Fatal floods, the new normal as India ignores global warming signs

As rains turn lethal, India must wake up to the effects of climate change

Environment

October 31, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Fatal floods, the new normal as India ignores global warming signs

Aftereffects of a disastrous landslide in Idukki, Kerala (Photo: PTI)

India has been seeing far more intense and frequent extreme hydro-meteorological events due to weather patterns caused by long-term global climate change. Unchecked mining, deforestation, and construction activities have exacerbated global warming, and if people do not wake up to this reality, several millions of lives, and billions of dollars of property and agriculture will continue to be put at risk.

In 2017, a study led by the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) reported that from 1950 to 2015, there has been a three-fold increase in widespread extreme precipitation events in India, with extreme flooding affecting about 825 million people, leaving 17 million homeless and killing about 69,000 people.

In July of this year, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) had predicted extremely heavy rains in several districts in Maharashtra, predictions that came true as the state experienced an unprecedented 600­-900 pc excess rain, leading to the deaths of more than 70 people in flood-related incidents and landslides. But although intense, floods or heavy rainfall are not that rare in Maharashtra, where Mumbai, for example, lies in one of the rainiest regions in the country, and can thus be attributed to a revived Southwest monsoon or the city’s inadequate drainage systems. But the alarming incidents in October, occurring two extreme ends of India, in Kerala at the southern tip and in Uttarakhand high up in the Himalayas, tell a very different story.

“The interesting thing is that the recent flash floods and landslides in Uttarakhand and in Kerala did not happen due to the monsoons, because the Southwest monsoons are in a retreating phase right now, and during the retreat, monsoons don’t have the kind of unprecedented rainfall we saw,” Akshit Sangomla, a science journalist at Down To Earth, tells Media India Group.

“There were other weather systems that happened at the same time. In Kerala, there was a [severe] low-pressure area in the Arabian Sea, which caused the rains and subsequent landslides and flash floods. And for Uttarakhand, there was another low-pressure area which moved from the South towards the North, formed in Bay of Bengal and moved towards UP, and that collided with the western disturbance which comes in from the Mediterranean Sea and that caused the rainfall and flash floods in Uttarakhand,” explains Sangomla.

A low-pressure area is a region where the atmospheric pressure at sea level is below that of surrounding locations, and if it gets intensified, can turn into a cyclone. Although this thankfully did not happen, October’s rains caused massive landslides and other deadly incidents in these states, killing at least 55 in Uttarakhand and 42 in Kerala. A couple of months earlier in August, a landslide in the mountainous state of Himachal Pradesh killed at least 10 and injured and trapped several others under smashed and buried vehicles.

These deaths and damage are no coincidence, and climate experts have attributed these incidents to extreme weather patterns caused by long-term global climate change.

“There is a multitude of factors responsible for this. The systems that are forming right now are due to a lot of heat from global warming, which goes into the oceans and may be causing more of these low-pressure systems and cyclones to form. Interestingly, in Uttarakhand, just before these flash floods happened, the locals told us that the temperatures were pretty high for a week. And such localised high daytime temperatures also lead to rainfall and storms. So although we cannot say for sure what caused this increase, there is a high possibility that climate change has a role to play in that,” says Sangomla.

This season has seen large-scale landslides occurring in all hilly and mountainous areas of India with an unprecedented frequency, indicating something more than climate change. And experts agree that it is far more than simply nature playing truant.

“The rest of it, flash floods and landslides, are being caused by other man-made factors, human interventions like construction activities, dams, and ecological degradation, especially in Uttarakhand and in Western Ghats of Kerala and Karnataka.”

The Western Ghats are a cauldron of biodiversity and the source of major rivers flowing through the country and spread across the six states of Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Illegal activities have persisted in the area for years now, such as mining of iron ore and large-scale deforestation to make place for thermal power plants and other highly polluting industries, exacerbated by the growing local population, which means more terrain is being used for real estate and increased agricultural activities are polluting rivers due to fertiliser runoff.

“The Himalayas in Uttarakhand have been completely degraded because of human interactions – that’s a bigger cause perhaps for landslides happening right now,” adds Sangomla.

Experts have cited the hydropower projects and unrestrained construction in the higher reaches of the Himalayas as reasons for damage to the region’s delicate ecology. Higher temperatures have also resulted in less snow, which, together with heavy rains, drives large volumes of water downstream, triggering flash floods.

But the hunger for unchecked development does not seem to be slowing down, with industrialists like Gautam Adani scrambling for a piece of the coal reserves in Hasdeo Arand forests in Chhattisgarh, and the government happy to hand it over. Moreover, if the new Forest Act amendments are passed, experts fear deforestation will increase all over India.

“In Uttarakhand, due to the construction of the Char Dham highway, the kind of tree loss that has happened and the degradation of the mountain slopes of the Himalayas, these may have been a big factor behind all this,” says Sangomla.

However, for some, the need for development seems to outweigh any threats of environmental damage. In a bid to come back from severe losses in the tourism industry after the Covid-19 pandemic, in Kerala for example, new tourist resorts are being proposed in landslide-prone areas in Munnar despite the clear and present risks.

“Stopping construction is also not a way out because development needs to also happen and there needs to be a balance between development and ecological continuation. But whatever development does happen needs to keep in mind the sensitivity of both the Himalayas and the Western Ghats. If that is done, and a proper departmental assessment is done and the local communities are taken into consideration and consulted with, then these activities can happen. But most of the time, that is not the case, so that is the issue,” says Sangomla.

Thus, experts say that if harmful construction activities cannot be stopped, Centre must at least make the proper preparations to ensure so many lives are not lost, such as the IMD installing more sensitive Doppler radars.

“I think early warning systems is something that India needs right now and needs to work on, especially in the hills and mountains. Along with Doppler radars, there are other instruments and implementation techniques IMD and other local weather agencies have that might be able to tell us when a storm is coming, and that information needs to be ferried to the people on the ground so that they can take steps to prevent loss of life. Damage of infrastructure is very difficult to prevent, but at least loss of livelihood can be minimised,” he explains.

Scientists also that the damage is not only limited to only one area or group of people. If the government is not concerned with loss of life and environmental damage, at least the immense economic thrashing that such extreme flooding events cause should give pause to these harmful activities.

The 2017 IITM report also revealed that global economic losses from floods have exceeded USD 30 billion per year in the past decade, with some of the major costs linked to extreme rainfall events in Asia, and that “the floods attributed to extreme rain events in India alone accounted to losses of about USD 3 billion per year, which is 10 pc of global economic losses.”

“It should definitely wake up the country because if people are thinking that only farmers and people on the ground, or lower sections of society are going to get affected, that is not the case: everybody will be affected, not only loss of life, but a huge loss to economy. Take Kerala. There were massive flash floods in 2018, 2019 and again in 2021, but they have not even built back properly from the first two disasters, and now there are floods again, so people need to wake up and realise this is already happening. Climate change is not a problem of the future, but right now, so this needs to be taken care of,” says Sangomla.

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