The Ganges River begins at the foot of the Gangotri Glacier in the Himalayas and culminates at the Sundarbans Delta, a massive sprawl of swamps, lakes, and scores of islands. (Find an earlier post on the Ganges here.) It’s the largest river delta in the world—home to endangered Bengal tigers, miles of mangroves, and nearly 12 million people (4.5 million on the Indian side and 7.5 million on the Bangladeshi side).
A student of the Mississippi River Delta, I had long wanted to visit the Sundarban Islands. So after giving a series of lectures in Kolkata, I accepted an invitation to visit some of the islands on a medical boat, operated by the Southern Health Improvement Samity, an organization in West Bengal that delivers health-care services to island villagers.
The experience was one of the high points of my semester sabbatical, which has now drawn to a close. The people were lovely. I chatted with a group of young girls about their new school building, which doubles as a safe house in times of flood. I learned about off-the-grid power from a farmer who had recently installed solar panels on the thatch of his mud hut. A local activist taught me about a program that employs women to grow mangrove saplings and replant them on fragile shores. And the lush forests were idyllic (once you looked past the plastic netting designed to keep the tigers in).Full text
In October, I wrote about the city of Surat, the diamond-polishing capital of India, and its battle against climate change. Recently I had the chance to visit another municipality working on adaptation, a place known more for its postage stamp farms and wandering livestock than jewelry and textiles. It’s called Gorakhpur, and is located in the flood-prone state of Uttar Pradesh, near the India-Nepal border.
I first visited Gorakhpur nearly 25 years ago--when I was a long-haired backpacker and Gorakhpur was a muddy stop on the way to Kathmandu. Some things there haven’t changed. The streets are still muddy. Tea stalls and tarpaulin tents still line the streets, illuminated by the blue flames of cook stoves. At my business hotel, electricity was as unreliable as ever, and the telephones still crackled and hissed. Each morning, I would greet a dozen or so cows grazing on a hillock of garbage outside the hotel gate. (The city still has no regular solid waste collection).
But Gorakhpur has also changed in important ways. The city has over four hundred thousand people, with millions more in the surrounding district. There are malls, cineplexes, fast-food joints, and pizzerias! What began as a small urban core has spread erratically, encroaching upon lakes, marshes, and scores of farm villages—all held together by a hectic flow of traffic and a mighty, tea-stained dome of hydrocarbons.Full text
Property lawyers in the United States love the Public Trust Doctrine (PTD). There’s such a rich history. The doctrine, which holds that important resources must be held “in trust” for public use, originated in Roman law. Centuries later it was forced on King John through the Magna Carta. During America’s industrial revolution, our Supreme Court invoked the doctrine to defend Chicago’s shoreline from hungry rail barons (the case is called Illinois Central Railroad), and we’ve had it ever since.
The PTD fascinates us at CPR too: we see it as a potentially powerful way to protect water resources in the United States. (Visit our Public Trust Doctrine page.) But some of the most interesting and expansive uses of the PTD are taking place on the other side of the world—in India. To learn more about those developments, I turned to Shibani Ghosh, a Research Associate at the Centre for Policy Research, where I am visiting for the semester. Ms. Ghosh is also a public interest lawyer and a visiting member of the faculty at TERI University in New Delhi. I asked Ms. Ghosh to help me understand how the PTD is used in Indian law. Our conversation—which touched on public participation, climate adaptation, and India’s 2G network—is set forth below.
RV: How did the PTD makes its way to India?
SG: In the 1980s and ‘90s, the Supreme Court of India played a very active role in promoting rights-based litigation. Several landmark cases which have contributed to the growth of Indian environmental jurisprudence were decided during that time. One such case was MC Mehta v Kamal Nath. The issue before the Court in this case was the legality of the government’s decision to regularize encroachment of reserved forest land by a private hotel in the state of Himachal Pradesh. The hotel had also tried to change the course of the river Beas on the banks of which the hotel was situated, so as to prevent instances of flooding and loss of property. Before the Supreme Court, the matter was argued against the hotel by MC Mehta, India’s leading environmental lawyer and the judgment was written by Justice Kuldip Singh, arguably the country’s foremost “green judge.”Full text
Last weekend my son took part in a set of Boy Scout activities with his local Delhi scout troop. On the grounds of the former residence of the U.S. ambassador, the boys prepared a kabob lunch, practiced fire making, and even built a Medieval-style trebuchet. But all I could think about were the little striped mosquitoes that seemed to follow the kids everywhere—Asian Tiger mosquitoes, to be exact, the kind that carry dengue fever.
In New Delhi, dengue (DEN-gay) has reached epidemic proportions. The scouts, I’m happy to say, completed their tour without infection, thanks to lots of lotion, spray, and smoky coils. But not everyone has been so lucky. I know at least five people who have been confined to bed for two weeks of fever, headaches, and joint pain. (My medical traveler’s guide says it feels as if “knitting needles have been driven into every joint of [your] body.”) The New York Times reported last week that Delhi hospitals “are overrun and feverish patients are sharing beds and languishing in hallways.” The illness, which in extreme forms can require blood transfusions and even kill, is breaking out all over the country. Official reports say that this year 30,002 people in Indian have fallen ill with dengue through October. But experts believe the real number is around 37 million.Full text
The most solemn commitment borne by an elected official is to promote the public welfare and keep the citizenry safe. As New York City struggles to rebound from one of the fiercest storms in memory, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg rose to that occasion with an urgent call for government at all levels to forcefully address climate change.
Yes, folks, Gotham gets it.
In an editorial for Bloomberg View, the mayor wrote:
The devastation that Hurricane Sandy brought to New York City and much of the Northeast -- in lost lives, lost homes and lost business -- brought the stakes of Tuesday’s presidential election into sharp relief.
The floods and fires that swept through our city left a path of destruction that will require years of recovery and rebuilding work. . . . In just 14 months, two hurricanes have forced us to evacuate neighborhoods -- something our city government had never done before. If this is a trend, it is simply not sustainable.
Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be -- given this week’s devastation -- should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.
He described New York City’s own efforts to fight climate change by reducing carbon emissions “by 16 percent in just five years.” He could also have noted his city’s impressive planning efforts to adapt to those climate effects that can no longer be avoided.Full text
If you like sparkling diamonds and saffron saris, you will love Surat, India’s bustling, no-nonsense city, some 250 kilometers north of Mumbai, near the Arabian Sea. If you’re wearing a new diamond, there’s an 80% chance its was shaped by Surati hands (and laser beams too). And nearly every Indian has something in the closet from Surat—which is what you’d expect from a city whose clattering looms churn out 30 million meters of raw fabric a day.
But Surat, with a population of 4.5 million, faces big challenges too. Its proximity to the Tapti River delta—a strategic advantage in trade—also makes Surat a flood magnet. In the last 20 years, the city has been drowned by three major floods caused by emergency releases from an upstream dam. Lesser floods, caused by hard rains, occur more frequently, interrupting local business and displacing families living in flood plains. In 1994, a flood like that led to an outbreak of the plague. In addition, tidal surges moving up the mouth of the Tapti River threaten the city from the oppositedirection. Even on calm days, high tides push salt water into parts of the river needed for drinking. All of these problems will be made considerably worse by climate change, whose effects include stronger downpours and rising seas.Full text
VARANASI -- We slip into the river at night, and with an easy stroke, our oarsman moves our boat across the chestnut waters of “Mother Ganga,” India’s Ganges River.
Spiritual life in Varanasi (also called Benares) is a passion. Hindus all over India save their money for the chance to visit this holy city and bathe in Ganga’s purifying waters. At sunrise, along the string of bathing steps called “ghats,” you’ll see hundreds of people of all shapes and sizes soaping up in the water, praying, laughing and chatting, or just bobbing along. At the so-called “burning ghats,” open-air cremations take place twenty-four hours a day in quiet ceremonies attended by family and curious onlookers. But this evening, my family and another, visiting from Maharashtra, are on our way to watch the Ganga Aarti, a Hindu ceremony of music and prayer devoted to Mother Ganga. The ceremony is ancient. But it takes on new power when you consider that today the Ganges is all but an environmental disaster—a septic river, riddled with industrial poisons and now threatened by climate change. If Mother Ganga were human, she would be in the I.C.U.Full text
I’ll forego reporting on India today to address a new development in the post-Hurricane Katrina litigation: Judge Jerry Smith’s breathless hairpin turn in the “Katrina Canal Breaches Litigation.” On Monday, Judge Smith, writing for a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, dismissed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for flood damage during Hurricane Katrina, a case that could have exposed the federal government to billions of dollars in damages over the next several years. Judge Smith’s opinion reversed a decision he wrote just six months ago, representing the same three-judge panel, which had ruled the plaintiffs’ claims were legitimate and must move forward.
Why the switch? The new opinion suggests it is because the first time around all three judges somehow misunderstood the facts. But that’s unconvincing. A look at the court’s earlier opinion and the trial court’s original findings of fact shows that the Fifth Circuit got it right the first time. What’s more, this sudden reversal could deny thousands of flood victims the means to build back their lives, while narrowing the chances that the government can be held accountable for even the most pedestrian mistakes. I’ll return to these points in a moment, but first some background.
The Katrina Canal Breaches Litigation involves claims by residents of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish for damages resulting from storm surge allegedly funneled through the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR-GO), a navigation channel that has since been de-authorized and “plugged” for safety reasons. (I last blogged about this case here.) Plaintiffs argued that the Army Corps's negligence in design, construction, and maintenance of MR-GO increased Katrina’s storm surge and made the levee system more vulnerable than it otherwise would have been. Plaintiffs were particularly troubled by the Corps’s refusal to prevent erosion by armoring the banks at the time of construction and in the several years thereafter. The lack of armor—or “foreshoring,” as engineers call it—caused the channel’s width to expand considerably, leaving a perfect path for a bulldozing hurricane.Full text
I had been wondering what ordinary people in India think about climate change. So last week on my ride home from the office, I asked my auto-rickshaw driver. He was a talkative guy, bearded, with black spectacles and a navy blue turban. He had been keen on identifying for me the many troubles a man like him endures on the subcontinent. “Too many people!” he shouted, his voice competing with the cab’s rattling frame and the bleats of oncoming horns. “Too much traffic!”
We swung around a landscaped rotary. I gripped my seat. A copse of date palms swerved by, and then a billboard: “Enrich Delhi’s Green Legacy.” I took the bait. “So what do think about global warming?” I shouted.
We slowed to a stop behind a row of cars and two-wheelers waiting at the light. He cut the motor. A small boy pranced into the stalled traffic and began turning cartwheels in hopes of a small remuneration.
“Yes, I know about that,” the driver said. “Too much warming. Too much heat.”
“But do you worry about it?”
“Me—no.” He fired the engine and frowned slightly. “You know, India has too much noise!” he shouted. “And too many dogs! Too many everything.”Full text
NEW DELHI — Here’s what monsoon season looks like in India. This summer, the northern states have been lashed with rain. In the northeastern state of Assam, July rains swamped thousands of homes, killing 65 residents. Floods and mudslides in northeast India sent nearly 6 million people heading for the hills in search of temporary housing (a tarp, a corrugated roof) and government aid (when they can get it). In New Delhi, the monsoon hasn’t caused anything nearly as traumatic. But one cloudburst can easily flood roads and storm canals, sending bubbling streams of grease and sewage across the urban slums.
Haven’t heard about all this? Normally, I wouldn't have either. But this semester I’m living in New Delhi, near one of those storm canals, working as a Fulbright-Nehru Research Scholar affiliated with India’s Centre for Policy Research (another “CPR”). My plan is to examine the ways in which Indians are adapting to climate change, at the national, regional, and local levels.
Perhaps no country in the world is as vulnerable on so many fronts to climate change as India. With 7,000 kilometers of coastline, the vast Himalayan glaciers, and nearly 70 million hectares of forests, India is especially vulnerable to a climate trending toward warmer temperatures, erratic precipitation, higher seas, and swifter storms. Then there are India’s enormous cities (home to nearly a third of the population), where all of these trends conspire to threaten public health and safety on a grand scale—portending heat waves, drought, thicker smog layers, coastal storms, and blown-out sewer systems.Full text