More Diseases, Mental Stress: The Cost of India’s Land Degradation

‘PM Modi announces that India will restore 26 million hectares of degraded land by 2030’. That’s one of the top headlines in international diplomacy this week, coming straight from the 14th Conference of Parties (CoP) of the United Nation’s Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in Greater Noida.

But even as the numbers dominate the discourse, the conversation has seldom centered on how land degradation has intensified climate change, and severely impacted people. Real, flesh and blood people.

In Jharsuguda, the mining centre of Odisha, extreme heat is everywhere. Inside the iron ores; near them; even in the air hovering as metal dust.

But while iron and its ores radiate high temperatures, the people in the area submissively accept it. What other choice do they have?

Living inside polythene lined houses in Odisha’s capital city Bhubaneshwar, a family that took baths multiple times a day to cool themselves, can’t do so any more. Water scarcity has made it impossible for them to depend on baths to battle the intense heat wave. The family now only uses a small fan. Meanwhile, the temperature swelters to 44 degree Celsius.

Also Read: Dodge the Sun. Beat the Heat Wave

Odisha Swelters

0.9 degree Celsius. Yes, that’s how much warmer Odisha has become in the decade between 2001-2010, as per a study by IIT Bhubaneshwar.

While urban centres like Bhubaneshwar have seen a rise in temperature by ~ 50 % percent in the same decade.

Meanwhile Jharsuguda has consistently had a temperature above 42 degree Celsius over the past few years.

Basudev Mahapatra, a senior environmental journalist based out of Odisha says that in summers, Bhubaneshwar becomes an “urban heat island.” The result? “There are a lot of health challenges - skin ailments, heat strokes, suffocation.”

"Jharsuguda, the coal mining district, is the worst affected in terms of heat. Mining means clearing forests. No forests and a wild ore make the temperature rise. Because there is no naturally cooling way. Even the metal dust hanging in the air bears heat." - Basudev Mahapatra, Senior Environment Journalist

“In Bhubaneshwar- where even the earth’s surface is getting concretised - the people suffer from heat stress,” he says.

Jaya Dhindaw, Director- Urban Development for Sustainable Cities at WRI India, says the heat island effect also has an impact on the mental health of a city.

Also Read: Climate Change Increasing Air Pollution Across Globe: Study

"When travel becomes a nightmare, when even ten minutes in an auto seem too much, and when the traffic becomes choc-a-bloc - in such a situation, the mental health of people also begins to suffer." - Jaya Dhindaw, Director- Urban Development for Sustainable Cities at WRI India

And it’s not just Bhubaneshwar. For instance, Jaya says the temperature difference in Bengaluru city itself between areas where there is green cover and where there is no green cover, is 10 degrees.

In all three areas, of Bengaluru, Jharsuguda and Bhubaneshwar, there is one common link- rapid progress at the cost of land degradation.

Recently, the IPCC released a report that showed the interlinkages between land degradation and climate change, and how the former, if left unchecked, can lead to a rise in temperature.

" Urban heat islands often amplify the impact of heatwaves in cities. Risks from some vector-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever, are projected to increase with warming from 1.5°C to 2°C, including potential shifts in their geographic range" - IPCC report

The ongoing UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) aims to specifically tackle the problem of land use and land cover changes and its impact on climate change. Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of UNCCD says that land degradation is a serious problem for the world as it impacts climate change, food supply and health.

Speaking on the sidelines of the UNCCD summit, Marioldy Sanchez, Civil Society Organization member in the Science-Policy Interface, says land degradation is a global issue.

"One of the main limitations we have faced for a long time is that when talking about land degradation, it seems we are only talking about soil. But land degradation is a more complex situation because we are also talking of all the resources in the land, including water, trees, etc." - Marioldy Sanchez, Civil Society Organization member in the Science-Policy Interface

Many studies have shown that unplanned, unsystematic and rapid urbanisation is a key cause of land degradation.

But the underlying words here are 'unplanned, unsystematic and rapid’ urbanisation. We can’t mistake urbanisation to be the evil perpetrator here.

"We cannot undermine the fact that urbanisation is the most important transition for the 21st century. It’s important in achieving goals of full employment, poverty reduction, etc. Urbanisation is crucial if we want to be a $5 trillion economy." - Amir Bashir Bazaz, Lead-Practice, IIHS

Even Jaya Dhindaw makes sure to mention that it’s not urbanisation that’s a problem per se, it’s haphazard, unplanned urbanisation.

“Cities are now growing outside municipally designated areas,” says Jaya. Which means there’s no accountability for how land is used, nor are there mechanisms to restore the land that’s been degraded.

About climate change and local development, Bazaz adds, “It’s very unfair to talk about the cause being ‘local development’ or urbanisation. Because the radiation that falls per sq m of the earth’s surface is governed by factors which are on a larger spatial scale.”

“Climate change has a temporal dimension, as well as a spatial dimension,” Bazaz says summing his point.

But it’s not just unplanned urbanisation, and mining prone areas, that are literally in the line of fire of climate change.

“People in dry lands too are vulnerable in terms of health”, says Marioldy Sanchez.

So what’s the solution here? How can the degradation of land stop affecting the livelihoods and health of millions of people?

"The first thing that’s important to do and to ensure is that countries have proper land use planning and processes that are really inclusive and participatory and taking into account the people whose decisions are based on these lands. " - Marioldy Sanchez, Civil Society Organization member in the Science-Policy Interface

Marioldy Sanchez also says that countries must anticipate potential losses of land and think strategically where they are planning to recover the area that’s going to be lost.

Meanwhile, it’s become more important than ever for the beast (or beauty) or urbanisation to be tackled effectively, to gently balance their aspirations, as well as their health owing to land degradation as a result of the urbanisation.

“A lot of urbanisation is happening in a rapid phase... All I am saying is that we should be mindful of managing this urbanisation,” perhaps Mr. Bazaz’s quote aptly sums the situation up.

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