Governments across the world strive for a better future for their citizens. The past two decades though have seen that countries with high population growth face bigger challenges. In the Third World there is a race for catching up with development, which ends up disturbing sustainable norms. The outlook for human life by the year 2030 is expected to have a devastating impact on the poor and economically weaker sections.
This is so that what was predicted way back in 1980 in the Global 2000 Report may just turn out true: “If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically and vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in”. Delving more deeper, at least 600 to 650 million people already live in life threatening situations in cities and up to one-third in sub-standard housing and sanitary conditions. Although the proportion of people in the developing world defined as ‘poor’ may be declining in some regions (particularly East Asia), absolute numbers are still rising, and specially in South Asia.
Whether it is air pollution, waste disposal or provision of potable water for the teeming millions of India, the situation is quite grave. While air pollution has taken severe dimensions, municipal waste and untreated sewage have characterised the metros and big cities. A report from the Centre for Research on Energy & Clean Asia (CREA) in 2020 that found that China Mainland, the United States and India bear the highest costs from fossil fuel air pollution world-wide, around $900 billion, $600 billion and $150 billion per annum respectively. Particles thrown off by fossil fuel usage account for 4.5 million premature Added to this, looming environmental crisis and flow of toxic effluents into rivers, streams and lakes have aggravated the situation severely.
The future of cities looks bleak with inequalities between people and societies widening, threatening the fundamental balance of the planet and the living world. While most societies in the Third World countries are industrialising and modernising on a forced march to catch up with the West, others still have to grapple with extreme deprivation of large sections of their populations. Year after year, the alarming gap between the rich and the poor is widening and has reached alarming dimensions.
A UN report released this February has sounded a dire warning about consequences of inaction, confirming that climate change is already causing widespread disruption in nature and affecting the lives of billions around the globe. Written by 945 global scientists on behalf of IPCC and released in Berlin after 195 governments approved the same, the report identified 127 global and regional key risks. In cited over 34,000 references from across the globe. Interestingly, it has been found that India is on course to become one of the worst-affected regions of the world, with its urban areas being particularly destined to be affected.
The report aptly predicted various trends. These include: The rise in weather and climate extremes has led to some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt. Approximately 3.5 to 3.6 billion people live under climate threat; Beyond 2040, climate change will lead to numerous risks and multiple climate hazards will occur simultaneously; Cities, gradually coastal ones, are under climate risk and India is going to be one of the worst affected regions of the world; Within India, cities, particularly those which are near coast like Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Visakhapatnam, Bhubaneswar besides Goa stand extremely threatened. Cities like Kolkata face increasingly hot and humid weather while Chennai faces increasing salinity in groundwater. India is going to have 600 million urban population by another 15 years, double the population base of the US, and add up the climate risks. Indian cities will be experiencing more heat stress, urban floods, salinity ingress due to sea-level rise and other climate induced hazards such as cyclones.
With passage of time, i.e. within the current decade, sweeping changes have to be undertaken to tackle the impending crises. But this can be done only with the involvement of the people at the grass-root level. The basic issues may be concentrated on water, energy, soil and conversion of military industries that go against the welfare of the aam admi.
Water: Every third person in the world today suffers from water shortage. In less than two decades, continents like Africa are expected to experience dramatic shortage. Even India, will become water stressed within the next five years or so and as 80% of the major diseases in the Third World are due to poor quality of water and this expected to be accentuated. Conflicts between countries for control of this scarce resource has become manifest due to the fact that the major drainage basins are not border defined. Though campaigns in different countries have started for conserving water as well as reuse, recycling etc. there is also need to shift to water conservation specially in agriculture.
Besides, decentralised wastewater treatment systems (DWWTS) are gaining ground over centralised wastewater treatment systems. DWWTS can be set up quickly to service expanding communities and can be combined with a green infrastructure approach where wetlands are constructed for tertiary treatment of water before letting it into a lake or stream.
Energy: Introduction of renewable energy in a big way is imperative. Introduction of energy saving techniques and more stress on renewable energy is being followed by most countries. Of India’s total power capacity of 300 GW, the non-fossil share (including hydropower) crossed 150GW in early December. The share of solar and wind is 106 MW has been skyrocketing. The 2030 target for renewables has been raised from 400 MW to 500 MW, almost quintupling capacity within nine years. As with water, a decentralised management of energy has started popularising the need for energy conservation and making renewable energy cost effective.
Soil Conservation: It has suffered massive damage due to a serious decrease in the fertility of natural environments and hence to desertification. A thorough review of agricultural production systems, reduce food insecurity in developing countries and search for a diversified management of ecosystems is vital. The quest for more productivity leading to use of excessive chemicals and fertilizers has aggravated desertification and this has happened in many parts of India.
With increase in chemical based agriculture, shaky farm production and rising food prices will grow. This is expected to pose a staggering food shortage in the coming years, as per FAO projections. The increase in the number of hungry people worldwide in 2021 equalled the last five years combined. Around 8.9% of the world lives in hunger – this number has grown to 690 million people over the last five years. To feed the world, a 60% rise in agricultural production is required.
While the quest for a better future has unnerved policy makers, environmentalists and economists globally and a concerted campaign needs to be launched to steer military industries into the development of environment-friendly technologies. It is necessary that such campaigns are carried out globally with such design to balance societies and nature. Unless nature is not allowed unfettered growth, real development, which normally benefits the poorest segments of society, cannot become a reality.
Finally, the freedom gained from the expansion of science and technology must go hand in hand with a sense of reverence with regard to nature and its conservation, the limitations of which we must respect. Moreover, the vital aspects of water, air, soil and seas as well as living species needs to be protected. Future human societies have to orient their progress towards production models and life styles that do not deplete or squander resources nor dump wastes that may harm the equilibrium of local or global natural environments.
In an era when climate change and loss of nature are the two most significant trends of our times, India has the opportunity to turn these problems on their head by pursuing green infrastructure approaches in combination with grey infrastructure.