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How did India's monsoon produce a disaster?

Source: CDKN - Fri, 21 Jun 2013 14:45 GMT
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Soldiers rescue stranded people after heavy rains in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand on June 18, 2013. REUTERS/Stringe
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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 rainfall 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 event became a disaster. As the Times of India asks, was this a “man-made disaster?”

A PERFECT STORM

The science tells us that climate change 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 weather 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 dams which are reported to have upset the ecological cycle and hill slope stability, as well as a lack of urban 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 ecosystems – such as turning forests into agricultural land and overfishing of protective coral reefs – 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, flooding or sea level rise – 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 Mitigation 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 events, 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 reduction 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. CDKNis 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.

Elizabeth Colebourn is a Climate and Development Knowledge Network project manager based in New Delhi, and Charlotte Finlay is a CDKN technical assistance coordinator based in London. For more information on CDKN's work in Uttarakhand and India contact Elizabeth ColebournThis is an extended version of a blog that  appeared in  the Wall Street Journal’s ‘India Real Time’ online edition. 

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