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Assessing Vulnerability to Climate Change in India

The impact of climate change on the lives and livelihoods of people in India is now widely recognised. Yet, there is neither a consensus on the definition of vulnerability to climate change nor a full, regionally-nuanced mapping of the variable impact of such a change. It is only when a better understanding of what constitutes vulnerability to climate change and what its region-specific impact would be is available that proper adaptation strategies can be worked out.


Assessing Vulnerability to Climate Change in India

Architesh Panda

vary within the geography encompassed by India. Some s ectors and regions in India are considered highly susceptible to current climate variability and the projected impacts of c limate change.

To minimise the potential harm associated with global changes, people and places

The impact of climate change on the lives and livelihoods of people in India is now widely recognised. Yet, there is neither a consensus on the definition of vulnerability to climate change nor a full, regionally-nuanced mapping of the variable impact of such a change. It is only when a better understanding of what constitutes vulnerability to climate change and what its region-specific impact would be is available that proper adaptation strategies can be worked out.

My sincere thanks to S S Arvind for his v aluable comments and suggestions.

Architesh Panda ( is pursuing his doctoral studies at the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore.

Economic & Political Weekly

april 18, 2009

he Intergovernmental Panel on C limate Change (IPCC) in its fourth assessment report observed that the earth’s climate system, when compared with the pre-industrial era, has d emonstrably changed at both global and regional scale. Further the report notes that the global mean temperature may i ncrease anywhere between 1.4 and 5.8 degree celsius by 2100. This unprecedented increase is expected to have severe impacts on various aspects of the climate system including changes in the global h ydrological system, sea level increase and changes in crop production.

A country’s vulnerability to climate change is decided by the presence of a ppropriate mitigation and adaptation o ptions. It is now widely recognised that developing countries are particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate variability and change specially when compared to developed countries. This is because in developing countries ecological environments are fragile, the susceptibility of economic systems to risks is high and the low income levels of most citizens constrain their ability to cope. The initial circumstances of each country in terms of its c limatic conditions, socio-economic setting and growth prospects will also partly determine the scale of the social, economic and environmental impacts of climate change (Stern 2007).

Climate change is likely to impact all the natural ecosystems as well as socioeconomic systems in India as shown by the National Communication Report of I ndia to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). Different sectors like water resources, forests, agriculture, and coastal zones are projected to have several potential impacts. It will bring changes in hydrological cycles, rainfall as well as the magnitude and timing of its run-off. However, the distribution of the incidences of climate change will also

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need an assessment of vulnerability of the human-environment systems in which they live, associated adaptation opportunities and constraints. However, the field of vulnerability assessment to climate change is fragmented. Much debate remains inconclusive around how to characterise vulnerability. This article attempts to assess the work on vulnerability to c limate change, with particular reference to India.

Vulnerability: Different Meanings

Within the field of climate change, the r eports of the IPCC have become the most authoritative source which act as a legitimising device for research. IPCC’s fourth assessment report defines vulnerability as the degree to which a system is susceptible to, and unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including c limate variability and extremes.

However, this concept of vulnerability has been criticised for not taking into account the richness and diversity of findings on the causes and consequences of vulnerability to climate change and c limate risks (Adger 2006). For example, IPCC argues that developing countries are most vulnerable to climate change b ecause of their lack of ”institutional capa city” to cope. At the same time there is evidence from regions like the Sahel suggesting that communities and countries have, within their local knowledges and experiences, a latent capacity to adapt to variability. Despite criticisms, the IPCC’s conceptualisation of vulnerability has been widely accepted and followed in climate change research.

Vulnerability is a multidimensional concept associated with different conceptualisations and there remains a high d egree of uncertainty in its measurement and classification. This concept has been used by various research communities in different ways based on the objectives to be achieved and the methodologies employed. These differences limit the possibility of having


a universally accepted definition of vulnerability. The ordinary use of the word vulnerability refers to the capacity to be wounded, i e, the degree to which a system is likely to experience harm due to exposure to a hazard. Historically, the concept was introduced as a response to a purely hazard-oriented perception of disaster risk in the 1970s. These risk-hazard approaches to understanding vulnerability have evolved from the extensive natural hazards literature in geography. This approach incorporates mainly physical elements of exposure of a unit and the probability and impacts of hazards.

However, the main criticism against this approach has been the failure to engage with the political and structural causes of vulnerability within society. This latter is the building block of vulnerability analysis in the political-economic tradition well represented in the works of Adger, including his work on the vulnerability of coastal Vietnam to climate change (Adger 1999). The political-economy perspectives on vulnerability emphasise the socio-political, cultural and economic factors that together explain the differential exposure to hazards, differential impacts and differential capacities to cope with hazards.

Another important conceptualisation of vulnerability can be found in the wellknown pressure and release model (Blaikie et al 1994) where physical hazards represent one pressure and characteristic of vulnerability, but there are other pressures like local geography and social differentiation which together “create” the disaster. This approach successfully captures the essence of both the physical hazards as well as the political-economy perspectives on vulnerability. However, this model fails to explain the mechanisms and processes of vulnerability.

Building from its origin in disasters and hazards, there is an emerging synthesis of systems-oriented research attempting to understand vulnerability in a holistic manner situated within natural and social systems. An important advance in this is by Turner et al (2003) in their coupled v ulnerability framework. This definition, more an analytical framework, seeks to analyse the elements of vulnerability (exposure, sensitivity and resilience) of a bounded system at a particular spatial scale. Despite these advances in understanding and defining the concept of v ulnerability, there is yet no universally a cceptable definition. One of the better known definitions was formulated by the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UN/ISDR 2004), which defined vulnerability as “the conditions determined by physical, social, economic and environmental factors or processes, which increase the susceptibility of a community to the impacts of hazard”.

In a recent paper Ionescu et al (2005) has d eveloped a formal framework of defining and studying vulnerability to climate change. He has argued that for meaningful statements about the notion of vulnerability the analyst must clearly specify three primitives (i) the entity that is vulnerable, (ii) the stimulus to which it is vulnerable, and (iii) the preference criteria to evaluate the outcome of concern for the entity.

Looking at the diversity of studies on vulnerability to climate change and the contending definitions, a challenging task lies ahead to develop a common conceptual framework to assess vulnerability to climate change.

Vulnerabilities in India

Among the most significant potential impacts of climate change on India are changes in the monsoon pattern. Several studies have shown that in general, the mean monsoon intensity and variability is expected to increase (Ashrit et al 2001; Chung et al 2006; Kumar et al 2006). However, each study arrives at this conclusion through different modellings and is not necessarily specific about how much the monsoon will increase. A 20% rise in all-India summer monsoon rainfall and further rise in total rainfall is projected over all the states, except Punjab, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu which shows a slight decrease (Kumar et al 2006). Thus, c limate change is likely to increase the variability and uncertainty in monsoon patterns.

Agriculture and allied activities provide employment to two-thirds of India’s total workforce and contribute nearly 20% of the country’s gross domestic product. However, Indian agriculture continues to be fundamentally dependent on weather which makes it sensitive to climate-i nduced effects. Any changes in the climatic factors like temperature, precipitation, carbon d ioxide

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concentration, changes in the soil moisture will affect Indian agriculture. The productivity of different crops will be affected. Rice and wheat yields could dec line considerably due to climatic changes (IPCC 1996; 2001). Kumar and Parikh (1998) show that economic i mpacts would be significant even after accounting for farm-level adaptation. The loss in net r evenue at the farm level is estimated to range between 9% and 25% for a temperature rise of 2°C to 3.5°C.

Sanghi, Mendelssohn and Dinar (1998) attempt to also incorporate adaptation

o ptions while estimating agricultural i mpacts. They calculate that a 2°C rise in mean temperature and a 7% increase in mean precipitation would reduce net revenues by 12.3% for the country as a whole. Agriculture in the coastal regions of G ujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka is found to be the most negatively affected. Small losses are also indicated for the m ajor foodgrain producing regions of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. This means agricultural production will be affected and food security can be adversely impacted, particularly among small farmers and rural populations. On the other hand, West Bengal, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh are predicted to benefit – to a small extent – from warming.

Besides agriculture, the available evidences on climate change shows that it will also affect the occurrences of climate extremes like cyclones, droughts and floods in India. There has been no change in either the increase of strength or frequency of cyclones since 1980s (Kumar et al 2003). Various global circulation m odels (GCMs) have given contradictory predictions about the impacts of climate change on cyclones and it is not certain what can be expected. Yet it is possible that warmer sea surface temperatures may increase the frequency and/or intensity of cyclones in the Indian Ocean region.

Significant portions of India’s landmass near the coastline is at sea-level or only a few metres higher. These areas also have some of the highest population densities. The IPCC (2007) has projected a mean sea-level rise of 0.18 to 0.59m by 2090, relative to the 1980-1999 level. If these predictions are proved correct, it can impact I ndia’s coastal population through increased flooding of low-lying areas and loss of crop yields from inundation and s alinisation of fresh water

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sources. Under a range of climate change scenarios, the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events are expected to increase. This will put many more millions of p eople at risk due to flooding associated with e xtreme precipitation impacting both their lives and livelihoods. Klein et al (2006) have noted an increase in the number of extreme precipitation events throughout southern India and its northwest coast for the period of 1960-2001. Seasonal monsoon rainfall has increased up to 10% along the west coast, north A ndhra Pradesh and north-west India (Kumar et al 1992). On the other hand, a decrease in monsoon rainfall of around 8% and an increase in drought events have been observed for east-Madhya Pradesh and the adjoining areas, north-east India, parts of Gujarat and Kerala (Klein et al 2006; Kumar et al 1992). Gosain et al (2006) project water shortages throughout Kutch, Saurastra, Mahi, Pennar, Sabarmati and Tapi river basins.

Climate change will also put millions more at the risk of vector borne diseases. Projections show that the incidence of m alaria will increase. Bhattacharya et al (2006) have projected that the duration of the malaria transmission window is likely to widen in northern and western states and shorten in the southern states of India under climate change conditions in the 2050s. Given weak public heath infrastructure, this implies increased healthcare spending and decreased standard of living, specially for the poor.

Vulnerability Studies in India

Studies on vulnerability to climate change in India are still limited. India’s initial n ational communication to the UNFCC has already highlighted the fact that agricultural yields, fresh water availability, natural e cosystems and coastal areas are vulner able to the impacts of climate change. The study by O’ Brien et al (2004) developed vulnerability profiles to climate change and globalisation by assessing each r egion’s adaptive capacity, sensitivity and exposure to stressors. The authors found that the Indo-Gangetic plain, except Bihar, has the highest degree of adaptive capacity. The states of Bihar, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Maharatra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have the lowest

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adaptive capa city. The areas of greatest climate sensitivity are Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh using current climatological data. Under the HadRM2 model, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharastra are seen to be even more sensitive to c limate change situations. In another study Bren kert and Malone (2005) show that in contrast to inland states, all coastal states in India are highly vulnerable, especially Goa. For the latter, it is reported that over 7% of the population would be a ffected by one metre sea level rise.

Even though, these studies have laid the ground for understanding vulnerability to climate change in India, they have perhaps paid less attention to the ground r ealities of the vulnerable people. Looking at this may help develop adaptive capacities of the people to deal with the risks of climate change in India.

The Road Ahead

Despite considerable advances in the methodologies for assessing vulnerability to climate change, ambiguities and uncertainties still remain. Vulnerability research is facing challenges in three areas. First, climate change is not the only stress that society faces, multiple stressors operate in all the human-environment systems. It is, therefore, a challenging task for researchers to identify and evaluate those stressors most relevant for assessing climate change vulnerability. Second, vulnerability a ssessment requires characterisation of the future in terms of socio-economic and bio-physical variables. However, uncertainties about the future make vulnerability a ssessment that much more difficult and challenging. Third, the apparent lack of consistency in the use and meaning of the variety of concepts employed in vulnerability research contributes to increasing confusion in this area.

Research in India on vulnerability to climate change is still underdeveloped. Further research is urgently required in several areas. This research has to base i tself on an understanding of the regional and micro level aspects of climate change to properly address the vulnerability of people with more accuracy.


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