While Indians come to terms with images of floods in Kerala, Karnataka and other parts of the country, complete with a frightening clip of an entire hillside collapsing, few would have found time to pore over a special report released late last week by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Ignorance of what it has to say, however, is no longer tenable; not with such climate-related havoc staring us in our faces. The report points out that changes in land use, and not just vehicular and industrial emissions, have upset natural climatic conditions, and that the world’s food systems are responsible for between 25% and 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. These relate directly to agriculture and land use, as also to the storage, packaging, processing, retailing and consumption of food. It’s not just the way we eat that has to change—vegetarian diets are better—but also how we grow, store and transport our food. The world’s farms and forests have to be managed better to prevent land degradation, says the Special Report On Climate Change And Land. No amount of funding for disaster relief will be enough if we’re not willing to confront the way we abuse the land we live on (and off).
Over 29% of land in India, or 96 million hectares, has been degraded, according to the desertification atlas released by the Indian Space Research Organisation in 2016. The relationship between degradation and flooding is long established: Intensive rainfall tends to erode soil, leaving croplands with lower capacity to retain moisture, which eventually leads to drought. Temperatures, of course, are rising, too. July may have been the hottest month in recorded history, the UN secretary-general said recently, adding that 2015-19 is likely to be the hottest five-year period on record. Sustainable land management is a way to protect people from this cycle of flood and drought, heat and cold waves, erosion and degradation. “The likelihood, intensity and duration of many extreme events can be significantly modified by changes in land conditions, including heat-related events such as heat waves and heavy precipitation events. Changes in land conditions can affect temperature and rainfall in regions as far as hundreds of kilometres away," says the report.
The diversity of India’s geography means each region is likely to need a localized management plan, one that takes into account peculiarities of the land, to effectively counter climate change. It’s here that indigenous knowledge and land management practices can play a role. It’s the first time, it seems, that the UN body has highlighted land rights as crucial to the effort. “Cultural dimensions are important in understanding how societies establish food production systems and respond to climate change, since they help to explain differences in responses across populations to the same environmental risks," the report observes. It’s important that we stop the adoption of crops and methods that aren’t suited to the land. Research shows that several crops—coffee, sugarcane, wheat and cotton, among others—can increase soil erosion beyond the point of self-regeneration. Turning farms eco-friendly will mean adopting farming practices that are in harmony with nature. Yet, “modernity" in India often means quite the opposite. This irony needs to be overcome.