Learning to live with weather extremes

Floods are usually dismissed as man-made disasters. Yet their increasing frequency and ferocity should be treated as a warning.

Published: 06th October 2019 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 06th October 2019 08:13 AM   |  A+A-


For representational purposes (File photo | EPS)

As incessant rains wreak havoc across parts of north India, with the death toll crossing the 150-mark in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the extended southwest monsoon over the subcontinent has broken old records and set new ones. The situation had turned so precarious in Patna, the capital of Bihar, that even the state’s Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi and his family had to be rescued by a team of the nation’s disaster management force. Patna has not seen such floods since 1975. 

Ironically, Bihar had a rain deficit of 20 per cent in the four-month monsoon period between June and September, crucial for its food-growing regions. Suddenly, the sputtering rain within three days turned the deficit into a devastating deluge. The calamity that ravaged most parts of eastern UP and Bihar is only the latest in a string of freak nature outbursts that have destroyed lives, land and crops in Maharashtra, Kerala and Assam this monsoon.

Unfortunately, floods are usually dismissed as man-made disasters. Yet their increasing frequency and ferocity should be treated as a warning signal. According to the UN Office of Disaster Risk Reduction, the number of floods in India has risen from 67 to 90 during 1996-2005 and 2006-2015, 10-year periods. The death toll has followed the pattern—from 13,000 to 15,000.

The usual factor responsible for flood havoc is the rising water levels in rivers that do not find adequate diversionary channels. The existing ones have either outlived their utility or been shoved under the debris of human material greed. 

The increasing frequency of freak weather calamities has, however, given a new dimension to the challenge. The suddenness of the calamities drastically reduces the response time, making long-term planning difficult. 

There is a strong link between the planet’s warming and its changing weather patterns. The National Climate Assessment of the US, for instance, has found that the number of heatwaves, heavy downpours, and major hurricanes, as well as their strength, has increased. Human activities are the major cause of climate change. Burning fossil fuels like coal and oil has increased the concentration of carbon dioxide.

Due to the expansion of greenhouse effect, global warming increases. India is seeing more extreme weather, with the past decade being the warmest and driest ever. This is reflected in the occurrence of successive droughts in 2014 and 2015 and several instances of short bursts of torrential rain which flooded Mumbai in 2005, Uttarakhand in 2013, Kashmir in 2014 and Kerala in 2018.

According to the India Meteorological Department (IMD), 2018 was the sixth warmest year in India since the weather office started maintaining records in the beginning of the last century. During the past 15 years (2009-2018), 11 of 15 warmest years occurred in the country. 

Several studies have classified India as one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change and extreme weather events. The Global Climate Risk Index 2019 ranks it at second in terms of fatalities in 2017 and a 2018 HSBC Bank PLC report concluded that India is the most vulnerable among 67 countries to climate risks.

Pointing towards a rise in catastrophic weather events in India—including last year’s Kerala floods and the freak dust storms in northern India—the IMD has predicted that a cataclysmic fallout by 2040 cannot be ruled out if emissions are not contained.


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