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Mumbai Deluge: Lessons for the Future

The city of Mumbai has been through a frightening trauma with the cloudburst that took place on July 26 and incessant rains on several days ...

Written by R K Pachauri |
August 5, 2005

The city of Mumbai has been through a frightening trauma with the cloudburst that took place on July 26 and incessant rains on several days since. The population of the city is understandably angry with the breakdown of services and drainage systems and failure of power supply in large areas in and around the city. Two questions arise from this unfortunate experience.

Can our weather forecasting be improved to provide timely warning to the hapless victims of such extreme events? Can infrastructure be improved in vulnerable areas to facilitate adequate protection against such calamities and swift relief for those affected?

Regarding weather forecasts, while the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) is in need of major overhaul, it should be emphasized that extreme weather events are difficult to predict in advance, but their occurrence should be foreseen at least a few hours before catastrophe strikes. We have unfortunately not developed the ability to provide adequate warning under such circumstances anywhere in the country. Sadly, the IMD, with an enviable record of knowledge and efficient service, has in the past few years declined perceptibly in capability, while similar departments in other parts of the world have taken rapid strides forward through upgradation of knowledge, human resources and physical infrastructure. A sad commentary on the state of affairs is the fact that today the position of the Director-General of the IMD remains vacant after the previous incumbent was removed from his position months ago. The frequency and severity of occurrences such as the cloudburst in Mumbai are likely to increase in the future.

Of course, one cannot identify any single event with the process of human-induced climate change that the world is facing today, but the Third Assessment Report (TAR) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change clearly concluded that ‘‘the amplitude and frequency of extreme precipitation events is very likely to increase over many areas’’. Also, ‘‘it is likely that global warming will lead to an increase in the variability of Asian summer monsoon precipitation’’.

The erratic behaviour of the monsoon that has been observed in recent years could possibly be seen to corroborate the trend induced by climate change. Other impacts of climate change that can be seen in conjunction are the threat of sea level rise, likely decline in agricultural yields, greater health hazards, increase in vector-borne diseases and impacts on the availability of water.

The widespread retreat of the Himalayan glaciers would have serious implications for river flows in the northern part of this subcontinent. This means that design of any new projects based on current patterns of water flows in the rivers of northern India would need to account for changes that are likely in the coming half century. Investments made in large scale irrigation and other water resources projects cannot be changed during the life of a project, and therefore prudent policy should clearly incorporate changes in magnitude and patterns of flows in the future.

The problem of climate change also requires in-depth assessment of our policies related to coastal areas. The TAR projects sea level rise by 2100 from anywhere between 9 cm to 88 cm. If, for instance, a tsunami of the type that occurred on 26th December last year was to take place in the middle of this century, and if the sea level was a foot higher at that stage, the extent of damage and havoc that could take place would far exceed the unfortunate effects witnessed last year. The island of Male was partly saved despite complete submergence under water with relatively low loss of life and property, because the island has a structure all around to protect against storm surges and cyclones, commonplace in the island nation. The Maldives are highly vulnerable to the threat of sea level rise. But can all islands- and other such areas worldwide- afford such protective infrastructure?

While the organizations responsible for reviving the services of Mumbai would hopefully get active in the coming days and weeks, India as a nation has to start looking seriously at the likely impacts of climate change on agriculture, human health, water resources and sea level rise. The urgency of managing our water resources more efficiently is only heightened by the future implications of climate change, as also the management of agriculture, particularly since a large part of our rural population depends critically on rainfed agriculture. The citizens of Mumbai, resilient as they are, will bounce back to their normal lives very soon. But we need to ponder the larger issue of assessing and adapting to climate change and its likely manifestations with some sense of urgency. The cost of neglect would be very high in terms of the loss of life and property.

The writer is Director-General, TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute)

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