South Asia faces a slew of problems that will be further compounded in the foreseeable future, with environmental degradation, over-exploitation of natural resources, deterioration in air and water quality, diminishing forest covers, and exploding population. The most prominent of all the problems, however, would be heating of the region to a temperature that humans cannot withstand.
Erratic seasonal change, sweltering heat, incessant rains, frequent natural calamities are all indicators of global warming, a pressing issue that threatens the very existence of humans in the subcontinent and is hanging like a sword of Damocles over the fate of more than a quarter of the world’s population.
As per findings of a study conducted by MIT, vast swathes of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh would become too hot for human habitation by the year 2100. The study has been published in the journal Science Advances, and makes use of the latest computer simulations and best available global models.
Along with these regions, another part where heat will become extremely intolerable is the Persian Gulf. Being an important artery for transportation of crude oil, the days in the region will become more intense, thus becoming all the more difficult to travel.
However, the detrimental impact of heat will be more acute in South Asia. This is because countries in the Persian Gulf are sparsely populated and have good infrastructure facilities, whereas India alone houses more poor than Sub Saharan Africa.
These countries are heavily dependent on agriculture outputs and still use traditional ways of cultivation in many areas, especially in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Exponential upsurge in heat will impact their economy enormously. Eastern China will also be vulnerable to drastic overheating.
A new and more effective heat index
The study is based on a new research that says combination of high heat and high humidity is most unbearable for humans. It is measured on a reading known as wet-bulb temperature. Wet-bulb temperature is the ability of moisture to evaporate.
The human body has an internal cooling mechanism that requires sweat to evaporate. If the wet-bulb temperature is 35 degree Celsius ( 95 degree Fahrenheit), human body cannot cool itself and will perish in a few hours.
Another study has suggested that till yet, wet-bulb temperature hasn’t exceeded 31 degree Celsius anywhere.
The MIT report by Dr Eltahir, Breene M. Kerr Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT, and his colleagues have shown that this survival threshold has been breached at times in the past, particularly in 2015, when 3,500 people died of heat waves in India and Pakistan.
Increase in emission of greenhouse gases and carbon in India and China, which is fuelled by the uneven industrial growth and lack of environmental standards and quality control norms, poses a herculean risk that cannot be condoned.
Warning bells ring for India
Currently, about 2% of India’s population gets exposed to over 32 degree wet-bulb temperature. But, by 2100, this number is expected to increase manifold times and reach 70%. And as most of these areas fall in the predominantly agrarian belt, so, with the spike in heat levels, agricultural production would be hampered and this may lead to droughts.
Due to heat, people would suffer not only because of heat, but due to other reasons that will be caused by heat. Agrarian distress already claims a lot of lives in India and scanty rainfall is a major reason for farmer suicides.
It is frightening to even think what will happen in the worst-case-scenario, if global warming is not checked and adequate measures are not taken.
Is there a glimmer of hope or is everything lost?
Even though the study is dismaying and alarming, Dr Eltahir believes that there is still hope. There are ways to check the pervasive reach of global warming and avert it, but this would require a comprehensive environmental policy, strict regulations, ensuring that environmental safeguards are strengthened and laws are not routinely flouted. All of this needs to be backed with an action plan for reducing the dependence on fossil fuels and promoting renewable energy resources.