From calamities to catastrophes
Unprecedented rainfall could not have been prevented – but the resulting catastrophe should have been significantly contained
Twenty years ago, in August 1998, then Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji had proposed a total ban on logging in the forest slopes of Sichuan province, in a meeting of China's State Council. This was in response to the devastating flood crisis that China was facing in the Yangtze River basin.
That policy was enacted overnight, while the floods in the Yangtze River were still at its peak and rescue operations were in full swing. It was just a year after the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, but Zhu was in no mood to analyse if that extreme event was due to Climate Change.
He cited that similar devastation had occurred due to the Yangtze floods in 1870, 1931, and 1954 when Climate Change was not around. Zhu declared severe punishment for logging in the same meeting and incentivised afforestation with ambitious targets by 2000 and 2010.
The same month, but now 2018, India is facing extreme devastation in Kerala, the worst ever since 1924. With over 400 dead and a million homeless, questions are gushing like the waters from the floodgates of the state's dams. Is it a natural or a man-made disaster? Is it a climatic event or a consequence of global warming?
It is easy and convenient to link the causative chain to Climate Change. Indeed, global warming has led to a rise in ocean and atmosphere temperatures (nearly one-degree Celsius against pre-industrial times), which has resulted in the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events over the last six decades.
To this extent, global warming is indeed responsible for higher rainfall, but that does not explain extreme and localised rainfall. Blaming each such weather disaster on Climate Change has, in reality, become a way for the authorities to absolve themselves from their essential responsibility of preventing the consequential colossal damage to life, infrastructure and ecosystems. Unprecedented rainfall could not have been prevented, whether it is due to global warming or not – but the resulting catastrophe could have been significantly contained.
Indiscriminate logging in Kerala has reduced the forest cover between 1920 and 1990 by 40 per cent, according to the report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel. Nearly one million hectares of the forest land has been lost between 1973 and 2016, as per an Indian Institute of Science report. This has reduced the soil's capacity to hold the mudslides. Illegal mining, including that of sand and stones that bank the flood water, is rampant in Kerala. Overenthusiastic water tourism has allowed the infrastructure and habitat to be vulnerable to flood waters. The uncoordinated dam water management has left the communities and wildlife helpless, to find their own ways to save their lives.
Is there a way out?
There are numerous examples and initiatives to learn from and to participate in. The Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission of NASA and the Japan Aerospace Agency predicted the Kerala floods just a few days in advance. A collaboration with GPM and initiating disaster management measures just-in-time could still have helped the state.
Switzerland (about the same size as Kerala) has 200 major dams as against Kerala's 61. Switzerland's designated central authority coordinates safety and the operation of the floodgates. Collaborating with Switzerland on dam management and inundation mapping would prepare India in the future. In Kerala, dam safety analysis had not been done for any of its 61 dams.
China has now acquired huge experience in disaster and flood management; the five most deadly floods in human history had all occurred in China. Any cooperation with China would go a long way in managing and containing future flood damage.
(The author is Chairman TERRE Policy Centre and former Director UNEP. The views expressed are strictly personal)