Floods, Drought, Heat, Fire – Welcome to Climate Change!

MANY parts of the world experienced extremes of climate and their consequences during June and July 2021. Whereas definitive attribution of particular weather events to specific causes has always been difficult given the numerous variables involved, scientists have almost unanimously ascribed this summer’s events all over the northern hemisphere to climate change. Even within that context, two aspects have been noteworthy. First the intensity, indeed ferocity, of the climate events and their impacts. And second, the huge damage suffered even by the most developed countries, whose lack of preparedness has shocked governments and people there, and the rest of the world. For long, people especially in Europe and North America have viewed climate impacts as something mostly impacting developing countries and small islands, while they themselves are better equipped to deal with such impacts. Events in June-July this year have therefore come as a rude shock.

Northern Europe especially the UK, Germany, Belgium, Holland and Italy have witnessed heavy, sometimes extreme, rainfall and resultant deluge and urban flooding, causing enormous loss of life, damage to infrastructure and homes, and catching all local, regional and national authorities unawares. Simultaneously, Southern Europe especially Italy, Greece, Albania, former Yugoslav republics such as North Macedonia and other countries on or near the Mediterranean, have experienced severe heat waves and dry weather, setting off massive wildfires.

Meanwhile, the western United States and Canada have undergone unprecedented heat waves, for which people especially in Canada are completely unprepared, prolonged drought and wildfires over vast areas.

China too has suffered extreme rainfall and flooding including in major urban centres and threatening its large dams. And India continues to see extreme rainfall events triggering landslips, mudslides, flooding and urban waterlogging, with a total absence of defences or preparedness despite recurrent such events.

Make no mistake, climate change is very real, its severe impacts are being seen right here and now, when temperatures have risen globally by around 1.2 degrees C, and not sometime in the distant future. The mind boggles when contemplating the horrendous impacts when, not if, global temperature rise reaches 2 degrees C as widely predicted.

South-east England was hit by flash floods during 12-15 July this year with a month’s rainfall of over 100mm falling in just one or two hours. Even metropolitan London was badly flooded including several stations in its famous underground rail system. Most of London is built on the floodplains of the river Thames which is hemmed in by concrete and stone walls, and surplus water in the city has nowhere to go. The Victorian era drainage system is designed to handle the normal light rainfall of England, but not huge downpours over just a few hours, which have become annual affairs over the past few years mostly, as scientists agree, due to climate change for which the country is ill-prepared. Even a new larger underground sewage and drainage system that is currently being laid is also viewed by authorities as inadequate.

Northern and central Europe were worse hit by more or less the same storm system moving into continental Europe and stalling for several days. During this period, heavy rain of 100-150mm, in some places over 200mm, fell in a 24-hours period, often mostly in just a few hours, flooding major river basins across Germany and neighbouring low-lying Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg.  This pattern of heavy or extreme rainfall through “superstorms” is predicted to intensify with rising global temperatures which carry more moisture to cloud systems that release massive quantities of water in short time.

Later, heavy rains and flooding badly affected Switzerland, Austria, northern Italy, Hungary and Croatia. At least 224 people are known to have died including 184 in Germany which bore the brunt. Enormous damage to infrastructure, homes, farms and power utilities was caused by the floods, which occurred suddenly giving people little chance to escape or prepare, and insurance companies alone estimated losses at over Euro 2.5 billion (Rs 22,000 crore) with non-insured damage not having been counted.

What shocked authorities was the loss of life and massive economic damage, the visuals seen on TV in Europe usually being seen in developing countries.  Flood warning systems in place, which Germany in particular being proud of these systems, were of little use, in part because they were too late and worded in such a way, talking about amounts of rainfall rather than impending inundation, that people couldn’t understand and readily translate into preparedness or escape action.

A few other aspects contributed to authorities and people in these countries being unprepared. The lack of adequate drainage infrastructure and town planning suited to the heavy rainfall predicted under climate change was, of course, brought home sharply.  Further, Germany’s flood warning system is almost all based on the major rivers. However, as also seen in Britain over the past few years, flash flooding in small creeks and rivulets in Germany and elsewhere, a familiar pattern in India, was unexpected and took a heavy toll.  Thirdly, storm systems stalling over continental Europe were seen as a very rare phenomenon but, with rising temperatures, are now predicted to occur around 15 times more frequently. This pattern may even worsen if the jet stream, the high-altitude winds circling the northern hemisphere, slow down due to climate change as anticipated.

One country that fared better due to preparations made much earlier was Holland, large parts of which lie below sea-level, a country with long experience of managing flood waters. The Meuse river, that also runs through Belgium, recorded higher flood levels than seen in the record-setting year of 1993, but still experienced less damage than at that time. Holland has developed a philosophy and matching flood control systems based on the concept of “room for the river” wherein river channels have been deepened and widened, and land set aside in the flood plains where flood waters can spread out.

In sharp contrast, countries in southern Europe such as Spain, and particularly those abutting the Mediterranean, have been experiencing dangerous heat waves with the dry weather triggering extensive wildfires.

Temperatures in Greece were in the mid ‘40s Celsius in mid-to-July and a few days ago touched 47 degrees C, just one degree short of the highest temperature ever recorded in Europe in 1977. Weather authorities have declared this among the worst ever heat waves in the country. Heat wave warnings have also been issued in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Serbia, southern Italy and Romania.

The city of Athens is even currently besieged by wildfires in the surrounding regions, where more than 78 forest fires have been reported in the past few days. Evacuation has been ordered in several suburbs of Athens. Deadly and extensive wildfires are also raging in south-east Turkey, forcing authorities to close and evacuate tourist resorts. Wildfires are also raging in the Italian island of Sardinia, North Macedonia, Albania, Cyprus and other places, and the heavy pollution from all these wildfires has badly affected many neighbouring countries such as Morocco, Albania and Lebanon.

Many lives have been lost in these fires and hospitals are rapidly filling with heat stroke and pollution related ailments. Much damage has also been caused to homes, olive plantations, pasture lands and other agricultural crops.

Some European agencies have said that large fires in 2021 are more than three times the historical average in this millennium, and are most likely caused by climate change.

Since end-June till now, western USA and Canada have been experiencing searing heat waves, drought, dry conditions and wildfires triggered by these conditions. The heat wave has swept through northern California and the states of Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, the Northwest Territories and Saskatchewan. This entire region experienced its hottest ever June according to meteorologists.

Las Vegas, Nevada, reached its previously recorded highest temperature of 47.2 C in mid-July. Many other areas also touched record highs in this period. California’s Death Valley registered 54.4 C, matching a high recorded in August 2020 which some scientists say is the highest temperature ever recorded on the planet.

Even though linking specific events to climate change is considered difficult, a set of climate researchers from the US, Canada and Europe have said that this heat wave was “virtually impossible to explain without climate change.” They said events like these are likely to occur only once in a thousand years, but trends over recent years show a far greater likelihood of such events in present times.

Spurred on by the dry conditions and high temperatures, wildfires have been raging through parts of the Sierra Nevada, Oregon and California. Wildfires have also been ravaging British Columbia in western Canada where the village of Lytton recorded Canada’s highest ever temperature of 49.6 C, and was completely destroyed by wildfires a few days later. Numerous homes have been destroyed in the fires and multiple villages and towns evacuated. Extensive damage has been caused to rail and road infrastructure, crops and floods have also been triggered by unusual snow melt.

The heat wave has led to numerous deaths in the region and high hospitalisation due to heat-related issues. Deaths have so far only been estimated through “excess death” estimates compared to previous years’ averages. British Columbia alone has registered 570 deaths in the last week of June, while hundreds of heat-related deaths have been registered in many US states.

Canada seems to have suffered more from heat-related deaths and morbidity since these areas are far less accustomed to such high temperatures, most without air-conditioning at home and not aware of precautions to be taken against heat stroke or dehydration. This was also noticed in France a few years ago when over 3000 people, mostly vulnerable elderly folk, died due to heat-related issues.

Speaking for India, extreme rainfall events continue to occur every year, with increased frequency and intensity. The union government has taken absolutely no measures to prepare for and build resilience to climate impacts here in India, while making the odd gesture to satisfy international interlocutors at climate summits regarding emission reductions. The government gave even that a miss the past month when it failed to attend an important physical summit organised by the UK in preparation for the UNFCCC Summit due in Glasgow in the coming winter. It is as if our government neither cares about global efforts to control rising temperatures nor about the disastrous impacts already being experienced in India. Europe and North America got jolted out of their slumber on climate impacts. When will the Modi government wake up?