Climate watch

To better prepare for drought and flood, India needs an integrated system to map water, air, climate

An integrated observation system is essential to manage the food-energy-water nexus.

As the advent of the 2017 summer monsoon over mainland South Asia showed once again, Indian meteorologists have become highly accurate in their forecasts. Gone are those Jerome K Jerome days when you left your umbrella at home if the Meteorological Department predicted rain. Now the weather office can even anticipate a relatively unpredictable phenomenon such as a dust storm in the North Indian summer. It may not be as good for forecasts more than a week in advance, but it’s far better than before.

Farmers all over India – especially those who do not have irrigation facilities – are now using the agricultural meteorology or agrimet service of the India Meteorological Department and they can get crucial information such as rainfall forecast over the next week through text messages on their phones.

The shortcomings

There is a lot that can and should be done to extend the scope of these weather predictions to large-scale hydrological predictions, both short and long term, so that farmers and administrators can plan for the more frequent and more severe floods and droughts that are occurring in South Asia because of climate change.

Information about water flow in rivers is now available through a water resources information system, but that has severe limitations due to regulatory issues – there is no information available to the public about real time water flow in transboundary rivers, thanks to an outdated law. This means there is no real time water flow information available in the public domain from the three largest river basins in the country – those of the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra. This clearly affects preparations to face floods.

When it comes to drought preparedness, the situation is similar – the information available is better than before but not good enough. The Central Water Commission now puts out in the public domain the water storage status of the 91 largest reservoirs in India and updates this information every week. This list still leaves out far too many water bodies that are crucial in determining if a region will face drought.

All four gates opened at the Hemavathi reservoir in Karnataka, India. Photo credit: Darshan Simha]
All four gates opened at the Hemavathi reservoir in Karnataka, India. Photo credit: Darshan Simha]

The other crucial information needed to anticipate a drought is the status of groundwater, but the latest status available on the website of India’s Central Ground Water Board is dated March 31, 2011. India is a country where over half the irrigation is from groundwater. It is the world’s largest groundwater user.

There is another shortcoming – India does not have enough monitoring stations to map air pollution over the country. Most of the monitoring stations are scattered over a few large cities, though satellites show the most polluted zones to be in and around industrial townships and highways. Improving this observation system is crucial because air pollution – especially through aerosols – affects local and regional weather patterns.

The next frontier

Improving these hydrologic and air quality information systems is essential to manage the crucial food-water-energy nexus in a warming world. This will need integrated observations and predictions, which can be carried out through a Regional Earth System Prediction framework. Regional Earth System Prediction treats land, ocean, atmosphere, ecosystem, agriculture, and human interactions as components of one integrated system. This has to be used with an integrated observation system that provides the data needed to build, validate and verify local and regional weather and long-term climate system models.

Despite some shortcomings, all the pieces are in place to build a Regional Earth System Prediction and integrated observation system for India. The country now has of one of the best instrumental climate data records of a sufficiently long-time series, covering a large-enough area. Empirical forecasts of the monsoon and various hydrologic variables such as stream flows are now advancing to dynamic forecasts. The research work going on at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune now includes extending short term weather forecasts to long term climate predictions.

For information essential to manage the food-energy-water nexus, India needs two steps. The first is to improve its hydrologic and air quality information systems. The second is a national strategy to integrate the weather and climate information with the hydrologic and air quality information and manage this together. Then agricultural scientists can improve what they are doing right now to help farmers plan their crops.

To make such an integrated system useful, scientists also need to estimate the length of time to which forecasts from such an integrated system will be reliable.

There are other important parts of an integrated observation system, such as greenhouse gas emissions, soil moisture, soil health, nutrient and sediment loadings in water bodies etc. New scientific developments are happening all the time – a recent one is an improvement in our understanding of how efficiently plants use photosynthesis to turn sunlight into food. These improvements take place at all levels, from the gene to the landscape. Such developments need to be merged into the integrated observation system. Tracking food, energy and water consumption is also an essential part.

When all these are added up, integrating and managing this information may seem a daunting task, but it can be done. Building this capability is a necessary requirement to safeguard the nation’s future.

Raghu Murtugudde is an Earth System Scientist based at the University of Maryland.

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.

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Relying on the power of habits to solve India’s mammoth sanitation problem

Adopting three simple habits can help maximise the benefits of existing sanitation infrastructure.

India’s sanitation problem is well documented – the country was recently declared as having the highest number of people living without basic sanitation facilities. Sanitation encompasses all conditions relating to public health - especially sewage disposal and access to clean drinking water. Due to associated losses in productivity caused by sickness, increased healthcare costs and increased mortality, India recorded a loss of 5.2% of its GDP to poor sanitation in 2015. As tremendous as the economic losses are, the on-ground, human consequences of poor sanitation are grim - about one in 10 deaths, according to the World Bank.

Poor sanitation contributes to about 10% of the world’s disease burden and is linked to even those diseases that may not present any correlation at first. For example, while lack of nutrition is a direct cause of anaemia, poor sanitation can contribute to the problem by causing intestinal diseases which prevent people from absorbing nutrition from their food. In fact, a study found a correlation between improved sanitation and reduced prevalence of anaemia in 14 Indian states. Diarrhoeal diseases, the most well-known consequence of poor sanitation, are the third largest cause of child mortality in India. They are also linked to undernutrition and stunting in children - 38% of Indian children exhibit stunted growth. Improved sanitation can also help reduce prevalence of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Though not a cause of high mortality rate, NTDs impair physical and cognitive development, contribute to mother and child illness and death and affect overall productivity. NTDs caused by parasitic worms - such as hookworms, whipworms etc. - infect millions every year and spread through open defecation. Improving toilet access and access to clean drinking water can significantly boost disease control programmes for diarrhoea, NTDs and other correlated conditions.

Unfortunately, with about 732 million people who have no access to toilets, India currently accounts for more than half of the world population that defecates in the open. India also accounts for the largest rural population living without access to clean water. Only 16% of India’s rural population is currently served by piped water.

However, there is cause for optimism. In the three years of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the country’s sanitation coverage has risen from 39% to 65% and eight states and Union Territories have been declared open defecation free. But lasting change cannot be ensured by the proliferation of sanitation infrastructure alone. Ensuring the usage of toilets is as important as building them, more so due to the cultural preference for open defecation in rural India.

According to the World Bank, hygiene promotion is essential to realise the potential of infrastructure investments in sanitation. Behavioural intervention is most successful when it targets few behaviours with the most potential for impact. An area of public health where behavioural training has made an impact is WASH - water, sanitation and hygiene - a key issue of UN Sustainable Development Goal 6. Compliance to WASH practices has the potential to reduce illness and death, poverty and improve overall socio-economic development. The UN has even marked observance days for each - World Water Day for water (22 March), World Toilet Day for sanitation (19 November) and Global Handwashing Day for hygiene (15 October).

At its simplest, the benefits of WASH can be availed through three simple habits that safeguard against disease - washing hands before eating, drinking clean water and using a clean toilet. Handwashing and use of toilets are some of the most important behavioural interventions that keep diarrhoeal diseases from spreading, while clean drinking water is essential to prevent water-borne diseases and adverse health effects of toxic contaminants. In India, Hindustan Unilever Limited launched the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, a WASH behaviour change programme, to complement the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Through its on-ground behaviour change model, SASB seeks to promote the three basic WASH habits to create long-lasting personal hygiene compliance among the populations it serves.

This touching film made as a part of SASB’s awareness campaign shows how lack of knowledge of basic hygiene practices means children miss out on developmental milestones due to preventable diseases.

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SASB created the Swachhata curriculum, a textbook to encourage adoption of personal hygiene among school going children. It makes use of conceptual learning to teach primary school students about cleanliness, germs and clean habits in an engaging manner. Swachh Basti is an extensive urban outreach programme for sensitising urban slum residents about WASH habits through demos, skits and etc. in partnership with key local stakeholders such as doctors, anganwadi workers and support groups. In Ghatkopar, Mumbai, HUL built the first-of-its-kind Suvidha Centre - an urban water, hygiene and sanitation community centre. It provides toilets, handwashing and shower facilities, safe drinking water and state-of-the-art laundry operations at an affordable cost to about 1,500 residents of the area.

HUL’s factory workers also act as Swachhata Doots, or messengers of change who teach the three habits of WASH in their own villages. This mobile-led rural behaviour change communication model also provides a volunteering opportunity to those who are busy but wish to make a difference. A toolkit especially designed for this purpose helps volunteers approach, explain and teach people in their immediate vicinity - their drivers, cooks, domestic helps etc. - about the three simple habits for better hygiene. This helps cast the net of awareness wider as regular interaction is conducive to habit formation. To learn more about their volunteering programme, click here. To learn more about the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hindustan Unilever and not by the Scroll editorial team.