I have a feeling that the Summer of 2016 will be remembered for years to come. Unfortunately, it won’t be for pleasant reasons. Apart from scientists panicking about broken records in global temperatures, South and South-East Asia haven’t been having a good time. Last year (2015) had been fairly weird, with rains in the summer, no rains in the monsoon, and a fairly warm winter. On the other hand, 2016 so far can be summed up in one word – hot.
Make that two words – hot, and dry. Two consecutive years of bad rainfall have resulted in water sources across the country drying up. Whole rivers have stopped flowing, reservoirs are down to their minimum levels, and groundwater has become extremely scarce. The breakdown of water supply has been most extreme in Maharashtra, where the Indian government had to recently send trains filled with water to supply the district of Latur, where water supply had ceased completely. However, while Latur’s predicament is the most visible, it is by no means the only victim of heat and drought. Eastern India is reeling under a heat wave which has pushed temperatures in certain places beyond 47 degrees centigrade. In Karnataka, a dozen districts have been declared drought-hit.
Much of this disaster was man-made. We had very clearly observed the decline in rainfall over the last two years, and we also knew at the end of last year’s monsoon that we didn’t have enough water for the summer. We were also aware that there was little control over groundwater extraction, and lesser initiative to curb the erosion of water sources – lakes, tanks, farm ponds, rivers. Many of us were well-aware that 2015 and 2016 were El Nino years, and that that El Nino has been typically associated with hotter and drier weather in southern Asia. We knew that there was agricultural distress, and that many farmers were giving up cultivation because of unpredictable climatic conditions. Merely putting all these facts together should have warned us to prepare for heat waves and drought this summer. And yet, somehow we failed, at both national and state levels.
To add to this, many of the country’s other environmental problems are now reaching critical levels. Many Indian cities are seeing large-scale environmental problems which need to be addressed urgently. The floods in Chennai late last year was accompanied by rising commentary on Delhi’s air pollution, Bengaluru’s degraded wetlands, as well as large-scale burning of waste in Mumbai’s landfills at Deonar. There were other events which highlighted India’s growing environmental problems – the conduct of a high-profile festival on the Yamuna river floodplains in Delhi, agricultural distress in Bundelkhand, and now, the burning of forests in Uttarakhand.
For a country occupied with economic growth, it’s surprising that we pay little attention to environmental matters. The links between environment and economy are quite apparent to those who wish to study it. Environmental factors feed into economic activity, and ignoring or downplaying them will not prevent growth from faltering when these factors are affected. But more importantly, this summer should remind us that environment and climate change need to be front and centre of all our planning and developmental activities. The question is, will we remember the lessons of 2016’s summer?