Human Development is about flourishing within planetary boundaries

Aditi Mukherji argues that human destiny cannot be separated from Earth’s destiny, and, flourishing is impossible without access to clean water.

During May and June, the ISC will be featuring content by experts on Rearticulating Human Development. This is a joint project with the UNDP. ISC members and your networks are encouraged to participate. This interview was conducted by Asun Lera St Clair @AsunStClair

Aditi Mukherhi is the Principal Researcher and Research Group Leader (Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience) at International Water Management Institute.


Flourishing within the planetary boundaries

The notion of human development, when it started 30 years ago, was revolutionary and certainly far more holistic than Gross Domestic Product (GDP) indices. Now, we have reached a point where it’s clearer than ever that humans can flourish only if our planet remains habitable. Our aspiration for “development” should we tempered by our knowledge that we cannot keep emitting carbon dioxide and expect that our children and grandchildren will flourish. Climate change has made this message heard loud and clear, but so has COVID-19 – by reminding us of the costs of environmental destruction.

Human development is all about choosing one’s destiny. Parents can still tell their children that they can be whatever they want to be. But children also need to hear that this is contingent on respect for the Earth. As Mahatma Gandhi noted, the Earth has enough to satisfy everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed. In the past, there was this idea that the world was for humans to conquer and subjugate, a means for fulfilling our aspirations. That brashness needs toning down: today’s human aspirations must not come at the expense of harm to the planet or to future generations.

Of course, the dependence of human development on planetary wellbeing is understood pretty well today, at least by the research community. But it needs to be embedded formally within the Human Development Index (HDI). Moreover, governments need to be weaned away from the “development versus environment” framing. People cannot be lifted out of poverty if the environment that supports them is destroyed.

Investing in society, tackling inequality

Many countries in the global South, have done rather well recently with respect to GDP growth. They have managed to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. At the same time, some of them did not invest adequately in social welfare and healthcare. This under-investment has happened not only in the global South but also in many parts of the global North. The consequences are becoming clear with the spread of COVID-19, which has highlighted the integral role of social development and its requirements of investing in health, education and water, for instance.

Growing inequality is a major challenge to human development. The benefits of phenomenal growth of the past few decades have not been equitably distributed, leading to stark inequalities in wealth distribution within almost every society. No wonder, then, in countries like India, a two-month lockdown, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has caused such tremendous hardship.  Look at the situation of the migrant labourers in India, for example. When the lockdown was announced with very short notice, preventing people to move around the country, no one had thought of the terrible consequences this would have for the migrant labourers who found themselves in no man’s land without housing or jobs. 

Around the world, more equal societies have tackled COVID-19 relatively better than more unequal ones. Take, for instance, the Indian state of Kerala. Despite registering the first three national cases of COVID-19 and having the highest number of cases initially, the state was able to flatten the curve – a big deal given the high population density. What seems to have worked for Kerala is its long-term investment in healthcare and education, and its strong and effective local governance. The panchayats – the local governing bodies – are empowered to take decisions in an efficient and democratic manner. Kerala highlights the importance of decentralized decision-making.

Kerala also has quite high literacy levels. In that context, it is also encouraging to see that Nepal’s new constitution (adopted in 2015) focuses considerably on empowering local governments.

Water as a crucial issue for adaptation

Continuing with the theme of decentralization, water is an example of how the lure of large, centralized undertakings leads to small-scale, locally managed projects getting pushed to the margins. Governments’ fascination with mega dams or interlinking of rivers often comes at the expense of simple low-cost projects, such as reviving small water bodies and providing water access through decentralised, low cost models. In part, this is because there are too few local voices in the decision-making process. While understanding of the global water cycle and its changes due to climate change is crucial, – at its heart, water is a local issue – and critical water actions need to be rooted in a local context.

In the context of climate change, if mitigation is about carbon then adaptation is really about water. Yet, water is not prominent in discussions on adaptation finance, for example. Water needs to be more central in the discourse of climate change and even while coping with crises such as COVID-19. Access to water will determine how well society responds to such challenges.


Aditi Mukherji is a Principal Researcher and Research Group Leader of Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience at the International Water Management Institute, New Delhi Office. She is also one the Coordinating Lead Author of IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report. She lives in Kolkata.


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Photo by Marco Verch on Flickr

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