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Can we settle the unsettled state of Indian climate resilience?

Building climate change resilience through robust and effective emergency response systems is not an option but an imperative.

By Abinash Mohanty and Hemant Mallya

A pandemic-driven prolonged closure and a gradual but uncertain opening has played havoc on the Indian economy and society. What could get worse? Recent floods in Assam affected more than 1.3 million people and inundated over 83,000 hectares of cropland. This comes in the wake of several climate change induced events in the last two months alone where India has witnessed a heatwave exposing more than 40 per cent of the population, a locust attack that has ruined crops in more than nine states, a severe cyclone (Cyclone Nisarg) in the Arabian sea not seen in 70 years, and another super cyclone (Cyclone Amphan) causing damages of over USD 13 billion.Ignoring these signals only compounds the chronic and acute risks that we will face in the near future as climate change marches on.

According to a recent first-of-its-kind climate change assessment report for India released by the Ministry of Earth Sciences, the frequency and intensity of climate extremes will surpass the global average levels in India. A 4.4°C rise in average temperature by the end of the 21st century, relative to the 1976-2005 average, would result in daily precipitation extremes leading to weaker summer monsoons and an increase in the frequency and intensity of droughts. Further, the sea level rise over the North Indian Ocean is projected to increase by up to 300mm compared to the global average of 180 mm, threatening low-lying areas in several coastal cities and towns. India urgently needs to

focus on three broad emergency response measures to support climate change resilience and prevent the loss of lives and livelihoods. The current emergency preparedness doesn’t account for compounded risks and hence disruptions are quite high.

First, India must develop a nationwide and centralised Integrated Emergency Surveillance System (IESM). The IESM should be a structured and real-time system that provides information on accidents, disasters, and extreme climate events. It should also provide targeted instructions to concerned authorities and citizens while providing constant updates on the response and relief efforts. Integral to the IESM should be a comprehensive Climate Risk Map that provides geo-tagged interfaces of critical infrastructure such as police and fire stations, hospitals, relief help desks, shelter houses, and warehouses. The basic surveillance and tracking system of the national IntegratedDisease Surveillance Programme (IDSP) database and State Disaster Management Authorities (SDMA) could form the backbone of an effective IESM. Following Kerala’s example, other states have effectively managed their pandemic responses using IESM prototypes for efficient contact tracing of migrant workers, and lessons learned from this could be incorporated into future IESMs.

Secondly, in a post-COVID-19 world, public-private partnerships (PPP) must be prioritised to build emergency preparedness infrastructure. In the coming months, we may see an increased focus on economic recovery with little attention to building resilience – what is not immediate will also not be important. But we can ill afford to wait as climate change-driven events are only expected to increase as the global consensus on climate change action falters. With limited public resources, central and state governments must promote PPP mode to develop infrastructure that includes – private healthcare centres and hospitals, warehouses for relief equipment and essential goods, shelter homes, camps, and community centres. The National Disaster Management Act already provides for infrastructure development in PPP mode. Private partners have developed over 60 per cent of Odisha’s pandemic hospitals and quarantine centres in PPP mode by drawing on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds, which has enhanced the management of the pandemic outbreak in the state. Such efforts need to be scaled up across other states.

Finally, the development of IESM and response infrastructure would have limited effect if citizens and private entities do not participate in emergency response, both systemically and during active response. Hence, it is critical to design and introduce a Unified Emergency Response Framework (UERF) that improves understanding of risks and inculcates behavioural adaptation to stress situations among citizens, civil society actors, and corporates. A UERF should comprise a set of Standard Operating Procedures (SoPs) for various tail-end risks that have a low probability of occurrence, but have high intensity with a devastating and often long term impact when they occur.

Japan, after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in 2011, developed standardised nuclear emergency guidelines for the population in the vicinity of all nuclear power plants. A similar response system exists for the Japanese public to respond to earthquakes. If implemented well, a UERF would result in improved community resilience, minimal loss and damage to life and property during an event, and finally rapid recovery to business-as-usual after the event. 2020 will remain etched in memory as the year of the pandemic. But rising extreme weather events due to climate change could pose a bigger challenge to vulnerable countries such as India in the coming years. Therefore, building climate change resilience through robust and effective emergency response systems is not an option but an imperative.

(Abinash Mohanty is Programme Lead and Hemant Mallya is Senior Programme Lead at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), an independent not-for-profit policy research institution. Views expressed are personal.)

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