Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

The Kathmandu conclave pointedly noted that the developed world had spent enormously more on obscene corporate bailouts than in promoting sustainable development

From Kathmandu to Copenhagen

The common peril of climate change could foster a new beginning for the Greater Himalaya countries.

By B G Verghese

Deccan Herald, 6 September, 2009

The common peril of climate change may hopefully bind the countries of the Greater Himalaya more than the common opportunities that they have scorned for many decades. The Greater Himalayan family of the Himalaya-Karakoram-Hindu Kush (HKH) region, embraces SAARC and China, the guardian of the trans-Himalayan Tibetan “water tower” that includes the upper catchments of the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra.

To discuss the emerging challenges and opportunities, experts, parliamentarians, professionals, NGOs and officials from these lands gathered at Nepal’s invitation  last week along with the World Bank, ADB, DIFD and Danida, to discuss what might lie on the road “From Kathmandu to Copenhagen” and beyond. They shared concerns that warranted building a consensus and a common negotiating position when battle is joined at the December Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change that will set global standards beyond the current Kyoto Protocol, until 2020.

The HKH region is a global climate change hotspot and has an influence area that encompasses almost half of mankind. It will be impacted both early and severely because of its positioning in the global atmospheric circulation system and its large proportion of desperately poor who are most vulnerable. Therefore, while it is true that the developed world is historically responsible for global warming (though India and, especially, China) are becoming major carbon emitters), any them-first attitude will overwhelm this region. The maximum we can do must therefore be the minimum we should attempt. This will give us the moral high ground to insist that financial flows and technology transfers (even if IPR protected) must be assured on the accepted principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and capabilities that must be translated into operational practice. Climate change is a human right but, as Gandhi put it, rights (best) come from duties well performed.

The Kathmandu conclave pointedly noted that the developed world had spent enormously more on obscene corporate bailouts than in promoting sustainable development, and a mere pittance on adaptation to and mitigation of climate change. Poverty is neither a socially just nor an environmentally or climate friendly condition. Therefore rapid, sustainable growth is a strategic imperative and will itself assist demographic change. But this growth must be one with a low carbon footprint.

Climate change will particularly impact energy, water and food security. This presents both challenges and opportunities, as well illustrated by Nepal’s predicament. Nepal has a techno-economically feasible hydro potential of around 45,000 MW or more but has harnessed little and suffers 16-hour a day power cuts. Like in Bhutan, hydro development offers it a pathway to sustainable growth, poverty elimination, regional balance and market opportunity, lack of which have fuelled Maoism. Some believe that with increasing glacial melt, glacial lake and debris dam outbursts, aberrant rainfall and cloudbursts and greater erosion that come with climate change, high dams would be short lived and face safety hazards. Hence small is beautiful. But not prudently to convert its water into wealth would handicap Nepal, leaving it poor and unable to cope with the challenge ahead. Moreover, replacing 40,000 MW hydro power with a thermal- equivalent that annually burns million of tonnes of dirty coal in India would entail adding to avoidable carbon emissions, aggravating the Himalayan trauma.

Where does the balance lie, especially in view of the importance of storing and regulating monsoonal flows to augment lean season river discharge? A drier climate is also likely to increase forest fires and consequent “black carbon” fallout thus enhancing snow and glacial melt. An interesting suggestion heard was that, with some remedial engineering, natural glacial lakes caused by retreating ice, can be shored up as natural dams and used to regulate flows. Clearly there is much to be done to research adaptive and mitigative measures and to generate data to fill a yawning knowledge gap that inhibits action. The trans-boundary character of HKH rivers mandates regional cooperation and a revisiting of old mindsets that have been overtaken by climate change. Nepal’s Prime Minister, Mr Madhav Kumar Nepal, urged multilateralism to manage the rivers that constitute South Asia’s “Lifeline”.

The Kathmandu gathering agreed that while the HKH region must play its part in combating climate change, the onus was on the developed world to provide the necessary financial flows and clean and emerging technologies across private and corporate Intellectual Property Rights barriers to enable the South to leapfrog or “tunnel” through the inverted-U trajectory that the North is following to lower  carbon emissions to cap global warming within an additional 2 degrees Celsius by 2015, which marks the limit beyond which lies catastrophe.

Within the HKH region, India and Pakistan must move to optimize the remaining potential of the Indus basin beyond the limits of the Indus Treaty, which have been reached, through future cooperation and joint exploration, exploitation and management as envisaged under the Treaty, by developing Indus-II. In the Central Himalaya, India has set up a National Ganges Basin Authority which could usefully collaborate with a Chinese-proposed study with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu, of the Kailas Mountain Eco-system that waters the Indus, Sutlej and Brahmaputra. Melting Tibetan glaciers and permafrost are also altering climate patterns affecting South Asia while HKH glaciology, meteorology and “sedimentology”, themselves little understood, need scientific study. Further east, talk of massive diversion of the “Brahmaputra” by China northwards to the Gobi-Beijing plains is Utopian but there is good reason for a regional study with international participation and funding to explore the feasibility of tapping the estimated 54,000 MW potential of the river’s great U-Bend by tunnellng the 2500-3000 m drop from Tibet to Assam. Such an output could anchor an Eastern Himalayan- ASEAN-South China power grid and mitigate carbon loading through fossil fuel alternatives.

Finally, there was mention at Kathmandu, echoing Gandhi, of the need to adapt growth paths and lifestyles in both North and South to mitigate need and curb greed. There are limits to growth. The Bhutanese have wisely decided that at the end of the day, Gross National Happiness is worth more than an inflated Gross Domestic Product. Is anybody listening?

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