Witnessing the impact of climate change in rural India

Last year marked a significant year in the fight against climate change. In November and early December, world leaders and international delegates gathered in Paris for the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference. The aim of the conference was to work towards a universal global agreement to combat climate change, outlining measures to reduce carbon emissions and ameliorate the effects of global warming. There can be little doubt that the resulting Paris Agreement is a step in the right direction. However, some scientists and activists have argued that the Agreement is too little, too late, and have raised questions about the efficacy and enforceability of its proposals.

Despite the scientific consensus on the link between human activity and climate change, the issue is still widely misunderstood. The reality of climate change rarely makes news, and it is under-reported (and sometimes denied) by the mainstream media. For most of us in the developed world, climate change remains a largely unseen phenomenon. We are, however, increasingly beginning to glimpse the devastating effects of global warming closer to home, such as the recent flooding in the UK. It will be interesting to see how such disasters influence the tone of the debate on climate change in the Western world.

For many people living in the developing world, events such as these are becoming more common. To make matters worse, developing countries are generally less well-equipped to deal with the effects of climate change. Last summer, I witnessed some of these problems first-hand, while volunteering in India with Raleigh International, through ICS. ICS is a UK government-funded scheme which offers 18–25 year olds the opportunity to volunteer for an international development charity in one of the world’s poorest countries. During placements, UK volunteers work alongside local volunteers in deprived communities across the globe. Raleigh International is a sustainable development charity working to create lasting and meaningful change through youth. My placement focused on issues of water, sanitation and hygiene.

Bridget Coulter - India Blog Photo

During my time in India, I lived and worked in the village of Karattu Kovil. Karattu Kovil is situated in a hot, dry mountainous region in southern India, near the border between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Over the last decade, the people of Karattu Kovil have experienced their own climate crisis. Once the region had a rainy season, but nowadays it rarely rains. The village wells dried up around ten years ago and, nowadays, water has to be pumped to the village and stored in government water tanks. This system poses significant problems for the local people – the tanks are poorly-maintained, the water is often contaminated and the water supply is unreliable and intermittent.

The shortage of water has had a fundamental impact on the lives of those who live in Karattu Kovil, and has significantly changed the social dynamic of the village and the surrounding area. Once an agricultural community, water scarcity has led most families to abandon farming; most of the local men have left the village to work as manual labourers in other areas, leaving their wives and children behind.

For those who continue to farm, work is tough and poverty is part of life. In 2015 alone, over 600 farmers in Karnataka took their own lives, and – as a result – the state government is under growing pressure to acknowledge and address the hardships faced by farmers in water-scarce areas. In parts of India, water scarcity is becoming more of a problem and droughts are becoming more frequent. There is significant evidence to suggest that this change is likely to be driven, at least in part, by climate change.

Witnessing the effects of water scarcity in rural India opened my eyes to the human suffering caused by climate change. Here in the developed world, we take water for granted, and rarely consider what it means to live without access to clean water. It means farmers losing their livelihoods when water is scarce. It means keeping stagnant water around the house which attracts mosquitos, which then spread diseases like malaria, dengue and chikungunya. It means drinking dirty water from open water tanks and risking waterborne diseases like cholera and typhoid.

Until recently, the developed world has largely been held responsible for global warming – in fact, the USA and Europe are responsible for releasing around half the CO2 that has ever been emitted into the Earth’s atmosphere. Nevertheless, developing countries have consistently borne the brunt of the effects of climate change – climate scientists believe that global warming has contributed to flooding in Bangladesh, the expansion of the Sahara desert and hurricanes in the Caribbean. It is up to us, then, to take responsibility for this phenomenon, and to take action to prevent this problem from worsening. As scientists have been warning for decades: time is running out.

There are many steps we can take to reduce our carbon footprint. The most obvious is to reduce our energy use, for example, by using energy-efficient lightbulbs, ensuring our homes are well-insulated and recycling waste. We can also be more mindful of how we travel. Do you really need to take a car on that trip, or could you walk or cycle instead? Do you really need to fly to reach that holiday destination? Going vegetarian or eating less meat is another significant way to reduce your carbon footprint. The meat industry is responsible for emitting more greenhouse gases than global transportation, and yet demand for meat prevents this problem from being addressed. You could also support one or more of the many charities that work to improve access to clean water in developing countries, such as Raleigh International, WaterAid and Oxfam.

Alternatively, you can take direct action. When voting in government and council elections, consider the environmental policies of the relevant parties and candidates before casting your vote. You can also lobby the current government – send a letter to your local MP or get involved in one of the many environmental pressure groups.

The most important thing is that we don’t lose momentum, and that we don’t allow the promises made in Paris to lull the world into a sense of complacency about climate change. After all, climate change is probably the biggest threat that the human race has ever encountered, and it is important that we don’t forget this. As individuals, our power to make a difference is – of course – very limited; we cannot fight climate change alone, and we cannot do so simply by altering our behaviour and consumer choices. Instead, we must stand together to raise awareness, challenge misconceptions and put pressure on those with power, wealth and influence. Only then can we even hope to confront this growing crisis and work towards a better future.

Some relevant links:

To find out more about ICS: http://www.volunteerics.org/

To find out about volunteering with Raleigh International: https://raleighinternational.org/volunteer/

For detailed scientific information about climate change: http://www.ipcc.ch/

For an accessible introduction to the science of climate change: http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/climate-guide

For information about how you can support the work of Raleigh International: https://raleighinternational.org/support-us/

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