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‘Need Improved Early Warning System’: Climate Expert On Mitigating Effects Of Natural Disasters

By The Core Team
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‘Need Improved Early Warning System’: Climate Expert On Mitigating Effects Of Natural Disasters

India’s monsoons this year have been erratic in multiple ways. Not only was it delayed because of the El Nino effect, some parts of the country have seen incessant heavy rains in the last one week. However, reports suggest that there is a rainfall deficit in 12 states, while others are inundated.

There are sharp deficits in the east, central and southern parts of India and high surpluses in others, like northern India.

Heavy rains have killed at least 42 people with overflowing rivers and landslides in hilly areas. Delhi is reeling under floods with several parts of national capital being inundated as Yamuna river continues to flow above the danger mark. 

The damage to life and property, both private and public does find its way into headlines but the damage to livelihood and the local economies are issues that deserve more attention. 

Given that weather patterns are changing and the intensity increasing, what is it that we can learn from or take away and more importantly, better prepare in the coming days?

The Core’s editor Govindraj Ethiraj reached out to Manu Gupta, co-founder of Seeds, a non-profit started almost 30 years ago that works on building resilience of people exposed to disaster and climate change.

Gupta said that while monsoons have three parts — light,  medium and heavy rain — India has seen mostly heavy rain in the last few years. “Hence the preparedness to confront a heavy rain spell is much less. That's why we are seeing more and more states being very unprepared to face such a disaster,” he said. 

India also depends on old early warning systems that makes managing disasters even more difficult, the expert said. 

Here are some edited excerpts of the interview: 

What do you see right now from your vantage point as someone who has worked in disaster response?

This year, it has been very different from recent times. One, of course, we've seen the global and El Nino effect taking place after 2016, and we've also seen abnormally high temperatures globally. The UN has declared this year the hottest so far in history. Recently, we also experienced the Biparjoy cyclone that hit parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan, and that was one of the very rare cyclones emerging in the Arabian Sea in June and staying so long. These are all abnormalities that we are noticing this year in particular.

As a result, our entire monsoon pattern has got disrupted. The winds in the West have pointed the monsoon in a different direction, and we see more excess rain in the northern part of the country and some deficit areas in the south and east, which is quite unusual for this time of the year. Obviously, that has led to many other impacts we can see in agriculture, and transport and logistics and the entire economy getting infected.


There is a pattern to what is happening in the hills which is repeating almost every two years. There are two parts to it. One is obviously that the intensity is so high that nothing can withstand it in terms of the rains or landslides. The second is that we are not doing anything about it to prepare for it. How do you see it?

Conventionally, the whole monsoon has three parts to it. There is light rain, there is medium intensity, and then heavy rain. We are seeing less of the first two and more of the heavy rain. Hence the preparedness to confront a heavy rain spell is much less.

That's why we are seeing more and more states being very unprepared to face such a disaster. I think this is something where we have to intervene at a systemic level to see how we are able to respond to such sudden spells better.

One area that comes to my mind is an improved early-warning system. Right now, our early warning is still based on a century-old model where we just predict the amount of rainfall. We do not predict the kind of impact it is going to make, and therefore, as an ordinary citizen, I'm not able to make up or prepare adequately for such sudden spells.


What could you or someone like you, with your understanding and access to resources, do in these areas that we are seeing? One is, of course, the hills that we've seen in recent days, and then in urban India, which is obviously a much larger problem.

I think this is a new, emerging problem for this decade. Climate change was something that happened since the 1980s, but in this particular decade, we are seeing the impacts of climate change. As a result, we need a new set of tools, a new set of approaches to dealing with this kind of phenomena and how it is impacting people. For organisations such as ours, and even for governments, I think there are areas that they need to look at, especially around building resilience. And that's what our long-term strategy is all about.

Resilience, in very practical terms, means, how do you protect small businesses, how do you protect local livelihoods from getting impacted by these shock events? When floods happened in Chennai a few years ago, almost a third of these small businesses in that city never came back, and losses were something to the tune of Rs 200 billion . Currently, our financing systems, our small loans, our insurance systems do not cater to recovery from disasters.

We are still relying on very age-old norms for assistance after disasters. And our own survey shows that they are only able to meet about 30% of the needs of people who are impacted by these disasters. I think we need more flexible finance. We need more buffers to be created. We need more flexibility in the way we approach these disasters. I think these are all components of what we call resilient communities, and that's the key word here going forward.


We are now in the middle of it, but assuming that we've got a year to prepare for the next hit, what could we be doing particularly again in the hills and parts of northern India?

I think in the hills, we are now seeing this pattern repeat itself almost every six to eight months. Sudden outbursts that we see, or lightning strike, and then it leads to a whole deluge downstream in these areas. We saw that in Himachal the last three days alone. As I said earlier, first and foremost, we need to improve our early-warning systems in these hill areas.

Second, we need to secure these supply chains. One of the areas that we felt when we spoke to communities is that because of these disasters, while they're able to save their lives, what they're not able to save are their livelihoods and connections to their downstream towns, or to the hubs from where they do their trading. Somehow, we need to secure those very critical lines of infrastructure, of connectivity, that is vital for these remotely-placed areas and hill areas, and even added areas for that matter. That would be number two.

Number three is what we are looking at in terms of nature-based solutions. It sounds like a very long-term plan, but nature-based solutions are also looked at as first aid solutions now. Because there is enough know-how in our country and around that we can look at creating natural buffers to extreme events. Landslide protection, things like lightning protectors, all these can be done through very, very simple low-cost and people-based solutions.


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