Torrential rains and flooding in many parts of India; typhoons in Japan; wildfires in several parts of Europe and North America; cyclones in Fiji, hurricanes and tropical storms in the Atlantic – the 2018 disaster map has been one of the ghastliest in recent years.
In terms of casualties and economic losses, India is among the worst affected this year. In May, parts of North India were hit by deadly dust storms that killed more than 100 people. Just a couple of months later, various parts of the country are either experiencing unprecedented rains, floods, landslides and landslips, or are in the throes of rehabilitation and rebuilding. These disasters have made the detractors and sceptics, and even the uninformed in the country take cognisance of the imminent dangers posed by climate change. This is a wake-up call, not just for India, but for the entire world, that the window for climate action is closing rapidly. It also calls for swift and vigorous climate diplomacy efforts to accentuate the need for recognizing “freedom from hazard impacts” as an indispensable component of human security.
Rise in the Frequency and Intensity of Extreme Weather Events
In the state of Kerala, nearly 500 people have been killed in rain-related incidents (since the beginning of the southwest monsoon) and the estimated losses (expected to increase further) amount to more than US $3 billion. Kerala witnessed the worst disaster in a century after receiving record rainfall, and the flood situation in the Northeast is grim. Thousands have been displaced in the states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Meghalaya.
These disasters have reinvigorated the debate on climate change as scientists are drawing attention towards the difficulty in predicting weather patterns with unsteady changes. A specific event cannot be readily linked to climate change, as its relationship with other meteorological phenomena like the monsoons also contributes to extremely high rainfall, as experienced in Kerala. However, there are no second thoughts on the rise in the frequency of extreme weather events like floods due to ‘abnormally’ or ‘unusually’ heavy precipitation events in a short period. Additionally, a “fast-warming” Indian Ocean, particularly the Arabian Sea, compounds the probability of cyclones in the region, to which states like Kerala and Karnataka are highly vulnerable, as seen in the case of last year’s Cyclone Ockhi.
Developing a New National Roadmap for “Freedom from Hazard Impacts”
Human beings, especially poor populations that are more vulnerable to climate change, need to be protected from such natural hazards-turned-disasters. With the rapid rise in the number of casualties owing to disasters worldwide, there is a dire need to deal proactively with social and environmental vulnerabilities by integrating “freedom from hazard impacts” with our security considerations.
While India has a clearly-spelled out mitigation roadmap – mainly dealing with the deployment and expansion of renewable energy – disaster risk reduction (closely tied with climate adaptation) is rather abysmal. When the disaster struck Kerala, the lack of a disaster mitigation plan was brought to light. In fact, in its developmental strategy, there has been overemphasis on ‘development’, but negligible consideration of climate change, for which the state now paid the price.
The need for “freedom from hazard impacts” is compromised or overlooked, due to which environmental regulations and risk assessments are flouted flagrantly. This is why India should now focus on developing a disaster risk reduction strategy that could minimize loss of life and economic damage. For this, measures such as zoning (of floodplains, forestland and other ecologically fragile areas), eco-sensitive building codes and guidelines for post-hazard reconstruction need to be implemented on a war footing.
Steering Multilateral Cooperation on Disaster Risk Reduction
In the international arena, the UN’s Loss and Damage Mechanism, aimed at addressing both rapid-onset and slow-onset disasters in developing countries, is just one of the pillars that needs to be strengthened further in order to develop comprehensive risk assessment and management approaches and frameworks. India should spearhead a strategy for the upcoming UN climate talks at Katowice (COP24) to galvanise the international community to push for more action on issues such as ‘resilience’ and capacity-building through financial and technological means as an integral part of the post-2020 international climate policy.
It should be reiterated that the impact of hazards on societies is worsening year after year. Therefore, it is increasingly important for countries such as India to steer multilateral institutions at international and regional levels to adopt a human security approach towards minimization of hazard impacts. This could be achieved by prioritizing climate diplomacy targeted at mainstreaming climate change into development strategies and policies as well as security architectures.
Dr. Dhanasree Jayaram is Co-Coordinator, Centre for Climate Studies, and Assistant Professor, Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka, India.
[The views expressed in this article are personal.]