By Rajendra Shende
Twenty year ago, in August 1998, then Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, known for his aggressive administration methods and penchant for sweeping policy reforms, proposed in a meeting of the State Council a total ban on logging in the forest slopes of the Sichuan province. His proposal was in response to the devastating floods in the Yangtze river basin.
That policy was enacted overnight, as the floods raged and rescue operations were underway. Although it was just one year after the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, Zhu was in no mood to analyse if the devastating floods were caused by climate change.
The immediate reason for the 1998 floods, the worst in 44 years and which left over 3700 people dead and 15 million homeless, was heavy rainfall in a short period of time. Indeed, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which was asked to submit a report on the floods, also acknowledged the exceptional rainfall, attributing it to the worldwide El Niño effect. But Zhu was adamant that rather than focusing on the source of the disaster, it was more important to look at the darker side of it—rampant logging and deforestation that caused serious soil erosion. He cited that similar devastation had occurred in 1870, 1931 and 1954 when the concept of climate change was not around. Zhu declared severe punishments for logging and incentivised afforestation with ambitious targets for 2000 and 2010.
Cut to August 2018. Kerala was hit by heavy rains and severe flooding, the worst the state had seen since 1924. With nearly 400 dead and a million homeless, the questions are flowing like the water from the floodgates of the dams: Was it a natural or manmade calamity? Was it a climatic event or caused by global warming?
It is easy and convenient to link the causative chain to climate change. Global warming has led to a rise in sea levels and atmospheric temperature (by nearly 1º Celsius since the pre-industrial times), which has resulted in extreme weather events over last six decades.
According to the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, a hotter atmosphere holds more moisture; for every extra degree Celsius in warming, the atmosphere can hold 7% more water. The increased evaporation due to warming is carried by the atmosphere in the form of moisture, which comes down as increased rain. To this extent, global warming is indeed responsible for the higher rainfall. But that does not explain the ‘extreme’ and ‘localised’ rainfall. The simple reason is that atmospheric physics is not only ‘cloudy’ in the literal sense but also ‘chaotic’ in its real sense. Modelling to understand the weather patterns and climate variability is getting better but is not yet well-mastered and perfected. The El Niño and La Niña weather patterns make such exercises even more frustrating.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), constituted by United Nations Environment Programme and World Meteorological Organization, produces regular reports by distilling out and by peer-reviewing global research and observations on climate change. The IPCC has categorically stated that extreme weather events like long spells of heavy rainfall can be linked on one-to-one basis to climate change, nor are the scientists in a position to predict such events with certainty. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report released in 2014 (the next report is due in 2021) has, however, indicated with “very high confidence” that the key risks in Asia due to flooding in this century is “very high”.
Blaming weather disasters on climate change has become a way for the authorities to absolve themselves from their essential responsibilities of preventing the consequential colossal damage to life, infrastructure and the ecosystem. The unprecedented rainfall could not have been prevented, irrespective of whether it was caused by global warming or not, but the resulting catastrophe could have.
According to the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel report, indiscriminate logging has reduced the forest cover in Kerala by 40% from 1920 to 1990. Nearly one million hectares of forest land was lost between 1973 to 2016, as per the Indian Institute of Science, which reduced the soil’s capacity to hold the mud. Illegal mining, including that of sands that the ‘bank’ the flood waters, is rampant in Kerala. Besides, overenthusiastic water tourism has allowed the infrastructure and habitat to be vulnerably exposed to the flood waters. And uncoordinated dam-water management has meant that people and wildlife must find their own ways to save their lives.
Is there way out?
There are numerous examples and initiatives to learn from and to participate in. The Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM), a joint mission by NASA and the Japan Aerospace Agency, had predicted the Kerala floods a few days before the event occurred. Collaborating with the GPM and initiating disaster management ‘just-in-time’ could have gone a long way to curb the level of devastation.
Switzerland, which is about the same size as Kerala, has 200 major dams as opposed to Kerala’s 61. A designated central authority coordinates the safety and floodgates operation in Switzerland. Perhaps India should collaborate with Switzerland on such dam-management and inundation-mapping to be better prepared for the future.
China has now acquired huge experience in disaster and flood management. After all, five of the deadliest floods in human history occurred in China. Cooperating with China would go long way in managing and containing the flood damage.
India must also look to strike deals with other countries on innovations to fight disasters through preparedness and learning, and should also apply Zhu-style targeting of illegal logging and mining to become ‘climate-safe’.
Many experts propose more eco-sensitive zones. They may be right. But the need of the hour is more eco-sensitive governance.
Rajendra Shende is Chairman of the TERRE Policy Centre and former Director of the United Nations Environment Programme