May 5 was Climate Impacts Day. It’s not on the UN calendar of Days. “On that day, we will issue a wake-up call, and connect the dots between climate change and extreme weather,” its organizers 350.org said on their website. In Nepal’s Kaski district, the wake-up call was a reported thundering sound followed by a devastating flood that swept away communities. An avalanche in the Annapurna mountain range evolved into the Seti flood downstream.
This was not an act of Climate Change, nor was it a Glacier Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) as some initially confused. At press time, rescue operations still had not managed to reach the sites first hit by the avalanche, death toll stood at 14 and more than 50 people remained missing. What can perhaps be said for certain is that the Seti flood was an extreme weather event that unfolded tragically. But it is a tragedy that Kaski shares with other parts of Nepal, and Nepal shares with the world. Let’s step back and consider what has unfolded in the first few months of 2012.
The fire before the flood
On May 3, days before Saturday’s floods, the weather news from Nepal was of fire: “They say nearly 70 percent of Nepal´s Bardiya National Park has been consumed by fire in the past few days,” Navin Singh Khadka reported on the BBC. The Park’s Chief Conservation Officer Tika Ram Adhikar is quoted as telling the BBC, “Given our past experiences, our estimate is that around 40 percent of small mammals, 60 percent of insects and significant number of birds have been lost in the fire."
Chitwan National Park and Parsa Wildlife Reserve were hit by forest fires too. In fact, on April 27 NASA published an image of Nepal’s forest fires captured by its Aqua satellite. But the fires had been raging for a month by then: on March 28, their satellites observed 86 active forest fires in 24 hours! “Forest fires in Nepal peak during the pre-monsoonal dry months from late March to early May. ICIMOD datasets show 1,857 active fires last year—a relatively small number compared to the 4,217 that erupted in 2009, an exceptionally dry year,” Smriti Mallapaty had reported in early April.
As fire raged around the country in late March, warnings on floods were handed out in Kathmandu. That week International Centre for the Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) issued a warning to the Government of Nepal, urging it to install Early Warning Systems. Specifically, they warned that flash floods could be triggered by GLOFs along the 107-km Bhotekoshi and Sunkoshi basins. There were no early warning systems in place for Seti. But this event is perhaps also a call to consider unconventional regions, i.e. those outside of the studied GLOF threats, as vulnerable spots. It is unimaginable as to why Nepal and its development partners cannot afford this. After all, Nepal has been leading the charge on climate vulnerability relentlessly, and vocally, since the days of COP15, and donor agencies have been happy to ferry those voices around the world on conferences and seminars.
On March 28, on the other side of the world, Andrew Revkin of the New York Times Dot Earth published a few highlights from the IPCC report on his blog. Three of those highlights were:
—Flooding was the most costly category of natural disaster in the US from 2000-2008 (the last year of the cut-off date).
—Heat waves will increase further in frequency, intensity and duration.
—Dryness will depend up region, however an increase in consecutive dry days is expected for Texas.
America is worried. It should be. On April 9, Brian K. Sullivan published an article titled US Set More Than 15,000 March Temperature Records, NOAA on Bloomberg. In it, he reported, “The warm weather also contributed to 223 reported tornadoes in the US, more than the 80 normally seen during the month. A tornado outbreak on March 2 to March 3 across the Ohio Valley and the Southeastern US killed at least 40 people and caused more than US 1.5 billion of damage, according to NOAA. It is the first US $1 billion weather-related disaster of the year.”
Down South, another billion dollar disaster was unfolding. On March 22 PlanetArk.org published a report that started like this: “A severe drought in Mexico that has cost farmers more than a billion dollars in crop losses alone and set back the national cattle herd for years, is just a foretaste of the drier future facing Latin America´s second largest economy.”
“The drought may put farmers—many of whom are already struggling to make ends meet—out of business,” The Guardian wrote three weeks later, not about Mexico, but the farmers in Orwell estuary in East Anglia, UK.
“Mass losses from glaciers and accelerating reductions in snow cover are expected to ultimately reduce water supplies and hydropower potential. Changes in the seasonality of flows in river basins supplied by melt water from snow and ice are also predicted,” ICIMOD noted in their Impacts of warming and melting in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan report in December 2011. “Droughts will likely affect greater areas, and with dry spells there will need to be greater reliance on irrigation, even as water sources become more restricted, according to the authors. The risk of flooding is also increasing with increased variability of climate.”
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s paper, Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation, published last year, could not be clearer about the risks we face today. “A changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration, and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events,” it states.
“There is high confidence that changes in heat waves, glacial retreat and/or permafrost degradation will affect high mountain phenomena such as slope instabilities, movements of mass, and glacial lake outburst floods. There is also high confidence that changes in heavy precipitation will affect landslides in some regions.”
Now consider what Kunda Dixit noted in Republica yesterday: “The vertical terrain also gives Pokhara the highest rainfall in Nepal of more than 4,000 mm per year in some places. The precipitation doesn’t just increase the flood danger, but also triggers massive landslides every monsoon in Kaski and surrounding districts.”
In 2009, when I spoke to environmentalist Bill McKibben, also the founder of 350.org, he said: “There is, I fear, little chance of escaping the basic operations of physics: warmer temperatures melt ice.”
Last December, ICIMOD noted “The rise in temperature has been greater at higher altitudes and more pronounced during the cooler months than in the warmer months… Warming across the region is greater than the global average of 0.74°C over the past 100 years. However, this change is not evenly distributed. It is most pronounced in higher altitude areas like the central Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau.”
Leaders and development partners of Bangladesh cannot pretend like they did not expect floods when floods hit. They don’t either. They prepare like the life of their country depends on it. At this point, Nepal has to be on that same boat. Seti will most likely not be the last big flood we will endure this year, and nor will the avalanche that is said to have triggered it be the last of its kind.
As the US Environmental Protection Agency puts it on their website’s Extreme Weather section: “It is important to understand that directly linking any one specific extreme event to human-caused climate change is not possible. However, climate change may increase the probability of some ordinary weather events reaching extreme levels or of some extreme events becoming more extreme.”
Nepal personifies a scary number of the vulnerabilities that peer reviewed scientific papers on climate change tend to mention regularly. Now, recent papers of that nature tell us those vulnerabilities are and will continue to intensify. Going into election mode soon, political parties also must understand that not taking actions, when there is a growing public call for it, will certainly have political consequences sooner rather than later.
Incidents such as the Seti Flood will continue to keep issues of preparedness in the public sphere, and the media needs to ensure they don’t turn into just another news-cycle fodder. But the best reason to do it would be because we need to. It’s time to connect the dots, and take action.
The author is a writer, photographer and a Policy Fellow at the Niti Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @kashishds