Hottest, Wettest, and Most Vulnerable - Why President Obama Needs to Prioritize Cooperation on Climate Disaster Preparedness on his Trip to India

Heat waves and flooding in India are unlike anything most of us have experienced in the United States.  More than an issue of discomfort and inconvenience for the people of India, it is a matter of life and death, with infectious disease outbreaks, and failing crops.  In his visit to India this weekend, President Barack Obama may hear anecdotally about the increases in disaster-related illnesses, deaths, and migration reported in India this past year.  Yet, climate adaption has been virtually ignored during the U.S.-India discussions on climate change – as Frances Beinecke, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) President, and Dr. Dr Rajendra K. Pachauri, Director-General of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), note in NRDC and TERI’s joint letter to President Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.  While over the last year, U.S. and Indian officials at every level have made significant progress on projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, climate disaster preparedness has been left to the sidelines.

That is why President Obama needs to enhance the U.S. and India’s strategic partnership by prioritizing cooperation on preparing for climate disasters during his visit to India next week.  Together President Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh need to start aggressively implementing projects that build resilience in communities that will lessen the impacts of extreme climate-related events, improve water resources management, and address the real and present dangers of sea level rise and the degradation of fragile ecosystems.

Some folks think, “doesn’t it always get hot in India?  Don’t the monsoons always mean lots of rain?”  But there is a difference between “hot” and a daily high of 122 degrees Fahrenheit, and there is a difference between “lots of rain” and river levels rising over 7 feet above the danger mark and flooding over 200 villages.

 It’s true, India has faced threats ranging from floods and heat-waves to infectious diseases for generations, but climate change is expected to make these health threats much worse.  If India does not prepare to protect its citizens, these threats may result in many deaths, illnesses, and injuries, as well as significant economic costs that could have been avoided.

According to a new study by New Scientist, second only to neighboring Bangladesh, India is predicted to be the second most vulnerable country in the world to climate change because of its billion-plus population.  The most vulnerable people within the country are the poor and the young, the people who are in the most need of government action for scientific research, planning, and preparedness to avoid human and economic losses.

During India’s hottest days this year, temperatures shot up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit, claiming hundreds of lives in Northern India.  As a matter of comparison, the average high temperature of California’s Death Valley—which is appreciably less humid than India—is just 116 degrees Fahrenheit in its hottest month of the year.

While I was in India this summer, newspapers reported that it was the hottest on record in parts of India since the late 1800s.  In states that are already facing water scarcity, like Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Andhra Pradesh, the severe temperatures led to drinking water shortages, which in turn increased instances of heart attack and cardiac conditions, as well as deaths from dehydration and sunstroke.  The urban poor had no choice but to use dirty water for washing and bathing.  Schools were shutdown, and gas station pumps ran dry after railway cars that normally transport fuel were switched to supply much needed water.  Cities across India that already experience power shortages also suffered prolonged blackouts, shutting off fans, water pumps, and the few air-conditioning units in service.   

After the severe heat, the Indian monsoon brought severe flooding.  Delhi experienced the worst flood since 1978.  Massive flooding forced residents into refugee camps and emergency evacuations as the Yamuna River rose.  Traffic stalled in waterlogged streets, and businesses were shut because of flooded offices.   

And then disease arrived.  Because of the flooding, mosquito populations were able to multiply seemingly overnight, and people in even the richest of neighborhoods saw increased dengue fever outbreaks, touching families from all walks of life.  In just this one summer, a colleague of mine was hospitalized twice with dengue fever. 

While Delhi’s flooded streets became immobile, my cousin called to see how I was holding up and complained that he couldn’t get to his job.  He said, in our native Gujarati, that he’s never seen anything like this and it sounds like climate change is only going to make it worse. 

And next door in Pakistan, tragic floods affected over 14 million people and left more than six million people homeless.  Last summer alone makes it clear that we are woefully unprepared for the increasingly extreme weather events of a warming world, and that countries, like India and others across the globe, need to focus on preparation for disasters before they happen.

But preparing for climate disasters will require both international and domestic action – led by India and the United States.  Building resilience in communities means increasing scientific research on identifying vulnerable communities and putting measures into place that predict extreme climate related events and help the public to be prepared and avoid harm.  Preparing for these climate disasters will not only better protect people on the ground, but it will also protect the bottom line, by reducing the long term costs of responding to these disasters (saving funding on refugee camps and food aid) and detracting from economic productivity. 

Knowledge of both climate adaption science and effective preparedness measures must be increased in India, the United States and globally.  These extreme weather events can result in massive migration and food shortages, and their impacts extend well beyond international borders, directly affecting demand on international assistance programs.  We need to build and maintain strong, resilient nations if we want to support regional and international economic stability.   

Some officials in the U.S. are starting to understand the need to prioritize action on adaption.  President Obama’s Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force recently confirmed that adaptation, not just mitigation, is absolutely necessary to avoid the worst consequences of global climate change. 

This fall, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee recommended that the 2011 budget include $1.2 billion for international efforts to combat global warming, including adaptation activities.  Last December in Copenhagen, developed countries committed to provide $30 billion in financing from 2010-2012 to aid developing countries in deploying clean energy, reducing deforestation emissions, and adapting to the impacts of climate change. 

While these funding efforts are a start, more action and funding is needed now. 

President Obama’s upcoming visit to India provides an opportunity to add climate adaptation as a priority to the bilateral India-U.S. cooperation on climate adaption.  President Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh need to use this visit as an opportunity to begin to build a structure for financing adaptation activities, as they have on clean energy cooperation over the past year.  India’s vulnerability to climate disasters is a compelling reason to drive action on climate change in India, domestically as well as internationally, including the discussions in Cancún next month. 

Together, the U.S. and India need to lead in engaging partnerships to expand scientific knowledge and build resilient communities to support a stable global economy, because the costs of allowing adaptation to sit on the sidelines are just too high.

(Ashley Eagle-Gibbs contributed to this post.)