Hello, and welcome to this latest edition of From a Climate Correspondent, a newsletter exploring the climate crisis around the globe.
Each week we share insights from a different country on the fight against climate change. This week our eyes are on the West coast of India where a coronavirus stricken Mumbai awaits a devastating cyclone, and the monsoons later this month, with dread.
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From a Climate Correspondent team - India, Jocelyn, Lou and Mat
Waiting for the storm in lockdown
No. 25 by Lou Del Bello
Monsoon sky over Mumbai - Image credit: Sachin Jadhav/Flickr
Three weeks after Cyclone Amphan crashed on the coasts of West Bengal, India stares at another severe storm, expected to make landfall near the Western states of Maharashtra and Gujarat. While Gujarat is easing restrictions together with many other states, the industrial heart of India, Maharashtra, remains in strict lockdown.
With nearly 70,000 cases, the state is India’s main contagion hotspot and its densely populated capital Mumbai is running out of beds to treat Covid-19 sufferers and safe spaces to isolate those at risk. To avoid overcrowding, authorities have moved hospital patients under a flyover and have equipped a stadium with additional beds. These makeshift solutions may not withstand the fury of Cyclone Nisarga, which can be seen brewing near the coast in this real time rendering.
In ways like these the coronavirus crisis is laying bare India’s vulnerability to weather extremes. While heavy rains are part of a seasonal cycle that has kept the Indian subcontinent thriving for thousands of years, scientists are now spotting signs that this fragile climatic balance may be thrown off kilter.
Not more, but more powerful storms
Cyclones are expected to become more powerful, as climate change warms the oceans creating more energy for the storms to grow faster than usual. Worse, warmer waters combined with rising sea levels will create a favourable environment for cyclones to park themselves near the shore before entering the land, instead of falling apart quickly as they normally would if the water near the coast was colder and more shallow.
“Extreme rain events are best thought this way - a warm atmosphere is like a sponge which soaks up water but if you press on the sponge, it won’t drizzle but will pour in one or two places,” says Raghu Murtugudde, a climate scientist with the University of Maryland in the US. Large scale extremes, he explains, are like two people squeezing it. In this case, “the Arabian Sea [where Cyclone Nisarga is forming] and the Bay of Bengal [which was hit by Amphan three weeks ago] seem to be squeezing the sponge over India and aggregating extreme events into large scale extreme events.”
A rendering of Cyclone Nisarga from Earth.nullschool.net
Mumbai floods every year with the arrival of the monsoon around June - a combination of climate change, that is increasing the frequency of extreme rains, poor water drainage and generally inadequate urban planning. With the coronavirus likely to be raging across Mumbai for weeks ahead and the local healthcare system hanging by a thread, the monsoons risk wiping out all outdoors emergency infrastructure and causing incalculable damages to Covid patients, their families and the community at large.
Observing the virus under the rain
Another little studied dimension of the coronavirus emergency and its intersection with climate change, Murtugudde says, is the role of bad weather on the virus’ spread. “The flooding and inundation associated with cyclones also bring in many waterborne diseases which can confound Covid-19 in ways we don’t know and can’t guess easily,” he says.
Tropics are warm which favours pathogens in the air, water, soil and food. Water spreads the pathogens effectively, Murtugudde explains, so monsoons and cyclones breed diseases. “Covid-19 is a new beast, we don’t know yet what it will do when the rains come or the cyclone dumps a lot of rain.” However you look at it, “there is no silver lining to this story.”
As Nisarga gains strength in the Arabian sea, I can only follow the news from my Delhi home and hope that it will spare the most vulnerable areas of the coast. But once the wind dissipates and India starts to rebuild and refocus its efforts on the coronavirus, we will have a deeper, sharper understanding of why climate change is often described as a ‘threat multiplier’. A concept too often disregarded as merely semantic now reveals its concrete implications, and may finally get doctors and climate scientists to work together. Actions such as using permeable materials to reduce flooding, reducing deforestation, recovering mangroves and protecting salt marshes are key to preserving Maharashtra’s ecosystem, and have traditionally taken a backseat whenever a more pressing matter has come up, be it industrial development or an epidemic.
After this crisis, it will be impossible to ignore that climate change response is not just an urgent environmental priority, but also a social and public health one.
Must reads from the region
Huge locust swarms overrun Indian cities left exposed by coronavirus lockdown - Lou Del Bello, The Telegraph
If cyclones and a pandemic weren’t enough, this week I learned that India is also experiencing an earlier than normal locust incursion, which authorities are struggling to stave off in the midst of a national lockdown. You guessed it - scientists think that climate change may play a part here too.
As 1,821 elephants starve amid lockdown, experts call for end to private ownership of the animal - Supriya Vohra, Mongabay
This could not come a moment too soon. Elephants, which cannot be domesticated like horses or cows, are tamed through violence and subject to abuse for the rest of their life in captivity, whether they are kept as sacred animals in temples or an attraction for tourists. With Covid killing the elephant business, many owners cannot feed their animals and the situation is becoming untenable. Perhaps this crisis will finally drive a change.
Monsoon madness: Covid-19 is still active but india’s large scale extreme events are just around the corner - Raghu Murtugudde, Firstpost
An in-depth exploration of the heightened risk brought by extreme weather in times of pandemic, a menace that is likely to grow as the monsoon season starts.
What else I have been reading
The climate movement's silence, Emily Atkins, HEATED
If you are not already a subscriber, I highly recommend this newsletter which seeks uncomfortable answers to the questions posed by the climate crisis. In this episode, the author tackles the silent racism of the climate movement, which fails to raise its voice in the face of the racist brutality currently raging in the United States.
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Who we are
Lou Del Bello is an energy and climate journalist based in Delhi, India.
Jocelyn Timperley is a freelance climate & science journalist based in San José, Costa Rica.
India Bourke is an environment journalist based in Hong Kong.
Mat Hope is investigative journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.