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Learning from Disaster: Chennai Flood Offers a Personal Lesson for Climate Adaptation

This blog post originally appeared on Insights.

Today, as negotiators haggle over the details of a climate agreement in Paris, my home town is literally underwater. Chennai has seen 17 days straight of rain, precisely the kind of extreme weather event that experts say will only become more common in a warming world.

As Indian Adaptation Strategy Head for WRI’s Climate Resilience Practice, I’m in Paris this week for events surrounding negotiations for an international climate agreement. My family is in southern India – not in our home in Chennai but in a guest house at the Indian Institute of Technology, where they have taken shelter after torrential rains flooded the Adyar River and pushed a local lake to breach its banks. This is monsoon season in Chennai, but the rain we’ve seen this year has been unprecedented. It began on November 10, the day of the holiday of Diwali, which marks the triumph of light over darkness, and has barely ceased since then. Some call it the rain of the century.

Having been in the adaptation business for about 10 years now, I find these events reinforce the challenges we face in adapting to a changing climate. No doubt about it, there's so much to learn from this experience. These sudden, erratic rainfalls are something we’ve seen happening over the years, and the fact that this is an El Nino year has also contributed to extreme events. Certainly, though, climate has an impact as well.

An Eye-Opener for Planners

But we should also realize the problems posed by infrastructure in this case. There are no good resilience plans in place to help the area withstand climate-related natural disasters. With the kind of infrastructure we have and increasing construction along waterways and encroachments along river banks, we can expect extreme impacts from floods. It's kind of a big eye-opener for planners and policy-makers. It's very important to understand this in that context and try to do something about it by being futuristic so we can plan well for these kinds of situations in years to come.

While we can’t draw a direct connection between events in southern India and climate change, severe flooding is in line with projections of the worst effects of a changing climate and a warmer world. And extreme events now offer valuable lessons for the future. For example, the 2004 Asian tsunami, which had no discernable connection to climate change, was a curtain-raiser for what is in store in terms of rising sea levels. There was little adaptive capacity, and what there was wasn’t adequate to the task at hand. We haven’t learned enough from that experience.

There are implications for costs as well, which is why climate finance is linked to this debate. And you need to know where vulnerable people are and which communities are most vulnerable and what kind of risks they are exposed to in order to help with planning. This is an iterative learning process, not just a one-time thing. You need to completely map out these kinds of vulnerabilities, and where and how and what kind of people have been impacted, including the implications of gender roles. And a good monitoring and evaluation framework is a critical feedback loop that helps us learn from our mistakes and move ahead.

No Time to Waste

As I do my work at COP21, I of course worry about my family back in Chennai, where they have been without power for almost a week. This isn’t the first time natural disasters have touched my life. In 1998, when my wife was studying at the Clarkson University at Potsdam, New York near the U.S.-Canada border, we spent a week in a community center after an ice storm rolled through the area. So disaster is nothing new – it follows me wherever I go! And it brings home to me the value of adaptation and resilience.

I do see a certain irony in my family’s current situation in IIT Chennai, which is one of the temples of technology in India. Even a technology center must be prepared and adapt to deal with a lot of rain. This is why we need world leaders to take action and prepare for mounting impacts of climate change. For some this is abstract; for me and my family, there is literally no time to waste.

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