India: Planning for Climate Change–Related Health Threats

Last week, India's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, spoke to environment ministers from all state governments within India.  The "multiple environmental crises that confront our country have created an alarming situation," he said.  More strikingly, he said, "Climate change is threatening our ecosystems [and] water scarcity is becoming a way of life."  In short, the effects of climate change are being felt in India right now.  Similarly, the United States and European Union released comprehensive reports on the present effects of climate change on their respective areas earlier this year.  The global conversation can no longer be restricted to how to prevent climate change.  Instead, discussions must include health adaptation plans for climate change impacts that already threatening the lives of millions across the globe.  These health adaptation plans are ramping up in India.  Next week, Dr. Kim Knowlton from NRDC and I, along with our partner, the Public Health Foundation of India, will work towards this goal at the Joint Indo-U.S. Symposium on Climate Change and Health, a cooperative venture by the U.S. Center Disease Control, the University of Michigan, and the Indian Council of Medical Research. 

The symposium cannot come soon enough considering the environmental crises India has experienced in the past two years.  The 2008 Bihar flood is considered India's worst flood in fifty years and occurred when the Kosi River in northern India broke out of its normal river channels due to heavier than expected monsoon rains. Over two thousand people died, millions of people in the flooded areas were trapped for weeks without food or water, fertile agricultural lands were submerged, and widespread food riots occurred over the limited aid given to the region.  This area has just been hit again this week with more flooding and deaths.  Mosquitoes, known to carry diseases such as malaria and visceral leishmaniasis in India, have spread to new areas and live longer now that India has gotten warmer.  Just last week, researchers in China found that Northern India may also soon experience droughts due to changes in the intensity of the summer monsoons because the glaciers on the Qinghai Tibet Plateau are receding at an alarming rate and affecting ecosystem vitality. 

As highlighted by Prime Minister Singh, India has the potential to leapfrog over the carbon-intensive development phase to a low-carbon, clean energy future.  These leapfrogging efforts should extend to protect the millions of lives in India who at greater risk from devastating global warming health threats.  Prime Minister Singh recognized this on Tuesday when he said, "Our growth strategy can be different. It must be different."  International cooperation on issues such as technology transfer and health adaptation planning will be absolutely critical in the coming years.  While the Symposium on Climate Change and Health is a strong start on the path of cooperation, more efforts will be necessary and should be a centerpiece of discussion for international climate negotiations. 

(Co-authored by Kimi Narita, NRDC Intern)