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Pakistan Floods Brutal Reminder of How Indian Subcontinent Has Become a ‘Climate Crisis Hotspot’

Over 1,300 dead, millions displaced and a vast swathe of croplands submerged; Pakistan is facing one of its most devastating floods — the worst since 2010 — that have affected over 33 million people. As the death toll continues to mount, the devastation has sent a chilling reminder of how dangerous the impact of climate change could be for the Indian subcontinent.

Whether it is the growing intensity of cyclones in the rapidly warming oceans, the record-breaking prolonged heat waves, severe droughts, or the catastrophic floods triggered by erratic monsoon, the consequences of over 1.1°C warming above the 1850-1900 pre-industrial average are today more evident than ever before.

So for waiting to act while keeping the 1.5°C or 2.0°C rise in global temperatures as a “defence line or buffer”, well it may be too late. The earth is heating up, and it is impacting all natural systems much faster than our abilities to cope.

Prepare For The Worst

Far-reaching threats are emerging from the southwest monsoon, which is responsible for over 70-80 per cent of the annual rains in the four-month period starting June. It is becoming more erratic and throwing up surprises every year. Cities and towns that had never witnessed floods are getting inundated in short-lasting extreme rainfall events. There are regions that remain parched for the most part of the season, but suddenly get battered by torrential rains that last a few days.

“More weather records are bound to be broken, but it is all happening much earlier than we expected. It was quite unusual the way back-to-back depressions formed in Bay of Bengal this August, and all charted the same course across Central India up to Gujarat, bringing heavy rains and floods. One of those systems was also responsible for heavy rains in Pakistan,” says former India Meteorological Department (IMD) head KJ Ramesh.

As global temperatures rise, the moisture holding capacity of the atmosphere also increases. So it holds in for a longer duration, and then suddenly dumps all that moisture in a few hours to a few days – which is exactly what we have been witnessing.

The climate models have long warned of a rise in frequency, spatial extent and severity of floods over the major Himalayan river basins, including the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra. In its 2020 report, the ministry of earth sciences too raised concerns over the enhanced flood risk over India due to erratic monsoon.

While forecasting such events is crucial to preparing a disaster management plan, not much is being done to take stock of our current resources and support systems. The flood situation in Odisha was made worse after the gates of Hirakud Dam were opened, submerging hundreds of villages. Bengaluru showed how the storm-water drainage system crumbed amid heavy rains. The natural buffers of wetlands and floodplains are disappearing.

Climate Action Plans

After the recent spate of disasters, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called South Asia as a “climate crisis hotspot” — the vulnerable region where people are “15 times more likely to die from climate impacts”.

“Its geographical location — surrounded by the tropical waters at one end and Himalayas at the other end — used to be the region’s forte, but not anymore. The Indian Ocean is warming at the fastest rate, and the Himalayan glaciers are also melting rapidly,” concurs Dr Roxy Matthew Koll, climate scientist at Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), Pune.

With several states and cities now working on their climate action plan, it is necessary that work is accelerated. Long-term policies are needed that can disaster-proof our houses, infrastructure, farms, and property as the climate challenge intensifies. Over eight million hectares of the land area is affected by floods alone in India every year, and the impact on livelihoods and overall food security is severe when coupled with droughts.

But all this cannot be achieved without a global commitment to reduce emissions, and financial support to the most vulnerable countries to prepare and equip themselves from impending disasters.

“We are already seeing 1.1°C rise in mean global temperatures and their impacts. We will hit 1.5°C by 2040 and 2°C by 2060. This is not far in the future but on-going. The pace of warming is now accelerated so we need urgent action. Climate action and adaptation at local levels should go parallel with mitigation at global and national levels,” adds the senior scientist.

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