Even as COP 25 concluded its vigorous debate on Climate Emergency in Madrid this week, its findings are, perhaps, more significant for India than any other country on planet earth.
There is a good reason to reach that conclusion. In 2018, India suffered the maximum number of deaths — 2,081 — from climate-triggered extreme weather events.
The Global Climate Risk 2020 report released in Madrid this month, India ranked second in terms of economic losses in 2018 and third in terms of both, human fatalities and economic losses, when considered over a two-decade period.
The country’s ecological underbelly, which accounts for these high human and economic losses, includes increasing incidents of floods, tropical cyclones and prolonged periods of heatwave. Last year, the country was affected by a range of extreme weather events including floods in Kerala, tropical cyclones like Gaja and Titli as well as a long spell of heatwave.
The report is based on average values over a twenty-year period, from 1998 to 2018. It also reveals that India’s economic losses linked to extreme weather events were to the tune of $37,808 million for 2018, a three-fold rise over losses suffered in 2017. The Kerala floods of August 2018, it notes, was “the worst in a hundred years”.
Temperatures in India are spiralling. “Since 2004, India has experienced 11 of its 15 warmest recorded years,” the report noted, adding that the country happened to be “affected by extreme heat in both 2018 and 2019”. The heatwave of 2018 was described as being “one of the longest recorded heat waves … with hundreds of deaths”.
Says Rajiv Chhibber, public health communications expert: “Floods, heat waves and cyclones have had a disastrous impact on human life in India, which in turn has a massive impact on economic losses too. The floods in Kerala last year, tropical cyclones in parts of Odisha and prolonged heatwaves in most parts of the country expose India to climate vulnerability that is only going to increase in the coming years.”
Ironically enough, for centuries, Indians have rejoiced at the arrival of the monsoon to break the summer fever. Sadly, that situation has changed alarmingly. The torrential rains that submerged parts of India in 2019 are the latest in a string of major floods in the past decade, some caused by record rainfall — a scenario that many worry could become the “new normal” as climate change increases the frequency of extreme weather.
In 2019, the monsoon arrived late, but when they came, the heavens opened up -- quite literally. Doses of heavy rain led to flooding in 11 states, taking 1,200 lives and displacing millions. Many farmers, who yearn for rain every year, saw their crops washed away.
Flood risk rises
While summer monsoon has traditionally triggered floods, experts believe that an amalgam of global warming, unplanned urban growth and environmental degradation has accentuated flood risk in India.
Destruction of mountains and hills, as well as uneven development on floodplains and marshes, led to historic floods in Kerala in August 2018.
They were caused by extreme rainfall and mismanagement of dam reservoirs, as well as illegal mining and construction in the Western Ghats. The floods killed 483 people, affecting five million others.
According to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, the number of floods in India rose to 90 in the 10-year period from 2006 to 2015, up from 67 in the 10 years between 1996 and 2005.
While overall flood mortality fell in those two decades, in countries like India, death tolls have continued to rise; from 13,660 between 1996 and 2005, to 15,860 from 2006 to 2015.
India needs to do more
Despite improved warnings and response, India needs to do more to reduce risk. Chief among the steps is regulation of housing and infrastructure in floodplains — a trend that has intensified in recent years as India’s urban population and economy have grown.
A 2017 global analysis by the World Resources Institute said that India has the most GDP exposed to river flooding ($14.3 billion), a number that could rise 10-fold by 2030 as the economy continues to grow.
Points out Chhibber: “This clearly highlights the need for India to continuously strengthen its actions to build climate resilience, including measures to protect human life and health. The need of the hour is climate change adaptation, coupled with predictable data and reliable financial planning.”
While it is true that the United States is the highest sufferer of economic losses caused due to climate-triggered disasters over a span of two decades, it is the developed countries that will have to pay a higher price.
Climate analysts quote the example of Dominica, which lost nearly 21 percent of its gross domestic product in the last 20 years on account of climate-triggered extreme weather events. While India is no Dominica, it desperately needs to get its climate change act together.
Ranjit Bhushan is an independent journalist and former Nehru Fellow at Jamia Millia University. In a career spanning more than three decades, he has worked with Outlook, The Times of India, The Indian Express, the Press Trust of India, Associated Press, Financial Chronicle and DNA.