South Asia Needs a “Marshall Plan” for Climate Resilience

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Photo Credit: World Bank Photo Credit: World Bank

The devastating floods in Pakistan last year, when over a third of the country was underwater and more than 33 million people were displaced, were a stark wake-up call that reminded us of the urgency of climate action in the sub-continent. When I visited rural Sindh earlier this year to inspect the ongoing housing reconstruction efforts funded by the World Bank, Sugri, a widow in village Alan Burdi, whose housing and livelihood had been destroyed by the floods, came up to our team and just held their hand. It was a touching moment that reminded us of the human side of the grim data we see daily.

The scale of the climate challenge facing South Asia is immense. Average temperatures have risen by 1 °C since pre-industrial times, leading to more scorching heatwaves across India and Pakistan.  The region could warm by an additional 3°C-4°C by 2100, even with global emission cuts. Intense cyclones like 2019's Fani, which struck eastern India and Bangladesh, are rising. Himalayan glaciers are rapidly retreating, jeopardizing water supplies. By 2050, changing monsoon patterns could cause a 10-15% decline in crop yields. 

These changes pose a significant risk to the lives and livelihoods of its 1.9 billion inhabitants and the region's delicate ecosystems.

The World Bank South Asia Climate Roadmap 2021-25 estimates that the changing climate could sharply diminish living conditions for up to 800 million people in a region with some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations. Millions will face hunger and displacement as farmers lose crops and rising seas swallow coastal communities. Among the most vulnerable are the very old, the very young, and the very poor. 

South Asia is at a pivotal moment, facing escalating climate threats such as intense heatwaves, devastating floods, and rising sea levels. These changes pose a significant risk to the lives and livelihoods of its 1.9 billion inhabitants and the region's delicate ecosystems.  With the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) on the horizon, South Asia must chart a course towards a resilient climate future.

The first priority is enhancing national climate plans under the Paris Agreement, especially using scarce public resources and development finance to leverage the trillions of private capital on the sidelines. The World Bank is partnering with countries to develop robust carbon markets across South Asia by helping to implement the infrastructure, market mechanisms, and regulations to ensure high-quality carbon credits.  This will enable countries to crowd in private capital to monetize carbon assets sustainably.

Second is scaling up adaptation and resilience. The accelerating melting of glaciers and the formation of glacial lakes in the Himalayas will result in more and more catastrophic events like the recent flash flooding in the Teesta River in Sikkim, India.  These events underline the need for a cautious and risk-based approach to development in fragile ecosystems. Early warning systems, climate-smart infrastructure, mangrove restoration, and crop insurance can save lives and property.  Disruptive technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), along with the widespread availability of remote sensing imagery and the affordability of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, can analyze vast amounts of data quickly, identifying patterns and predictions that humans might miss, like floods or droughts. Remote sensing imagery, such as satellite photos, helps us see and measure changes in landscapes, ice caps, and oceans over time. Low-cost IoT sensors can collect real-time data about glacier melts, temperature, moisture levels, or air quality. Together, these technologies enable us to create highly accurate maps and models that will help us to better prepare and implement effective measures to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

This is not just a call for policy change; it is a call for a united global effort to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of 1.9 billion people.


Third, sustainable cooling deserves greater emphasis. The sweltering heat waves across South Asia earlier this year offer a grim foretaste of the pain headed our way in a business-as-usual scenario. Rising affluence is driving surging air conditioning and refrigeration demand across South Asia's sweltering cities. This could triple electricity demand by 2050. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that India’s electricity demand for running household air conditioners will expand nine-fold by 2050 and exceed total power consumption in Africa today. Without energy efficiency, the impacts could be environmentally devastating. India was prescient in launching a Cooling Action Plan in 2019. Such approaches need replication and support through technology sharing.  COP28 should provide the spark.  We have estimated that sustainable cooling offers a $1.6 trillion potential market for India alone, investing in sustainable “green” refrigerants, super energy efficient ACs and fans, and thermal comfort in buildings. The UAE presidency of COP28 has announced enhanced ambition on cooling. South Asia will look at COP28 for concrete action to universal access to sustainable cooling, promoting enhanced resilience to heat stress and strengthened policy and institutional frameworks for cooling.

Fourth, in 2022, governments representing over half of global GDP set out a 12-month action plan, also known as the “Breakthrough Agenda” to help make clean technologies cheaper and more accessible everywhere. COP28 must deliver on this promise to make clean technologies cheaper and more accessible everywhere, reduce emissions, cut energy costs, and enhance food security. South Asia taps just a fraction of its vast renewable energy potential. India aims for 50% clean power by 2030. Pakistan wants 60% by 2030. Such ambitions are laudable but require international financing and cooperation on technology transfer.  COP28 is the venue to secure these resources.

As we approach COP28, the need for immediate and decisive action in South Asia has never been more urgent. The region's future hinges on our ability to implement a comprehensive 'Marshall Plan' for climate resilience. This is not just a call for policy change; it is a call for a united global effort to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of 1.9 billion people. Every one of us has a role to play in this critical mission. As policymakers, development professionals, and concerned citizens, the time to act is now. Let's come together to forge a sustainable and resilient future for South Asia.


Abhas Jha

Practice Manager, Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management, South Asia Region

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