Adaptation in action: How India defied drought and famine

NUSA DUA, BALI, INDONESIA–Considering the tonnes of pamphlets and reports and the procession of side-events and protests emanating from the 10,000 people attending the United Nations conference on climate change in Bali, there was surprisingly little mention of the plight faced right now by 800 million people around the world--hunger.

NUSA DUA, BALI,

INDONESIA–Considering the tonnes of pamphlets and reports and the procession of side-events and protests emanating from the 10,000 people attending the United Nations conference on climate change in Bali, there was surprisingly little mention of the plight faced right now by 800 million people around the world--hunger.

The dominant rhetoric--that humans are consuming too much--fails to address the problem facing the majority of the world’s population who actually consume too little. In Indonesia and India, for example, 101.2 million and 487.2 million people have no reliable electricity.

Worse, 28.5% of total primary energy in Indonesia and 29.4% in India comes from burning biomass and waste--and these figures reach 80% in Sub-Saharan countries. In addition to being extremely inefficient, these bio-fuels contribute to over 1.6 million deaths every year around the world, mainly from lung diseases.

Even countries like China with remarkable economic growth have many poverty issues to address--malnutrition, widespread diseases and air and water pollution. So asking poor countries to reduce or halt their economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions, as was repeatedly done at Bali, is impractical as well as immoral. Effectively, that amounts to asking today’s poor to sacrifice their hopes for a better life.

The stick is supposed to be softened by the offer of the carrot, in the form of an adaptation fund (currently comprising only US$36 million, from a two per cent levy on the already failing carbon-trading Clean Development Mechanism), technology transfers from rich countries to poor countries and financial incentives for governments to reduce deforestation. While these vague promises look to the future, it seems no one has thought to look to the past for guidance. After all, adaptation is hardly new: it is what has made our species thrive and climb up the evolutionary ladder.

Whatever the climate has been, droughts and their consequent famines and deaths have been part of life since time immemorial. The first major recorded drought and devastation in India occurred in the 10th century. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, a typical incidence of drought would cost a few million lives. Indeed, after India’s last major famine in 1965-66, the country was virtually written off as a basket-case by many ecologists and economists. It was around then that biologists William and Paul Paddock published their sensationalist book Famine 1975!, predicting millions of deaths in India by 1975.

Instead, today, India is poised to become a net food exporter. Over the past 50 years, the rainfall pattern over India has not changed, and still had periodical local droughts, but production of food grain has quadrupled in the past 50 years, outstripping the three-fold increase in population.

India’s transformation from an acknowledged basket case to a potential bread-basket, despite a surging population, shows how adaptation actually works in practice. Adaptation in Indian agriculture involved access to new technologies (hybrid seeds, agro-chemicals and irrigation), greater internal market flexibility (in a highly-constrained system) and relatively secure land tenure. As a result, production has risen and the fluctuations in production have moderated significantly, with concomitant price stability: famines have become history.

The situation is no different globally. From 1964 to 2004, global food production increased by 156% while population increased by 100%. From this we should gather that people are more than able to raise themselves out of poverty if only they are given the chance.

Quite a few delegates from poor countries, egged on by many policy-makers and activists from rich countries, argued that only with foreign aid could they effectively fight the consequences of climate change. But the fact is that if aid could save the poor, poverty would already be history. In reality, from 1975 to 2002, foreign aid on average made no net contribution to economic development, World Bank figures show.

While a lot was said in Bali in the name of the poor and a secure future, there seemed to be a complete lack of understanding of the actual processes by which adaptation works. Poverty and hunger cannot be fought with foreign aid and random technology transfers. It is only by giving people greater economic freedoms that people will be able to harness the right technologies and protect themselves from the pressing ills of today as well as the hypothetical ills of tomorrow.

Environmentalists may not want to hear it but it is growth that is the key to adaptation and rescuing the poor--whatever the weather.

Barun Mitra is the director of Liberty Institute (www.libertyindia.org), an independent think-tank in New Delhi.

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