Building resilience is key

Extreme Events and Disasters

People being rescued from a flood-affected region following heavy monsoon rainfall, in Kochi on August 16. PTI

The risks arising from climate change are many, such as unforeseen and extreme weather events like heat waves, typhoons and cyclones, coastal and river flooding and prolonged droughts. These can have adverse economic, social and environmental consequences and affect human well-being and quality of life.

The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes that the impacts from these climate-related extremes reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability. These impacts include alteration of ecosystems, disruption of food production and water supply, damage to infrastructure and settlements, morbidity and mortality, and consequences for mental health and human well-being.

Munich RE, a German insurance agency, notes that in terms of overall losses, 2017 was the second costliest year ever for natural disasters. Overall losses were estimated at $330 billion in 2017, of which only 41% was insured. Lives lost in natural disasters was some 10,000.

Asia alone accounted for 43% of all disaster events, 68% of fatalities, 10% of overall losses and 2% of insured losses in 2017. The deadliest events last year were the devastating floods in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, triggered by intense monsoon rains. Some 2,700 people lost their lives due to these floods. This year has been no better for India, with torrential rains in large parts of the country affecting over a million people, with over 1,000 deaths reported.

Most of our large cities such as Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Kochi are in coastal areas and highly vulnerable to sea level rise and cyclonic storms. It is estimated that large coastal cities around the world could face combined annual losses of $1 trillion from flooding by mid-century.

An international disaster database reveals that between 1900 and 2007, droughts in India affected 712 million people, with deaths estimated at 4.25 million and damage costs of $942 million. During this period, about 198 flood events were recorded that affected 78 million people, over 55,000 deaths and damage costs of over $21.4 billion. Extreme temperature events from 41 events led to over 13,000 deaths and damage costs of over $544 million.

With the frequency and intensity of weather extremes expected to aggravate with rising temperatures, the question is, are we prepared to cope with these unforeseen events. The unprecedented floods in Chennai and Uttarakhand a few years ago and in Bengaluru last year have time and again shown how state and local agencies are grossly unprepared to cope with such disasters. Rather than being proactive, our response to these weather extremes and disasters has always been reactive. We even have a State Disaster Management Authority headed by the chief minister. One wonders whether the authority ever meets at all. When floods caused havoc in North Karnataka in 2009, it was observed that this committee had not even met once!

Building climate and disaster resilience is essential to tackle these challenges. We need to learn from the Japanese. Japan is highly prone to disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons and landslides. But people and government agencies in Japan are sensitised and trained well on what to do in the event of an earthquake or other disasters. In India, people are virtually left to fend for themselves while state and local agencies procrastinate or fumble.

There are various approaches to address weather extremes and disasters. Ecosystem-based approach involves building resilience through green solutions, such as encouraging coastal afforestation and maintaining or re-establishing mangroves to reduce the impact of coastal flooding and storm surges and increasing tree cover in cities and towns to reduce the consequences of heat waves.

Engineering-based approach includes investing in man-made structures such as building sea walls or coastal barrages to cope with sea-level rise and coastal erosion; building cyclone shelters in cyclone-prone areas.

A hybrid approach involves combining ecosystem and engineering-based approaches. For example, to build resilience against sea erosion, sea-level rise and storm surges, one could construct sea walls or coastal barrages along with planting trees in coastal boundaries prone to such problems.

Social approach involves building and strengthening social networks and community-led responses and actions to adapt to climate change. Community-led responses and actions to address the adverse effects of climate change would entail a change in the attitudes and values of individuals and communities.

These approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. For instance, engineering-based approach requires considerable funds and capital to be invested in building man-made structures such as sea walls, cyclone shelters, whereas ecosystem-based approach may be a low-cost option. But ecosystem-based approach may have high opportunity costs, such as the need for land to raise afforestation/reforestation. Engineering-based approach, too, could have high opportunity costs since funds that would otherwise be used for development activities must be diverted to invest in man-made structures to combat sea-level rise, coastal erosion, etc.

There are also co-benefits of various adaptation options. For instance, conservation of mangroves which helps to protect against storm surges, sea-level rise, coastal inundation has several co-benefits such as generating employment opportunities in fisheries, prawn cultivation, conserving mangrove-dependent species, carbon sequestration and providing a nursery for fish. Using a portfolio of approaches to address the multiple risks posed by climate change may yield greater benefits and win-win outcomes.

Implementing climate and disaster-resilient development plans may entail high start-up costs but they are cost-effective in the long run and could reduce the costs due to disasters. A World Bank study notes that early warning systems, better preparedness and improved safety codes have proven to be cost effective, save human lives and protect public and private investment. For instance, Cyclone Phailin, which struck Odisha and Andhra Pradesh on the east coast of India in October 2013 resulted in 40 deaths only, compared to the 10,000 who perished during a similar event in 1999 in the absence of such early warning systems.

(The author is an economist)

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