Teetering on the Edge


The coronavirus has given us pause to think about the havoc we inflict on the environment

According to a recent Global Project report, India is the third-largest air polluter in the world. While 21 cities around the country rank among the world’s worst polluted in IQAir AirVisual’s 2019 World Air Quality Report, with Delhi topping the list. Stubble burning in neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana, and ever-increasing use of fossil fuels for transport and energy production are the principal causes. Apart from the obvious health consequences, it also contributes significantly to global warming and climate change.  

In the last decade alone, India has experienced an unprecedented number of freak weather incidents resulting in a massive loss of human life and property. The Uttarakhand floods of 2013 were the harbinger of what was to come over the rest of the decade. Cloudbursts over North India caused devastating floods and landslides resulting in 5,700 dead or missing, crores of property damages in the worst disaster the country had seen since the 2004 tsunami.  

A year prior to that, similarly heavy rainfall caused the river Brahmaputra and its tributaries to overflow in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The resulting floods and landslides caused huge economic damages and killed hundreds of people in the north-eastern states, particularly in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. 

These aren’t isolated incidents either, since 2015 floods in south India during monsoon season is a common occurrence. Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Northern Karnataka have all faced massive floods regularly. Chennai and Kerala were hit particularly hard in 2018. 

Monsoons are the result in part of changes in surface water temperature in the Indian Ocean, a phenomenon known as the Indian Ocean Dipole. When it’s positive, the surface temperature of western Indian ocean is greater than average, and the surface temperatures in eastern Indian ocean is cooler than average. This causes heavy rains in India and Africa, while simultaneously causing droughts in Indonesia and Australia. The negative phase is when the opposite phenomenon occurs and causes heavy rains in Indonesia and Australia while causing droughts in Africa and India. 

Although this phenomenon is normal, the extreme temperatures are not. According to the Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, the difference in temperatures in late 2019 across the Indian Ocean was close two degree Celsius – the highest ever measured and was determined to be the cause of the East African droughts and Australian Bushfires to which more than an estimated 480 million animals succumbed.   

The hordes of locusts which plagued northern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Pakistan, and some parts of India were also the direct result of this phenomenon. “Heavy rain triggers the growth of vegetation in arid areas where desert locusts can then grow and breed,” Dr. Roxy Mathew Koll, a senior scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology told CBS news. “These locusts, which migrated to India early this year, might have found greener pastures as the pre-monsoon rains during March-May were in excess over north India.”  

India pledged to limit power generation from fossil fuels to 40% by 2030 as part of its commitments to Paris Agreement. Five years on India has already reached 38% according to a report by NRDC and looks set to surpass its goal as it continues to be one of the biggest investor in wind and solar energy. In 2020, India also introduced Bharath Stage VI emission norms for automobiles, based on the tough Euro 6 norms. BS-VI ensures new vehicles are much cleaner and is a welcome relief.

The strict lockdown measure enforced around the country has given a much-needed respite to the world to heal. The pandemic provides a unique opportunity to take much needed steps towards curbing the adverse effects on the environment which might not have been possible in a normal situation. 

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