Greatest Environmental Challenges in India in 2023

Countries in the Global South historically bear the most brunt, despite making little to no contribution to climate change, as they often lack resources to tackle the emergency and mitigate the impacts of extreme weather events.

Greatest Environmental Challenges in India in 2023

Written by Masroor Azam:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its latest climate assessment, made it very clear that the climate crisis is accelerating at an unprecedented pace and warned that it is “now or never” to limit global warming to 1.5C. From air pollution and plastic waste to deforestation and droughts, there are several factors exacerbating climate change, with consequences felt everywhere in the world. However, some nations suffer more than others. Countries in the Global South historically bear the most brunt, despite making little to no contribution to climate change, as they often lack resources to tackle the emergency and mitigate the impacts of extreme weather events. Here are some of the biggest environmental issues in India right now and how the country is dealing with them.

Air Pollution

Air pollution undoubtedly is one of the most pressing environmental issues in India. According to a report in 2021, India is home to 63 of the 100 most polluted cities, with New Delhi named the capital with the worst air quality in the world. The study also found that PM2.5 concentrations – tiny enough to penetrate into the blood stream through our lungs – in almost half of the country’s cities are more than 10 times higher than that of WHO air quality guideline level.

Vehicular exhaust, smoke from cooking, industrial waste, the construction sector, crop residue burning, and power generation using coal are among the biggest sources of air pollution in India. The country’s dependence on coal, oil, and gas due to rampant electrification makes it the world’s third-largest polluter.  Exposure to PM2.5 has been linked to many long-term health issues including heart and lung disease, as well as 7 million premature deaths every year.

In recent years, the State Government of the Indian capital has taken some stringent measures to keep a check on air pollution. One of which is the Odd-Even Regulation – a traffic rationing measure under which only private vehicles with registration numbers ending with an odd digit will be allowed on roads on odd dates and those with an even digit on even dates. Starting from January 2023, there will also be a ban on the use of coal as fuel in industrial and domestic units in the National Capital Region (NRC). However, the ban will not apply to thermal power plants, incidentally the largest consumers of coal. Regardless of the measures taken to curb air pollution, as the World Air Quality Report clearly shows – the AQI in India continues to be on a dangerous trajectory.

Water Pollution

Among the most pressing environmental issues in India is also water pollution. India has experienced unprecedented urban expansion and economic growth in recent years. This, however, comes with huge environmental costs. Besides its air, the country’s waterways have become extremely polluted, with around 70% of surface water estimated to be unfit for consumption. Illegal dumping of raw sewage, silt, and garbage into rivers and lakes severely contaminated India’s waters. The near-total absence of pipe planning and an inadequate waste management system are only exacerbating the situation. Every day, a staggering 40 million litres of wastewater enter rivers and other water bodies. Of these, only a tiny fraction is adequately treated due to a lack of adequate infrastructure.

In middle-income countries like India, water pollution can account for the loss of up to half of GDP growth, a World Bank report suggests. Water pollution costs the Indian government between USD$6.7 and $7.7 billion a year and is associated with a 9% drop in agricultural revenues as well as a 16% decrease in downstream agricultural yields.

Besides affecting humans, with nearly 40 million Indians suffering from waterborne diseases like typhoid, cholera, and hepatitis and nearly 400,000 fatalities each year, water pollution also damages crops, as infectious bacteria and diseases in the water used for irrigation prevent them from growing. Inevitably, freshwater biodiversity is also severely damaged. The country’s rivers and lakes often become open sewers for residential and industrial waste. Especially the latter – which comprises a wide range of toxic substances like pesticides and herbicides, oil products, and heavy metals – can kill aquatic organisms by altering their environment and making it extremely difficult for them to survive.

Fortunately, the country has started addressing the issue by taking steps to improve its water source quality, often with local startups’ help. One strategy involves the construction of water treatment plants that rely on techniques such as flocculation, skimming, and filtration to remove the most toxic chemicals from the water. The upgrade process at one of the country’s largest plants located in Panjrapur, Maharashtra, will enable it to produce more than 19 million cubic metres of water a day, enough to provide access to clean water to approximately 96 million people.

The government is also looking at ways to promote water conservation and industrial water reuse by opening several treatment plants across the country. In Chennai, a city in Eastern India, water reclamation rose from 36,000 to 80,000 cubic metres between 2016 and 2019.

Food and Water Shortages

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), India is the country expected to pay the highest price for the impacts of the climate crisis. Aside from extreme weather events such as flash floods and widespread wildfires, the country often experiences long heatwaves and droughts that dry up its water sources and compromise crops.

Since March 2022 – which was the hottest and driest month recorded in 120 years – the North West regions have been dealing with a prolonged wave of scorching and record-breaking heat. For several consecutive days, residents were hit by temperatures surpassing 40 degrees Celsius, while in some areas, surface land temperatures reached up to 60C. There is no doubt among experts that this unprecedented heatwave is a direct manifestation of climate change.

The heatwave has also contributed to an economic slowdown due to a loss of productivity, as thousands of Indians are unable to work in the extreme heat. The agriculture sector – which employs over 60% of the population – is often hit hard by these erratic droughts, impacting food stability and sustenance. Currently, farmers are struggling to rescue what remains of the country’s wheat crops, piling on existing fears of a global shortage sparked by the war in Ukraine.

Waste Management

Among the most pressing environmental issues in India is also waste. As the second-largest population in the world of nearly 1.4 billion people, it comes as no surprise that 277 million tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) are produced there every year. Experts estimate that by 2030, MSW is likely to reach 387.8 million tonnes and will more than double the current value by 2050. India’s rapid urbanisation makes waste management extremely challenging. Currently, about 5% of the total collected waste is recycled, 18% is composted, and the remaining is dumped at landfill sites.

The plastic crisis in India is one of the worst on the planet. According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), India currently produces more than 25,000 tonnes of plastic waste every day on average, which accounts for almost 6% of the total solid waste generated in the country. India stands second among the top 20 countries having a high proportion of riverine plastic emissions nationally as well as globally. Indus, Brahmaputra, and Ganges rivers are known as the ‘highways of plastic flows’ as they carry and drain most of the plastic debris in the country. Together with the 10 other topmost polluted rivers, they leak nearly 90% of plastics into the sea globally.

To tackle this issue, in 2020 the government announced that they would ban the manufacture, sale, distribution, and use of single-use plastics from July 1 2022 onwards. Furthermore, around 100 Indian cities are set to be developed as smart cities. Despite being still in its early phase, the project sees civic bodies completely redrawing the long-term vision in solid waste management, with smart technologies but also awareness campaigns to encourage community participation in building the foundation of new collection and disposal systems.