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Extreme weather in India taking a toll on people and economy

Nearly 40% districts face the prospect of drought, while close to 25% have had heavy rainfall of more than 100mm in just a matter of hours, bringing the country to its knees

india Updated: Sep 20, 2017 08:58 IST
Chetan Chauhan
A man wades through a water-logged road during rains in Mumbai in August. Sudden heavy rainfall brought many cities like Mumbai, Chandigarh and Bengaluru to a halt. (REUTERS)
A man wades through a water-logged road during rains in Mumbai in August. Sudden heavy rainfall brought many cities like Mumbai, Chandigarh and Bengaluru to a halt. (REUTERS)

It has been a year of unprecedented and extreme weather events in India, and across the world, highlighted by freak phenomena which experts attribute to an alarming rate of climate change.

For the record, 2016 was the warmest year since climate data came to be officially compiled, claiming 547 lives in India as its southern states faced the worst drought in 40 years.

The year also saw five Indian states grappling with floods, with Assam facing the worst deluge in over a decade.

A year later, the situation looks worse.

Nearly 40% of the districts in India face the prospect of drought, while close to 25% districts have had heavy rainfall of more than 100mm in just a matter of hours. Sudden heavy rainfall this year has brought cities like Mumbai, Chandigarh and Bengaluru to their knees and unseasonal hail has destroyed farm produce.

This may sound alarming now but climate scientists have spotted the trend early and warned the government of its devastating impact on the Indian economy.

“If we fail to do adequate climate proofing of our agriculture and cities, the impact on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) could be more than one percentage point,” said Kirit Parikh, former member of the erstwhile Planning Commission.

The worst natural disasters to hit India
DEATHS DUE TO RAIN
July 26, 2005: Mumbai came to an abrupt halt as unprecedented heavy rains stopped rail and bus traffic. Over 500 people were killed.
August 2008: In a span of a couple of days, sudden rains caused a six-time increase in Kosi river, leaving 500 people dead and 3,500 missing. Over 3.3 million people were affected.
August 6, 2010: In the midst of peak tourist season in Ladakh, a cloud burst caused incessant rains, triggering floods and landslides, causing losses to life and property.
June 2013: The June 2013 Uttarakhand disaster is regarded the worst calamity of its kind in recent times. While official estimates put the toll at 5,700, it is believed that over 10,000 people died.
September 2014: The recent J&K floods are the worst recorded in the state in the past 60 years.
August 2016: The massive floods killed 28 people, with around 2.6 million people displaced as Brahmaputra and its tributaries swept more than 2,800 villages.

Latest studies by the Pune-based Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) show that average rainfall during the monsoon period is falling as the Indian Ocean gets warmer, busting the earlier claim of average rainfall between July-September months not having changed despite increase in extreme downpour.

The IITM’s latest analysis show that the summer rainfall during 1901–2012 over the central-east and northern regions of India, along the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basins and the Himalayan foothills is falling.

The warming of the western Indian Ocean in recent decades has also led to a pole-ward shift of the core of low-level monsoon winds, increasing the precipitation to the north of the Western Ghats, while weakening it over southern regions of India, said Roxy Mathew Koll, a scientist at the institute’s climate centre, who is also member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Koll said the enhanced Indian Ocean warming in recent decades has potentially weakened the land-sea thermal contrast, dampening the summer monsoon wind circulation, and reducing the rainfall over parts of south Asia.

The change was not “well reproduced” in the models used in the IPCC’s fifth climate change assessment report that suggested “uncertainties looking over status and fate” of monsoons. “The fall in rainfall is a trend of recent decades,” Koll said.

Increasing drought

The India Meteorological Department’s data shows that since 1950s, incidence of droughts has increased as rainfall in the excess of 10% of the normal has fallen. The IMD defines monsoon as normal when average summer rainfall is within 10% of the average rainfall over a long period.

Almost half of India, including food bowl states of Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, is facing drought like conditions this year, third in a row for many parts of India where around 60% of the population is directly and indirectly dependant on agriculture for livelihood.

India has seen six major droughts since 2000 and about 100 districts have witnessed drought-like situation in 10 of the last 17 years due to poor south-west monsoon rainfall, devastating India’s farm economy.

The IMD data also shows that frequency of drought — defined as water shortage for human, cattle and agriculture consumption — is increasing in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Telangana, Kerala and Maharashtra.

“Yes, the frequency of drought has increased but now we are better prepared to deal with it,” said Abhijit Sen, agriculture economist and former member, Planning Commission.

“The drought is more of an economic disruptor than that of human lives. People don’t starve to death anymore”.

Devastating floods

Chandigarh, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Araria in Bihar were submerged after sudden rainfall brought the regions to a halt.

Chandigarh, a city of parks, received 115mm of rain — 15% of its annual monsoon rain — in just 12 hours on August 21. It drowned.

Bengaluru got close to 30% of its annual rainfall in a day in July.

In August, Mumbai received about 30% of its annual rain in less than 24 hours and Araria almost a year’s rainfall in three days.

“This should not surprise us,” said environmental activist Sunita Narain, in a recent article in Hindustan Times.

“Models have predicted that the first impact of a changing climate would be on increased frequency and intensity of weird and extreme weather events. It is happening. What should worry us is that models have predicted that this would only get worse as temperatures rise.”

In recent past, the intensity of extreme rainfall events with cloud bursts becoming yearly affair in the hills of Uttarakhand and Himachal and cities like Chennai getting flooded with five “extreme precipitation events” in quick succession has become a norm rather than an exception.

Pradeep Mujumdar, chairman of the interdisciplinary centre for water research at the Indian Institute of Sciences, Bengaluru, says the intensity of urban events vis-à-vis non urban ones was increasing as the cities grapple to meet with these exigencies.

The IITM research shows that precise long term area-wise monsoon prediction will become difficult as influence of climate change intensifies.

The only way to prevent the catastrophe is by making climate proofing an integral part of policy making.