Assam and the economic costs of climate change

19 Nov 2018

Assam, due to its geographic location and poor socio-economic conditions, offers a good example of the need to take into account the economic burden of climate change

Assam and the economic costs of climate change
The drastic climate change projections are particularly worrisome for Assam as almost 32% of its population lives below the poverty line. Photo credit: David Talukdar/Shutterstock.com

Climate change has emerged as the most pressing global challenge of the 21st century. There is today an increasing understanding that climate change transcends political boundaries and affects the whole global population, making them stakeholders to the solutions too. However, despite the ubiquity of climate change, its more immediate impacts are felt differently by different groups of people. Developing countries, with their low adaptive capacities and high dependence on climatic variables, are highly susceptible to climate-induced tragedies.

With growing discussion around the issue, there is also an increasing awareness about the importance of taking into account the economic costs and risks of climate change. This awareness was most recently highlighted by the 2018 Nobel Economic Prize which was awarded to two economists, Paul Romer and William Nordhaus, who have separately made significant contributions to the integration of technology, macroeconomic analysis, and climate change.

This understanding on the need to provide more than just peripheral attention to the economic implications of unusual changes in climate is slow to percolate in developing countries. This is despite the poor economic conditions and high dependence on geophysical elements in such regions.

The case of Assam

Assam, for instance, is extremely vulnerable to climate change due to both, its geographic proximity to the delta region and poor socio-economic conditions[1].This vulnerability is reflected in the exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity of the local population to climate induced extreme events such as floods[2].

The state is characterised by high rainfall and a subtropical climate. It gets annual floods and frequent droughts, both of whose severity has risen due to adverse climatic conditions. However, like most developing regions, climate change issues have received short shrift in the state, and efforts are more focused on recovery than creation of adaptive capacity. According to the State Action Plan for Climate Change[3], the annual mean temperature in the state has increased by 0.59 degrees Celsius over the last 60 years (1951 to 2010), and is likely to increase by 1.7-2.2 degree Celsius by 2050. Climate projections in the state action plan also predict that extreme rainfall events will increase by 38%.

The poor are more vulnerable to extreme climate events and the drastic climate change projections are particularly worrisome for Assam as almost 32% of its population lives below the poverty line. Further, a majority of this population is dependent for its income on agriculture, which in turn is highly dependent on climatic factors such as precipitation and weather, and is frequently disrupted due to damage from floods and droughts. The state's low adaptive capacity further exacerbates the situation and makes the populace dependent on agriculture highly. Frequent droughts have affected the produce of the bountiful state and have often led to economic consequences. Drought conditions lower the production of agricultural commodities, which in turn push their prices up. One can easily imagine the result of low incomes and high prices in the face of events such as droughts and floods.

Assam and the economic costs of climate change
The surface area of Majuli island, the largest riverine island in the world, has shrunk drastically over the years.

A fitting example of the disproportionate impact of climate change on the economically marginalised communities is that of Majuli, the largest riverine island in the Brahmaputra River. Majuli has a very high poverty rate at around 21.47% (according to Jorhat district administration). Climate change has resulted in continuous shifts in rainfall pattern as well as an increase in temperatures of the island. It has also lost visibly large tracts of land due to erosion over the last century. The already low income of island's population is further declining due to lower farm productivity caused by frequent floods, erosion, and siltation. The loss of livelihood due to climate induced events has resulted in forced migration to neighbouring urban centres such as Jorhat.[4]

This deeply troubling economic implication of climate extremes resulting in the loss of livelihood options is reflected in other parts of the state. A 2012 study by the Centre for Environment, Social and Policy Research (CESPR), in collaboration with the Indian Network on Ethics and Climate Change, noted the widespread loss of livelihood options for thousands of people across Assam due to climate disasters, particularly floods and erosion. Climate change is even endangering the abundant tea plantations that are synonymous with Assam, as several modeling results have pointed towards decreasing tea yields in the region[5].

Apart from the economic loss, the effect of climate distortion on the population's health and wellbeing is also overlooked, further weakening the region's human resource base. While previously unheard of, heat strokes are becoming commonplace in Assam as summer temperatures are touching 40 degrees Celsius. There is a dearth of data on climate change induced rise in diseases in the region, but it shouldn't be surprising if such a study does indeed establish a correlation between spread of diseases, particularly communicable diseases.

The way forward

The state government has recognised that climate change is a deterrent for the state's development aspirations, and recently[6] proposed to set up a climate change management society headed by the chief minister.

The State Action Plan on Climate Change addresses the issues of sustainability of agricultural systems, energy sufficiency and efficiency, and enhanced impacts on health, among other issues. However, a more robust, holistic and transformative plan requires inclusion of wider issues such as climate induced migration and conflict, which is particularly pertinent to the state and has wide socio-economic implications. The huge increase in temperatures is also resulting in impacts at an unprecedented rate. Economic forecasting along with mapping of climate change trends will aid in the planning and implementation of adaptation and mitigation measures throughout the state, helping it cope with the projected effects of climate change.


Footnotes:

[1]"Assam is home to 31 million people, a third of whom are poor. While poverty levels in Assam declined rapidly between 1994 and 2005, the state has since lagged behind most other states in reducing poverty. The incidence of poverty in Assam remains higher than the national average, with poverty levels being very high in some parts of the state. Growth, which is driven mainly by services, is among the lowest in the country. Consumption inequality, while low relative to other Indian states, has been increasing, especially in urban areas."Assam Poverty, Growth & Inequality. Brief. World Bank Group, June 20, 2017.
[2]Chaliha, Swati, AsmitaSengupta, Nitasha Sharma, and N.h. Ravindranath. "Climate Variability and Farmers Vulnerability in a Flood-prone District of Assam." International Journal of Climate Change Strategies and Management4, no. 2 (2012): 179-200. doi:10.1108/17568691211223150.
[3]Assam State Action Plan on Climate Change (2015 - 2020). Report. Assam: Department of Environment and Forest, Government of Assam, India, September 2015. 1-127.
[4]Das, Debojyoti. "Changing Climate and Its Impacts on Assam, Northeast India." Bandung: Journal of the Global South2, no. 1 (2015). doi:10.1186/s40728-015-0028-4.
[5]Duncan, J.M.A., S.D. Saikia, N. Gupta, and E.M. Biggs."Observing Climate Impacts on Tea Yield in Assam, India." Applied Geography 77 (2016): 64-71. doi:10.1016/j.apgeog.2016.10.004.
[6]August, 2018: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/guwahati/assam-plans-panel-on-climate-change-to-be-headed-by-cm/articleshow/65548569.cms