Geography coupled with high levels of poverty and population density has rendered South Asia especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. This could compound development problems and further strain the resources needed to sustain growth, urbanization, and industrialization.
The region faces daunting climate-related development challenges. It already has a stressed and largely degraded natural resource base. And with an estimated 600 million people subsisting on less than $1.25 a day, even small climate variations can cause irreversible losses and tip large numbers into destitution.
Much of South Asia relies on monsoon rains and is vulnerable to sea level changes and the melting of glaciers.
- The monsoon carries over 70% of the region’s annual precipitation in a four-month period. When the rains fail, suffering and economic loss are widespread.
- Sea level rise poses a risk to densely populated coastlines and many low-lying islands. In the severe climate change scenarios, a sea level rise would submerge much of the Maldives and inundate nearly a fifth of Bangladesh.
- Retreating glaciers could pose the most far-reaching challenge. The Himalayan system influences monsoon dynamics, acts as a reservoir to sustain crops, provides groundwater recharge, and is home to a unique ecosystem with many endemic species. With rising temperatures, the ice mass of the Himalayas and Hindu Kush is retreating faster than the global average, threatening water supplies, people’s lives, and the region’s economies.
South Asia already is highly susceptible to natural disasters, with almost 230,000 deaths and about $45 billion in damages over the past two decades.
Many of the most severe impacts of climate change are likely to be regional and will call for coordinated regional responses. Bangladesh has 54 shared rivers with India, so that changes in upstream runoff and demand due to climate change, could significantly impact future water availability across all these rivers. Adaptation to climate change might therefore require not just local action but also cross-boundary cooperative arrangements.
The cascading effects of more variable rainfall and higher temperatures will impact most aspects of life and the economy. Weather extremes and greater fluctuations in rainfall have the capacity to refashion the region's comparative advantage. Food security, heath, livelihoods, and access to basic services of water, sanitation, energy, and shelter could all be compromised.
Expected impacts of climate change in South Asia:
- Lower yields for major crops, by as much as 20%.
- More water scarcity of water, with a need to balance more variable supplies with accelerating demand.
- Economic losses and damage to high-value infrastructure, particularly in cities and vulnerable coastlines.
- Higher incidence of vector and water-borne diseases, with higher temperatures or less reliable water supplies.
- Even greater social disparities among vulnerable groups: women, children, the poor, indigenous people.
High economic growth has stepped up the thirst for energy in South Asia, and the region has emerged as a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Rising energy demand is driven by urbanization, industrialization, and prosperity, all part of a broader development process that is lifting millions of South Asians out of poverty. However, per capita emissions are still extremely low by international standards – less than one-fifth that of the developed countries.
As the region strives to meet its development goals, the potential for further growth in emissions is enormous. Over 500 million people in South Asia have no access to electricity. How the region meets the legitimate demands for energy and economic prosperity will have far-reaching consequences on global greenhouse gas emissions.
The World Bank is helping countries in South Asia address climate change risks and pursue development opportunities that promote low-carbon growth. With a large proportion of South Asia's population living in poverty, any efforts must be consistent with development objectives to raise living standards and incomes.
To assist with adaptation to climate change, we have a targeted package of interventions aimed at reducing South Asia’s exposure to climate risks, promoting integrated coastal zone management, and building climate-resilient rural economies.
Expanding the many climate-friendly interventions in the Bank's portfolio will not be sufficient to tackle the climate challenge in South Asia. To leverage limited resources effectively, we are also helping build countries’ awareness, ownership, and capacity for addressing climate change issues.