Climate Change & Natural Disasters

From one Calamity to the Next

Disaster Management

December 1, 2018

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December 2018

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Over two-and-a-half months of incessant rains led to floods in Kerala in August 2018

Over two-and-a-half months of incessant rains led to floods in Kerala in August 2018

There is hardly any country in the world that has escaped the terrifying impact of climate change. India, too, is not immune to it and has had its share of natural disasters; but how is it preparing to face the consequences of increased recurrence of these incidents?

During last August, Kerala, dubbed as God’s Own Country, received over 164 pc more rain than normal, making it the highest in nearly 90 years, and that was not all. The more than normal rain continued over two-and-a-half months. The incessant downpours led to flooding as well as numerous landslides all over the state, leaving 483 people dead and 36 missing.

Three years earlier, during the winter of 2015, catastrophic floods hit the entire Coromandel coast, impacting states of Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Andhra Pradesh, claiming 600 lives.

News of floods, forest fires and other climatic catastrophes from around the world have become so mundane that it has become the new normal and no longer receives the attention it deserves from ordinary citizens.

Turning calamitous

The State of the Climate report 2018 notes that global surface temperatures in 2018 are on track to be the fourth warmest since recordings began in the mid1800s, in a dangerous sequence of consecutive years, being behind only 2015, 2016, and 2017.

The year 2018 saw almost record high temperatures despite a moderately cooling La Niña during the first half of the year. The latest data shows that the level of the world’s oceans continued to rise in 2018, with sea levels now around eight cm higher than in the early 1990s. Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHG), including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), also reached record high levels in 2018.

The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) attributes rising temperature to emission of GHG world over. In simple terms, the impact of climate change on a global scale is leading to submergence, coastal flooding, erosion, reduction of freshwater resources and declining farm productivity, among other things. Scientists are literally looking on the ground to clinch evidence of climate change.

Back in India, a global team led by Robert S Ross of the Florida State University, conducted the study along with researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bhubaneswar and the India Meteorological Department (IMD), and confirmed a rapid rise in surface temperatures in the past 70 years in India. A study of geothermal records across India has shown that the country has experienced about 1°C of warming over the baseline mean temperature of the 19th century.

The study combines data from 146 sites collected by the Hyderabadbased National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI) across major climatic zones – interior peninsula, east coast, west coast, north-central, north-east and north-west. Its results have been published in the journal, Current Science.

The study also calculated temperature rise in terms of decadal change, using information from two different datasets covering the period 1951 to 2013. The study added that there has been a notable warming trend in northwestern India beginning in the 1970s and accelerating in the 2000s and 2010s.

India: highly vulnerable

India is already highly vulnerable to natural disasters, particularly earthquakes, floods, droughts, cyclones and landslides. Global risk and strategic consulting firm Maplecroft in its 2016 assessment rated India as the country most exposed to natural hazards in the world.

According to India’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), India is vulnerable, in varying degrees, to a large number of disasters. More than 58.6 pc of the landmass is prone to earthquakes of moderate to very high intensity; over 40 million hectares (12 pc) of its land is prone to floods and river erosion; close to 5,700 km, out of the 7,516 km long coastline is prone to cyclones and Tsunamis; 68 pc of its cultivable area is vulnerable to droughts and, its hilly areas are at risk from landslides and avalanches.

The Global Climate Risk Index 2018, released in November, lists India as the sixth most vulnerable nation to the impact of climate change. A study released by the UN office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) in October this year, estimated economic losses due to natural disasters in India to be around USD 80 billion during the 20-year period of 1998 to 2017, putting India among the world’s top five countries in absolute economic losses. Globally, disaster losses during this period have been estimated at USD 3 trillion.

In November, addressing a 21-day winter school on climate change in marine fisheries at the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), Kochi, director A Gopalakrishnan warned that the Indian Ocean is warming (0.11°C per decade) faster than the Atlantic (0.07°C per decade) and the Pacific (0.05°C per decade). In addition, the sea surface temperature of the Indian Ocean will increase by 0.60°C by 2050.

A Ramachandran, vice chancellor, Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies, points out that climate change is causing floods and droughts across the globe. He emphasises that increased water temperature and higher carbon CO2 concentration make the ocean more acidic, while also warning that there would be a drop in productivity in future due to gradual damage occurring in the ecosystem and biodiversity, owing to climate change.

India has witnessed rapid deforestation in recent years, primarily due to its focus on economic development. According to government data, 14,000 sq km of forests were cleared to accommodate 23,716 industrial projects across India over the last 30 years.

India is also losing wetlands at the rate of two to three pc each year. The drivers of this decline are overfishing, agriculture, deforestation, introduced species, climate change, water drainage, land encroachment and urban development. India has a total of 27,403 wetlands, and close to 4,000 of them are on the coast.

A double whammy

The recent fires in California, which burnt down homes of several Hollywood celebrities showed that even the rich are not beyond the nature’s wrath; but globally, it is the poor who bear most of the impact of climate change. India is home to 33 pc of the global poor, who are concentrated in areas with low human development index and are dependent on the farm sector, animal husbandry, fisheries or forest produce. It is also these areas where the climate change impacts are being felt the most. Repeated natural calamities have had a drastic impact on food security in the Indian subcontinent. With agriculture remaining the economic mainstay for a large proportion of India’s population, untimely weather extremities have literally created havoc in the lives of the country’s farmers, four-fifths of whom are small and marginal farmers, eking out a hand to mouth existence and who are literally unable to live with any calamities. Unseasonal rains and hailstorms have destroyed crops across states. As a consequence, 6,351 farmers and cultivators committed suicide in 2016 across India, or 17 everyday. In 2015, the figure was 22 everyday.

The travesty does not end here. Unseasonal rains are followed by deadly heat waves engulfing many states in the north and east. Experts point out that climate change can reduce farm incomes by 15-18 pc in irrigated farms, and by 20-25 pc in unirrigated areas.

The World Bank’s report on South Asia’s Hotspots: The Impact of Temperature and Precipitation Changes on Living Standards, suggests that varying rainfall patterns and rising average temperature due to global warming could shave 2.8 pc off India’s GDP by 2050. Heavily dependent on agriculture, global warming could mean untold disaster, through loss of livelihood, potentially-depressed incomes, forced migration and rising morbidity.

As many countries look to be in line for missing their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) goals on emission reductions, the global warming could only get worse. With such a future looking increasingly likely, countries need to adopt climate-resilience strategies along with climate change mitigation ones.

Is India well prepared?

As climate change-induced natural disasters disrupt lives, society and economy, India needs to be prepared adequately to face the future. Measures are being put in place to mitigate the impact of climate change at the global, national and local levels. Initiatives, such as crop insurance and weather advisory portray a decent understanding of the impact of climate change on agriculture in India.

Several measures have been taken up by institutions to tackle the worrying build-up. With the realisation that agriculture in India is likely to remain mainly rain fed and that the net impact on the sector could be negative, the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) launched the National Initiative on Climate Resilient Agriculture in 2011, as a mega pilot in the 100 most climate-vulnerable districts in India.

About 5,000 farmers across Marathwada and Vidarbha regions in Maharashtra, who come from amongst the most vulnerable areas, were identified by the department of agriculture for a project undertaken by the World Bank. Approved in 2017, the work started a year later in July 2018 and currently the farmers are being trained in phases to become climate resilient.

According to the World Bank report, agriculture production of cereal in Maharashtra has declined since 2000, and overall production performed below its potential over the last two decades. Worryingly, the mean temperature of the state is expected to rise by 1.7-2 degree Celsius, which may impede socioeconomic development.

For more than a decade now, rural India has been silently working to mitigate the climate change impact through the world’s largest public wage programme. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGA) began in 2006, and has been given the mandate to proof villages from the vagaries of weather—floods, droughts and moisture upgradation. Between 2006 and 2011, India has spent close to INR 1.1 trillion (EUR 17 billion) on the programme. According to the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), MNREGA managed to lift about 60 million people above the poverty line.

Disaster preparedness

Though mainstreaming disaster risk reduction into the development plan is a mandate of the Disaster Management Act 2005, India needs to pull up its socks. There are policy issues cutting across several stakeholders and progress is mired in rampant red tape.

Similarly, India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) announced in 2008 is yet to fructify and is an ideal example of the red tape. The plan, with eight sectoral missions, overseen by six union ministries, is as erratic as the Indian monsoon. So far, the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change has met just once, in 2015.

The government has also announced new schemes to meet climate change objectives. However, it has not so far aligned these with the NAPCC. Many missions are moving slowly, remain absent or are altogether ineffective. Besides, budgetary support is limited. In addition, states have to frame their own action plans, in line with the NAPCC, but the state plans are by and large vague.

The exceptions are the National Solar Mission and Mission on Energy. The target of the National Solar Mission capacity has been raised and set at 100 gigawatt (GW) generation by 2022.

These two missions and a few innovative measures aside, India remains poorly equipped to deal with the impact of climate change. Having taken nature for granted for far too long, it is time to act to mitigate the impact of natural disasters to help build resilience in the community as well as the economy.


The World is a Stage

India is not the only country to be affected by climate change. Countries across the globe – including the most developed ones – are experiencing natural disasters at periodic intervals. As we go to print, forest fires rage in California, burning 117,000 acres of land and killing over 60 persons. Big wildfires spread depending on favourable wind speed and direction, fuel, as well as terrain. In recent years, climate change has made conditions more favourable for wildfires in the American West. Of the 20 largest wildfires in California’s recorded history, 15 have occurred since 2000, at a time when forests have become drier and warmer. In October this year, Saudi Arabia faced torrential rains that killed 14 people. Induced by climate change, natural disasters are not just innumerable, but occurring frequently. Researchers from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a non-profit organisation that supports debates on climate change and energy issues, analysed 59 studies that looked at climate change and extreme weather. All have been published since the Paris Climate Summit two years ago. They concluded that 41 of the studies demonstrated climate change had made extreme weather events more intense and long-lived.



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