By Darshini N Ravindranath, on 6 March 2014
Blog by Darshini Ravindranath, UCL ISR PhD student
A combination of increasing scarcity of some natural resources, climate change and growth in global population to 9 billion by 2050 are creating conditions for a ‘perfect storm’.
The economic, social and ecological costs of climate change on vulnerable communities will be colossal. The impacts are depressingly palpable; rising sea levels, storm surges, declining groundwater levels, wildly unpredictable rainfall patterns, have led to large-scale depletion of ecosystem services. Climate change is set to challenge our existing notions of the utilisation and value attached to land. Simultaneously, increasing demand for food, fodder, fibre, timber and other biomass-based raw materials, is putting further pressure on these changing landscapes, leading to unsustainable land-use patterns.
Travelling through India for fieldwork related to my projects has allowed me to test my knowledge firsthand. I have found landowners and workers, tied to income and livelihood from land and monsoon to be extremely vulnerable to current climate variability and future climate change. Household concerns in these areas can often be linked with unsustainable use of land, water and biomass resources. The three issues are inter-linked in a typical ‘village ecosystem’, and a failure in one aspect will lead to complex knock-on effects on the others. For example, wind and water led soil erosion elicits land degradation, low water availability and low and non-sustainable biomass (food) production. A common practice I came upon in areas of low water availability was a fixation with excessive digging of bore-wells to source water for irrigation, which was leading to further ground-water decline. Somini Sengupta, who wrote an article on India’s groundwater woes for the New York Times, best captures this phenomenon. She writes, ‘with India’s population soaring past 1 billion and with a driving need to boost agricultural production Indians are tapping their groundwater faster than nature can replenish it, so fast that they are hitting deposits formed at the time of the dinosaurs’. Similar headlines have emerged in Africa, where issues of land access mean a groundwater crisis looms despite recent discoveries of vast aquifers.
There is an urgent need to shift away from such inefficient farm practices, supply chains and diet choices towards long-term sustainability, profitability and health. Unfortunately, very little is being done towards this, especially in developing countries, where such problems are magnified due to heavy reliance on climate-dependent sectors.
The solution to these challenges can be met, at least in part, by sustaining land (or soil) quality and water supply. Most studies to date (with a few notable exceptions) have focused on one challenge or another (e.g. GHG mitigation, water provision, food security), but have not considered the multifarious cumulative effects that arise from the use of land, water and biomass. To solve these complex problems, it is critical to understand how diverse social and ecological drivers affect land systems.
The role of the state is critical. Changing land-use patterns have created a confusing palette for local governments. The focus must be to understand how best to improve resilience of communities and incorporate it into local land-use planning strategies in a synergistic manner. Utopian as these ideas may seem, it is essential to help the local population as well as local governments to better understand the value and potential of their land, prevent unsustainable land-use and therefore aid in the sustenance of robust livelihood systems. Feeding a population of 9 billion by 2050 requires concrete and coordinated evidence-based action.
Picture caption: ‘Waiting for water, in a drought prone village in Southern India’; Photo by: Darshini Ravindranath