Cities must know more about desertification and be a part of the solution: Sunita Narain, CSE

As the 14th Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification was held in New Delhi, we spoke to Sunita Narain, Director-General of Centre for Science and Environment, to know what our cities can do to mitigate the looming environmental crisis.

The timber mafia in Jharkhand. Rampant mining in Jharkhand and Goa. Overdependence on borewells and low groundwater recharge in Andhra Pradesh — Deforestation, unsustainable land use practices and the slow but steady expansion of urbanised, industrial areas have led to nearly 30 per cent of India’s total land area undergoing degradation. Thus concern over desertification, which is expected to affect 900 million people in 100 countries (mostly in the global south) and which threatens almost 41 per cent of the total land area on the Earth, is a real concern for every citizen in this country.

The 14th Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, which concluded in New Delhi on Friday, focused on land use management and governance. A two-page document summarising the intent of the parties to combat desertification and land degradation — the Delhi Declaration — was also presented.

The Delhi declaration announced that the parties would take a “people first” approach towards land restoration, implement drought preparedness plans in a proactive manner, and encourage local governments to adopt integrated land use management and governance.

But how does all this affect us, who live in the cities? And what can we do about it? At a recent media briefing for African and Indian journalists on desertification, conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in New Delhi, we caught up with Sunita Narain, Director-General of CSE. Following are excerpts of the interview:

Sunita Narain, Director General, Centre for Science and Environment. Pic: Wikimedia Commons

How is ‘desertification’ relevant to the urban population? Are they, in fact, contributing to it?

There is an urgent need for the urban population to understand desertification because they need water. Today, they are the cause of a large amount of water being pumped from rural India into urban areas. Urban India, on the other hand, is taking clean water and is returning waste water. So, cities should understand their role in desertification, in aquifer depletion and in water pollution. People here should understand that water scarcity is only going to grow.

We have already seen Day Zero in Chennai and Shimla in recent times, and each year our cities are becoming more and more vulnerable to water shocks. We are looking at a time when urban India will find both clean air and clean water becoming a priceless thing that they will never have. And hence, people have to involve themselves in the discussion on desertification, understand its role and be a part of the solution.

How can an urban citizen help find a solution to desertification?

Urban citizens are big users of resources. They consume huge amounts of water, produce a lot of waste, so they need to play a much more responsible role knowing that their use of resources is impinging on a large number of very poor people. The first thing is we need do is to become water prudent, which means that every city dweller must do rainwater harvesting — it is our responsibility to recharge groundwater.

On the other hand, we must protect our lakes, tanks and ponds because we Indians cry when it rains and even when it doesn’t. As urban Indians, we are suffering because of water-scarcity, water-drought and then floods. Then again, every time it rains, our cities go under water. The only way to deal with it this to protect our lakes, our ponds and our channels. Urban Indians need to be aware of this and how they should be protecting it. A group of citizens can play a very important role by being the voice of conscience over the government and say that these lakes and ponds are important for water security in our cities.

Also people in cities have the biggest responsibility to make sure that their waste does not land up as toxins in somebody’s backyard. Today they are throw their waste into the backyards of other people and as a result of this they are polluting the homes of villagers, whether it is through the sewage we let into our rivers or the garbage that invariably lands up near the homes of the poor,  either in the city or outside it. Our backyards have to become our front-yards.

So, what would be a good way to push this, at this point? Should we resort to education, laws, policies or any other methods?

I think the start comes when you become aware of the issues and the challenges of desertification, and this is where the media plays an important role. The media should speak truth to power, whether it is the government or the rich urban Indians, because the elite in urban India believe that it is not their problem. So, city folks need that information and the media should tell them what is happening. The media should also tell the urban population about the opportunities that exist to make things differently. This knowledge should be enough, initially, to make a difference.

In your introduction to the special edition of Down To Earth magazine on desertification, you have said that food and climate change are mutually related. Can you explain this?

Today, urban Indians are puppets in the hands of large national and multi-national processed food companies. They are making us eat junk food and food which is high in fat, salt and sugar and very low in nutrition. Urban Indians are themselves worst affected by the diseases resulting from this – diabetes, hypertension, obesity, stroke, stress – it is absolutely critical that people understand what they are doing to themselves. We are poisoning ourselves.

Firstly, we have to become responsible for our own body and we cannot allow industries to rule our kitchens. We have given away our right to decide to the industries, so if they say ‘eat refined oil,’ we use refined oil and if they say eat double-hydrogenated oil, we use double hydrogenated oil. There is enough evidence today that bad food has major impact on our health. The first thing we have to do is take charge of our food and our health. Once we do this we push for better practices overall, because the food industry is also dictating bad practices that our farmers are taking on.

The CSE had tested antibiotics in honey and chicken and we had found that all these ‘highly-integrated’ industries are feeding antibiotics to chicken and bees only as growth promoters. Why? Because they are in the business of making profit and they are ok to do anything to the food as long as it brings them (higher) profit. We, as urban citizens, should take charge and ask for more bio-diverse food, more local food, more rights for our farmers so that they give more nutritious food. This will also be good for their livelihoods.

You have mentioned that some of the foods like millets etc are disappearing. But they are making a comeback in an elite manner in the metros. How do you assess this trend?

I normally say this is very bad, we are seeing a revival of good food and data from ICMR tells us that urban rich have less incidence of diabetes than the urban poor. In rural India, the rural rich have less diabetes than the rural poor. This is because the urban poor is following the bad food habits of the urban rich by eating Maggie noodles and all the processed junk that comes in, which have been glamorised by KFC, McDonald’s and other junk food outlets.

I am not unhappy that the elite is rediscovering good food and nutrition because the preferences of the elite are building the food culture of the rest. However, I feel that these food items should not be priced out of the hands of the poor. Why should millets and organic food cost so much? It is because we are not looking at it as food that should be in the hands of the poor as well. India eats reasonably good home-cooked food but we are reaching a point where we are first chemically contaminating our food and then going back to eating organic food (at a higher price) and that’s the cycle we need to break. We should make sure that everybody understands the value of nutrition in their food.

How has India progressed in implementing the policy changes recommended during the Paris climate convention and other such global conferences?

My role as an Indian environmentalist is to clearly keep the focus on India. We need to push things here and the UN is very important, but the UN has played an abysmal role in making the rich more responsible for their pollution. So it actually creates a poor track record, when it comes to the developing countries taking the UN seriously on many of these challenges. However, it is very important for Indians to demand action in India. We are much more ‘climate-risked’, we are beginning to see the impacts of climate change, we see extreme rains and heat. For India, land and water management is critical, and so is regeneration of forests so that they become the livelihoods of the poor. So it is very important for every Indian to demand land, water and forest to be at the core of the climate change agenda and the development agenda.

And you feel that we have failed there? We have been lackadaisical about climate change action…?

The Indian government’s national commitments have been definitely followed and I have no doubt about it, but I think what is not happening is our ability to influence the rest of the world, to convey that they need to do a lot more because climate change today has victims and everyone needs to do a lot more to reduce the impacts of climate change.

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