The science is unequivocal. Human-caused climate change poses a distinct global threat, it has already begun to take effect, and it will only get more extreme in the coming years. The situation has never been clearer. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are reaching levels that were unprecedented for millennia. Record-breaking temperatures are being observed all over the world. Abnormal weather conditions are occurring more frequently, such that they can hardly be considered abnormal any more. There’s no doubt that this planet and the people on it face a severe problem.
So where is the threat greatest? Who is the most at risk? It’s difficult to determine which regions will undergo the most extreme changes. The computer models are not all that precise geographically, and furthermore it’s difficult if not impossible to compare one climatic change to another. Is a heat wave worse than a drought? Is sea level rise worse than wildfires? What’s more certain is that no matter what happens, poor subsistence farmers in the developing world will bear the brunt of the damage. That’s because vulnerability to climate change is due to social factors just as much as environmental ones, and subsistence farmers have an abundance of social factors working against them. They depend heavily on the natural environment, so small changes in weather patterns have a large effect on their lives, and their low incomes leave them few options for adaptation.
Even if poor subsistence farmers face less severe changes, they will still suffer more harm than other groups. Think of the devastating earthquake that occurred in Haiti in 2010. The disastrous nature of that event was due not to the strength of the earthquake but rather its proximity to a large population center and the lack of preparation in that population center. Later in 2010, two earthquakes of similar magnitude occurred off the coast of Japan and barely made news. That’s because those earthquakes were more remote, and the closest cities were built with earthquake-resistant infrastructures and strong early warning systems. Often, the social context of a disturbance matters more than the disturbance itself.
That lesson should be thoroughly taken to heart in the Thar. A district-level assessment featured in the most recent report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that Rajasthan was one of India’s most vulnerable regions, both socially and environmentally. The desert is almost definitely going to get hotter, and rainfall conditions are unlikely to improve in any meaningful capacity—they’re probably going to remain as wildly variable as they are now. Just as importantly, the people of the Thar have few resources to adapt to future hardship. Western Rajasthan exhibits some of India’s lowest indicators on measures of education, employment diversification and social mobility, all of which are key factors for promoting resilience.
These maps show projected climate change by 2071-2010 using two different computer models. Both models predict a severe temperature increase in the Thar Desert and a small decrease or no change in rainfall. The full publication can be found here.
This district-level map shows climate change vulnerability across India, measured using a variety of social and environmental factors. The Thar Desert is one of the most vulnerable regions in the country. The full publication can be found here.
Climate change poses further risks in its interaction with other environmental problems. Another study featured in the IPCC report projected that a combination of overpopulation and climate change in India could potentially decrease the amount of water available per person by almost 40% by 2050, leading to intense water shortages. Such changes would be especially potent in the Thar Desert, where water is scarce enough as it is. Because the Thar is the world’s most densely populated desert ecosystem, it already endures heavy resource stress, with increasingly dire situations of overgrazing and groundwater exploitation.
My own research confirms these trends. I’ve spent much of the last year studying climate change vulnerability in the Thar, getting data from hundreds of village residents, in addition to published experts. I found that climate change exacerbates existing problems, especially depletion of groundwater. Farmers who use tube wells are less likely to perceive or expect changes in rainfall, and they are less likely to implement certain adaptive practices, suggesting that groundwater irrigation serves as a potentially unsustainable crutch against climatic adversity. While tube wells can make farmers less susceptible to rainfall variability in the short term, they set up conditions for a dangerous collapse when the water table gets depleted in the long term.
A similarly irreversible situation is likely to occur with debt. Many farmers borrow money from their neighbors when under climate-spurred duress. These loans often involve exorbitant interest rates, making the debt very difficult to pay back. If climate shocks become more frequent, then the burden of debt will only increase.
Often, poverty leads to vulnerability because it limits adaptation. When responding to change requires prohibitively large amounts of money, poor farmers are left helpless. Luckily, that’s not always the case. Because communities in the Thar have dealt with climatic variability for hundreds of years, they have developed many traditional and sustainable practices that foster resilience, such as rainwater harvesting, agricultural diversification, animal husbandry, and conservation of forests and pastures. By continuing and improving these practices, the residents of the Thar can efficiently adapt to future changes. However, the benefits of such adaptation are limited. As farming becomes more difficult, villagers will need to seek alternatives to agriculture as a source of livelihood, and in the long run, life in the Thar cannot be truly sustainable until the population reaches a manageable size, no matter what happens to the climate.
All of these findings will be available in greater detail several months from now, when GRAVIS releases its first publication dealing directly with climate change. The report will be a broad examination of climate change vulnerability in the Thar, including literature review, analysis of historical weather trends and data from focus groups and household surveys. The publication will begin a greater focus for GRAVIS on this increasingly important topic.
Climate change adds an extra challenge to an already difficult way of life, but timely and appropriate adaptation measures can soften the blow.
*Ben Soltoff, Intern