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India's environmental issues have been made worse by global warming


As global representatives from around the world meet in Glasgow to try and address climate change, a crisis is playing out in real time in India. Erratic rains, deadly floods, toxic smog, poisoned rivers - these all might sound like cautionary tales about what could happen if the world doesn't react quickly to climate change. But again, this is actually happening right now in India. The country's rapid development has left it with a wide range of environmental challenges made worse by global warming. We've got NPR correspondent in Mumbai, India, Lauren Frayer with us. Lauren, good morning.


MARTIN: So - I mean, just say more about all of this totally extreme weather. What's going on?

FRAYER: Well, right now, huge swaths of Chennai, a big city, population about 10 million, is underwater. Buses are submerged. Thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes. You know, it's normal for cities like Chennai to get monsoon rains at this time of year. But what's not normal is the volume this time. And it's just one of many environmental crises India is juggling this week. I mean, look at the north of India next.

MARTIN: So what's happening in the north?

FRAYER: So the Yamuna River in New Delhi today is coated with toxic foam. This is something that happens as India develops. Its rivers are filling with industrial waste. In this case, it's ammonia. Literally, poison foam is bubbling up from the water. This is a river that's considered holy to Hindus. People still bathe in it. Lots of them get sick. They also get sick from breathing the air. The Taj Mahal, the country's most famous monument, is basically invisible today from afar because it's shrouded in smog, and this is from industrial and vehicular emissions, basically from burning fossil fuels, which exacerbates climate change.

MARTIN: Oh, yeah. That's a grim picture. It sounds, you know, like, apocalyptic almost.

FRAYER: It is. I talked this morning with Sherry Frosh. She's a suburban Delhi mom who's part of a group called Warrior Moms. They campaign for clean air.

SHERRY FROSH: We live in a dystopian nightmare, which, I mean, you know, we see these bad movies about how people are living in these gray cities and people are choking and they can't survive. And we're living in that right now.

FRAYER: And she's keeping her kids home from school today because of the air quality, which is four times the safe limit.

MARTIN: So Indians must be paying attention to what's going on in Glasgow, Scotland - right? - with the global climate summit.


MARTIN: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made a big promise there, setting a date to cut Indians' net emissions down to zero. I mean, what's the reaction to that? Is that going to be enough?

FRAYER: So he's pledged to get the ball rolling to do that by 2070. That's 20 years after the U.S., 10 years after China. And it's later because Indian officials say they deserve time to develop. I mean, any abrupt shift to renewables here would probably hurt economic growth, and that can literally cost lives in a poor country like India.

I spoke this morning, also, with Suruchi Bhadwal. She's an Indian climate change expert. I actually caught her by phone at the COP26 in Glasgow. And she said, you know, yes, India needs to develop, but it's actually hitting a wall doing that because of climate change. Take the flooding this week in Chennai, for example.

SURUCHI BHADWAL: On one hand, we are talking about changes in the rainfall patterns and heavy precipitation incidences. On the other hand, it's about development also and maldevelopment, where we choked our drainage system. There's no place for the water to drain out.

FRAYER: And she says most Indian cities are examples of this. Urbanization has actually exacerbated the effects of climate change here.

MARTIN: NPR's Lauren Frayer reporting from Mumbai. Lauren, thank you.

FRAYER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUDD AND POLLARD'S "MAWSON'S WALK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.