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Why nature is our shield against climate change

Heat and hazard are challenges we need to build resilience against, and at least part of the answer to these problems lies in nature-led solutions.

A rhesus macaque in the Sundarbans.
A rhesus macaque in the Sundarbans. (Neha Sinha)

Biparjoy, Amphan, Mocha, Yaas, Nisarg, Tauktae. These are new words which have entered our vocabulary and they roll off the tongue like they are friendly. As I write this, Biparjoy is brewing and Mocha has just missed us. India is facing multiple cyclones every year and there’s nothing friendly about them.

Mocha was supposed to hit West Bengal last month. I was in the Sundarbans then. We didn’t always have mobile network to track weather apps, so we did what our ancestors once did: We turned our faces to the sky, watching it like hawks, training our ears for the first rumbles of thunder. The clouds would gather like a warning and then skitter away dramatically. Eventually, the storm did not come. This was some kind of temporary relief. The heat and humidity kept rising, though—the air eddied like a wet cloth slapping our faces, a lethargic, dulling crescendo before a downpour.

Later in May, I was on the banks of the Ganga. Even next to the great winding river, it felt as hot as a desert. Fine-grained, compacted soil kept breaking away from the banks and falling into the water as a seething, hot wind blew. Storks stood on the riverside, some with their mouths open, trying to cool down. A group of Sarus cranes tussled with each other, their cries breaking the stillness of the scene. It was almost like the heat was getting to everyone.

A couple of oceans away from us, thousands of birds have died in Peru because El Niño (the warming of the eastern Pacific waters) led to marine heatwaves. This, incidentally, follows a mass outbreak of H5N1 in that country. In 2015-16, a million seabirds died in the US of a heatwave. We don’t know if climate change causes El Niño but we do know climate change is making existing problems worse.

That day on the Ganga, I walked on a sandbar to see signs of wildlife. A large set of footprints indicated a stork had sauntered through the area. A smaller set of prints probably belonged to a Red-wattled lapwing. A bluntly broken shore of sand could have been a turtle diving abruptly into the water. Lapwings nest on the naked, baking sand, and, as the world gets hotter, I wonder how chicks will survive. In the Sundarbans and other coastal areas, the question of climate is even more urgent—with tropical cyclones likely to increase worldwide.

Also read: Re-imagine open spaces for migratory birds

Heat and hazard are real challenges today. And the need of the decade is building resilience against them. There are at least two things to keep in mind. First, coastal issues are national issues. The coast lays itself bare to extreme precipitation and storms—and vulnerable coastal populations and strategic built infrastructure mean these events have disproportionate impact. Second, tackling heat (and other temperature variations) should be considered an immediate developmental need.

The answer to at least part of these problems lies in nature-led solutions. Growing natural ecosystems that can withstand or buffer climate hazards are a sentient way forward. Mangroves, tough and resilient, grow on land shaped by water through daily tidal formations. They help in holding the coastline together and trap sediments, increasing the biomass of the soil.

Looking at mangroves is like looking at a forest-fortress. The trees shoot up with fierce passion, and without compromise. Some roots enter the soil in a spread-out, stilt-like formation, other tree species have roots emerging out of the soil like spears. If there was a soundtrack for forests, mangroves would be savage hard metal. But these primeval- looking trees are also infrastructure, where they occur naturally, that absorb storms and lessen the speed of waves.

Sarus cranes foraging along the Ganga.
Sarus cranes foraging along the Ganga. (Neha Sinha)

In other parts of India that are being struck increasingly by heat events, city and town action must include the blue and green: trees and water bodies which can help regulate micro climate and reduce the impacts of floods.

As children going to school in a yellow-and-black taxi, we would experience the city with windows rolled down. Most of the “main roads” in Delhi (and also Kolkata and Chennai, we observed) were associated with blows of heat on our faces and sooty pollution. The roads next to city forests were a contrast. The larger the forest (like the Delhi Ridge), the cooler and more clarified the air. In winters, the contrast was bone-chilling—but it never ceased being fun. Like many others, we called large trees like jamun and mango “AC trees”. Studies have quantified this now—vegetated surfaces in cities are 12-25 degrees Celsius cooler than non-vegetated ones.

The sixth assessment report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released this year, suggests that avoiding damage to ecosystems (or reducing the conversion of natural ecosystems) is climate mitigation in action. Going forward, we must pick actions that help mitigate climate change and create resilience through adaptation (reducing shocks to the system). Both are achievable by conserving natural infrastructure.

Also read: World Environment Day: Giving nature the right of way

Some of our recent international commitments, if integrated well, can help us with this. To combat desertification, India has committed to restoring 26 million hectares of degraded ecosystems by 2030. This, the Prime Minister has announced, will help create an additional carbon sink of three billion tonnes (this indicates the amount of carbon stored by the forests). The base year for measuring “additional” is not clear but the commitment is important because we have only seven years to honour it.

Similarly, we have pledged to save 30% of land, water and sea by 2030. These significant targets must be looked at from a holistic and ecological lens—we should restore and protect native vegetation and ecosystems in places where they exist naturally. When scientifically planned, this will perform the dual role of climate action and providing habitat for wildlife. Finally, these interventions mean looking at solutions which are more intuitive than engineering and construction ones.

As the heat rises in June, I think back to the AC tree of my childhood—a jamun that grew in front of a bus-stop on Ring Road. Today, that tree is only a memory, having been felled for a Metro station, billed an energy-efficient way to travel. The irony isn’t lost on me and other citizens who want projects like the Metro rail to be built as complementary to the original AC, a great old tree. Integrating goals to suit both people and nature doesn’t seem like something we need to wait till 2030 for.

At the end of the day, the answers to many heated, hazardous questions will come at the base of a mature tree.

Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and the author of Wild And Wilful—Tales Of 15 Iconic Indian Species. Views expressed are personal.

Also read: World Environment Day: Oceans are feeling the heat

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