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A killer heat wave

Print edition : Jul 01, 2005 T+T-

A heat wave in Orissa that has claimed at least 50 lives draws attention to the alarming change in the State's climate, which experts attribute to reckless industrialisation and unchecked deforestation.

PRAFULLA DAS in Bhubaneswar

THE death of a white tiger due to extreme heat conditions at the Nandan Kanan Zoological Park near Bhubaneswar made headlines in newspapers and television channels a few weeks ago. But human misery due to the heat wave in Orissa and the death toll that crossed 50 failed to grab the same amount of media space. The authorities have been equally indifferent towards the large number of deaths. The district administrations concerned took several days to verify the reports of sunstroke deaths pouring in from the countryside. The victims of the heat wave were mostly daily wage labourers and agricultural workers.

After 1998, when a killer heat wave linked to the El Nino effect claimed over 2,000 lives in the State, the authorities introduced various measures to prepare people to cope with high temperatures and also made provisions for the treatment of sunstroke victims in government hospitals. But the authorities are yet to admit that abnormal weather conditions have become a reality in the State.

This is despite the fact that according to official figures, the State lost a total of 2,338 lives between 1998 and 2004. While 2,042 people were killed in 1998, 91 died in 1999, 29 in 2000, 25 in 2001, 41 in 2002, 67 in 2003 and 43 in 2004. Fifty-three people have died as a result of the heat wave until June 9 this year. The number is likely to increase as many incidents of heat-wave deaths are under verification.

Although the State has been experiencing very high temperatures during summer for the past several years, the government has not done anything to find out the impact of the fluctuating weather conditions on the people. For more than a decade now, Orissa has been experiencing contrasting extreme weather conditions. It has suffered several heat waves, cyclones, droughts and floods at frequent intervals. These calamities have also claimed thousands of lives. Analysis of rainfall data and temperature variations reveals that summers are getting prolonged in Orissa, indicating that the State's climate is changing for the worse.

The State government has so far downplayed this despite several official documents having clearly mentioned the change in the State's ecology. A white paper on the drought that hit the State in 1992-1993 said: "For the last few years sudden changes in the ecology are contributing to multiple occurrences of these tragedies every year, creating more and more problems for our people in the matter of relief and rehabilitation." "It has been our experience in a number of years that late onset and/or early withdrawal of monsoon, erratic and inadequate rainfall and absence of soil moisture are the main reasons of drought,'' the government said in another white paper on the drought of 1998-1999.

It has also been felt that environmental degradation has increased the destructive capabilities of natural calamities in the State. But very little has been done to prevent the depletion of the forest cover and the rampant mining. The thousands of barren hills in interior Orissa and the dried-up natural streams across the State point to the widespread degradation of the State's ecology.

The abnormal increase in the maximum day temperature in Orissa's coal capital of Talcher has made life difficult during the summer months. Talcher has many coal mines where thousands of tonnes of coal get burnt owing to "spontaneous combustion" in many opencast mines. The coal-based mega thermal power plants that have come up during the last decade are aggravating the situation. Of late, Talcher has been recording temperatures higher than that in Titilagarh town in Bolangir district, which was so far the hottest place in the State. Titilagarh recorded Orissa's highest ever temperature of 50.1C in 2003, ironically on June 5, World Environment Day.

"Climate change does not take place overnight. It takes a long time for the climate to change. But in recent decades, Orissa's climate has been changing for the worse owing to a combination of factors such as deforestation, extensive construction activities, uncontrolled mining, elimination of water bodies, and extensive carbon consumption," said N.K. Mahalik, former Professor of Geology in Uktal University. "Orissa is heading towards a climatic catastrophe, with the State going in for large-scale industrialisation and massive expansion of coal-based thermal power plants," Mahalik warned. The depletion of the forest cover had already worsened the situation, he added.

A FEW years ago a study conducted by the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) revealed that greenhouse gas emissions from Orissa alone made up 1 per cent of the global emissions. The study pointed out that the State's industries and coal-fired power plants would be emitting 164 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually by 2005, or the equivalent of about 3 per cent of the projected growth in man-made greenhouse gases anticipated globally over the next decade.

In addition, Orissa's industries would release toxic and potent global warming agents equivalent to eight million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, it said. Of course, the study had not taken into account the current steel rush that would result in a gargantuan amount of pollution. But experts do admit that many factors control the climatic situation in Orissa, the major factors being the influence of the Bay of Bengal and the flow of regional wind from northwestern India which make the weather fluctuate overnight.

On May 26, 2003, Bhubaneswar recorded a temperature of 37C, but the next day the temperature rose to 44.9C. Whether it is global warming, deforestation, ill-planned industrialisation or mindless mining, the abnormal change in Orissa's climate is a hard reality. In the past, the State's western region routinely experienced high temperatures and frequent droughts. Kalahandi district hogged the headlines for its poverty and starvation. But in recent decades many places in coastal Orissa are also burning hot.

During the last 100 years, the State has been affected by different natural disasters in 90 years; floods occurred in 49 years, droughts hit the State in 30 years and cyclones hit it in 11 years. Calamities have become more frequent since 1965. Erratic rainfall has become a regular feature in Orissa and rainfall forecasts are failing. In spite of normal rainfall predicted last year, drought hit as many as 12 districts with some of them recording rainfall deficits as high as 50 per cent. Pre-monsoon showers, which used to bring in cool winds, have become a rare phenomenon. The number of dry days in summer has shown an increasing trend over the last two decades, leading to severe shortage of drinking water in many towns and villages.

According to a report on Orissa's environment, the district-wise rainfall of Orissa since the beginning of the 20th century indicates that before the 1950s, rainfall was less erratic. In most years prior to the 1950s, the State received normal or above normal rainfall. Rainfall became much more erratic since the 1960s and most of the years recorded below normal rainfall.

Environmentalist Biswajit Mohanty still remembers the six seasons in his childhood. "Now I feel there are only three seasons. Autumn, fall and spring have practically disappeared," said Mohanty, who expects the situation to worsen in the next five years.

With the State looking forward to the setting up of several mega steel plants, the collateral damage to the environment can only be imagined. Owing to a projected jump in the steel production from 1.6 million tonnes to 56 million tonnes and aluminium from 0.42 million tonnes to 3.5 million tonnes, the State is expected to generate at least 200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and other harmful gases, which would be nearly 5 per cent of the greenhouse gases emitted in the world.

This would result in drastic climate changes in Orissa, leading to disastrous consequences.

"The State government should realise that people cannot eat steel if crops fail due to climate change," said Mohanty. It may be difficult to prove that the fluctuating weather conditions in Orissa have a direct link with the global climate change, but the State is surely a case to be studied with all seriousness. The people should know what exactly is happening at a time when the forest cover is getting depleted fast and industrial pollution is threatening to cloud the future of Orissa.

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