Healing a ravaged landscape in India

What are we doing to meet the challenge of land degradation neutrality and other climate change goals? Ramya Coushik gives a lowdown.
Last Updated : 07 June 2024, 21:42 IST
Last Updated : 07 June 2024, 21:42 IST

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On May 28th, Delhi saw the highest-ever temperature of 49.9 degrees Celsius, marking the third consecutive year of intense heatwaves in India. 

Barely a few days earlier, Venezuela lost Humboldt, its last remaining glacier, becoming the first country to lose all its glaciers to climate change-induced temperature rise.

The state-of-the-science report from the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that the planet is 1.1 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels 200 years ago.

Tellingly, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) found that in the year 2022 alone, India experienced extreme weather events on 314 of 365 days, killing over 3000 people and 69,000 livestock, decimating about 4.8 million acres (2 million hectares) of crop area and razing around 4,20,000 houses.

India accounts for 2.4% of the planet’s land area yet supports 8% of the world’s biodiversity and is home to four of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots. Our country also hosts 17.76% of the world’s humans and 15% of the planet’s livestock, which liberally infringe on natural landscapes.

Urbanisation, infrastructural and industrial development, mining, loss of wetlands, unsustainable land use, agriculture, and unprecedented deforestation have all accelerated environmental degradation, disrupting Earth’s water cycle, denuding soil, hampering biodiversity, annihilating pollinators and endangering food security.

The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2021-2030 as the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, pledging to restore 1 billion hectares of land, an area larger than China, by 2030 to combat the ecosystem degradation crisis.

The UN’s chosen theme for World Environment Day 2024—Land Restoration, Desertification, and Drought Resilience—aims to achieve the restoration goal.

Degradation, desertification and drought

Soil forms the largest terrestrial carbon sink. Climate scientists argue that a mere 1% more carbon stored in soil can exceed the annual carbon emissions from burning fossil fuel.

Soil erosion from water and wind, vegetative degradation, waterlogging, salinity, and human actions trigger land degradation and desertification. When soil is lost, carbon lingers in the atmosphere, spiking atmospheric temperatures, unleashing a domino effect, and precipitating one environmental disaster after another. Loss of productive soil adversely impacts food production too.

Desertification is "land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities.” UN experts describe desertification as “the greatest environmental challenge of our time” and “a threat to global wellbeing.”

Earth lost at least 100 million hectares (Mha) of productive land each year between 2015 and 2019, according to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

The Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas of India, mapped by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), found that 97.85 Mha, or 29.7% of India’s total geographical area (TGA) of 328.72 Mha, suffered degradation in the year 2018-19.

India also lost nearly 84 Mha to desertification in 2018-19, greater than 81.48 Mha in 2003-2005 and 82.64 Mha in 2011-13, making land degradation and desertification the most serious threats to the nation in the years to come.

An analysis of the Atlas by Down To Earth shows more than half of the degraded land in the country is either rainfed farmland, which is crucial for India’s food security, or forest land. 

A report by UK-based Utility Bidder states that India has seen the highest rise in deforestation in the last 30 years, losing 6,68,400 hectares of forest cover. A massive surge was recorded between 2015 and 2020.

About 29.46% of India’s landmass is prone to minor soil erosion while 3.17% experiences catastrophic soil erosion, from deforestation and rigorous farming practices, as per a new study titled ‘Geospatial modeling and mapping of soil erosion in India.’ This study is the first comprehensive national-scale assessment of soil erosion.

A World Bank report cautions that India's drought-prone area has increased by 57% since 1997, while instances of heavy rainfall have risen by almost 85% since 2012. Unpredictable rainfall patterns are causing drought and deluge in equal measure.

Around 20,000 water bodies have dried up in Karnataka alone, with groundwater depleting alarmingly. Assam suffers floods, riverine encroachment, and erosion along the Brahmaputra. Over 70% of Bihar’s land is flood-prone due to sediment overload from rivers originating in Nepal’s mountains, with 28 out of Bihar’s 38 districts affected by floods and droughts each year, as per the report.

The IPCC warns that unless greenhouse gas emissions are drastically reduced by 2030, India will not be able to reverse an imminent climate catastrophe.

India's action plans

India joined the Bonn Challenge in 2015, pledging to restore 13 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2020 and an additional 8 million hectares by 2030 to achieve Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN). The government further upped its land restoration target to 26 million hectares by 2030.

The government, in late 2022, directed state governments to leverage the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) for ridge area treatment, drainage line treatment, soil and moisture conservation, rainwater harvesting, nursery raising, afforestation, horticulture and pasture development to scale up land restoration efforts and create livelihoods for locals.

According to a UN estimate, India will need to restore at least 30 million hectares to reverse land degradation by 2030. Under the Paris Agreement, India has committed to increasing carbon sequestration through forests by 2.5-3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030.

According to a progress report released in 2018 on the Bonn Challenge, India claims to have restored an area of 9.8 million hectares since 2011. In June 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his keynote at the UN 'High-Level Dialogue on Desertification, Land degradation and Drought,’ announced that India was on track to achieve its national commitment of LDN, adding around 3 million hectares of forest cover in 10 years.

Worryingly though, ISRO’s Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas of India revealed that India also lost nearly 84 Mha to desertification in 2018-19, greater than 81.48 Mha in 2003-2005 and 82.64 Mha in 2011-13, making land degradation and desertification the most serious threats to the nation in the years to come.

Lending credence to ISRO’s DLD Atlas, the first ever Data Dashboard released by the UNCCD in October 2023, pegs India’s land degradation in the four years between 2015 and 2019 at 30.51 million hectares (9.45% of total land area), an area equivalent to 43 million football pitches.

The ‘Restoration Opportunities Atlas of India’ by the World Resources Institute reports that India has the potential for nearly 140 million hectares of forest protection and landscape restoration, which can sequester 3 to 4.3 billion tons of above-ground carbon by 2040.

The government is banking on initiatives like the National Afforestation Programme, Compensatory Afforestation, the National Mission for Green India, the National Agroforestry Policy, and the Watershed Development Programme under Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY) to make good on its LDN and carbon sequestration goals.

Experts at the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) opine that any reforestation and land restoration effort in India needs to graduate from afforestation and unplanned mass tree plantation drives to “conservation and restoration of freshwater, marine, coastal, and other undervalued ecosystems” that take into account the diverse natural landscapes of India, the native species, varying forest, land, watershed management approaches, and the interests of local communities.

For example, planting trees in a grassland ecosystem to meet land restoration targets can do little to support grassland flora and fauna. Instead, it may wipe out the original ecosystem and the endemic species reliant on it.

Power to locals

Therefore, a crucial cog for India is to factor in the cause of degradation and the ecosystem type when devising restoration approaches while empowering local stakeholders.

Wadi, an integrated tribal development programme under the Tribal Development Fund (TDF) by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), is an example of localised land restoration efforts.

This programme benefits tribal farmers with land holdings under 5 acres, empowering them with know-how and support for land use planning, soil preservation, water harvesting and groundwater recharge techniques. Farmers receive training in agro-forestry and orchard farming practices, with a mix of native forest and fruiting tree species, thereby hedging climate and market risks, securing livelihoods, and achieving food security and land restoration goals.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) indicates that land degradation trends have been less severe or avoided in areas stewarded by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, leaving little doubt about who can lead us out of this human-made catastrophe.

Our soil will heal, and the glaciers will reappear if only we return the land to its rightful custodians—the forest and her people.

(The author is a sustainability entrepreneur, environmental engineer, and practitioner of regenerative agriculture)

Published 07 June 2024, 21:42 IST

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