From March to April this year, India experienced an unprecedented heatwave with many places in northern India recording temperature in excess of 45°C over extended periods of time. In all, 15 states and Union Territories (UT) have been affected. Although, the total number of human fatalities is yet to be fully ascertained, state like Maharashtra has reported 374 cases of heat stroke and 25 deaths over the two month period. The heatwave has also triggered an electricity crisis and an estimated 66 per cent of all Indian households reportedly face power outages. It has also affected India’s wheat production.

By PK Khup Hangzo

While the country’s wheat output was projected to reach a record 111.32 million tonnes in 2022, recent estimates puts it at 105 million tonnes.  Some farmers in key wheat-growing areas like Punjab saw a 50 per cent decline in wheat output due to the shriveling of grains as a result of loss of moisture. Given that this unprecedented heatwave could be a harbinger of things to come, India must consider adapting to it and other extreme weather events like drought, flood, cyclones, etc. as a matter of urgency. While adaptation can take many forms, Nature-based Solutions (NbS) could prove to be the most cost-effective in dealing with the impact of extreme weather events and climate change.

Signs of Things to Come?

According to scientists, the March-April heatwave has been made 30 times more likely by climate change and that it would have been “extraordinarily rare” without it. It was therefore not completely unexpected. According to a recent assessment by the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), the frequency of warm extremes over India has increased during 1951-2015, with accelerated warming trends during the recent 30 year period (1986-2015). A 2016 study by the India Meteorological Department (IMD) and the Institute for Climate Change Studies (ICCS) also found that the number of heatwave days recorded at 103 weather stations across India has consistently increased every decade from 1961-2020. Whereas 413 heatwave days are recorded in 1981-1990, 575 are recorded in 2001-2010, and 600 are recorded in 2011-2020 respectively. Not only is heatwave occurring more frequently in India, it was also projected to get much worse in the coming years. A 2017 study by experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) observed that even if the world succeeds in cutting carbon emissions, limiting the predicted rise in average global temperatures, parts of India will become so hot they will test the limits of human survivability. The authors of the study further noted that after the Persian Gulf, northern India could become “the region of the worst heatwaves on the planet.”

Beyond heatwave, India is also highly vulnerable to other types of extreme weather events. Extreme weather events are “individual weather events that are unusual in their occurrence…or have destructive potential.” They are one of the clearest indicators, and most visible consequences of, climate change. As such, they are deemed to be the “showcase of climate variability” and “the day-to-day “face” of climate change.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated in the first installment of its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) that was published on 9 August 2021 that “it is an established fact that human-induced greenhouse gas emissions have led to an increased frequency and/or intensity of some weather and climate extremes since pre-industrial time, in particular for temperature extremes” and that “some recent hot extreme events would have been extremely unlikely to occur without human influence on the climate system.” Thus, while extreme weather events are a natural feature of the climate system, their frequency, intensity, and impacts are projected to worsen as global temperatures continue to rise.

Given India’s vulnerability to extreme weather events, it is unsurprising that the country has been ranked as one of the worlds’ most affected by its impact. The latest edition of the Global Climate Risk Index that was published by Germanwatch, an independent development and environmental NGO based in Germany, observed that India was the seventh most affected country by the impact of extreme weather events in 2019. That year, India witnessed higher than normal rainfall from June to September. The resulting floods led to the death of 1,800 people across 14 states and displaced 1.8 million others. Furthermore, eight tropical cyclones struck coastal areas of the country of which six are considered to be in the “very severe” category. Cyclone Feni was the biggest and the most destructive of all. It affected 28 million people in India and Bangladesh and incurred economic losses of USD 8.1 billion. It is important to note that India has consistently ranked among the most affected country by extreme weather events in the Global Climate Risk Index. For example, it was the fifth most affected country by extreme weather events in 2018, the 14th most affected country in 2017, the sixth most affected country in 2016, and the fourth most affected country in 2015 respectively.

Every region of India is vulnerable to the impact of extreme weather events. A study by the New Delhi-based Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) titled Mapping India’s Climate Vulnerability: A District Level Assessment that was published in October 2021 observed that 27 of 35 Indian states and UTs are highly vulnerable to extreme “hydro-meteorological disasters” (cyclone, drought, and flood). The top ten most vulnerable states are Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Bihar, Manipur, Rajasthan, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, and Odisha. On the whole, three in four districts encompassing 75 per cent of India’s land area where more than 80 per cent of its population resides is vulnerable to extreme hydro-meteorological disasters. Whereas western and central India are more vulnerable to drought-like conditions, northern and north-eastern India are more vulnerable to extreme flood events, and eastern and southern India to extreme cyclonic events. Eastern and southern India are also becoming extremely prone to cyclones, floods, and droughts combined.

The Cost of Extreme Weather Events

Worldwide, extreme weather events have led to hundreds of billions of dollars in economic losses and wreaked a heavy toll on human lives and their well-being. According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), there are more than 11,000 disasters attributed to weather, climate, and water-related hazards between 1970 and 2019. Together, they accounted for just over 2 million deaths and USD 3.64 trillion in losses. That translated into one disaster every day on average, the death of 115 people, and economic losses of USD 202 million every day over the 50 years. Of the top 10 disasters, the ones that led to the largest human losses during the period included droughts (650,000 deaths), storms (577,232 deaths), floods (58,700 deaths), and extreme temperature (55,736 deaths). With regard to economic losses, the top 10 events included storms (USD 521 billion) and floods (USD 115 billion). More recently, Christian Aid, a UK-based charity group, observed that the ten most expensive extreme weather events in 2021 costs more than USD 170 billion in damages. The report estimated damages based on insured losses. As such, the true costs are likely to be much higher. The ten most expensive extreme weather events in 2021 are as given below:-

  1. Hurricane Ida (USA, USD 65 billion);
  2. European floods (Europe, USD 43 billion);
  3. Texas Winter Storm (USA, USD 23 billion);
  4. Henan floods (China, USD 17.6 billion);
  5. British Columbia floods (Canada, USD 7.5 billion);
  6. French cold wave (France, USD 5.6 billion);
  7. Cyclone Yaas (India, Bangladesh, USD 3 billion);
  8. Australian floods (Australia, USD 2.1 billion);
  9. Typhoon In-fa (China, Philippines, Japan, USD 2 billion); and
  10. Cyclone Tauktae (India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, USD 1.5 billion).

As regards to India, a recent analysis by S&P Global Ratings, an American credit rating agency, found that impacts from extreme weather events could put 52 per cent of the country’s GDP at risk by 2050. Besides, 62 per cent of its agricultural land could be exposed to water stress and 40 per cent of its population to heatwaves. This assessment is consistent with the IPCC’s observation in the second installment of its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) that was released in February 2022. According to that report, India’s agriculture is one of most vulnerable in the world to the impact of drought, flood, heatwave, etc. The report further observed that an increase in average global temperature from 1ºC to 4°C could lead to a 10-30 per cent decline in rice production and a 25-70 per cent decline in maize production respectively. On the whole, production of rice, wheat, pulses, coarse, and cereal yields could fall almost 9 per cent by 2050 and maize production by 17 per cent. That could have major implications on food affordability and hence food security.

Way Forward

Limiting the increase in global average temperature to 1.5°C (it is currently 1.2°C) by the end of 2100 is key to minimizing the impact of extreme weather events. Conversely, any additional increase in warming beyond that level would mean more devastating extreme weather events. The 1.5°C threshold however is now dangerously close to being breached. According to a recent analysis, the probability of one of the next five years (2022-2026) surpassing 1.5°C is now 50 per cent, up from 20 per cent in 2020. There is also a 93 per cent likelihood of at least one year between 2022-2026 becoming the warmest on record and dislodging 2016 from the top ranking. Furthermore, the chance of the five-year average for 2022-2026 being higher than the last five years (2017-2021) is also 93 per cent. That does not bode well for India. The country must therefore consider adaptation as a matter of urgency so that its cities and its people are more able to cope with or adapt to extreme weather events.

India has already made some notable progress in adapting to some types of extreme weather events. For example, 23 heatwave-prone states have now implemented heat action plans which included early moves to prepare people and public services. To ward off the impact of flood and cyclones, many cities have built retaining walls along rivers and the coasts; installed water pumps along parts of a river; issued timely evacuation alerts; expanded drainage, etc. These “engineering solutions” has helped India reduced the human and economic costs of extreme weather events. However, they are unlikely to suffice in the long run as they are designed for certain thresholds and can be easily breached under conditions of record rainfall and tides. Adapting against extreme weather events over the long-term therefore require transformative changes. In other words, “Nature-based Solutions” (NbS) should be a key component of India’s transformative adaptation going forward. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defined NbS as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits.” It may include creating green roofs and walls, and/or planting trees and increasing green space in and around urban areas to moderate the impacts of heatwaves. It may also include protecting, restoring or managing natural forests and wetlands in catchment areas to reduce flood risk and/or reduce exposure to soil erosion and landslides. Meanwhile, restoring coastal ecosystems (mangroves, coral reefs, oyster beds and saltmarshes) can help reduce damages caused by strong winds, storm surges, and cyclones. On the whole, NbS has the potential to tackle both the climate and biodiversity crisis while also contributing to sustainable development. NbS could prove to be the most cost-effective in dealing with the impacts of extreme weather events. It must therefore be high on the agenda of India’s adaptation plan going forward.

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