By K.M. Seethi
The current state of the world’s bio-ecosystem begs immediate attention and demands acknowledgement of a crisis that reverberates on a grand scale. The magnitude of the environmental crisis today is of such colossal proportions that it stretches far beyond the confines of individual nations or localized predicaments. Indeed, it engulfs the very essence of the global existence and poses profound challenges to the delicate equilibrium of the planet. The environmental crisis permeates every aspect of existence, closely intertwined with lopsided development and the inept handling of issues.
Gone are the days when people could anticipate the arrival of spring with bated breath, or revel in the glory of a vibrant autumn. Instead, they find themselves living in a world where the temporal boundaries of seasons blur and fade, as if eroded by the relentless march of an unruly climate. Floods inundate lands unprepared, droughts desiccate once fertile soils, cyclones and hurricanes lash with unparalleled fury, and earthquakes shake the very foundations of human existence.
An ESCAP Report says that in 2022, Asia-Pacific once again served as a stark reminder that it is the most disaster-prone region in the world. Throughout the year, a series of major disasters struck countries across the development spectrum. Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Thailand experienced devastating floods, while China, Kiribati, and Tuvalu faced severe droughts. The Philippines witnessed the destructive forces of typhoons Megi and Nalgae, while India, Japan, and Pakistan grappled with scorching heatwaves. Additionally, earthquakes shook Afghanistan, Fiji, and Indonesia. Among these calamities, floods emerged as the deadliest, accounting for 74.4 percent of all disaster events in the region and a staggering 88.4 percent of global deaths attributed to such disasters.
The UN Report further says that throughout the year, the tropical Pacific remained in a La Niña state, and from August to October 2022, an unprecedented “triple-dip” La Niña event of the 21st century occurred. This, combined with a warming planet, led to a series of extreme weather events worldwide. One significant example was the 2022 Pakistan flood, which affected 33 million people and resulted in 1,739 deaths. The World Weather Attribution study, published on September 15, 2022, revealed discernible “fingerprints” of climate change on this extreme monsoon rainfall in Pakistan. Bangladesh and India also experienced devastating floods last year, impacting 7.2 million and 1.3 million people, respectively.
World Meteorological Organization (WMO) says that “the likelihood of El Niño developing later this year is increasing.” According to WMO, “this would have the opposite impacts on weather and climate patterns in many regions of the world to the long-running La Niña and would likely fuel higher global temperatures.” It further warns: “There is a 60% chance for a transition from ENSO-neutral to El Niño during May-July 2023, and this will increase to about 70% in June-August and 80% between July and September” this year.
In 2022, both India and Pakistan witnessed their warmest March and April on record. The pre-monsoon period in South Asia typically sees exceptionally high temperatures, particularly in May. This is being repeated in 2023 also. However, scientists believe that the early heatwaves were a consequence of persistent north-south low-pressure patterns that formed over India during winter, coinciding with the occurrence of the La Niña phenomenon in the equatorial Pacific Ocean.
The repercussions of this erratic climate are thus manifold. Floods, droughts, cyclones, and earthquakes have become more frequent and severe, disrupting the delicate balance of nature. Unseasonable rains have become the norm, leading to soil erosion, water contamination, and loss of biodiversity. These calamities, in turn, have given rise to a host of other problems, such as the displacement of people, food crises, and the collapse of agricultural systems.
The major disasters the world experienced were characterized by their complex nature, influenced by a combination of hazard characteristics and a wide range of socio-economic vulnerabilities and exposure. These disasters exhibited compounding and cascading impacts, exacerbating their severity. For instance, the earthquakes that occurred in Afghanistan and Indonesia in 2022 were relatively mild, measuring 5.9 and 5.6 magnitudes, respectively. However, the consequences of these earthquakes were remarkably severe. The primary factor contributing to the severity was the critical vulnerability of the communities at risk, coupled with the direct exposure of economic and social assets located near the epicenters of the earthquakes, says the Report.
In 2022, the UN reminds, a series of cascading disasters unfolded, characterized by a chain of hazardous events followed by subsequent impacts. Pakistan, in particular, experienced the compounding effects of these events. Record-breaking spring heat caused the melting of glaciers, which, when coupled with an unprecedented monsoon rainfall, led to a historic flooding that devastated a significant portion of the country. This unique example of cascading disasters showcased how a heatwave triggered glacier melting, which then converged with a large-scale monsoon, resulting in prolonged flooding and the emergence of water-borne diseases. Furthermore, Pakistan faced additional challenges as the cascading crisis unfolded. The nation grappled with rising food and fuel prices, along with pre-existing economic difficulties that persisted even before the floods occurred. The scenario in many African countries is no way different.
The impact of these environmental crises reverberates through every facet of society. Market failures occur as crops fail, leading to a rise in food prices and inflation. As agricultural systems crumble, a labour crisis ensues, causing unemployment to soar. Consequently, the economy plunges into a recession, and the world finds itself on the brink of an economic crisis.
The insights gained from the life-world lessons have yielded some actionable points, as put in place by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific:
Comprehensive Risk Assessment: It is crucial to consider all dimensions of risk, taking into account the dynamic and rapidly evolving Asia-Pacific riskscape under 1.5-to-2.0-degree warming scenarios. This assessment should encompass the implications for disease outbreaks and necessitates a cross-sectoral approach to effectively evaluate and manage risks.
Enhancing Data and Databases: Developing vulnerability and exposure databases is essential for improved anticipation and management of compounding and cascading risks. By enhancing our understanding of vulnerabilities and exposures, we can better prepare for and respond to complex disaster scenarios.
Integrated Early Warning Systems: Establishing integrated multi-hazard early warning systems is critical to capture compounding and cascading risks. By leveraging the Early Warning for All by 2027 initiative, these systems can effectively alert and inform communities about impending hazards and facilitate timely actions to mitigate their impacts.
Innovative Risk Reduction Financing: Exploring innovative financing mechanisms for risk reduction is imperative. By identifying and implementing creative approaches to financing, we can ensure adequate resources are available to support effective disaster risk reduction strategies.
Addressing Critical Infrastructure Risks: Recognizing and addressing the risks associated with critical infrastructure systems is crucial. Comprehensive measures must be taken to safeguard essential infrastructure, ensuring their resilience in the face of multiple hazards and minimizing potential disruptions to vital services.
Ecosystem-Based Approaches: Adopting ecosystem-based approaches to mitigate and manage risk is essential. By recognizing the inherent value of ecosystems in providing natural protections, such as coastal wetlands or forests, we can integrate nature-based solutions into our risk reduction strategies, enhancing resilience and promoting sustainable development.
These action points offer a roadmap for policymakers, communities, and stakeholders to proactively address and manage complex risks, fostering resilience and sustainable development in the face of an increasingly challenging and interconnected world.
Thus, to address this multifaceted environmental issue, mere campaigns of sustainability won’t suffice. It requires concerted efforts at the local, national, and international levels. Governments, communities, and individuals must join forces to implement sustainable practices and prioritize the responsible use of natural resources, technology, and chemicals. Efforts should be made to raise awareness about the environmental crisis and its interconnectedness with social and economic issues. International collaboration is also crucial. Nations must work together to develop and share innovative solutions, exchange best practices, and provide support to those most affected by the environmental crisis. This requires a shift from short-sighted, self-interest-driven policies to a more cooperative and globally conscious approach. In the tapestry of time, the urgency of the moment cannot be overstated. The fading of seasons into memories should serve as a clarion call, rousing a sense of urgency within everyone’s hearts.
Shouldn’t we act decisively, before the fading hues of nature’s beauty transform into an irreversible loss of hope? The path towards a resilient and sustainable future beckons, and it is through a collective commitment and unwavering determination that we shall traverse it, illuminating a brighter tomorrow for generations yet to come.
The author, ICSSR Senior Fellow, is Academic Advisor to the International Centre for Polar Studies (ICPS) and Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, India. He was earlier Professor of International Relations and Dean of Social Sciences, MGU.