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Thirsty Planet - Our Water Footprint

Water creates an environment that sustains and nurtures plants, animals and humans, making the earth a perfect match for life. 70% of our bodies are also made up of water, just as 70% of the Earth is covered by water too. If water is a proxy for life itself, then it is not surprising that its availability is a major concern? Misuse of water may indeed lead to a series of catastrophes. The fundamental problems, however, are neither the scarcity itself, since water is likely to remain abundant enough even for a more populous Earth, nor technical. They are managerial, with failures at economic, cultural and political levels. Bad management is the issue here.

The present-day world provides ample examples of environmental devastation that serve as a warning that water usage has its natural limits. Boats are stranded aground in the middle of nowhere, amid the vanished waters of the world’s fourth largest saline lake, the Aral Sea. Last year, Cape Town in South Africa averted only narrowly to run completely out of water. Four years earlier, Sao Polo in Brazil had teetered on the brink with reservoirs reduced to 5% capacity. UN’s latest annual report on water development notes that more than a quarter of humanity - 1.9 billion people, with 73% of them in Asia - live in areas where water is very scarce. The global water use is six times greater than it was a century ago and it is expected to increase by another 20-50% by 2050.

Three main factors will drive the continued growth in demand: population, prosperity and climate change. In 2050 the number of people in the world is expected to increase to between 9.4 billion and 10.2 billion, from just under 8 billion now. Most of the increase will come in Asia and Africa that are already short of water. People will be leading more water-intensive lifestyles and move into cities, many of them facing acute water shortage. We know that world’s water endowment is highly unequal. Just nine countries account for 60% of all fresh supplies of water. China and India have about 36% of the world’s people but only 11% of its freshwater. Climate change will exacerbate this inequity. Much of the south Asian monsoons, on which the subcontinent’s life hinges, will become more erratic. As a report by the World Bank puts it: “The impact of water scarcity and drought may be even greater, causing long-term harm in ways that are poorly understood and inadequately documented.”

Last October the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report comparing the consequences of restraining global temperature rise to 1.4 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial level as opposed to 2 degree Celsius. With a 2 degree rise, an additional 8% of the world’s population in 2000 will be exposed to aggravated water scarcity by 2050. But with 1.5 degrees, it falls to 4%. The best way to solve the world’s water woes is to use less of it. Agriculture is the biggest consumer of world’s water. Much of it is wasted. We need to deploy better mechanisms to save water through flood-irrigation and percolation into the soil. People have to be made more aware of water footprint. A less visible but more shocking waste of water is in the form of non-revenue water, that is, water supplied by utilities but never paid for. The problem is more obvious in poor countries.

In almost every aspect of water usage, the scope for minimising use is enormous. It is a matter of incentives. Water efficiency has to become a way of life. Sustainability goals have to be given a priority. Water stressed cities are increasing in number. Waste water, as Israel and Singapore have shown, can be treated as a resource to exploit rather than a problem to dispose of. As the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals acknowledge that water-management has to be integrated and coordinated, it will entail cross border cooperation and community involvement. Finally, there is a question of allocation. Priorities should lie in the hundreds of millions who do not yet have access to safe drinking water. Water management, however sustainable, progressive and integrated, has first to concentrate on access. Money is not a constraint, nor is technology. It is a political choice.

Seema Malik

Carbon Footprint and Climate Change

Carbon Footprint and Climate Change Inspite of the increasing incidence of forest fires and rising global temperatures, most countries of the world are still not on track to reduce their carbon footprint. The pledge made in Paris Agreement has not been fulfilled which is clear from the UNEP’s ‘Emission gap’ report. It says that the countries must raise their ambition to cut down on global emissions by at least three times to meet the 2 degree celsius target. If the emission gap is not closed by 2030, we will not be able to read this target even by 2100. This IPCC report quantifies how disastrous the situation would be if wide sweeping and drastic measures to cut down on carbon footprint are not taken. The evidence presented in this report says so far only 57 countries (representing 60% of global emissions) were on track to do so by 2030. India is not one of them and is likely to miss its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Most biggest contributors are far from achieving this target which is a worrying concern.

Most of the G-20 countries still rely on fossil fuels, almost to the tune of 82%. However, India’s NDC is closest to the 1.5 degree Celsius limit. The recent green policies like the National Electricity Plan, may help us to meet it by 2030. Simultaneously we are also targeting a total forest cover of one third of our land area which currently stands at 24%. It is not a surprise that the world has lost 60% of its biodiversity over the last 50 years only. Clearly human beings are stretching their natural limits too thin, jeopardising bio-capacity (The ability of an ecosystem to renew itself). Our ecological footprint has grown by 190% in the last 50 years, nearly ten times the growth of bio-capacity. There’s a huge pressure on earth and that’s a bad news for all of us. Look at the mismatch! Only about 30% of earth is covered by forest when they are home to 80% of all terrestrial species of animals, plants and insects. Most of the tropical and subtropical forests have been felled for farming. To meet rising demands of wheat and rice for growing population, natural forest covers have been reduced drastically.

Now let us see what we can do about our increasing ecological footprint and decreasing bio-capacity on our own personal level:

Temperance- Temperance means self-restraint, moderation and discretion. In terms of sustainability, it is required to live within the sustainable limits of the Earth. Profligacy leads to environmental degradation. Can we limit our wastefulness while buying and consuming?

Prudence- Prudence helps create sustainability because it maintains the attitudes of prevention, conservation, caring and mitigation. Can we be wise enough while doing things which have repercussions on the environment?

Fortitude- Sustainability involves not only knowing what is right but also the ability to stick at it, so being sustainable, on an individual level, requires courage, determination and heart. Once we take a pledge for being environmentally conscious, can we stay at it?

Justice- We must do the right thing not just for ourselves, but for the common good and for the environment as well. Sustainability cannot be left to a few, while the rest are profligate. Can we all take responsibility for ourselves?

If we all set our moral compass towards being a responsible citizen of the world, we can achieve much more than we have ever thought of. Environment preservation and conservation is a way of life, not just an agenda to follow.

Seema Malik

Project on Biodiversity

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Reflections on IPCC special report

A recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that global warming must be limited to 1.5 degree celsius in the next twelve years, after which even a rise as small as 0.5 degrees could have devastating effects. Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0 degree Celsius of warming above preindustrial levels. It is likely to reach 1.5 degrees between 2030 and 2050 if it continues unabated. Long term changes have already happened such as sea level rise and erratic weather phenomena across the world.

Now, let’s see what can be the benefits of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. This means Arctic ice remains intact through summers, saving the habitats of polar bears, whales, seals and penguins. The world has already seen unprecedented heat waves and forest fires, raising the number of ‘highly unusual hot days’ Also, large swathes of land suffer from extreme drought now. Many regions have also seen acute water scarcity, throwing everyday life out of gear. Many plant and animal species have already seen dwindling of their range of species. Mass mortality of coral reefs is another major fallout. There is a danger that they may entirely disappear after getting heavily bleached. Flooding of coastal areas, rendering millions of people vulnerable is already causing suffering around the world. Crop yields are dropping significantly, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, South East Asia, Central and South America, stunting future generations with starvation and malnourishment.

Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees is expected to reduce increase in ocean temperature as well as associated increase in ocean acidity and decrease on ocean oxygen levels. Thus risk to marine biodiversity can be minimised. It will have a positive impact on human health, livelihood opportunities, food security, water supply and thus overall economic growth. Estimates of the global emission outcomes of currently stated 2 degrees as submitted under the Paris Agreement would lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions. Avoiding overshoot and reliance on future large scale carbon dioxide removal (CDR) can only be achieved if the global emissions start declining well before 2030. Thus sustainable development, eradication of poverty and reducing inequalities would be better addressed if global warming were to be limited to 1.5 degrees.

For strengthening the capacities for climate action, the governments, civil society, private sector and local communities will all have to come together. Major lifestyle changes and policy changes are required to get synergies for sustainable development goals. There will always be trade-offs but the transition will have to be managed both with acceleration of technological innovation and collective behaviour changes. I firmly believe that our schools can also make a change by becoming aware of the grave climatic situation we are faced with.

Seema Malik

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