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OPINION: How did India’s monsoon produce a disaster?


Elizabeth Gogoi and Charlotte Finlay from CDKN reflect on how the tragic loss of life in the Himalayan State should sharpen minds on how disaster risk needs to be integrated into planning decisions.

 

There are usually celebrations in India when the monsoon rains arrive. The rainy season is the backbone to the economy, nourishing rivers and farms as well as breaking the stifling heat of the summer months.

However, this year, the monsoon rains brought destruction and tragedy. The monsoon officially arrived in India on June 16, two-weeks earlier than expected. In fact, this was the earliest recorded arrival since records began in 1960. And, this year the monsoons came with “unexpected vigour”. The most affected area was the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, where its capital Dehradun recorded 601mm of rainfallRain is liquid water in the form of droplets that have condensed from atmospheric water vapor and then precipitated—that is, become heavy enough to fall under gravity. Rain is a major component of the water cycle and is responsible for depositing most of the fresh water on the Earth. It ... in just 60 hours, and large-scale flash floods and landslides followed.

At the time of writing the death toll in Uttarakhand currently stands at over 200, but it is expected to increase significantly – especially as 14,000 people are still missing. Over 400 roads and 21 bridges have been washed away, together with Hindu holy shrines and hundreds of villages, and 25,000 pilgrims visiting a holy site remain stranded.

At present attention is rightly focused on rescue and relief efforts. However, thoughts are already turning to how this extreme weather eventExtreme weather describes weather phenomena that are at the extremes of the historical distribution, especially severe or unseasonal weather. (UKCIP) became a disaster. As the Times of India asks, was this a “man-made disaster?”

A PERFECT STORM

The science tells us that climate changeClimate change is a lasting change in weather patterns over long periods of time. It can be a natural phenomena and and has occurred on Earth even before people inhabited it. Quite different is a current situation that is also referred to as climate change, anthropogenic climate change, or ... and unsustainable development activities are interacting to create a ‘perfect storm’ that is increasing the risk of disasters. Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report on ‘Managing the Risks to Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation’ (SREX). This report concluded that even without taking climate change into account, the risk of disasters will continue to increase in many countries as more people and assets are exposed to weatherWeather refers to the state of the atmosphere with regard to temperature, cloudiness, rainfall, wind, and other meteorological conditions. (UKCIP) extremes. We are putting ourselves, and our infrastructure and businesses, in harm’s way.

Environmental activists in India are pointing to unplanned development and rampant felling of forests in Uttarakhand as to blame for turning this hazard into a disaster. Journalists are asking questions about the series of damsA dam is used to regulate the height of water surface or to store water. which are reported to have upset the ecological cycle and hill slope stability, as well as a lack of urbanAn urban area is characterized by higher population density and vast human features in comparison to the areas surrounding it. Urban areas may be cities, towns or conurbations, but the term is not commonly extended to rural settlements such as villages and hamlets. planning leading to construction of buildings in the high-risk areas of Rudraprayag, Joshimath and elsewhere.

The SREX report underlines how our heavy alteration of ecosystemsA system of living organisms interacting with each other and their physical environment. The boundaries of what could be called an ecosystem are somewhat arbitrary, depending on the focus of interest or study. Thus, the extent of an ecosystem may range from very small spatial scales to, ... – such as turning forestsForestry is the management and care of woods, including fellings and plantation of new trees. into agricultural land and overfishing of protective coral reefsRock-like limestone structures built by corals along ocean coasts (fringing reefs) or on top of shallow, submerged banks or shelves (barrier reefs, atolls), most conspicuous in tropical and subtropical oceans. (IPCC) – decreases the natural world’s resilience to climate extremes and disasters and our ability to ride them out.

Uttarakhand should not be singled out for this apparent lack of foresight. Every state in India is at risk of different climate extremes – whether an extreme heat wave, cyclone, drought, floodingThe overflowing of the normal confines of a stream or other body of water, or the accumulation of water over areas that are not normally submerged. Floods include river (fluvial) floods, flash floods, urban floods, pluvial floods, sewer floods, coastal floods, and glacial lake outburst floods ... or sea level riseCoasts are projected to be exposed to increasing risks, including coastal erosion, due to climate change and sea level rise. The effect will be exacerbated by increasing human-induced pressures on coastal areas (very high confidence). {WGII 6.3, 6.4, SPM}; By the 2080s, many millions more people ... – and there are examples from across the country of planning and investment decisions not taking these risks into account.

REVERSE ENGINEERING

As part of a Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) research project, a team from Intercooperation, All-India Disaster MitigationMitigation refers to actions that reduce our contribution to the causes of climate change. This means reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), through energy efficiency and using alternative forms of transport and energy.(UKCIP) Institute (AIDMI) and the UK-based Institute of Development Studies are carrying out a ‘reverse engineering’ exercise for Cyclone Aila which hit both India and Bangladesh in 2009.

It looks at the different impacts Aila had and then works backwards to assess why and how people and assets were vulnerable to the cyclone, and the institutional failings responsible. The purpose is to identify the factors that caused a hazard to become a disaster. Before conclusions can be made on this week’s disaster in Uttarakhand, a similar exercise could be considered.

Climate change is projected to make the situation even more severe and uncertain. The SREX report states that by 2050 we should expect more regular extreme weather eventsExtreme weather describes weather phenomena that are at the extremes of the historical distribution, especially severe or unseasonal weather. (UKCIP), but also unprecedented events, such as cyclones hitting areas that they have not reached in the past.

A new report from the World Bank and Potsdam Institute, “Turn Down the Heat: Climate Extremes, Regional Impacts, and the Case for Resilience”, adds further evidence of what would happen under 2 degree Celsius and 4 degree Celsius warming scenarios, with a key finding being the potential change in the regularity and impact of the monsoon.

The report concludes that we are now irreversibly committed to a world that will warm, on average, to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures.

Disaster risk reductionDenotes both a policy goal or objective, and the strategic and instrumental measures employed for anticipating future disaster risk; reducing existing exposure, hazard, or vulnerability; and improving resilience (IPCC-SREX, 2014). measures are in evidence across India, but not at the scale needed. Uttarakhand has an extensive training and communication programme, focused on building awareness for disaster preparedness. There are guidelines and regulations for disaster-resilient construction in place.

However, like all states, the funding and political capital available for such preventative actions is dwarfed by that for relief efforts.

NEW APPROACH NEEDED

The real lesson from Uttarakhand’s tragedy is that reducing the risk of an extreme weather event becoming a disaster is not the responsibility of just those with ‘disaster’ in their job title. A new approach is needed which takes a long-term perspective and sees disaster risk and adaptation to climate change as completely integral to development

The government of Uttarakhand has in fact taken the first step, by drawing up a State Action Plan on Climate Change which is cross-sectoral and includes managing the risks of disasters. It is titled “Transforming crisis into opportunity” and aims to build the resilience of the state’s development path from the impacts of climate change.

However, the challenge now is in implementation of the plan, with the hope that people affected by climate change and disasters will begin to see the benefits. CDKN is supporting the government of Uttarakhand with this and is soon to start work on a vulnerability assessment of the impact of climate change on the state.  This will help to engage ministries in the issues and risks associated with climate change, shed further light on where and how the state is at risk, and how planning decisions need to take this into account.

Scientists have to work with uncertainties and as such policy-makers have to plan for an uncertain future. But, what we know for sure is that if development does not take into account the risk of natural disasters then the loss of life will continue to increase.

 

This article is an extended version of an article which first appeared in Wall Street Journal ‘India Real Time’ and has also been featured on Thomson Reuters Foundation Alertnet

 

For more information on CDKN’s work in Uttarakhand and India contact Elizabeth Colebourn, elizabeth.colebourn@cdkn.org 

Photo courtesy of EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection @flickrcreativecommons

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