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I am a journalist from a small remote town called Chidambaram that lies in the coastal district of Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu. For years now, my town has been witness to the mercurial nature of a changing climate. And even though we aren’t near the shoreline, we are very familiar with extreme weather events.
Intense cyclones batter my town every year and floods submerge it frequently. All through childhood, I remember my school — like others in the area — would remain closed for weeks each year because our classrooms would get inundated during floods. Sometimes, we were stuck on the terraces of our homes since our entire neighbourhood would get flooded.
Cuddalore district in Tamil Nadu is classified as a very high cyclone-prone zone. Some of the biggest cyclones to batter the district in the last decade include the Thane, Vardhah and Burevi, affecting Cuddalore the most. I have seen firsthand the loss of lives, tree cover and damage to infrastructure and agricultural lands due to the floods.
As I grew older, the cyclones became more frequent and more intense. In a way, you can say I have grown up bearing witness to climate change.
The story of my childhood is just one of the many stories of climate change, and if there’s anything that I have learnt witnessing things from such close proximity — when we talk about the issue, we should try and connect all the dots. Seemingly isolated events might look unrelated to the climate change narrative from a microscopic perspective, but if we widen our focus, the issue’s compounded reality becomes shockingly clear.
Is climate change, though, really the reason for frequent and intense cyclones like the ones we witness in Cuddalore? A recent study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) confirms that global warming has indeed disrupted the global distribution of tropical cyclones in the last four decades. What’s more, the devastation caused by frequent and intense cyclones has lasting impacts on vulnerable communities, which cannot be easily mitigated by temporary relief measures such as cyclone relief funds.
Not just this, if too much rain is problematic, too little rain can be equally catastrophic. In 2017, Cuddalore was declared one of the most drought-hit districts in Tamil Nadu, which resulted in many farmer suicides. Studies say that extreme and unpredictable weather events like these are primary indicators of climate change.
Since Cuddalore also happens to be a coastal district with a coastal length of nearly 57.5 kms, it is also extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise — one of the cascading impacts of climate change. According to the Tamil Nadu State Action Plan for Climate Change report, in the last 50 years, the state’s shoreline has been affected by coastal erosion and one of the districts most affected is Cuddalore. The report also predicts that large-scale migration may happen due to the increasing frequency and intensity of droughts.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also estimates that by 2100, global sea levels will rise by 1.1 meters. This will cause those living near coastlines to migrate. Sea level rise will also likely increase the salinity of water tables, thus making fertile lands unfit for farming and habitation. As I said, when you connect the dots, you understand the real impact of the entire issue.
According to a paper, Tamil Nadu will see warmer summers with a temperature rise of nearly 3.1 degrees by the end of this century. It also says that there will be a slight increase in rainfall during the northeast monsoon season in Tamil Nadu (October–December). Cuddalore is one of the districts that receive heavy rainfall due to the northeast monsoon. But again in 2019, 24 districts in Tamil Nadu, including Cuddalore, were declared as drought-hit due to the failure of the northeast monsoon.
This constant flux between floods, cyclones, coastal erosion and droughts is wreaking havoc in many districts of Tamil Nadu, affecting the agricultural economy the most. The intensity and frequency of these extreme weather events are also predicted to continuously worsen by 2100. The net result would be the displacement of communities, uncertain futures and lack of food security. In the very near future, a huge population of Tamil Nadu could likely become climate refugees.
The situation is urgent. The damage is real. It’s high time we acknowledged the gravity of the situation and acted on it. For a town like mine, it’s really now or never.