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UN University report warns about risk tipping points with irreversible impacts on people and planet – Times of India

BATHINDA: The Bonn, Germany based United Nations University – Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) Interconnected Disaster Risksreport 2023 published on Wednesday focuses on north western region especially Punjab and Haryana on groundwater depletion risk tipping point stating 70 per cent of groundwater withdrawals are used for agriculture. It warns that the region as a whole is predicted to experience critically low groundwater availability as soon as 2025.
The report though talks about six risk tipping points but under groundwater depletion while focusing on Punjab and taking cue from a Times of India report of 2022 it states that the province of Punjab, where 98.9 per cent of cropland is irrigated by ground and surface water, 78 per cent of wells are considered overexploited, which should be cause of concern.
The report warns of irreversible damage to ecosystems and catastrophic impacts for people and the planet if ecosystem passes tipping points. The research emphasises the importance of reducing planet-heating emissions and highlights the need for more holistic approach to farming and water management.
“As we indiscriminately extract our water resources, damage nature and biodiversity, and pollute both earth and space, we are moving dangerously close to the brink of multiple risk tipping points that could destroy the very systems that our life depends on,” said Dr Zita Sebesvari, Lead Author of the Interconnected Disaster Risks report and Deputy Director of UNU-EHS. “Additionally, we also lose some of our tools and options to deal with future disaster risk.”
The report apart from groundwater depletion, analyses accelerating extinctions, mountain glaciers melting, space debris, unbearable heat and uninsurable future.
It states when the systems deteriorate, it is typically not a simple and predictable process. Rather, instability slowly builds until suddenly a tipping point is reached and the system changes fundamentally or even collapses, with potentially catastrophic impacts.
A risk tipping point is defined in the report as the moment at which a given socioecological system is no longer able to buffer risks and provide its expected functions, after which the risk of catastrophic impacts to these systems increases substantially. Risk tipping points extend beyond single domains of climate, ecosystems, society or technology instead, they are inherently interconnected, and they are also closely linked to human activities and livelihoods.
Risk-intensifying land use
Report states agricultural intensification is a major factor pushing us towards a groundwater depletion risk tipping point. Groundwater irrigation sustains the production of approximately 40 per cent of the world’s crops, including a large portion of staple crops like rice and wheat. Access to groundwater has driven the expansion of irrigated agricultural land worldwide. From 63 million hectares of agricultural land in 1900 it has increased to 306 million hectares in 2005 and irrigated land expanded to semi-arid areas with limited precipitation and surface water.
The report states that in the 1960s, India experienced food shortages and famine that led to the promotion of crop intensification. The government’s national food policy motivated farmers in locations with inadequate climatic and soil conditions to grow water-intensive crops such as rice. In Punjab and Haryana the productivity rates of wheat and rice gone highest. Together these provinces produce around 50 per cent of the country’s rice and wheat supplies. Such over use of groundwater is pushing the north-western region as a whole to experience critically low groundwater availability in coming few years.
Insufficient risk management
Groundwater tends to be perceived as a reliable and safe source of water, available independent of seasonal or climatic changes. Reaching it is not easy though; it comes at a cost for the farmers who have to pay for the equipment to dig a well and for the running cost of the electricity required to bring water out to the surface.
To support farmers and reduce their running costs, some countries subsidize the energy cost for water pumping. While government subsidies of this nature are meant to ease affordability and accessibility to groundwater, they also increase the probability of over extracting this valuable resource, and decrease any incentive to diversify irrigation methods. The energy subsidies, together with other factors, have shown to drive groundwater depletion.
In the aftermath of the previously mentioned food shortages, a series of government incentives aimed to increase the country’s food supply, including a subsidy for electricity to pump water for irrigation have contributed to the increase in the number of wells across India since the 1960s. Increased access to groundwater has allowed farmers to improve cropping intensity, as well as expand the number of cropping seasons in a year, by extending production into the predominantly dry winter and summer months.
Following challenges to meter, bill, and collect payments in the use of electricity for groundwater pumping, most State Electricity Boards moved to flat tariffs in 1970, which reduced the cost of pumping for the farmers to virtually net zero. While the use of groundwater and production rates has grown over the years, the development of other irrigation alternatives like canals has lagged. Thus, though these programmes are well-intentioned, they increase the pressure and reliance on rapidly depleting groundwater resources, without setting up contingency plans in the event a risk tipping point is reached.
Livelihood loss
Over use of groundwater for agriculture and reaching the risk tipping point represents a loss of livelihoods. Losing access to groundwater is likely to reduce crop yields, and thus also impacts both farming livelihoods and food security.

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