With scientists warning of increase in adverse climate-induced events, Indian policymakers need to do a serious rethink about balancing development with conserving the environment. Failing to do so, will extract unimaginable human and economic cost. The Rishiganga disaster proves the point.
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- Global Climate Risk Index 2021 ranks India as the seventh most vulnerable country
- Cyclone Fani in which 90 people lost their lives caused losses worth $ 8.1 billion
- The devastation caused by the Rishiganga avalanche in Chamoli district once again highlighted the flaws associated with mega projects in ecologically fragile zones
he catastrophic Rishiganga avalanche in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand on February 7 served as yet another grim reminder of one the greatest existential threats that India faces. At the time of writing this report, 15 people were killed and close to 200 people still missing after the hurtling slurry of water, boulders, rocks and glacial moraine cascaded through the narrow gorge at a devasting speed, obliterating everything in its path. The massive avalanche completely devasted the under-construction Rishiganga hydel power project. The real quantum of loss of human life and property will be calculated in the coming days and months.
Scientists are still trying to determine the exact cause that triggered the lethal avalanche that swept through the narrow Rishiganga gorge—one of the headstreams of Ganga. But geologist Dr. Dan Shugar of the University of Calgary suggested on his twitter feed after studying before and after images from Planet Labs that a rock-slide slammed into a massive hanging glacier flowing down from the west of the Trishul peak caused the biggest natural catastrophe in Uttarakhand since the devastating flash floods of 2013.
He further elaborated on his initial analysis in an interview to Down To Earth that snowmelt might have triggered the rock avalanche that broke the glacier. “Satellite imagery suggests that there was some snowmelt in the few days prior, that suggests there may have been liquid water (which is odd for February at these altitudes, I would think),” he said.
If Shugar’s analysis is correct, then early snowmelt at that altitude could be attributed to abrupt rise in temperature, which is one of the characteristics climate change. This is consistent with what environmental scientists have been warning of for years now and is validated by rapid melting of glaciers in the Himalaya.
The devastation caused by the Rishiganga avalanche should serve as wake-up call for India’s policy makers and the government. They must do a serious rethink about the kind of developmental model that India needs to follow in the face of an increasing number of natural calamities, triggered by climate crisis. Multiple data points too have been raising some deep red flags for close to a decade now.
India ranks among the 10 most vulnerable countries due to climate change, according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2021, that was released last month. As per the latest rankings, India is ranked seventh most critically affected country in the world. If there is a silver lining at all in the report, it is India improving its ranking by two places from fifth position in the 2020 Climate Risk Index (CRI).
Economic Cost of Climate Change
limate change is not restricted to just extreme weather-induced events. There is a high economic cost attached to it. According to the 2021 CRI report, India suffered an economic loss of more than $68 billion during the 2019-20 period, resulting in a .72 percent reduction in GDP. The year before, when India was ranked fifth on CRI, the economic loss was pegged at $ 38 billion.
“In 2019, the monsoon conditions continued for a month longer than usual, with the surplus of rain causing major hardship. From June to end of September 2019, 110% of the normal rainfall occurred, the most since 1994. The floods caused by the heavy rains were responsible for 1,800 deaths across 14 states and led to the displacement of 1.8 million people,” states the report. “Furthermore, with a total of eight tropical cyclones, the year 2019 was one of the most active Northern Indian Ocean cyclone seasons on record. Six of the eight cyclones intensified to become “very severe”. The worst was Cyclone Fani in May 2019, which affected a total of 28 million people, killing nearly 90 people in India and Bangladesh and causing economic losses of US$ 8.1 billion.”
The ham-handed manner in which the Ministry of Environment attempted to push through the latest Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification in April 2020 to replace the existing notification of 2006 has raised serious heckles with environmental scientists and activists.
“The proposed provisions show that the Ministry has gone to great lengths to reduce or even remove public participation, and by extension independent expert opinion, from the process of granting environmental clearances; public reporting of violations may also not be taken cognisance of. While there can be no argument about the importance of development projects, it has resorted to sophistry in classifying activity for exemptions. Section 26 provides a list of projects that would not attract environmental clearance or permission, including coal mining and seismic surveys for oil, methane and shale gas on some lands,” reported The Hindu.
The Global Climate Risk Index 2021 report further highlights that risks associated with climate change will continue to escalate in the near-term future, which will be further exacerbated due to human-induced actions. “Back in its ‘Fifth Assessment Report’, which was published in 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had already stated that the risks associated with extreme events will continue to increase as the global mean temperature rises.
“Linking particular extreme weather events to human-induced and natural climate drivers remains a scientific challenge which attribution science is trying to tackle. The field has recently taken huge leaps forward – even though gaps in knowledge and especially in data remain. In general, many studies conclude that ‘the observed frequency, intensity, and duration of some extreme weather events have been changing as the climate system has warmed’. Nevertheless, it is not trivial to investigate the impact of climate change on a single weather event as different regional circumstances need to be taken into account and data might be very limited,” states the report.
As India continues to deal with ever-increasing natural calamities and extreme weather conditions, it would be wise to revisit the entire developmental model, especially dealing with mega infrastructure and natural resource exploitation in environmentally fragile zones.