By Dr. Soumitro Chakraborty
Forest is a limited renewable natural resource, which can maintain its sustainable functioning only if it is given time to regenerate. Unfortunately, the forest resources around the world have been depleting at an extremely alarming rate resulting in catastrophic and hazardous chain reactions. Rapid industrialization, unabated urbanization has led to not only a decline of forest cover and desertification of lands, but has also resulted in permanent loss of forest reserves. Uncontrolled population growth has further resulted in the over-exploitation of the forest resources beyond its capable sustainable yields. According to Pew Research Center’s analysis of the United Nations’ ‘World Population Prospects 2019’ report, between 1950 and today, the world’s population grew at a rate between 1% and 2% each year, resulting in the population rising from 2.5 billion people to an exponential 7.8 billion people now. As per the analysis, by the year 2100, the world’s population is estimated to reach approximately to a gargantuan number of 10.9 billion.
To say that most of climate change is unnatural and is man-made would not be false. The world has begun to witness the cataclysmic effects of climate change in the form of weather extremities and these extremities are occurring at a much faster rate than before. Last year, after months of severe heat and drought, huge bush wires burned through Australia for months, destroying eight million hectares of land, killing twenty five people and millions of animals. Similarly, the forest around the town of Novo Progresso in Brazil, erupted in flames resulting in more than 100,000 fires across the Amazon basin that continue to blaze through the forest even now. Most recently, the incident of wildfires that have seized California, Oregon, Washington and other states of the West Coast in the United States of America, have sparked global outrage against our inability to protect our forests and reinvigorated the debate around deforestation.
Climate change has had obvious impact calling for atypical rains during monsoons and severe droughts during the summers. The situation gets aggravated by uncontrolled deforestation. In India, floods have become an annual occurrence especially in the states situated along the Western Ghats. Kerala in the year 2018, suffered through its worst floods in a century owing to soil erosion caused by loss in forest cover. Teeming with unparalleled biodiversity, the mountains of the Western Ghats have been subjected to uncallous chopping of forests to make way for spice, tea and rubber plantations. Innumerable amounts of illegal stone quarries operate in the Ghats and the usage of destructive explosives to demolish stones and sand for the construction industry, make the Ghats susceptible to seismic tremors and landslides. Similarly, Assam has been experiencing flood since the year 2013, the reason can be easily attributed to encroachment, deforestation and building of dams in the Brahmaputra Basin; all of which has reduced the soil’s water retention capacity. By removing trees we are removing the soil’s water storing or retention capacity causing floods and droughts.
Constant floods and droughts adversely affect the agriculture and livelihood opportunities. Agriculture contributes 14% to the GDP of India and 64% of India’s population depends on agriculture for livelihood. With growing population, urbanization and other developmental initiatives, the demand for water has increased exponentially. However, climate change induced droughts and abuse of groundwater reserves has resulted in water scarcity in major parts of the country. Climate change has already caused significant damage to our present crop profile and threatens to bring even more serious consequences in the future. Agriculture must adapt to changing climatic conditions by developing improved water management approaches. Assessment of the availability of water resources is the current requirement and plays a critical role for relevant national and regional long-term development strategies for sustainable development.
The scientists around the world have called these increased incidents as alarming but unsurprising. It is absolutely essential to understand the effects of deforestation on microclimate, regional climate and global climate to form a baseline and holistic understanding of the mechanism. Lesser number of trees means low absorption of greenhouse gases and higher absorption of infrared radiation and heat. Massive deforestation on a global scale results in warmer and drier weather owing to reduced evapotranspiration, increased concentration of carbon dioxide and albedo effect which triggers loss in biodiversity, desertification, increased ocean temperature, melting polar caps and rising sea levels etc.
The year 2020 disrupted the world with global economies completely shutting down owing to the outbreak of COVID-19 virus. The novel coronavirus is a zoonotic disease, believed to be caused by the transmission of the virus from animals to humans. The interaction between them allows the pathogen to enter the human population, mutate and become endemic or even pandemic. Throughout human history deadly pathogens have always emerged from the forests such as HIV, Ebola, H5N1 influenza, SARS, MERS, Zika virus and bird flu etc. Reduction in forest cover shrinks the natural habitat of the wildlife and should it continue at the current rate, the crowding of species will result in emergence of much deadlier zoonotic diseases.
As per the UN’s 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world only has as less as 12 years to limit global warming levels. We need to understand that climate change is not about how much greenhouse gases we emit, but is about how we have damaged things that absorb carbon. Hence, it is imperative that we look at reforestation and afforestation opportunities. Massive afforestation and reforestation could aid the process of creating carbon sinks and absorbing carbon from the environment and limiting the emission of greenhouse gases. The sustainable management of afforested or reforested land can act as safety nets for local communities, can regulate water resources, control soil degradation, hydraulic and landslide risks and encourage local communities towards agroforestry or silvo-pastoral systems, thus creating new income opportunities.
Meeting the growing demands in a sustainable manner is the need of the hour. We are running out of time to mend the damage done. It is clear that unsustainable exploitation of nature endangers us all. Rational utilization and sustainable management of the forest reserves are the viable solutions that we have. We need to understand that forests are not just timber and carbon, they need to be preserved for multiple complementary objectives that ensure and safeguard the planet from large-scale extinction of species .
(The author is Founder of Fiinovation. Views expressed are personal.)