 km, or about 28 percent, of its coastline to seawater ingression. It is also reported that 30 percent of coastal areas in the state will be at high risk of erosion in the near future. An increase in sea level has caused massive economic loss and disruption of life among the coastal communities of the state.”
The ODI review paper has put together disturbing facts around oceans, coastal regions and their impact in India:
- Higher sea levels also lead to higher storm surges, which reach further inland, causing more damage during storms, while warmer waters fuel more intense cyclones. Tropical storms have long devastated South Asia’s coastline – 70 per cent of global casualties from cyclones and storm surge last century occurred in the Bay of Bengal – but they are becoming more severe and frequent.
- Seasonal cycles of sea-level rise coincide with monsoon rains, meaning prolonged periods of inundation.
- Coastal communities, particularly those in low-lying areas, are therefore already facing the prospect of permanent inundation, chronic flooding and violent winds. A third of India’s population live along the, and – as of 2000 – over 60 million of them lived less than 10 metres above sea level. Coastal communities also face more severe storms
- Sea levels are expected to rise by 20-30 com by end-century (compared to current levels)
Globally, 40 percent of the world population lives within 100 km of the coasts. While they are all at risk, more than 600 million people (10 percent of the global population), that live in coastal areas less than 10 meters above sea level, are at higher risk. Almost two-thirds of the world’s cities with populations of over five million are located in areas at risk of sea-level rise.
The Sundarbans: Disappearing islands, vulnerable communities
Islands in the Sundarbans, a UNESCO world heritage site, are being eroded or swallowed by the sea. Battered by increasingly severe storms, vulnerable communities here are struggling to survive as the sea devours their fields and their huts. Displaced, forced to migrate, or to eke out a living in the islands, climate change and now Covid-19 has perpetuated their woes.
The Sundarbans represent one of the richest ecosystems globally and contain the world’s largest continuous mangrove forest, at nearly 10,000 sq km. About 40 percent of the Sundarbans forest lies within West Bengal with the rest being in Bangladesh. This ecosystem directly or indirectly supports the livelihood of more than 1.3 million people, with a population of more than 4.4 million residents. It also moderates the physical impacts of cyclones on the region, as with Cyclone Amphan, where the impacts would have been much more severe in Bangladesh had the forest not been there.
India’s Sundarbans in West Bengal are characterized by high levels of poverty and exposure to natural hazards. Sea-level rise, soil and water salinization, cyclones, and flooding make this one of the most hazardous areas on the Indian subcontinent. Climate change is further worsening the situation. Storms and cyclones have increased. Between 2019 and July 2021, the Sunderbans experienced four tropical storms: Fani (May 2019); Bulbul (November 2019; Amphan (May 2020 and Yaas (May 2021). When Amphan struck last year, people who had migrated because of the severe 2009 cyclonic storm Aila were returning to the Sundarbans due to the Covid-19 lockdown. When Yaas made a landfall, the second wave of Covid-19 was on the rise in India.
According to an article published in Reliefweb (May 2020) by Architesh Panda, for decades, India’s Sundarbans region, where 54 of the 104 islands are inhabited, has faced the constant threat of sea-level rise and coastal erosion. Scientific evidence shows that the average yearly sea-level rise along the Sundarbans delta is much higher at 8 mm as compared to the global average of 3 millimeters annually. Further, the Indian part of the Sundarbans and its delta are sinking at a rate of about 2 to 4 mm a year. Climate change and sea-level rise, combined with other morphological reasons, have led to a staggering land erosion of 170 sq. km between 1973-2010 along the Sundarbans coastline. Considering the risk from rising seas and coastal inundation, by 2050, an estimated one million people will need to relocate from more vulnerable locations of the Indian Sundarbans, and managed relocation will most likely have to be done on a larger scale in the future.
Recognition of the challenge of coastal erosion dates back to 1977 when the government of West Bengal decided to withdraw funding support from Ghoramara and Lohachara islands, because of high rates of erosion. In 1991, Lohachara eventually disappeared. Ghoramara, about 30 km north of the Bay of Bengal, has seen unprecedented erosion in the last few decades and has shrunk from 26 sq. km to around 6.7 sq. km. Erosion has been rapid during the past four decades, with the population dwindling, from around 40,000 to 5,193, as per the 2011 Census.
The first case of the planned relocation of residents from Lohachara and Ghoramara to Sagar island started in the late 1970s. Resettled residents were provided land and housing under the relocation plan, but as the availability of public land in Sagar began to shrink due to erosion, entitlements were reduced. Ironically, evidence suggests that Sagar itself is now facing disappearance—as sea rise is happening at a rate of 12 mm annually. This flags the important lesson that if not properly planned, climate-induced change may make current places of relocation vulnerable in the future.
This managed relocation may have enabled people to stay in the Sundarbans, but as sea levels rise, which unfortunately they will, their vulnerability will again increase. Thus, the long-term viability of relocations where the people were able to continue living in the Sundarbans needs to be considered in terms of vulnerability reduction and economic development.
The story of disappearing villages in Odisha
In order to understand the ground realities and consequences of sea level rise and coastal land erosion, Panda and his colleagues undertook a detailed study in Udayakani and Tandahar villages of Puri district to understand ground realities.
Informed Panda, “These villages are facing accelerated coastal erosion, seawater intrusion into freshwater resources and forcing the poor living on the margins of subsistence into greater poverty.”
Both Tandahar and Udayakani currently lie 100 meters away from the sea, extremely vulnerable to storms and cyclones. The villagers have already relocated themselves thrice due to the advancing sea. The original village is now inside the sea. The number of households in Udayakani has gone down from 56 to 35 over two decades as some villagers shifted to safer places.
The 105 households of Tandahar village may meet a watery grave anytime soon. More than half of the village has gone into the sea since the 1999 super cyclone Fani, which increased the salinity of the land reducing fertility, destroyed betel vines, and affected coconut production. Salinity also impacted fish catch. “The ingression is now faster,” warns Panda.
Agricultural land has shrunk, farmers have become landless and migrant labour. There is no piped water supply, the water is saline and contains high amounts of iron, leaving women with little choice but to travel 1.5 km to collect water from a dug well that is less saline. Gastro-related diseases, hypertension due to consumption of saline water, allergy, and skin diseases are common.
The story of Satyabhaya village in Kendrapada district is no different. Facing erosion, the villagers were moved by the state government to Bagapatia, Odisha’s first rehabilitation colony for sea erosion-affected people.
“With this relocation, people of Satabhaya lost their livelihoods, livestock and lands,” rues Panda, adding, “Now they are dependent on markets for their food. Their consumption of protein has reduced drastically (milk, curd, fish, prawn, crab) from the family food basket.” Access to drinking water and sanitation facilities and hygiene are lacking. The people are hopeful that over time, they will be given basic amenities and livelihood options. As of now, the youth are migrating.
This study offers suggestions for people-centered rehabilitation that includes the provision of inclusive housing and land titles; immediate cash compensation and long-term job opportunities; skill mapping and up-gradation for improving the employability of youth; assuring food and nutrition security; providing access to basic services of healthcare, education and water, sanitation and hygiene; and, conflict mapping and resolution. To do all this, a Task Force to speed up policy formulation, access to finances, and implementation is needed.
Despite being home to 17.8 percent of the world’s population, India accounts for only 3.2 percent of cumulative emissions (Global Change Data Lab, 2021). Yet India cannot achieve its development aspirations without taking climate change into account.
Poor coastal communities would have even lower carbon footprints, bordering on the negligible. Yet, as the sea warms and fragile ecosystems are damaged in the name of development, they face the consequences of ravaging storms and cyclones, land erosion, and seawater ingress. With the overall downturn due to Covid-19 and rising health expenditure, their future does not hold much promise. While efforts are ongoing to reduce global emissions, it is imperative that these coastal communities, already poor and vulnerable are safeguarded and don’t continue to pay the price of development they did not ask for or benefit from. For this, a granular, ecosystem-specific, nature-aligned, and community approach to policymaking and program design will be imperative for their long-term rehabilitation.
About the Author :
Dr Indira Khurana, Senior Expert, Water Sector; Vice-Chair, Tarun Bharat Sangh, Alwar