The top three environmental concerns for India now, according to Sunita Narain, environmentalist & CSE director

Sunita Narain is director general of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and editor of the fortnightly magazine, Down To Earth. A writer and environmentalist, Narain was awarded the Padma Shri in 2005. She also won the World Water Prize for her work on rainwater harvesting. Narain has chaired the Tiger Task Force in 2005 for preparing a conservation action plan after the loss of tigers in Sariska. She has been member of the Prime Minister’s Council for Climate Change as well as the National Ganga River Basin Authority.

In 1985, she co-edited the State of India’s Environment report along with eminent environmentalist Anil Agarwal. Narain has continued to research and write about how environment must become the basis of livelihood security of people in the country. She has been on Time’s list of 100 Most Influential People in 2016 and was interviewed by Leonardo DiCaprio for the documentary film on climate change, Before the Flood.

In an interview with Swati Sengupta at the Anil Agarwal Environment Training Institute in Rajasthan’s Alwar recently, Sunita Narain spoke on the top three concerns for the environment in the country today.

One: Air pollution

We are talking about a pollution emergency in the country and an emergency it is. Tough action is needed and it must be action that is fast and transformative. The key sources of air pollution are vehicles, factories, garbage burning, diesel generators, dust, thermal power plants and of course in some areas there is burning of crop residue.

Clean fuel transformation is required and our researchers are working extensively on this. Anumita Roychowdhury, Executive Director Research and Advocacy has been collaborating with government and non government agencies to work out solutions for reducing air pollution. And she raises concerns that India is not generating enough well distributed air quality data.

In Delhi, we choke in winter and a lot needs to be done urgently and on a large scale. [Kolkata hit the headlines in 2018 for Air Quality Index (AQI) of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), being worse even than Delhi]

We need to move from diesel generators in industries or in commercial areas of homes to electricity. We also need to make power generation clean. We are also talking about a second gas transition in the Delhi-NCR region. First it was CNG, and now there is a need to do away with combustion in industries, power plants and even in homes. Also, as you will see from findings, measures in a particular city is not enough, a larger region in involved, where the large-scale measures must be taken in order to be effective.

Solutions are available and a lot needs to be done to achieve this and it involves large-scale steps and actions that must involve people.

Two: Climate change & its impact on the lives of the poor

We are beginning to see the devastating effects of climate change already. Our natural resources – land and water – are at huge risk, and how we have managed it is beginning to impact weather events, extreme climate and this in turn is putting more people at risk and vulnerability. What is important here is the impact it is having on the lives of the poor. There are heat waves, extreme rain and storms in the country already.

The last monsoons has been devastating in many regions – with over 1,000 per cent excess rain in some areas, and this has led to loss of homes and livelihood. Houses are washed away, people are displaced. Extreme weather event, whether it is flood or drought, forces people to migrate, in search of work.

This has been followed by dry spells, and heavy rain has not been captured, or recharged and there are droughts. Temperatures are increasing and there are intense heat events and harsh dust storms. The disasters are impacting the lives of the poor most and they are growing poorer, and migration is increasing.

There are other impacts too. We know that the Australian bush fires are linked to climate change. In India, there has been the locust attack. In December 2019, locust attack on crops in Rajasthan and Gujarat destroyed acres of crops and it affected the livelihood of thousands of farmers. And the locust attacks are linked to unseasonal rainfall over a large area that includes not just western India but also Iran, Arabian Peninsula and its surroundings. Unseasonal rain along with increasing frequency of cyclones are linked to climate change, and this is why we need to act.

Three: Water and water pollution

Water is one of the most important assets of the country and both water management and preventing water contamination are very crucial. It is going to get more and more stressed in the coming days. There is a drinking water crisis, and we have been talking of rainwater harvesting for years and how to stop wastage. People have become more aware of it over the years, but more needs to be done. They need to know how this can help all of us – and this relates to urban water supply, pollution, sewage and contamination. The quality of water is degrading and the water is getting polluted. There is water shortage, pipelines that are expensive to replace, there is the issue of real estate versus water and aquifers that are becoming more and more vulnerable, plus shortage of water during harvest. Engineers, planners and governments in charge of making policies can harness and push the technologies and policies for availability and rationalising use. Water management needs to be re-worked. With climate change, there are extreme weather events and floods ruin the drainage system, ponds and tanks. This flood water must be stored and used during droughts. Therefore, a re-worked plan with government intervention is necessary in which apart from storing flood water, agriculture must be made to use water judiciously, and cities must recycle and reuse sewage.

[Cover photograph of Sunita Narain: courtesy CSE]

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