NEW DELHI — On June 8, 2014, a 63-year heat record was burned away with temperatures reaching 118°F, in what can only be described as an inferno in India. Resulting in hundreds of deaths, blackouts and riots, the unbearable heat wave in India is a symptom of a larger problem.
The Indian minister for environment, forests and climate change, Prakash Javadekar, has stated that a quarter of India is turning into desert.
As the second most populous country in the world, the desertification poses as a serious problem as it threatens agricultural land quality and food security.
Although India was believed to undergo desertification, previous estimates were nowhere near as drastic as reality. In 2007, India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research predicted that by 2050 approximately 10 percent of India’s land would become unusable as a result of desertification.
The vulnerability of India’s land is significant. Also in 2007, the Indian Space Research Organization found in their report that 69 percent of India’s land was dry enough to make it vulnerable to water and wind erosion, salinization and water logging.
Despite warnings, the most recent announcement by India’s environmental minister has come as a shock. What is described as the loss of productivity, land degradation in India is now estimated at 105 million hectares, 32 percent of all of India’s land.
One of the leading causes for the rapid desertification of India’s lands is the overuse of lands and excessive grazing. Featuring 17 percent of the world’s population on only 2 percent of the world’s tertiary land, the overuse of land is a somewhat inevitable result.
India has typically been able to support its massive population with its agricultural land. The changing rainfall patterns caused by climate change have become more erratic and have resulted in overall lower amounts of precipitation. Receiving 80 percent of its precipitation from the monsoon season, the increasingly interspersed and extreme rainfalls have provided less relief and have become more deadly.
In 2009, the Indian Meteorological Department found that the city of Mumbai has experienced a temperature increase of 1.62°C over the last 100 years and a tripling of natural disasters that will affect the city in 30 years.
Increased desertification can also be attributed to other factors, including man-made influences.
The loss of vegetation has been largely led by deforestation, cutting beyond permissible limits, unsustainable fuel wood and fodder extraction, shifting cultivation, encroachment on forest lands, forest fires and overgrazing.
Land degradation has also been a result of the cultivation of lands with low potential or high hazard risks, the failure to adopt adequate conservation soil measures, improper crop rotation, extensive use of agro-chemicals, the inadequate planning and management of irrigation systems and excessive extraction of groundwater.
However, there may be a possibility of desertification curtailment. Javadekar says that although many areas are on the verge of becoming deserts, it can be stopped.
The threat of desertification will affect all of India, especially those in poverty. For many, the toll of climate change has already been felt. With the bleak future of barren lands, the situation of those in poverty will only continue to worsen. The warning of India’s environmental minister must be heeded if India is to prevent the incoming wastelands.