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When climate and Covid-19 collide: Ten steps to prepare South Asia

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A WLE Op-Ed published on Down to Earth.

As if managing the evolving coronavirus pandemic is not enough, countries in South Asia are now bracing themselves for an onslaught of climate disasters. April is the prime month for cyclones striking India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka; central and southern India are forecast to heat up faster than usual this spring, making heatwaves more likely. And normal to above-average monsoon rainfall could bring floods to parts of the country from June. Careful planning is needed to escape major damage to crops, homes and infrastructure, all amidst the marshalling of resources toward limiting the spread of Covid-19. 

Cyclones are the most pressing problem. Meteorological forecasts based on satellite technology indicate that a large expanse of northeast India and Bangladesh are set to experience extremely high rainfall and thunderstorms in the coming two weeks. Notably, a cyclone forecast for the 2nd May in the southern part of Bangladesh is likely to have a high impact in the coastal cities and potentially further inland too.

Dr. Shirish Ravan, who implements the United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER), believes that space-based technologies can provide critical information ahead of crises, on the potential extent and scale of impacts. A map showing the state of maturity of crops around the world, created by scientists at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and CGIAR Research Program of Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) provides an example. It shows that extensive areas within the path of the forecast storms in India and Bangladesh are planted with crops. The dark green areas seen on Figure 1 (b) indicate where crops will be ripening in the fields beyond 23 rd April.

Figure 1: (a) Meteorological forecasts indicate that northeastern India and
Bangladesh will experience a cyclone in the next two weeks (Source:
www.ventusky.com). (b) Crops are still maturing in this area (Source: IWMI)

This and coming extreme weather events, coupled with the coronavirus pandemic, present a host of challenges for governments. For example, in India, north and northwest states have already struggled to harvest and sell their summer wheat, fruit and vegetable crops because of lockdown measures disrupting food production activities. If the cyclone damages later-ripening crops in more eastern parts, it will place even more pressure on the agricultural sector. As well as threatening the livelihoods and welfare of poor smallholder farmers, this will likely have knock-on effects for revenue-raising food exports and food prices.

The number of Covid-19 cases in the parts of India and Bangladesh where the cyclone is set to hit are still relatively low. However, in other places where extreme events are forecast, numbers are higher. Scientists at IWMI compared a map showing the levels of risk from multiple natural hazards (landslide, cyclone, heatwaves, floods and coastal inundation, drought, earthquake, extreme rainfall and forest fire) with the latest plot of Covid-19 cases published by India’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). The scientists identified 411 districts, in 22 states, that have both higher risks from natural hazards and elevated Covid-19 cases.

Figure 2: (a) Map showing the risk from multiple natural hazards combined with
population exposure (Source: IWMI); (b) Numbers of confirmed Covid-19 cases
across northeast India and Bangladesh (Source: National Disaster Management
Authority, India [Updated 23 April 2020])

Well-thought-out planning for how those districts should manage potential disasters is critical, given that India is currently in lockdown until at least 3 rd May. Take Maharashtra, for example. Large parts of the state show a high level of risk for multiple hazards, including heatwaves, and 5652 cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed there, with 269 deaths as of 23 April 2020. The arrival of a heatwave will likely increase the number of people needing hospital treatment at a time when services are already stretched by the pandemic.

It is a similar story for states likely affected by the monsoon. Bihar, India’s most flood-prone state, for example, will need to prepare a joint response to Covid-19 and flooding. As well as safely housing people whose homes are inundated – without increasing their risk of contracting Covid-19 – this should include financial provision for smallholder farmers who have lost crops. Insurance is one financial mechanism to consider. Scientists from IWMI, CGIAR Research Program of Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), WLE and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), recently tested a satellite-based insurance scheme in Bihar to compensate farmers in the case of flooding. Farmers who took part in the scheme shared a total payout of INR 8 lakhs (USD $10,500) when their crops were damaged during the 2019 monsoon.

In Sri Lanka, where IWMI’s headquarters is located, the monsoon brings rain between May and July. It can sometimes unleash extreme events, including flooding and landslides. Where storm water is released into urban canals, the number of mosquito-borne Dengue fever cases often greatly increases. Worryingly, the western, southern and central regions that the monsoon affects are also forecast to be the most vulnerable to Covid-19. Anoja Seneviratne, Director of Sri Lanka’s Disaster Management Centre, has urged the country to prepare now for the combined impacts of extreme events and the pandemic, saying thousands of people could be affected.

In the past two decades, more than 750 million people in South Asia have been affected by at least one natural disaster. Of late, the Disaster Risk Reduction sector has sought to shift disaster-prone countries’ focus from ‘response preparedness’, where actions plans are simply put in place to deal with the aftermath of disasters, to ‘disaster risk reduction’, where a greater level of resilience is built into communities to make them more able to endure disasters. With time running out before new climate extremes arrive and collide with the Covid-19 pandemic, IWMI and its partners are making ten recommendations to guide South Asian nations. Countries need to get ahead of the coming crisis by moving quickly to act on these recommendations. Only early action, heavy allocation of resources and smart planning will make sure we can avoid collapse of medical, economic and food systems.

Recommendations for managing climate disasters concurrently with Covid-19:

  1. Integrate multiple-hazard and Covid-19 hotspots to inform disaster preparedness and response strategies for monsoon planning.
  2. Minimize the burden on hospitals arising from other hazards (by treating Covid-19 patients separately).
  3. With the participation of communities, revise the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for managing cyclone shelters. Incorporate social distancing and provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in these SOPs.
  4. Strengthen capacities and resources for preparing for other hazards. For example, explore the possibility of using schools and colleges (with social distancing) as temporary shelters.
  5. Advise disaster response forces on protecting themselves from Covid-19. Establish protocols for their protection and provide personnel with appropriate PPE and psycho-social support.
  6. Establish support networks (with social distancing) for providing food and financial relief for the most vulnerable.
  7. Put in place provision for the elderly in disaster-preparedness mechanisms to reduce, or, if possible, eliminate their exposure to Covid-19.
  8. Strengthen hospital preparedness, including access to sanitation and quality water, to protect functionality when natural disasters strike.
  9. Establish capability for rapid response mapping, incorporating GIS data for hospital and health center locations, connectivity, schools and colleges, and other community facilities. This can include supporting the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team.
  10. Form multiple-hazard response teams with wide-ranging expertise and the capacity to respond rapidly to combined Covid-19 / natural disasters.

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Thrive blog is a space for independent thought and aims to stimulate discussion among sustainable agriculture researchers and the public. Blogs are facilitated by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) but reflect the opinions and information of the authors only and not necessarily those of WLE and its donors or partners.

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