India File

It never rains but it pours

TV Jayan | Updated on August 27, 2018 Published on August 27, 2018

Extreme weather events are increasingly likely to become more frequent in a time of global warming. The challenge is to gear up disaster management for these situations — the effects of which have been made worse by man-made blunders such as poorly-timed release of water from dams, encroachment of catchment areas, quarrying, sand mining and sheer disregard for a river’s course and the likelihood that it could change, when in spate.

Rainfall distribution

On extreme weather events, M Rajeevan, Secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), says: “The frequency of extreme rainfall events over India has increased in the last many years. If a place used to get, say 10 cm of rainfall in 24 hours earlier, it is now happening in 10 hours or 12 hours. The duration over which it rains has come down significantly. However, there is no perceptible change in the total quantum of rainfall received over a season.”

Rajeevan, who has studied Indian monsoon for over three decades, was one of the first weather scientists to identify the increase in frequency in very heavy rainfall events over some parts of India.

A few studies in the recent past have shown that India has been getting more heavy spells in short spurts during its South West monsoon, of late.

 

 

For instance, in a study published in the journal Nature Communications last year, Roxy Mathew Koll, a scientist with the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) in Pune showed that there had been a three-fold increase in extreme rain events since 1950.

Raghu Murtugudde, an earth systems scientist at the University of Maryland, co-author of the Nature Communications paper along with Koll, attributes this to rapid warming in the Arabian Sea and an even larger warming over Pakistan.

“These rapid changes in temperatures create a pressure gradient which fuels excess moisture into India,” he says. As a result monsoon winds fluctuate and intensify over a short span of three-to-four days.

How well is India prepared to deal with such extreme weather events? “Not many States in the country have systems in place to deal with such emergency situations,” says Rajeevan. Odisha and Andhra Pradesh are exceptions.

Lack of coordination

At least on paper, India has a system to deal with disasters. In 2005, a year after the Indian Ocean Tsunami, India constituted a National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), with the Prime Minister as chairman. Similarly, each State has, apart from a State-level authority, district-level organisational set-ups to deal with calamities. But in practice, there is much to be desired.

For instance, since 2014, NDMA has been without a vice-chairman and the number of its members came down to four from the earlier eight. Besides, in 2016, the vice-chairman’s status was also brought down from a Cabinet Minister to that of cabinet secretary and that of members from the Minister of State to secretary level.

 

 

“Earlier, if there is a need, the NDMA vice-chairman would pick up the phone and call up a Chief Minister or concerned minister in the State and point out the gaps in action taken. Today, not even chief secretary of a State attends a meeting called by NDMA member,” said Vinod Chandra Menon, a disaster management expert and former NDMA member.

“This government has completely eroded this institution,” he said. Attempts to contact the current NDMA members remained futile and questions sent over email remained unanswered.

However, a senior MoES official said the lack of coordination between different agencies — be it central and State — makes managing emergencies like the one witnessed in Kerala difficult.

While IMD has a fairly accurate short-range rain forecast mechanism in place and gives rainfall forecasts for most major river basins in the country, it has no access to water data, which is in the custody of the States.

The Central Water Commission, a body under the Water Resources Ministry has access to this data but is unwilling to share it with the IMD, the official said.

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Published on August 27, 2018
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