After dozens lost their lives in severe flooding in southern India, climate experts are now calling on government officials to prioritize climate-proof infrastructure and take measures to prevent further destruction from major weather events.
India’s tech hub Bengaluru was inundated by floodwaters, following torrential downpours which killed scores of people across the south of the country over the past few weeks.
Lakes surrounding the city, which is the capital of the southwestern Karnataka state, overflowed after three days of ferocious downpours, submerging roads, flooding homes, and leaving over 24 dead across the region.
Meanwhile, neighboring Andhra Pradesh state is continuing to reel from the aftermath of heavy rains and flash floods that wreaked havoc on the state, killing over 34 people. As a result, over 50,000 people have been lodged in relief camps in the four worst-affected districts.
Additionally, hundreds of vehicles and passengers were stranded after the main rail and driving routes were shut down.
In Tamil Nadu state, heavy rains shut down the capital Chennai earlier this month. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) later forecasted heavy to very heavy rainfall over the coming days in the region.
“Clearly, the northeast monsoon rains are in excess this time. Yes, these are extreme weather events but I do not know whether this will become the new normal in the coming years,” IMD Director-General Mrutyunjay Mohapatra told DW.
Many scientists believe that instances of such extreme rainfall events will only become more frequent over the next years. Some are additionally calling on officials to prioritize the climate-proofing of infrastructure, in the face of these events.
In August this year, as monsoon floods raged across the subcontinent, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its sixth assessment report, which noted the increasing frequency of heavy precipitation events since the 1950s and inferred that they were being driven by human-induced climate change.
A new study released by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) in October, ahead of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, maps India’s climate vulnerability. The study showed that the southern regions are the most vulnerable to extreme climate events and their compounding impacts.
Additionally, according to the CEEW, more than 80% of India’s population live in districts highly vulnerable to extreme disasters, including drought, floods and cyclones.
What’s more, only 63% of the country’s 748 districts have an official disaster management plan, and only a third of those which do have plans have updated them beyond 2019, the study found.
Given that India is the seventh-most vulnerable country with respect to climate extremes, climate action needs to be scaled up both at the sub-national and district levels, according to Germanwatch, a Bonn-based NGO.
“India needs to do a granular risk assessment which will account for hazards, risks and vulnerability. A surge in extreme events has been observed across India after 2005. Our sensitivity analysis shows that this is primarily triggered by landscape disruptions,” Abinash Mohanty, an author of the CEEW study, told DW.
“We also need to undertake climate-sensitive landscape restoration, focused on rehabilitating, restoring, and reintegrating natural ecosystems as part of the developmental process,” he added.
A wildfire that burned through at least 7,780 hectares (30 square miles) in about a week and devastated forests in southern Spain was brought under control thanks to steady rains. The downpour helped the firefighters, who were backed by some 50 aircrafts. The blaze was one of the most difficult to combat in recent times in Spain. Some 2,600 people were forced to flee their homes.
Unprecedented flooding — caused by two months’ worth of rainfall in two days — has resulted in devastating damage in central Europe, leaving at least 226 people dead in Germany and Belgium. Narrow valley streams swelled into raging floods in the space of hours, wiping out centuries-old communities. Rebuilding the ruined homes, businesses and infrastructure is expected to cost billions of euros.
While half of Europe is drowning, elsewhere areas are going up in flames: Large fires raged, particularly in Greece, Italy and Turkey. They have caused unforeseeable monetary damage, while thousands of people in Europe have lost their homes and their belongings.
In addition to deadly wildfires, Italy also battled record heat temperatures, with the Italian Health Ministry issuing the maximum possible heat warning level for many cities. On the island of Sicily, 48.8 degrees Celsius (almost 120 degrees Fahrenheit) was measured on August 11 — a new European heat record. The heat could make existing fires worse, or lead to new ones.
Meanwhile, the Dixie Fire continues smoldering in California. It’s California’s largest fire on record, and among the most destructive in the state’s history — it wiped the town of Greenville off the map. Although it’s about 60% contained, the fire continues to burn two months in. Meanwhile, hot and dry conditions continue in the region, spreading fears of more fire.
Earlier this summer, record floods also hit parts of India and central China, overwhelming dams and drains and flooding streets. The downpours have been particularly heavy, even for the rainy season. Scientists have predicted that climate change will lead to more frequent and intense rainfall — warmer air holds more water, creating more rain.
As nations flood in northern Europe, Mediterranean countries like Greece were in the grip of several heat waves. In the first week of July, temperatures soared to 43 degrees Celsius (109 Fahrenheit). Tourism hot spots like the Acropolis were forced to shut during the day, while the extreme heat also sparked forest fires outside Thessaloniki, which helicopters tried to douse.
“It is an unprecedented reality in Sardinia’s history,” said Sardinia’s Governor Christian Salinas of the ongoing wildfires that have scorched the historic central western area of Montiferru. “So far, 20,000 hectares of forest that represent centuries of environmental history of our island have gone up in ashes.” Around 1,500 people were evacuated from the island by the end of July.
Intense heat is becoming more common, as seen in late June in the US states of Washington and Oregon and the Canadian province of British Columbia. Scorching temperatures under a “heat dome,” hot air trapped for days by high pressure fronts, caused hundreds of heat-related deaths. The village of Lytton recorded a high of 49.6 Celsius (121 Fahrenheit) — and burned to the ground the next day.
Heat and drought are fueling one of the most intense wildfire seasons in the West Coast and Pacific Northwest regions. Oregon’s Bootleg Fire, which burned an area the size of Los Angeles in just two weeks, was so big it created its own weather and sent smoke all the way to New York City. A recent study said the weather conditions would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change.
To the south, central Brazil is suffering its worst drought 100 years, increasing the risk of fires and further deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Researchers recently reported that a large swath of the southeastern Amazon has flipped from absorbing to emitting planet-warming CO2 emissions, pushing the rainforest closer to a “tipping point.”
After years of unrelenting drought, more than 1.14 million people in Madagascar are food-insecure, with some now forced to eat raw cactus, wild leaves and roots, and locusts in famine-like conditions. With the absence of natural disaster, crop failure or political conflict, the dire situation in the African nation is said to be first famine in modern history caused solely by climate change.
The number of people fleeing conflict and natural disasters hit a 10-year high in 2020, with a record 55 million people relocating within their own country. That’s in addition to some 26 million people who fled across borders. A joint report released by refugee monitors in May found that three-quarters of the internally displaced were victims of extreme weather — and that number is likely to grow.
Other experts believe that mitigating floods and droughts would require connecting irrigation structures to capture rain and act as both a sponge for floods and a storehouse in drought.
“We are getting our water management wrong and building in floodplains, destroying our water bodies and filling up our water channels. We now see more rain and more extreme rain events,” Sunita Narain, the director-general of the Center for Science and Environment, told DW.
Narain believes that authorities need to plan systems properly in order to divert floodwater.
“It means linking rivers to ponds, lakes and ditches so that water is free to flow. This will distribute the water across the region and bring other benefits like refilling groundwater,” she said.
However, in most urban cities, waterways, which are seen as natural storm drains, have been overlooked in the name of land-centric urban growth.
After the devastating floods in Chennai in 2015, experts pointed out that the biggest culprit in the encroachment of urban waterways and wetlands was actually the state government, which had built runways, bus terminals and industrial parks by paving over bodies of water.
Moreover, in recent years, weather officials have pointed out that the surface water temperature of the Arabian Sea has risen from the normal of 27 degrees Celsius (80 degrees Fahrenheit) to up to 29 degrees, which is causing the frequent formation of low-pressure areas and cyclonic circulations, resulting in heavy rains.
Edited by: Leah Carter