GURINDER KAUR | 24 DECEMBER, 2020
The state must take concrete steps to protect us
A study released by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water on December 10 states that agroindustrial global warming has left 75% of India’s districts prone to natural disasters (floods, droughts, heat and cold waves). Half of all Indians or some 64 crore people live in these districts.
The study points to a bleak future for the people of India which is a matter of great concern. It examined district-wise data for all types of natural disasters from 1970 to 2019. The number of catastrophic natural disasters was 250 between 1970 and 2005, rising dramatically to 310 in the fifteen years since.
Landslides, cloudbursts, heavy rainfall, hailstorms and the like have increased twenty-fold in the past five decades. Floods increased eightfold in the same period. From 1970 to 2005 an average of 19 districts experienced severe floods, but since 2005 the number of such districts increased to 55. In 2019 alone, 151 districts were hit by floods that dishoused 9.72 crore people.
While three catastrophic floods occurred each year between 1970 and 2004 on average, since 2005 the number has increased to 11 per year, and last year alone sixteen catastrophic floods were recorded in the country.
At the same time the number of rainy days during the monsoon period is also declining, while incidents of high intensity short-term rains in a single day are increasing rapidly. There has also been a sharp rise in urban floods since 2000.
Incidents of drought in the country are also increasing. Drought incidents have increased thirteen-fold since 2005. At present as many as 68% of the country’s districts are facing drought or droughtlike conditions.
A shocking phenomenon has emerged in 40% of districts, which had traditionally experienced droughtlike conditions but are now witnessing an increase in flooding. Meanwhile traditionally flood-affected districts are suffering from drought.
To illustrate the problem, in Maharashtra alone drought events increased sevenfold and flood events increased sixfold since 2005, as the number of districts so affected has tripled, while the frequency of their occurrence and intensity of their impact has doubled.
During the last decade 258 districts of the country were affected by cyclones alone. Natural disasters associated with cyclones, such as heavy rains, floods, storms and the like have witnessed a twelvefold increase in the Western Ghats during the last fifty years.
The United Nations, based on reports by the IPCC, has frequently warned of the dangers posed by agroindustrial global warming. If the emission of greenhouse gases is not reduced rapidly in the near future, and patterns of land use are not changed, no country or community in the world will be able to escape these growing dangers.
Studies have also shown that countries like India and China are at higher risk than the rest of the world. Shortages of food and water may follow.
Surprisingly, despite such stern warnings, the Government of India has not taken any concrete steps to deal with these natural disasters during the last five years.
Human activities at the global level (increasing the average temperature of the earth) and local level (deforestation, levelling of land, etc.) as well as India’s geographical location are responsible for this stark increase in the frequency of droughts and floods.
To the north of the country are situated the world’s youngest and highest snow-capped mountains. In the summers when the snow rapidly melts, water enters the plains in the form of floods wreaking havoc in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and West Bengal.
The pattern of monsoon has also changed, and sometimes they arrive sooner or later than normal, increasing the frequency of floods or droughts. Monsoons have also affected the El-Nino and La-Nina ocean current events, whose frequency has increased many times over due to agroindustrial global warming.
The indiscriminate slaying of forests, dam construction on rivers, encroachments on floodplains and levelling of land are the other important factors affecting the frequency of floods and droughts.
As more and more dams are built on rivers, most water is collected in them leaving very little to be released into the rivers themselves. As a result river floodplains remain empty for most of the year. Gradually people are encroaching upon the empty floodplains either to construct buildings or farm crops, reducing the area of the floodplains.
When heavy rains come, the people living on these floodplains are often badly affected by flash flooding. There is always uncertainty about the amount of monsoon rains which sometimes bring less rain and sometimes more. With sudden heavy rains the dam authorities open the floodgates, typically without warning people, to save the dam. This endangers lives, livelihood, and livestock.
In 2018 the opening of the flood gateways of 35 dams in Kerala caused severe flooding in the state. It was not the first such incident in the country. Similar floods were allowed to occur in Odisha 2011, in Uttarakhand 2013, in Tamil Nadu 2015 and in Bihar in 2016.
Moreover the conversion of local commons water bodies such as wetlands, ponds, tanks, lakes and seasonal drains into buildings, roads, malls and the like are responsible for the increasing incidence of floods in the cities. The Srinagar flood in 2014 and Chennai in 2015 are prime examples of such city floods. Delhi, Mumbai, and many other cities are flooded every year due to these reasons as well as their underresourced drainage system. The population of these cities is constantly increasing but the drainage systems are not being upgraded proportionately.
The worrying increase in droughts and floods in Maharashtra is mainly caused by unplanned commercial development in the Western Ghats, which span five other states Gujarat, Karnataka, Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu all of which are impacted by this process of development. This is why the local people of these states strongly opposed the State and Union governments’ development plans in 2005.
The Gadgil Committee set up by the Union government to counter public opposition submitted its report in 2011 stating that 87.5% of the area of the Western Ghats is ecologically sensitive. It suggested that governments impose a ban on 52 activities such as the construction of new towns in the hills, new dams, encroachment of wetlands and river basins, expansion of tourism, setting up of new industrial units, mining and the like.
But the report was rejected by the States and Centre alike. Destruction and construction work in the region is still going on unabated.
Infamously during the COVID19 lockdown the Union government approved three new projects in the environmentally sensitive area of Goa in defiance of environmental regulations. It also cleared the widening of the Shimla-Parwanoo and Char-Dham roads resulting in increasing incidents of cloudbursts and landslides in the hilly areas of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
The 2020 Environmental Impact Assessment proposed by New Delhi during the lockdown to replace the existing 2006 EIA would greatly dilute even the existing environmental regulations, making Indians even more vulnerable to these unnatural disasters.
It is important to remember that the IPCC in its 2014 report warned not only about increasing incidents of natural disasters but also about food and water shortages. Our assemblies and governments must make very careful and far-sighted plans to avoid this situation keeping in view the geographical location and growing population of the country.
It is incumbent upon states to adopt a pro-nature, pro-people development model and take concrete steps to protect the people of the country.
Gurinder Kaur is Professor of Geography at the Punjabi University, Patiala
Cover Photograph AFP