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Climate change and global warming will continue to cause extreme climatic events. Across the world, countries are being confronted with situations of either too little or too much water and droughts interspersed with floods. Rainfall has become unpredictable. The recent floods in Europe are a wake-up call for us to adopt the Dutch mantra, ‘live with water, build with nature’.
Even though the national and state disaster management authorities have grown in experience, competence and professionalism, there is a need for a higher degree of coordination and preparation across all levels of government.
About the floods in Europe:
Recently, a month’s rain poured in just 24 hours in Germany and Belgium. This caused multiple rivers to burst their banks and flood parts of the two countries as well as the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland. These areas of Europe have not witnessed such heavy rainfall for more than a century.
The German Chancellor, the Dutch Prime Minister and others attribute the cause of the floods to climate change and call for urgent action to arrest global warming.
The floods in Europe showed that climate change spares none. Even if a country has adequate resources and advanced infrastructure (physical as well as organisational), it can find no escape from extreme climatic events. It bore an uncanny resemblance to what Kerala experienced in August 2018.
How Climate change can cause floods?
- Experts say the more CO2 the world emits into the atmosphere, the warmer will be the air temperature. Warmer air holds more moisture and results in excess rainfall, which leads to flooding.
- Additionally, increasing temperatures at the poles result in slower movement of storms in the mid-latitudes. As a result, storms linger longer at a specific place.
- The combination of a slow-moving storm and the presence of surplus moisture in the atmosphere results in intense rainfall in one location within a short period of time.
- In 2018, Kerala, for example, witnessed 414 mm of rain in just three days. Rainfall for the period of August 1 to 19, 2018, in Kerala was 164% more than normal.
|Read more: Climate Change Basics and Concepts|
Extreme rainfall in India this year:
- A sizeable part of the country, especially the vast north-western plains and almost the entire northeast, remained substantially deficient in rainfall till the third week of July (virtually the first half of the four-month rainy season of June to September). The deficit varied from 11 percent in the northwest to 17 percent in the northeast.
- The peninsular region received copious downpours, resulting in nearly 25 percent excess rainfall in the first half of the four-month rainy season of June to September.
- The rainfall in the Koyna dam catchment in Maharashtra has broken the past 100-year record, a sizeable part of it falling in just three days. The death toll in the rain-caused havoc has already exceeded 170 and many more people are still reported missing.
- Delhi was pounded by extremely heavy showers. Nearly one-third of Delhi’s total monsoon rainfall this year — quantitatively the highest in the past 18 years — was received in just two days, July 27 and 28.
The Dutch example:
After two major floods in 1993 and 1995, the Dutch embarked on several projects to widen riverbanks and reshape the areas around rivers.
The Dutch have gone beyond their conventional dependence on dikes, dams, walls and gates to protect themselves from floods. Their current disaster resilience mantra is to live with water, build with nature and make room for the river. They champion creating adequate space for rivers to overflow by protecting floodplains from human interference, deepening riverbeds and creating alternate channels for excess water.
Due to these initiatives, Many towns were submerged in recent floods in the Netherlands. But there are no casualties.
Note: The Dutch provided technical assistance to the State following the 2018 floods. Further, the visit of the Dutch King and Queen to Kerala in 2019 has also happened, and they personally reviewed the joint efforts underway for long-term flood resilience.
|Read more: Let’s make room for the river|
Why are the early warning systems not efficient?
Countries like Germany have advanced flood warning systems. Germany’s system includes a network of sensors to measure river water levels in real-time. These systems forecast heavy rains and the possibility of floods. But local authorities were unable to respond rapidly enough and communicate the warnings to the wider population.
The rain and floods happened so fast that there was no time to evacuate all residents to safety and fully deploy the formidable rescue and relief infrastructure that they possessed. This is true for India and other developing countries also.
Even though the flood warning systems are in place and provide data on floods, the country needs to have other systems (proper evacuation plan, enough resources and drills) in place to damage due to floods.
Lessons for India from Floods in Europe:
The floods in Europe serve as a wake-up call to us in India to adopt policies like the Dutch, such as pragmatic policies and practices that are nature friendly. India has to learn to live with water in the long term.
- Flood-prone areas should be identified, and projects initiated on an urgent basis to create room for rivers.
- Similarly, low-risk areas such as playgrounds, maidans, or agricultural fields should be earmarked to store excess rainwater. Drains must be built for diverting water into these storage units. This will relieve the stress on the existing drainage infrastructure. The stored water can later be discharged back into the drainage channel once the high water subsides.
- At present, the bulk of the rainwater is allowed to flow down wastefully to the seas, eroding precious soil in its wake.
- Fulfilling the recommendations of the United Nations Development Programme-World Bank-European Union’s Post Disaster Needs Assessment report prepared for Kerala after the 2018 floods. The important recommendations include,
- Increasing the drainage capacity of the rivers and canals of the State by creating more room for the water to flow.
- Removing obstructions and encroachments from existing water channels, the proper maintenance of such channels and creating additional channels for water to flow.
- Rather than forecast, the millimetres of rain expected, conveying specific information regarding the extent of damage to property and life would likely encourage affected communities to remain alert and respond quickly.
- The government and local media have to communicate the warnings to the general public in simple language.
- In the short term, strengthened disaster readiness, planning and preparation will help us deal with sudden, intense rain and consequent floods.
- Practice drills need to be conducted in flood-prone areas, and the state has to test the effectiveness of flood warnings. The warnings should be in local languages and in simple terms.
Rainwater harvesting on a watershed basis is the mantra for efficient water management and prevent flooding. There is also an urgent need for augmenting the country’s overall water storage capacity by creating new reservoirs and rejuvenating the existing ones — many of which have been suffering from neglect.