The Adaptation Myth

Justin Guay, Sierra Club - India Program Officer

Driving through the remnants of the Sambhar Salt Lake in central Rajasthan provides a glimpse into what a changed climate holds for our future. The surface of the sea has not only dried up entirely, the salty ground water that accompanies it has spread to neighboring fields. This is due in part to the damning of streams that feed the lake, the unsustainable use of ground water for salt production, and also largely because of the progressive failure over the past decade of the annual monsoon. These factors have conspired to drastically cut fresh water supplies, allowing the salty ground water to expand. The cumulative result is that locals now “grow” salt in fields where they once grew wheat.

dry lake The struggle of the surrounding community to deal with a lack of fresh water supplies for food production and daily drinking needs has created an enormous strain on community ties and family structures. A lack of water for basic necessities has driven the more well-off villagers to nearby cities and towns where water scarcity is not as much of a drastic issue. A factor in migration that many fail to realize is that the relatively rich migrate, not the poor.

While the specter of millions of climate change refugees haunts international negotiations, the aforementioned case shows that the gradual process of climate-induced migration is already occurring. Although many cite catastrophic figures of hundreds of millions of climate change refugees, Oli Brown of the International Institute for Sustainable Development speculates that climate stabilization at the lower bounds of IPCC scenarios (2 degrees) would result in a 5-10% increase along existing migration routes - an optimistic, yet achievable goal.

In order to stem the migratory tide, Manthan has attracted government funds to create a 1,000 KW solar array that powers a reverse osmosis water purifying plant. The plant provides water to fulfill the basic daily needs of over 100,000 villagers near Sambhar Salt Lake. However, it remains a drop in the proverbial bucket as villagers still lack water to irrigate their fields due to the inexorable encroachment of brackish salt water.

As communities on the front lines of climate change struggle with overwhelming odds, we in the West struggle to reduce our emissions and control the growing problem. It could be argued this failure stems largely because we are insulated from many of these initial effects. However, the West is more vulnerable than many think. In fact, the United States has already witnessed its own cases of climate change migration, epitomized by the relocation of Shishmaref Alaska.

This vulnerability has only been reinforced by our failure to safeguard many of our most vulnerable citizens during disasters like Hurricane Katrina. While we stumble along in our attempts to pass climate change legislation in the US, we may be able to protect ourselves from the initial challenges climate change poses. But Shismaref and Katrina are telling reminders that our own ability to adapt is likely no more than a myth.

This post appears courtesy of the Sierra Club India.

More cool stuff on Celsias:

The Rising Tide of Environmental Refugees


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  • Posted on May 4, 2010. Listed in:

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