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Climate Change and Urbanization in India

The Coupling of Climate Change and Urbanization in India with a Focus on the Impact of Glacial Retreat, Part II

Health now and in the future

The main climate-related risks in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region include the expansion of vector-borne diseases as pathogens are able to reside in new habitats in altitudes that were formerly unsuitable. Indian cities have already become reservoirs of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever because of overcrowding and high rates of transmission (Revi, 2010).  Cooking, sleeping, and living with 13.4 people per 45 m2 room area, as in the slums of Kolkata, India, places residents at high risk exposure of respiratory infections, meningitis, and asthma (Kundu, 2003). Water-borne disease accounts for 80% of all disease. Water-related infections can be transmitted in the following ways: through ingestion from drinking supplies, through lack of water for hygiene and via aquatic pathogens and insect vectors that are hydrophilic. Slum conditions promote the spread of disease through all of these means.

Studies have shown that the quantity and timing of runoff from snowmelt and glaciers directly and indirectly influence the frequency and prevalence of water-borne diseases. Climate projections predict a heightened gradient in precipitation between wet and dry seasons, with wetter wet seasons and accompanying increases in flash floods and drier dry seasons with sharp declines in water quantity. During the wet season, flooding is expected to flush feces and pollutants into water sources; during the dry season, there is expected to be increased incidences of starvation and malnutrition as well as hygiene-related diseases. Infrequent bathing is associated with scabies and bacterial skin infections, some of which can lead to acute glomerulonephritis (Heukelback et al., 2005). The entire Indian subcontinent will have to combat adverse health impacts of climate change and water shortage, particularly due to the lack of freshwater reservoirs of glaciers. However, the current intra-urban health disparities indicate that slum dwellers will suffer the most.

Water in Urban India

As of right now, India has a number of freshwater reservoirs, but the increasing population and overexploitation of surface and groundwater over the past few decades has resulted in water scarcity in many areas (Grail, 2009). India has the highest water footprint among the top rice and wheat producing countries. In addition, only 26.8% of domestic and 60% of industrial wastewater is treated in India (Grail, 2009). Once the land of the holy rivers, India is now known for the level of toxicity and pollution of its rivers. Local and national governments fail to effectively manage the water quantity and quality crisis in India.

Groundwater plays a pivotal role in shaping the economic and social health of many urban areas. In their study on the “Groundwater Situation of Urban India,” Patel et al. identified two major factors that determine whether a city can meet its water demand (Patel et al, 2007). The first is physical or geographic water availability, which is the availability of sufficient and good quality groundwater due to natural recharge or from canals and potable aquifers that store and supply water. Good quality here means free from salt-water intrusion. The second determinant is the ability of the urban area to survive on external sources. Patel et al. calls this factor economic scarcity rather than physical scarcity because in the event of water shortage, wells running dry for example, cities must obtain supplies, often at significantly high costs (Patel et al., 2007). In 2005, 65% of households across seven major Indian cities faced severe water deficiency and many cities were forced to reach out to distant water sources. Delhi and Chennai currently receive water from rivers that are 250 Km and 450 Km away, respectively (Grail, 2009). Smaller urban areas, where residents are mainly slum-dwellers, tend to have lesser say on water stored at distant reservoirs and lesser economic strength to pay for external water sources. If and when water resources decline further and surface water from glacial inflow is completely unavailable, international, national and local governments will have to rise to the challenge to save millions of urban residents.

Source – http://www.onearth.org/node/2194

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