India’s stellar economic performance during the past decade has brought immense benefits to the people. Emmployment opportunities have increased, enabling millions to emerge from poverty.
But rapid growth has been clouded by a degrading environment and a growing scarcity of natural resources. Today, India ranks 155th among 178 countries accounting for all measurable environmental indicators, and almost dead last in terms of air pollution. What’s more, more than half of the most polluted cities in the G-20 countries are in India. The deteriorating environment is taking its toll on the people’s health and productivity – and costing the economy a staggering Rs. 3.75 trillion each year (US$80 billion) - or 5.7 percent of GDP. So, does growth – so essential for development – have to come at the price of worsened air quality and other environmental degradation? Fortunately, India does not have to choose between growth and the environment.
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Why Sanitation Access Doesn’t Work Unless the Entire Village Buys In
Jitender is a four-year old boy with forward-thinking parents. Although it’s common in his village, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, for most people to defecate in the open, his parents have taken the lessons of the government’s sanitation campaign to heart. They know that open defecation spreads disease—so they construct a private toilet that hygienically isolates their waste from human contact. Nonetheless, a few months later, Jitender develops persistent diarrhea. He is often dehydrated, loses weight, and becomes pale. His immune system is weakened by multiple bouts of disease, and for the next several years he struggles with recurrent illness. He has trouble keeping up with his schoolwork, and, more perniciously, even though he ate more than enough calories each day, the diarrhea eventually caused malnourishment. He remains small for his height and suffers from subtle intellectual deficits that make it difficult for him to follow the teacher’s lessons even during those periods when he does manage to attend. Because of his low marks, his family isn’t able to fulfill their dream of sending him on to university. The village takes note of Jitender’s example and concludes that improved sanitation doesn’t provide much, if any, benefit. This is a fictional story; however, similar stories are being heard every day in South Asia.
I have been visiting coastal Odisha for the past four years, earlier when we were preparing the National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project (NCRMP) and subsequently during project implementation.
Every time the project team visited a village, the local community was always there to welcome us and talk about their experience during the 1999 cyclone, the community members they lost, the houses damaged, the devastation inflicted. This was an event that was firmly etched in their memories even 10 years later. Every site visit was followed by a small function wherein the local community mobilizing volunteers spoke about the preparedness work they were undertaking in collaboration with the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA) and local community organizations. Almost every single meeting ended in their spoken resolve “Never Again!”
Losses due to disasters to human and physical capital are on the rise across the world. Over the past 30 years, total losses have tripled, amounting to $3.5 trillion. While the majority of these losses were experienced in OECD countries, the trend is increasingly moving towards losses in rapidly growing states.
In a sense, increasing risk and losses caused by disaster are the byproduct of a positive trend - strong development gains and economic growth. This is because disaster loss is a function of the amount of human and physical assets exposed to seismic or hydrometeorological hazards, and the level of vulnerability of the assets. The richer a country gets, the more assets it builds or acquires, and therefore the more losses it potentially faces.
Rapid development across South Asia signals the need to commit greater efforts to increase resilience to disaster and climate risk. It also requires governments to develop a strategy to both protect against events today and to develop strategies to address the losses of the future. This is a challenge somewhat unique to South Asia. The losses of today, predominantly rural flooding that impacts wide swaths of vulnerable populations, will begin to diminish in relative importance to the losses of the future.
There is little empirical regularity that is as universal as the following: no matter what the path of economic development a country has followed, urbanization has been an inevitable consequence across the world. Already half the world’s population is urban. Currently, Asia and Africa are the least urbanized regions, but they are expected to reach their respective tipping points–that is when their urban populations will exceed the rural population–in 2023 and 2030. While the urban transition occurs with diverse growth patterns at different times, the real challenge for governments is to take actions that allow residents to make the most of living in cities.
The relationship between urbanization and economic development has long been a popular issue of debate. Should a developing country encourage urbanization? While this is a real dilemma in Bangladesh, because of a highly unfavorable land-population balance, the only alternative Bangladesh has to urbanization is urbanization. The question is not whether Bangladesh should urbanize; the question is how Bangladesh will handle the challenges of urbanization.
The latest science, described in the World Bank report “Turn Down the Heat,” indicates that we are heading toward a 4° C warmer world, with catastrophic consequences in this century. While carbon dioxide (CO2) is still the No. 1 threat, there is another category of warming agent called short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs). Mitigating these pollutants is a must if we want to avoid the 4° C warmer future.
The main SLCPs are black carbon, methane, tropospheric ozone, and hydrofluorocarbons. They are potentially responsible for more than one-third of the current warming. Because SLCPs have a much shorter lifetime in the air than CO2; reducing their emissions can create almost immediate reduction of global/regional warming, which is not possible by reducing CO2 emissions alone. According to one U.N. report, full implementation of 16 identified measures to mitigate SLCPs would reduce future global warming by about 0.5˚C.
In this blog, we will focus on one SLCP – black carbon. Black carbon is a primary component of particulate matter (PM), the major environmental cause of premature deaths globally. As a climate pollutant, black carbon’s global warming effects are multi-faceted. It can warm the atmosphere directly by absorbing radiation. When deposited on ice and snow, black carbon reduces their reflecting power and increases their melting rate. At the regional level, it also influences cloud formation and impacts regional circulation and rainfall patterns such as the monsoon in South Asia.
Coal has been a mainstay of Indian energy. It accounts for 63% of India’s energy consumption, and demand is set to grow dramatically over the coming decades. Coal use for electricity generation is projected to grow 2% every year, almost doubling its share of India’s generating capacity by 2030. According to the International Energy Agency, India is likely to become the second-largest consumer of coal, surpassing the United States in the next five years.
Because coal is both cheap and abundant domestically, it may seem like the perfect solution to India’s energy and electricity woes. However, using coal comes with severe health, environmental, and economic effects. As quality of life improves for most Indians on one hand from economic progress, many could be subject to the vagaries of this dirty pollutant. Also, as the world moves closer to a consensus on climate change, using coal at this growing rate may become untenable.
Two recent studies shed light on the huge environmental damage that is done by coal-fired power plants in India. Professor Maureen Cropper and her co-authors at the University of Maryland estimated premature cardiopulmonary deaths associated with air emissions from 89 power plants from all over India. Last week, Professor Cropper presented their analysis in a World Bank seminar. Their study attributes on average 650 deaths per plant per year to directly emitted sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate emissions from coal plants.
Another recent study published by Greenpeace and authored by Sarath Guttikunda and Puja Jawahar presents more dramatic results than the Cropper study. It suggests that in 2011-2012, emissions from Indian coal plants resulted in 80,000 to 115,000 premature deaths and more than 20 million asthma cases from exposure to particulate pollution with an associated cost of $3.3 billion to $4.6 billion.
The World Health Organization’s recent Global Burden of Disease (GBD) Assessment estimates that outdoor air pollution causes 620,000 premature deaths per year in India, a six fold increase since 2000. The main causes are growing emissions of particulate emissions (PM10) from transport and power plants. GBD in this analysis has ranked air pollution as the sixth most dangerous killer in South Asia and fifth leading cause of deaths in India.
Also, according to the WHO, across the G-20 economies, 13 of the 20 most polluted cities are in India and over 50% of the sites studied across India had critical levels of PM10 pollution. A recent rapid survey by Delhi based Center for Science and Environment revealed that almost 75% of respondents considered air pollution as a major cause of concern and as responsible for respiratory illnesses.