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Exposed to global warming
– by Marcus Stewen, Nand Kishor Agrawal
© Joydip Mitra/Lineair
Children braving the Monsoon rain in Sikkim’s Himalayan mountains
Northeast India is home to about 40 million people and accounts for almost eight percent of nation’s territory. The region comprises the eight states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim. The climate is predominantly humid sub-tropical. Summers are hot, monsoons severe and winters mild. The northeastern states are among India’s least developed, so they get special financial support from the central government.
Initial scientific research and field observations confirm that the region is suffering from the impacts of climate change already. Due to its unique location and topography it has distinct precipitation and drainage patterns. From March to May, thunderstorms contribute about 20 % of annual rainfall. From June to September, monsoon rains supply another 70 %. The monsoon season is marked by frequent floods, as melting Himalayan snow and torrential rains feed the majestic Brahmaputra river. Because of climate change, moreover, rainfall is becoming more unpredictable and erratic. The impact on people, fields and livestock is devastating and set to get worse.
For a long time, the northeast was a white spot on the map of climate change data, compared with other, better-researched regions in India. To fill the gap, Indian scholars have recently compiled, verified and aggregated existing data. They were led by Professor N. H. Ravindranath from the Indian Institute of Science and supported by KfW Development Bank on behalf of Germany’s Federal Government. India’s North East Climate Change Adaptation Programme (NECCAP) is one of the first attempts worldwide to assess future trends for a large region with scientific methods, in order to draft and implement specific adaptation measures.
The compiled data show that current climate trends will continue for the years 2021 to 2050 (see map on next page) in India’s northeastern states. Analysis of macro-data was supplemented by an on-the-ground assessment of local conditions (“ground-truthing”). There can be no more doubt that precipitation and temperature patterns are changing.
Using data of the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), the study shows that there was a long-term trend of more regional precipitation for the period 1901 to 2007. Moreover, the region has warmed significantly during the last decade. The rise in surface air temperature has been primarily due to rapid increases of both maximum and minimum temperatures, with minimum temperatures rising faster – a trend which is found in other studies in the Himalayas.
The climate forecasts indicate that these trends will be exacerbated in the future. Average temperatures are projected to increase by about 1.7°C in almost all the districts of the northeast. In some districts, they are likely to go up by more than 2°C. The rainfall is projected to increase in 57 of the 78 districts, with some districts expected to experience almost 25 % more rainfall. The number of extreme rainfall events per year is also expected to increase by 26 %. Accordingly, there will be more floods.
Such information on climate change must be seen in the context of other socio-economic trends and realities, as are evident in illiteracy rates, poverty figures and rising income inequality, for instance. The scholars’ work, after all, was not only meant to create a data base. Rather, the idea was to forecast future trends in order to assess the vulnerability of target groups in regard to climate change at a scale relevant for policy interventions and tangible investments. Indeed, the data allows policymakers to select and prioritise districts according to their vulnerability. It equally makes sense to prioritise interventions according to their potential to boost people’s capacity to adapt to climate change.
For the planned programme, there is a well-defined methodology for selecting districts, taking into account geographic and social considerations. In a first step, “no-go”-districts are excluded. In these places, the political risks are too great to warrant investments, for instance because of insurgent movements. Next, the districts with the highest vulnerabilities are short-listed. From this group, the districts with the worst poverty indicators are chosen for programme implementation because they are assumed to have the least adaptive capacities.
This process resulted in the selection of 15 of 57 districts in five participating states. Technical criteria are relevant too of course. Action, however, must also depend on discussions with the regional and local stakeholders. Hence local experience was taken into account for district selection as well. Measures to involve the public are underway; it makes sense to mirror scientific analysis with local know-how.
KfW will support adaptation measures with funding worth almost € 80 million in the NECCAP context. The state governments of Assam, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Sikkim are in charge of drafting action plans. It is expected that the Indian side will contribute the equivalent of € 21 million.
Depending on the specific circumstance, adaptation measures will vary significantly from state to state and district to district:
– In Assam, the main focus is on flood protection in the plains. Moreover, climate change necessitates preventing erosion and improving water-resources management in higher altitudes.
– Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram are higher elevated, and their emphasis is on improving the prevailing agricultural practice. This is a shifting cultivation system called “jhum”, according to which plots are used for a while but then abandoned again so they can recover. Another focus will be on conservation of community forests with high biodiversity.
– In Sikkim, the main emphasis will be on the prevention of erosion and the protection and development of springs. Reduced rainfall is making it harder to provide households with safe drinking water, at least in valleys in the shadow of the monsoon.
The list of potential programme activities comprises, but is not limited to:
– water resource development in water stressed and erosion prone areas (for instance, construction of dams and water reservoirs which can also be used for fish production; spring development),
– watershed and wetland rehabilitation in all types of land,
– optimisation of shifting cultivation systems in mountain areas,
– riverside plantations for improved flood protection and income generation and flood plain forest restoration,
– implementation of improved agricultural models (such as the introduction of flood and drought tolerant crops) and
– promotion of diversified income sources for vulnerable communities.
It is no coincidence, of course, that the list of measures relates to rural development. Poverty is most pronounced in remote areas, and traditional farmers are among the most vulnerable people. Most of them never got formal educations, and they cannot be expected to cope with climate change on their own. Obviously, subsistence farmers do not have many resources at their disposal.
For adaptation measures to be effective, they will be embedded in a system for land use and development planning. This system is participatory, village-based and takes account of needs in a holistic way. It will ensure that adaptation measures meet local needs. On the other hand, there will also be major stand-alone projects which can not be limited to village-level micro-planning. This is true, for instance, of wetland rehabilitation or oak plantations in high altitudes.
At the global level, India’s North East Climate Change Adaptation Programme (NECCAP) is one of the first to scientifically assess the likely impact of climate change and to use such insights as a base for supporting adaptation at the local level. Tangible measures will be designed to benefit poor rural people in particular.
This programme must not be confused with conventional rural development. The point is to assess risks that relate to global warming and prioritise districts where people are especially vulnerable. These aspects make NECCAP something of a model for linking science and policymaking. It deserves to be copied internationally.