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India needs a plan for extreme weather caused by climate change

Government report shows heat waves, droughts and cyclones are likely to increase

| India
Dark clouds hang over Mumbai skyline ahead of cyclone Nisarga on June 4: India is vulnerable to the effects of climate change.   © Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Dr. Arunabha Ghosh is CEO of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water in India and lead author of "Jobs, Growth and Sustainability: A New Social Contract for India's Recovery."

"All calm now," wrote a Mumbai-based friend on June 3. Cyclone Nisarga had made landfall a few hours earlier, 96 km to the south. Mumbai residents had been spared the brunt of the strongest tropical cyclone to hit Maharashtra state in June since 1891.

Two weeks earlier, another coastal city, Kolkata, had not been that fortunate. Amphan, the first super cyclone in the Bay of Bengal since 1999, had ripped through India's eastern coast and Bangladesh, flattening the Sundarbans delta. The state government estimates damages have exceeded $13 billion.

India, with its 1.4 billion people, is especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, from intense cyclones to extreme droughts. In fact, it was the fifth-worst country affected by extreme weather in 2018, according to the Germanwatch think tank, with 2,100 deaths and losses of $38 billion in purchasing-power terms.

Last week, India published its first official climate change assessment, whose most sobering finding was that the impact of climate change will be far worse on India than the global average. Now India must boost its defenses.

The climate change assessment had frightening findings. The average temperature in India increased 0.7 degrees Celsius during 1901-2018 and if emissions continue at the high end of the predicted range by 2100 the temperature could rise 4.4C relative to the 1976-2005 average. Such temperature extremes will particularly impact the Indo-Gangetic plain, home to 480 million, putting lives and livelihoods at severe risk.

The frequency of heat waves could increase three to four times, with average duration doubling. Heat waves adversely affect public health and economic productivity as vector-borne diseases spread -- pathogens in mosquitoes mature faster with higher temperatures.

A dust storm on an extremely hot day in Allahabad, pictured in June 2015: the frequency of heat waves could increase three to four times.   © Reuters

The Council on Energy, Environment and Water has calculated that India has already experienced 478 extreme weather events since 1972, most occurring after 2005. The frequency of cyclones is rising, jumping from 33 in the 1980s to 58 in the 2010s. From 1998 to 2017 climate-related disasters caused $80 billion of damage.

Water is India's weakest link, with the frequency of high-intensity rains increasing 75% from 1951 to 2015. The Hindu Kush Himalaya region, source of 10 major rivers, could endure a temperature rise of 5.2C by 2100. In the worst case, CEEW analysis finds that food crop losses could be $1.4 trillion-$2.7 trillion at 2015 prices during 2050-2100.

Over the years, India's Meteorological Department and National Disaster Management Authority have greatly improved coordination to save thousands of lives. In 2019, when Cyclone Fani hit Odisha, early warning systems helped evacuate 1.2 million people within 48 hours. There were 64 lives lost compared to nearly 10,000 deaths when a super cyclone struck Odisha in 1999.

But climate risks are nonlinear. Chennai and Kerala endured once-in-a-century floods in 2015 and 2018, respectively. Low-probability events today become the norm tomorrow. Climate-induced disasters test the resilience of physical infrastructure, administrative capacity and social cohesion. Disease, pestilence, heat stress, coastal flooding and inland drought are a dreadful combination.

Cyclone Amphan has triggered heavy rainfall coupled with high-velocity winds in West Bengal, pictured on May 20: low-probability events today become the norm tomorrow.   © LightRocket/Getty Images

What India needs is a comprehensive plan for resilience at the federal, provincial and local levels.

First, the government and research institutions should design a Climate Risk Atlas to map critical vulnerabilities. Granular data would inform a national environment and health risk index. With high-resolution analysis of 700-plus districts, each state can build its own risk index. National and state indexes could then be linked to disaster risk reduction plans.

Second, India's bustling cities are heating up. Delhi, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Mumbai and Kolkata are likely to experience the highest increases in heat-related mortality this century. City heat action plans would save lives, energy and public health costs.

Third, infrastructure must be climate-resilient. Analysis of coastal and inland cities finds that temperature extremes impair road surfaces and cause water reservoirs to run dry, while intense rainfall damages low-lying areas. Climate-resilient infrastructure is expensive -- but the costs of doing nothing are higher.

Fourth, a nationwide integrated emergency surveillance system would provide real-time information on extreme events, helping citizens and authorities coordinate relief measures. Overlaid with the climate risk atlas, the IESM could pinpoint vulnerable spots and relief infrastructure -- fire stations, hospitals, shelters. It could also catalyze efforts to rehabilitate livelihoods by giving businesses information on when they can reopen.

Fifth, a unified emergency response framework would train citizens on how to behave in an emergency. India can learn from Japan: after the Fukushima nuclear accident, Japan issued standardized emergency guidelines for residential areas.

Finally, India must work with other major economies to forge an insurance cushion against climate risks. Globally, weather-related insurance losses -- $55 billion annually -- have increased five times since the 1980s. A Global Risk Pooling Reserve Fund would combine environmental and health risks across countries to spread them and ensure a payout when climate disasters strike.

In 2019, India announced a global Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure at the U.N. Climate Action Summit after consultations with more than 35 countries. The latest climate assessment is another sign that India has growing concerns about climate risks. But there is also a possibility that a post-pandemic economic recovery will take priority over climate resilience. That would be myopic and damaging. Instead, building resilience will create jobs, additional investment in physical and natural infrastructure and save against future losses.

All might be calm for my friend in Mumbai, for now. But we cannot just hope for the best. India must prepare for the worst.

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