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CLIMATE CHANGE, EXTREME WEATHER PHENOMENA, AND WHAT’S AT STAKE

CLIMATE CHANGE, EXTREME WEATHER PHENOMENA, AND WHAT’S AT STAKE

Extreme weather conditions in India 

As stated by ‘Counting the cost 2020: A year of climate breakdown’, an international report published by Christian Aid in London, India was the worst hit in terms of most destructive climate disasters of 2020. The 15 countries listed in the report cumulatively reported insurance losses of 150 billion dollars with India topping the list owing to the sheer frequency of natural disasters. 

The report highlighted how cyclone Amphan and floods in India accounted for maximum loss of lives globally due to climate change-triggered events in 2020. Furthermore, the cyclone itself was responsible for the ‘biggest displacement’ in the world in 2020 caused by a natural calamity. 

Extreme weather conditions like cyclones, landslides, floods, etc., in India are a common phenomenon. These have increased in frequency and intensity over time, causing severe impact in terms of lives and livelihoods. 

In 2018, these natural disasters collectively were responsible for 2,081 deaths – i.e. the highest recorded all over the world for that year. Case in point, the Kerala floods that year destroyed 20,000 houses and killed 324 people along with an estimated 2,20,000 people who were displaced and forced to migrate. The losses from these foods alone were estimated to be around US $2.8 billion. 

Cyclones in India

‘Cyclones’ are any low pressure areas with wind spiralling downwards. Tropical cyclones are formed over warm tropical waters with sea – surface temperatures over 26.5 degree Celsius. 

More than 10 cyclones have hit the Indian subcontinent within the last 1 year. Most of these cyclones originate from the Bay of Bengal as high surface temperatures and humidity make this area more prone to tropical cyclone development. 

India witnessed two cyclones i.e. Tauktae and Yaas within the last one month. These were both high intensity cyclones that recorded sea surface temperatures (SST) of 31-32 degree Celsius. The high SST ensures the intensification of any cyclone within a relatively short period of time. 

Mr. Prateek Sengupta, Senior Manager – Sustainability, Climate Change & ESG, Thinkthrough Consulting, reckons that extreme weather events including high intensity cyclones like Tauktae and Yaas have several causal factors. However, it is undeniable that over the last 100 years our oceans and seas have been warming at an alarming rate. High intensity cyclones originate over warm water and therefore the increasing warming of the seas and oceans around India will most likely lead to an increase in the frequency of high intensity cyclones on both the Western and Eastern coasts of India in the coming years.’

INCREASING INTENSITY AND FREQUENCY OF EXTREME WEATHER PATTERNS – CAN THESE BE ATTRIBUTED TO CLIMATE CHANGE?

Experts weigh in on whether climate change is responsible for the increasing intensity and frequency of these extreme weather conditions in India. 

While speaking with Sutainability Today, Ms. Sushmita Singha, Climate Risk Consultant at The World Bank said that the scientific evidence so far does seem to confirm that such recent extreme events can be attributed to climate change induced by anthropogenic factors. While cyclones are hard to predict, there is very little doubt that global warming has raised the average temperature of the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean, which in turn would increase the likelihood of higher frequencies of such events in the future.’

She further added that in order to minimize the damages from these events, our coastal areas need to be protected – the mangroves, wetlands, reefs. We also need an advanced early warning system, backed by a robust evacuation plan, so we can take swift action when the need arises, thereby saving lives and livelihoods. I would also add improved infrastructure to this list, such as storm water management systems.’

How Do These Changing Patterns Impact Us?

India is especially vulnerable to the effects of these extreme weather conditions owing to its favourable humid climate which makes it more prone to cyclones, low per capita income, dependency on agriculture for livelihoods and poor economic zones that make recovery from devastation more difficult.

As mentioned above, cyclones are a frequent occurrence in the Indian subcontinent. These depending upon intensity are known to have both direct and indirect impacts on the people of the country in the wake of their devastation.

Loss of livelihoods, lives and displacement from houses are perhaps the most prevalent forms of devastation during cyclones. Economic losses account for a major distressing factor. This coupled with long term uncertainty and restricted access to resources and immediate medical aid make the poor especially vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters. 

Indirect impact includes long term illnesses or communicable or non-communicable diseases spread due to stagnant water being collected like Malaria, Dengue, Chinkungunya, etc. 

What Adaptation Measures Can We Undertake To Minimize The Damage? 

Since India is prone to cyclones, the effect of climate change cannot be reversed overnight. The best prevention would be to better equip cyclone prone areas and improve infrastructure in order to safeguard the lives of the people living here. 

The need for more investment highlighted above by Ms. Singha in infrastructure is also shared by Mr. Sengupta who insists that a ‘a two-pronged approach has to be adopted which would include early warning systems along with the development of climate resilient infrastructure along coastal areas. The Indian Meteorological Department has already done a great job in deploying early warning systems which allowed for timely detection of the oncoming cyclones and provided government agencies with sufficient time to evacuate citizens. However, the cyclones have caused major damage to power plants, ports, roads and farms which exposes the vulnerability of critical infrastructure in coastal areas. In order to reduce such damage in the future, there is an urgent need to invest in climate resilient infrastructure both through greyfield and greenfield investments particularly in critical sectors like power, ports and roads.’

With steadily rising temperatures over the last decade, the frequency and intensity of cyclones are likely to rise as well. Measures need to be put into place to ensure minimum damage and reduction in losses in terms of lives and livelihoods. Cyclone prone areas need better access to medical facilities and quicker responses. Better preparation will ensure lesser casualties and lesser economic damages.

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