Risk of new Katrinas rises as climate warms

Risk of new Katrinas rises as climate warms

Climate change may drastically increase the risk of simultaneous cyclones and storm surges striking populous coastlines around the world.

LONDON, 1 September, 2015 – Perfect storms are by definition improbable. But climate scientists now think that the devastating combination of extreme tropical cyclone and unprecedented storm surge is going to get a whole lot less improbable by the end of the century.

The chances that the city of Tampa, in Florida, will be hit by a devastating hurricane and an 11-metre wall of ocean water by 2100 could have increased by up to fourteen-fold, they report in Nature Climate Change.

All climate modelling involves a calculation of probabilities. Ning Lin, a civil engineer at Princeton University in New Jersey in the US, and Kerry Emanuel, a climate scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, started exploring the idea of events that are highly improbable, but worth trying to predict anyway because their consequences could be so calamitous.

If storms that could not be expected are “black swan” events, then they have identified a second category: “grey swan” events that are worse than any in recorded history, but are nevertheless foreseeable, using knowledge of atmospheric physics, topography and the climate record.

So – on the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans, the most costly disaster in American history – they decided to see how bad things could really get.

Advance warnings

The horror of Katrina was that although it was a storm surge without precedent, engineers and meteorologists had repeatedly warned that New Orleans could be vulnerable. And when it arrived, New Orleans, the state of Louisiana and the Washington Administration were all taken by surprise.

For their study, the two scientists selected three vulnerable bits of coastline and set about modelling the worst that could happen, and the probabilities that it might happen. They chose Dubai in the Persian Gulf – an area never before hit by a tropical cyclone – Cairns on the coast of Australia, and Tampa in Florida.

They found that a “grey swan” cyclone right now could cause a storm surge of six metres in Tampa, Cairns 5.7 metres and Dubai four metres. The chances of such a thing happening in any one year, however, were as low as one in 10,000. That is, not very likely.

And then they factored in continuing climate change, driven by global warming as a consequence of prodigal fossil fuel combustion by humankind, and started to consider the long-term consequences.

By the end of the century, the hazard to Dubai had increased to seven metres, and to Tampa to 11 metres. And the probabilities had increased too: the likelihood of a devastating storm and an overwhelming wall of water in the Persian Gulf had become “non-negligible”: the extreme in Tampa’s case was one in 700.

“The ocean conditions that led to a severe hurricane season in 2005 also reduced atmospheric moisture flow to South America, contributing to a once-in-a-century dry spell in the Amazon”

But such research is based only on known hazards now and projections for the future. In fact, hurricane conditions in one region can be matched by awful hazards in places far away according to a team from the University of California, Irvine, and the US space agency Nasa.

They report in Geophysical Research Letters that they have identified a link between catastrophic wildfires in the Amazon and hurricanes such as Katrina that devastate the northern hemisphere coasts.

Yang Chen, an earth system scientist from UC Irvine, and colleagues looked at years of sea surface temperature and other climate data to find the connection. In years of high numbers of hurricanes and high fire risk, warm waters in the North Atlantic help hurricanes develop and gather strength and speed on their way to North American shores.

These same warm waters drag rainfall away from the southern Amazon, leaving the rainforests increasingly vulnerable to fire. Since the Amazon forests are a vital repository of stored carbon, any fires there can only fuel global warming still further, increasing sea surface temperatures and stepping up yet more the probability of tropical cyclones, typhoons or hurricanes.

“Hurricane Katrina is, indeed, part of this story”, said UCI earth system scientist James Randerson, senior author of the paper. “The ocean conditions that led to a severe hurricane season in 2005 also reduced atmospheric moisture flow to South America, contributing to a once-in-a-century dry spell in the Amazon. The timing of these events is perfectly consistent with our research findings.” – Climate News Network

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Extreme weather puts Africa’s food security at risk

Extreme weather puts Africa's food security at risk

A British government scientific panel says increasingly frequent heat waves, droughts and other extreme weather threaten more – and more severe – global food crises.

LONDON, 15 August, 2015 – Developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa which depend heavily on food imports will be worst hit by the increasingly extreme global weather, a report says, with the Middle East and North Africa also threatened, in this case by social unrest.

In contrast, the authors say the impact on the world’s biggest economies is likely to be muted. But they think a serious crisis could occur as soon as 2016, with repercussions in many countries.

They write: We present evidence that the global food system is vulnerable to production shocks caused by extreme weather, and that this risk is growing…preliminary analysis of limited existing data suggests that the risk of a 1-in-100 year production shock is likely to increase to 1-in-30 or more by 2040.”

The report was jointly commissioned by the UKs Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its Government Science and Innovation Network, with a foreword by the countrys former chief government scientist, Sir David King.

He writes: We know that the climate is changing and weather records are being broken all the time…The food system we increasingly rely on is a global enterprise. Up to now its been pretty robust and extreme weather has had limited impact on a global scale. But…the risks are serious and should be a cause for concern…

Likely scenarios

We should be looking carefully at even very low probability situations, and the likelihood of the scenarios suggested in this report are far too significant to ignore.”

The report says the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that by 2050 global food demand will be 60% above todays, with per capita demand also growing, and more meat-eating.

In 2007/8 a small weather-related production shock, coupled with historically low stock levels, led to rapid food price inflation in the main internationally traded grains, as measured by the FAO Food Price Index.

Prices rose by over 100%. A similar price spike occurred in 2010/11, partly driven by the weather in eastern Europe and Russia.

In 2012, the worst drought to hit the American Midwest for half a century triggered comparable spikes in international maize and soya prices. There is good evidence, the report says, that extreme weather events, from intense storms to droughts and heat waves, are increasing significantly.

Food production of the globally most important commodity crops (maize, soya, wheat and rice) comes from a small number of major producing countries.

Multiple failure

Simultaneous extreme weather events in two or more of these regions – creating a multiple bread basket failure – would represent a serious production shock. There is an urgent need to understand the driving dynamics of linked problems such as the El Niño effect – which may be becoming more extreme – the report says.

By examining production shocks in the recent past, the authors devised what they call a plausible worst case scenario” – a simultaneous drought affecting maize and soya production, and another which damages wheat and rice harvests.

More topically, they also describe what they say is a plausible worst case scenario for 2016. This involves a complex sequence, starting with a disappointing 2015 Indian monsoon, the loss of much of 2016s Black Sea winter wheat crop, and then Russian and Ukrainian export bans.

International wheat prices rise fast, prompting similar measures in south and central Asia and Argentina, and repercussions as far afield as China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

In late spring a persistent drought starts in North America, affecting soya and maize forecasts and prices. Then a heatwave and drought hit the European wheat crop, leading to further rises across all cereals.

Panicked markets

In early summer a second failure of the Indian monsoon unleashes panic in the rice market, where Asian households have been steadily hoarding. Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Egypt and Nepal impose export restrictions.

Major importers such as Nigeria, Malaysia and the Philippines place orders far above normal levels in a bid to calm domestic markets. The scenario ends with still more countries
– Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia – imposing export bans.

One of the reports recommendations is that agriculture should adapt to a changing climate.

That, it says, means productivity must be increased by reversing declines in yield growth and closing the gap between actual and attainable yields in the developing world, while also reducing agricultures environmental impact, including the depletion of fresh water and the increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

However, it says, given the increasing risk of extreme weather, this cannot come at the expense of production resilience. – Climate News Network

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Record torrential rainfall linked to warming climate

Record torrential rainfall linked to warming climate

Scientists show that devastating increases in extreme rainfall over the last 30 years fit in with global temperature rise caused by greenhouse gases.

LONDON, 13 July, 2015 – If you think you’re getting an unusually hard soaking more often when you go out in the rain, you’re probably right.

A team of scientists in Germany says record-breaking heavy rainfall has been increasing strikingly in the last 30 years as global temperatures increase.

Before 1980, they say, the explanation was fluctuations in natural variability. But since then they have detected a clear upward trend in downpours that is consistent with a warming world.

The scientists, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), report in the journal Climatic Change that this increase is to be expected with rising global temperatures, caused by greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels.

High-impact flooding

Short-term torrential rains can lead to what the team calls “high-impact” flooding. For example, extreme rainfall in Pakistan in 2010 brought devastation that killed hundreds of people and led to a cholera outbreak.

In the same year, rainstorms in Texas caused dozens of flash floods. And no fewer than three “once-in-a-century” floods in Germany all happened in just a couple of years from 1997.

“In all of these places, the amount of rain pouring down in one day broke local records – and while each of these individual events has been caused by a number of different factors, we find a clear overall upward trend for these unprecedented hazards,” says the lead author, Jascha Lehmann, a PIK researcher into climate impacts and vulnerabilities.

Statistical analysis of rainfall data from 1901 to 2010, derived from thousands of weather stations around the globe, shows that from 1980 to 2010 there were 12% more of these intense events than would be expected in a climate without global warming. In the last year of the period the team studied, there were 26% more record-breaking daily rainfall events globally.

“One out of 10 record-breaking rainfall events in the past 30 years can only be explained if
the long-term warming is taken into account”

Not all parts of the world are experiencing a similar pattern of soaking. The PIK scientists found that − possibly not surprisingly − wet regions generally saw a bigger increase in deluges and drier regions a smaller one.

In southeast Asia, the observed increase in record-breaking rainfall events is as high as 56%, in Europe 31%, and in the central US it is a more modest, but still worrying, 24%.

In marked contrast, some regions have experienced significantly fewer record-breaking daily rainfall events. In the Mediterranean, the reduction is 27%, and in the western US it is 21%. Both regions are at risk from severe droughts.

The team says there is a simple scientific explanation for what they report. They compared their findings with existing knowledge about how much more water the atmosphere can store when temperatures rise, described by what they call the well-known Clausius-Clapeyron equation.

Put simply, warmer air holds more moisture, which can be released during short-term heavy rainfall.

The scientists show that the observed increase in unprecedented heavy rainfall generally fits with this thermodynamically expected increase under global warming.

Upward trend

“One out of 10 record-breaking rainfall events observed globally in the past 30 years can only be explained if the long-term warming is taken into account,” says co-author Dim Coumou, a PIK researcher into the links between atmospheric circulation and extreme weather events. “For the last year studied, 2010, it is even one event out of four, as the trend is upward.”

There are, of course, qualifications to the broad picture. For instance, the scientists allowed for the fact that the quality of historic weather data differs from one place to another. Unsurprisingly, rainfall measurements from the Sahara desert are scarce, so the team avoids drawing conclusions for the region.

But rainfall in regions such as Europe and the US has been carefully monitored for over a century, allowing the authors to draw conclusions with high levels of confidence

“The pronounced recent increase in record-breaking rainfall events is, of course, worrying,” Coumou says. “Yet since it is consistent with human-caused global warming, it can also be curbed if greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels are substantially reduced.” – Climate News Network

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Deaths mount as Pakistan heatwave is linked to climate

Deaths mount as Pakistan heatwave is linked to climate

More than 1,200 people have died as the result of an intense heatwave in southern Pakistan, and experts warn of more hot weather to come.

ISLAMABAD, 6 July, 2015 − Pakistan’s lack of preparedness in the face of increasingly intense weather events is being blamed for a growing death toll following what has been one of the most sustained heatwaves in the country since records began.

And weather experts say that the extreme heat – which lasted for much of the second half of June, and was felt most in the southern province of Sindh – is linked to climate change.

Ghulam Rasul, director general of the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD), told Climate News Network that the intense heat was caused by an unusually persistent area of low pressure over the Arabian Sea off Pakistan’s coast.

“Usually, in summer, cool winds blow from the sea to land, and in winter the situation is the opposite,” he said. “This moderates temperatures in the port city of Karachi, but this summer, this didn’t happen.”

Climate taskforce

Pervaiz Amir, formerly a member of a special taskforce on climate change set up by Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s prime minister, said: “The mortality from heatstroke could have been avoided had the Sindh provincial government responded to a heatwave forecast issued by the Pakistan Meteorological Department.”

Karachi, a city of nearly 20 million, was worst hit, with bodies piling up in the city’s morgues, and hospitals crammed with people suffering from severe heatstroke as daytime temperatures climbed to well over 40°C for extended periods.

About 65,000 heatstroke patients were treated at the city’s hospitals, and the death toll in southern Pakistan climbed above 1,200.

“This is leading to more extreme weather events, with floods and heatwaves becoming more intense and frequent in recent years”

Chronic energy shortages – a common occurrence in Pakistan – added to the problem, and the heatwave came during Ramadan, the Muslim fasting period when people do not eat or drink during daylight hours.

Experts say Karachi has also suffered from what’s known as the urban heat island effect, with poor urban planning and a lack of green spaces making conditions even hotter.

Social workers say the majority of those who have died have been the poor and homeless. At one stage, Karachi’s cemeteries ran out of space for burying the dead.

Mohsin Iqbal, a climate scientist at the state-owned Global Change Impact Study Centre in Islamabad, says temperature increases in Pakistan are above the rise in average global temperatures.

Extreme events

“This is leading to more extreme weather events, with floods and heatwaves becoming more intense and frequent in recent years,” he says.

Climate experts say weather patterns throughout the Asian sub-continent are changing, with more intense periods of heat, delays in the monsoon season and a greater incidence of drought conditions.

In April and May this year, many parts of India were hit by an intense heatwave, causing the death of more than 2,000 people.

AccuWeather, a global forecasting service, says delays in the arrival of monsoon rains and further hot periods are likely to exacerbate drought conditions in Pakistan and northwest India in July and August, threatening crop production across a wide swathe of land. – Climate News Network

  • Saleem Shaikh is a freelance climate change and science journalist, based in Islamabad, Pakistan.

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Scientists detect mysterious warming in US coastal waters

Scientists detect mysterious warming in US coastal waters

Unprecedented ocean temperature rises off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the US may be linked to sea level rise or the recent pattern of “weird” weather.

LONDON, 28 June, 2015 − Oceanographers are puzzled by an accelerated burst of warming sea that threatens the fisheries of the American Atlantic coast.

Meanwhile, off the US West coast, scientists report that they have been baffled by a mysterious “blob” of water up to 4°C warmer than the surrounding Pacific, linked to weird weather across the entire country.

Jacob Forsyth and research colleagues from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts report in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans that the ocean off the US north-east continental shelf has been warming at unprecedented levels for 13 years.

Their findings came after analysis of data from sensors − called bathythermographs − dropped 14 times a year from the container ship Oleander, which for 37 years has travelled between New Jersey and Bermuda. Each detector takes the temperature of the water column as it sinks up to 700 metres.

Startling discovery

What they were startled to discover was an unexplained, and unprecedented, rise in the water temperatures that may be linked with an equally mysterious sea level anomaly: sea levels are going up, but they are going up faster off the north-east coast of the US than almost anywhere else.

“The warming rate since 2002 is 15 times faster than from the previous 100 years,” says Glen Gawarkiewicz, a WHOI senior scientist and one of the authors of the report.

“There’s just been this incredible acceleration to the warming, and we don’t know if it’s decadal variability or if this trend will continue.”

“It’s producing conditions that we think are going to be more common with global warming”

To make sure of their perspective, the authors compared their analysis with surface data from the Nantucket lightship and other such installations along the coast, from 1880 to 2004. The new study shows that the warming is not just confined to surface waters.

Although there must be some link with the steady rise in atmospheric temperatures because of global warming as a result of human-made carbon dioxide emissions, the oceanographers suspect there may also be another explanation, so far undiscovered.

Off the Pacific coast, meteorologists have been scratching their heads over the appearance in 2014 of a “remarkably” warm patch −  1,500 kilometres across in every direction and 100 metres deep − that could be linked to “weird” weather across the continental US that has seen heat and drought in the west and blizzards and chills in the East.

High pressure ridge

Nicholas Bond,  a research meteorologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, and colleagues report in Geophysical Research Letters that what they have called “the blob” was linked to a persistent high pressure ridge, linked in turn to a calmer ocean during the last two northern hemisphere winters.

The blob plays a sure role in the West Coast weather. Air sweeping across it picks up heat, and this results in warmer temperatures and lower snowpack in coastal mountains − which certainly stoke up the conditions for drought.

A second study in Geophysical Research Letters links the warm Pacific puzzle to the big freeze in the eastern states in 2013 and 2014.

Once again, there doesn’t seem to be a direct connection with climate change, but it raises the spectre of changes to come.

“This is a taste of what the ocean will be like in future decades,” Dr Bond says. “It wasn’t caused by global warming, but it’s producing conditions that we think are going to be more common with global warming.” − Climate News Network

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Prospect of warmer winters doesn’t mean fewer deaths

Prospect of warmer winters doesn’t mean fewer deaths

New scientific study pours cold water on the theory that mortality rates will drop in winter months as the climate warms.

LONDON, 26 June, 2015 − Global warming is unlikely to mean that fewer people in northern latitudes will die from cold during the winter, according to a study by scientists in the US.

Despite arguments that an increase in death rates caused by global warming and increased summertime temperatures will be offset by a matching drop in mortality as winter temperatures also rise, the study cautions against assuming any such link as research suggests otherwise.

The study, carried out over several years, looked at temperature-related seasonal mortality rates, particularly among elder people, in a total of 39 cities – the majority in the US, and three in France.

It concludes: “Our findings suggest that reductions in cold-related mortality rates under a warming climate may be much smaller than some have assumed.”

The research, carried out by a team led by Professor Patrick Kinney, a specialist in public health at the Columbia University Earth Institute in the US, is published in the Environmental Research Letters journal.

Temperature range

“We found that excess winter mortality did not depend on seasonal temperature range and was no lower in warmer vs colder cities, suggesting that temperature is not a key driver of winter excess mortality,” the study says.

Although the researchers acknowledge that seasonal temperature patterns can have an effect on health, many other factors influence mortality rates in winter among elderly people.

Diseases such as influenza – often transmitted when younger generations of families meet up with their elders at family celebrations – play a far greater role in mortality than the cold.

“Most older people who die over the winter don’t die from cold – they die from complications related to ’flu and other respiratory diseases,”  Kinney says.

Most previous studies investigating the links between temperature rises and death rates have focused on the impact of summer heat.

“Most older people who die over the winter don’t die from cold – they die from complications
related to respiratory diseases”

A prolonged heatwave across Europe in 2003 – which many scientists say can be attributed to climate change – is believed to have caused between 30,000 and 50,000 deaths. Elderly people in urban areas – often left stranded in their baking apartment blocks – were particularly badly hit.

A lot of media attention has also been given recently to the high rates of death among migrant workers from Nepal working in high temperatures in Qatar and other countries in the Gulf region.

The Columbia study looked at winter death rates among elderly people in cities in different climate zones and with differing demographics – from Paris and New York to Miami and Marseilles.

Opposite effect

It found that most of the elderly people living in the cities from which data was gathered were not exposed to the winter cold for long periods as the majority had access to a warm indoor environment.

Kinney says that rather than decreasing mortality, warmer winters could have the opposite effect.

“We see mosquito-borne diseases emerging in new territories because warmer winter temperatures enable the insects to over-winter in more northerly regions,” he says.

“Warmer temperatures can also enable an insect-borne virus to replicate inside the insect vector to be transmitted and cause disease in a human or animal.

“Sadly, this research tells us that an increase in summer deaths due to climate change is unlikely to be counteracted by a reduction in winter deaths.” – Climate News Network

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India blames heatwave deaths on climate change 

India blames heatwave deaths on climate change 

Fierce temperatures in India doubled the heat-related deaths normally recorded in May − and the government insists natural causes are not to blame.

CHENNAI, 19 June, 2015 − India, one of the key players in the efforts to reach an international agreement on global warming, has no doubt of its malign effects. It was, says a government minister, the warming climate that caused last month’s devastating heatwave.

From mid-April till the end of May, nearly 2,200 people were killed by the heat − 1,636 of them in Andhra Pradesh, the worst-affected state. The normal May figure for the whole of India is about 1,000 heat-related deaths.

Dr Harsh Vardhan, India’s Minister of Science and Technology and Earth Sciences, has blamed the heat deaths squarely on climate change.

Improve understanding

Launching a supercomputer at the National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting to improve understanding of climatic changes, he said: “It’s not just another unusually hot summer − it is climate change.

“Let us not fool ourselves that there is no connection between the unusual number of deaths from the ongoing heatwave and the certainty of another failed monsoon.”

Dr Vardhan said that May’s heatwave, followed by the delay to the start of the monsoon, on which nearly half of India’s farmlands depend, was a definite manifestation of climate change.

Jejabba, a 63-year-old farmer in Andhra Pradesh state, was one of those who lost their lives because of this year’s scorching heat.

He took his cows out to graze in a mango grove near his house around 11am, but was tired and dehydrated when he returned home four hours later. After he began vomiting, and then fainted, he was rushed to the small government hospital 5km from his village, but died on the way.

“In my 17 years of service, I have not
come across such an alarming number
of deaths due to a heatwave”

“Summer is severe, and many people have been affected by the heatwave in our village,” says Jejabba’s distant cousin, Pindigi Ramamurthi, who runs a grain store in the village. “Just the previous day, we took our two children to hospital after they began vomiting. The doctor admitted them for a few hours to administer fluids, and luckily that revived them.”

Local officials recorded Jejabba as “the latest of the summer deaths”. But when his widow asked for compensation − the state government pays 100,000 rupees (US$1,570) to the family of a victim − the local panchayat (civic) official, who has to recommend the payment, told her she must get a certificate from the hospital doctor.

“The doctor told the family he could not give the certificate because Jejabba did not die in his hospital,” Ramamurthi recalls. “Why couldn’t the poor fellow have stayed alive just an hour or so longer till we reached the hospital? Now the widow must suffer this red tape.”

In parts of southern India, daytime temperatures reached between 45° and 47°C during this year’s heatwave − up to 7°C above normal.

Alarming number

Dr Srihari Rao, resident medical officer at the government general hospital in Tirupati, about 45km from Jejabba’s home, says: “In my 17 years of service, I have not come across such an alarming number of deaths due to a heatwave.

“Almost every day in May there was a death in the district from sunstroke. The majority of the dead were in the 65 to 80 age group, but there was also a case of a 19-year-old girl dying from dehydration.”

Dr Rao said infants, aged people and farmers had been particularly severely affected.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported last year that there would be significant changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, including heatwaves in India. Its report was based on weather records from 1906 to 2005.

Researchers at the India Meteorological Department, after conducting a study of heatwaves over the last 50 years, have called for public information campaigns to be launched on the dangers, and also stressed the importance of using social care networks to reach vulnerable sections of the population. − Climate News Network

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India’s coastal villages map out disasters strategy

India’s coastal villages map out disasters strategy

The Indian Ocean can be an angry and sometimes lethal neighbour, but those who live beside it are now learning how to prepare for its next onslaught.

CHENNAI, 26 May, 2015 – It has been over a decade since the devastating tsunami struck southeast Asia, but the horrific memories remain as vivid as ever for people in the coastal villages of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Now, in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami and also two cyclones, local people are benefiting from the Indian government’s encouragement of international co-operation in helping vulnerable communities, and have produced a hazard map as a precaution against future disasters.

Vikas Shankar, from the fishing village of Sulerikattukuppam, remembers clearly the moment the tsunami struck.“I was engrossed in playing cricket when I saw water entering the village,” he says. “I thought it was just another day when the sea poured in. Then, suddenly, I saw my mother caught in a whirlpool and realised something was seriously wrong.”

His mother, Tilakavathy, survived the tsunami’s fury, but recalls: “I thought this was really the end of the world.”

Completely destroyed

Amazingly, no one in the village died, but fishermen lost their gear and livelihoods, and many buildings close to the shore were completely destroyed.

The tsunami prompted Tilakavathy and her husband to decide not to send their sons to sea to earn a livelihood.

When Vikas, their youngest son, was old enough, he was sent instead to the local community college, built in 2011 by the state government to provide education and alternative livelihood opportunities for the fishing community.

The local people, recognising the need for disaster preparedness, are now involved in a programme that focuses on  developing communication tools for vulnerable communities and raising awareness of other disaster-related issues.

Krishnamurthy Ramasamy, professor of applied geology at the University of Madras, was formerly the principal of the community college. He says: “We realised the need for international collaboration to build a curriculum on disaster management and field-based learning activities.”

Kyoto University in Japan was one of the universities keen to work with him, and two Australian universities, Melbourne and Victoria, also joined in, helping with funds, curriculum development and exchange visits.

“We were taught how and why cyclones and tsunamis happen. It helped us to understand disasters in the first place.”

The college itself fostered community-based preparedness by offering disaster management as an optional subject, and by helping to set up a Local Residents’ Alliance (LRA) in 2013 to mobilise villagers. Most members of this group were parents of students from the college.

Vikas Shankar says: “In the class, we were taught how and why cyclones and tsunamis happen. It helped us to understand disasters in the first place.”

To learn about other people’s best practices, Professor Ramasamy visited communities along the Japanese coast, and there he made a significant discovery. He says: “The first thing I noticed in each village was the hazard map. I thought that we needed this too.”

Back at the college, work on hazard map preparation began, and the first step was students surveying their own villages to understand the geography better.

Teams went from house to house and marked all the huts in the village. They counted the number of people in the house, with details of numbers of women, children, old and disabled people living there. All this information went on the hazard map.

Miwa Abe, from the Centre for Policy Studies at Kumamoto University, Japan, who trained the Indian students, says: “A hazard mapping exercise with local people gives them an opportunity to know their village.

“It is not only about environmental conditions, but also human relationships, social networks, architectural conditions. Usually people do not think about their own area because it is too familiar to them.”

Evacuation routes

The teams also prepared evacuation routes, and, after six months of rigorous work, the students presented the final map to the local people.

Today, as one walks into the village, the first thing to catch the eye is the big blue hazard map board at its entrance. It shows the evacuation routes to be followed during disasters, and also the village’s population distribution − crucial information so that local people will know who to rescue first, and where they live.

The village’s approach is now being used as a case study in efforts to prepare community-based disaster management (CBDM) plans for the entire district, and eventually as a model for the state. The Tamil Nadu government has given land adjacent to the college to establish permanent infrastructure and to provide better facilities for the students.

Rajalakshmi Mahadevan, a fisherman’s daughter, says: “The evacuation map can be read by anyone, even a newcomer. Now we know which house to go to, who to evacuate first, and this has lifted the fear of disaster from local people’s minds.”– Climate News Network

  • Sharada Balasubramanian, an independent journalist from Tamil Nadu, India, writes on energy, agriculture and the environment. Email: sharadawrites@gmail.com; Twitter: @sharadawrites

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“Water Man of India” makes rivers flow again

“Water Man of India” makes rivers flow again

Revival of traditional rainwater harvesting has transformed the driest state in India, and could be used to combat the effects of climate change across the world.

Chennai, 6 April, 2015 − School textbooks in India have been telling children for generations that Rajasthan is an inhospitable state in the northwest of the country, constrained by the hot, hostile sands of the Thar Desert.

But the driest state in India has a softer, humane face as well – that of Rajendra Singh, known as the “Water Man of India”, whose untiring efforts in water conservation in arid Rajasthan have led to him being awarded the Stockholm Water Prize, commonly referred to as the Nobel Prize for Water.

Singh did not attempt to design a new technology to address Rajasthan’s water problems. He began simply by de-silting several traditional surface level rainwater storage facilities – called “johads” in the local Hindi language − that fell out of use during British colonial rule. And, in doing so, he has quenched the thirst of villages that were dying.

Thousands of villages followed his example, and so much water was captured and soaked into aquifers that dry rivers have begun to flow again.

Water wars

Singh believes that water conservation is vital to combat the effects of climate change and to avoid “water wars” in the future.

And such is his reputation on water issues that he received a call from Prince Charles, heir to the UK throne, seeking advice on how to handle the devastating summer floods in England in 2007.

In an interview with Climate News Network, Singh recalled how he began making water flow again in perennially dry Rajasthan by inculcating do-it-yourself initiatives in the villagers.

He explained: “I imbibed Gandhian ideals during my school days that emphasised working for empowerment of villages.

“As an Ayurvedic (traditional medicine system in India) doctor, I went to the Alwar district of Rajasthan early in 1982 to start a clinic and spread awareness among youth about health and hygiene.

“I was perturbed because the majority of young men had already left the village, and the rest were about to leave for green pastures in the cities as they were unable to battle the water scarcity. Besides, they also wanted to earn good money.

“Women, old people and children were left behind in the village. I reworked my doctor plans to address the water scarcity, as that would actually save people from several diseases.

A village johad in arid Rajasthan. Image: LRBurdak via Wikimedia Commons

A village johad in arid Rajasthan. Image: LRBurdak via Wikimedia Commons

“Along with the support of the villagers, I de-silted a couple of johads in Alwar. When rains filled them, people in neighbouring villages trusted my initiative and over 8,000 johads are renovated now.

“Hordes of youth have returned to their villages as water filled tanks and the standard of living in hamlets rose in a big way.”

He said that five rivers in this region had revived and started to flow again.

Johads are simple tanks built across a slope, with a high embankment on three sides and the fourth side left open for rainwater to enter. They hold water during rains and recharge the aquifer below to ensure continuous water supply to the neighbourhood in the dry season.

“Community-based water management yields
long-lasting results and is the only solution for water shortages”

But Singh explained: “After the advent of bore wells and pipelines connecting every hamlet in India, we forgot the traditional water conservation facility used by our ancestors.”

Having won the Stockholm prize, what does the future hold for the Water Man?

“My immediate plans are to take up a global-level campaign on water conservation and peace,” he said. “As predicted by several experts, the next world war will be for water. Unless every one of us starts at least now to save water and protect the water bodies, we face severe conflicts − apart from suffering climate change impacts. I will be leading the global water walk in the UK in August 2015.

“During his two visits (2004 and 2006), Prince Charles told me that he was impressed by the johad model of conservation. He then called me in 2007 to be part of his team of water engineers to work out all possibilities to address the crisis during the floods in England. They listened to my suggestions on creating the johad model on hilltops and downhill to arrest water in the hills and prevent floods in the future.”

In India, however, he is not confident that the government has the right ideas. “Our government is pushing a different idea of inter-linking of rivers, which will only politicise the water crisis. I was part of the national-level body to clean up the holy Ganga River from 2010 to 2012, but I quit as there was lack of accountability and it ended up as a toothless organisation.

“Inter-linking of rivers is not a solution for flood and drought. As far as India is concerned, it will result only in inter-linking of corruption and politics.

Hearts and brains

“What we need is inter-linking of the hearts and brains of people to take up water conservation in their homes and community. If exploitation of river water and polluting the river are stopped, every river will flow. Water engineering should be focused on conservation of each drop, and not on changing the course of rivers, which are designed by Mother Nature.”

Singh is also against the idea of privatising water supplies, and does not believe it would result in people using water more judiciously.

“Water is not a commodity,” he said. “In my own example, johads are de-silted by the people and used by people. Community-based water management yields long-lasting results and is the only solution for water shortages.

“When people realise their need and de-silt lakes and ponds as a group, they can use the water without having to pay for it. Right to water is every man’s right, and monetising water will increase conflicts in the society.

“Helping a community to have access to clean and safe water means helping the community to have a dignified life.” – Climate News Network

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Changing climate causes weather chaos in Chile

Changing climate causes weather chaos in Chile

What is being described as an environmental catastrophe is hitting Chile as torrential rains batter the north while the south suffers prolonged drought and wildfires.

LONDON, 30 March, 2015 − The Atacama desert region of northern Chile, one of the driest areas on Earth, has been hit in recent days by torrential rains and floods that have caused deaths, swept away homes and left much of the region without power.

Meanwhile, in the usually lush southern parts of the country, wildfires are raging across lands and forests parched by the longest period of drought in living memory, endangering some of the world’s richest flora and fauna.

“We are witnessing a massive environmental catastrophe,” Luis Mariano Rendon, head of the Accion Ecologica environmental group, told the AFP news agency.

Irreparable loss

“There have been whole species lost, such as the Araucaria araucana (monkey puzzle tree). They are trees that take hundreds of years to reach maturity, so this is a practically irreparable loss for current generations.”

The trees, a distant relative of the pine, are considered sacred by indigenous Mapuche people, and have been declared part of Chile’s unique natural heritage.

Scientists say the drought in the southern region – which is the powerhouse of Chile’s multi-billion dollar agricultural sector, and site of many of its famous vineyards – is a long-term trend, linked to climate change.

“There is no choice but to assume that the lack of water resources is a reality that is here to stay”

Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, says millions of dollars will have to be invested in desalination plants and new reservoirs to cope with the continuing drought. Canals and irrigation systems will also have to be upgraded.

“Faced with this critical situation,” he says, “there is no choice but to assume that the lack of water resources is a reality that is here to stay, and that puts at risk the development of important regions of the country.”

The Maipo river basin − which includes Santiago, Chile’s capital − contains nearly 40% of the country’s population and is an important area for agriculture, mining, and for power generation, much of which comes from hydroelectric sources.

Researchers, led by the Centre for Global Change at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, have been mapping the impact that climate change is likely to have on the Maipo basin.

Projections so far indicate that rainfall is likely to drop by 10% in the area over the period up to 2040, and by up to 30% by the end of the century. Meanwhile, temperatures will rise by 1˚C above the historical average over the next 25 years, and by between 2.5˚C and 3.5˚C by 2100.

Power source

The researchers have also been investigating glacier mass and melt in the Andes − the source of the bulk of the country’s water supply for millions of people in the region, and a crucial power source.

Scientists say that accelerated melting of Andean glaciers is being caused by atmospheric warming.

Water shortages are hitting not only the agricultural sector, but also mining – one of Chile’s major industries. The country is the world’s biggest producer of copper, and mining companies say they are having to invest in costly desalination plants in order to get water for processing copper concentrate from milled rock.

A drop in river levels feeding hydroelectric facilities is also leading to an increase in coal-fired power plants – a major source of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

Despite the recent rains in the north of the country, scientists are warning of the dangers of desertification in the region, with the northern desert advancing further south each year. – Climate News Network

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