Floods, Droughts, and India’s Uncertain Climate Future

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Floods, Droughts, and India’s Uncertain Climate Future

Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, and hundreds of smaller cities may be condemned to catastrophic annual climate events.

Floods, Droughts, and India’s Uncertain Climate Future
Credit: AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade

Legend has it that during the 90 days of monsoon in Bihar, one of the largest and most densely populated states in India, an overflowing river wouldn’t dare touch the pole outside a rural house, where cattle would be tied. There were names for different levels of the water: water until the doorstep is termed baarh, water reaching the lower edge of the window is boh, cattle safely floating in the water is humma, water until the roof is saah, and water beyond the roof is pralay – best translated as “deluge.”

The water would stand still just for two-and-a-half days, and this would happen several times during the 90-day monsoon period. It was beneficial to the crops, especially paddy: around the last week of September or first week of October, the paddy would be transplanted. The excess moisture would enable the cultivation of rabi (winter) crops, thus allowing for successful multi-cropping. During the monsoon itself, there would be fish and edible water flowers. A field was thus never barren or empty.

Until about 25 years ago, the rural and agrarian residents of Bihar welcomed this inundation of river water. The older generation would experience saah only about once in their lifetime. However, in the last two decades saah and pralay have been unwelcome annual guests, with rain water standing still throughout the 90 days and not just in different bursts of two-and-a-half days.

This year, floods in Bihar killed 370 people and rendered more than 12 million homeless. And this unpredictable pattern of heavy rains, stagnant water, and flooding during non-monsoon months has been constant evidence of climate change in India. Equally rearing its ugly head is drought: nearly 25 percent of districts across India experienced heavy rainfall in just a matter of hours, even as 40 percent of districts faced drought this year.

In the north, Chandigarh – the city planned by Le Corbusier – had a rainfall deficit till August, and then received 115 mm of rain in 12 hours, submerging it. Tech city Bengaluru faced a similar drowning fate, receiving 30 percent of its annual rain in a single day. The tourist destination in the arid western state of Rajasthan received half of its annual rain in two days. In the northeast, Agartala received more than 11 times its average daily monsoon rain of the last five years. Similarly, the financial capital of Mumbai on the western coast received 300 mm of rain – 15 percent of its annual rain – across a few hours. In all, the country had 16 extremely heavy rain events (rainfall over 244 mm in a day) and 100 heavy rain events (rainfall between 124 to 244 mm in a day).

In each of these instances, life came to a standstill, and for long periods. However, the rain is recorded as normal, ignoring that the total amount of rain was not spread through the monsoon months of June to September.

A recent report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) confirmed what millions of Indians – and many more in South Asian countries – have been experiencing: the region has the highest exposure to floods. A whopping 130 million people in coastal zones of Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan are at risk of being displaced by the end of the century.

At the same time, the researchers observed that the “average global flood losses in 2005 were approximately $6 billion per year and will increase to $52 billion by 2050.” Of the top 20 cities incurring these losses, 13 are in Asia, of which four are in India: Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, and Surat. Another study published in the scientific journal Global Change Biology reported that only six of 22 river basins in India have the potential to cope with climate change.

In June 2013, nearly 5,700 were presumed dead after a series of cloud bursts caused severe floods and devastating landslides in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand, home to several Hindu and Sikh pilgrimage sites. The heavy rainfall was 375 percent more than the average rain received, causing the Chorabari Glacier at 3,800 meters to melt, and eruption of the Mandakini river. The high number of casualties is attributed to the warnings by the meteorological department not being taken seriously. This is a common feature across India: local administrations claim that warnings are not geographically specific and hence evacuation is not always possible.

Environmentalists knew that something like this, which was touted as India’s worst natural disaster since the 2004 tsunami, was imminent: the region had witnessed the haphazard construction of hotels and roads, while about 70 hydroelectric projects had been constructed on the rivers. Tunnels were built through this fragile Himalayan region, adding to regular occurrence of landslides.

Shashi Shekhar, former secretary at the Water Ministry, has a record of being vocal with unpopular truths about the state of the rivers in India, and the climate at large. According to him, cloudbursts were unheard of before the 2013 disaster, while a consumption-driven development plan has been pursued without understanding the Himalayas. Because the mountain range is still nascent in geological terms, the porosity of rocks allows rainwater to seep in and flow into streams, maintaining the hydrostatic pressure inside the rocks.

“When tunnels are constructed, water gushes out through the rocks and that leads to an increase in land subsidence,” explains Shekhar, adding that the increased deforestation in the hills is another factor that led loose rubble from the glacial retreat to cause damaging landslides.

“With such an ecological background, the response should have been towards conservation. There are tall claims of power generation through the hydroelectric projects, but the large amount of silt coming down the slopes results in reservoirs being filled, resulting in lower velocity of water for power generation,” Shekhar explains, thus questioning the Indian’s governments similar plans on several rivers across the country.

News reports in India are flooded with flooding reports from Bihar and Assam through the monsoon months. Similar situations as in Uttarakhand have played out in these low lying regions: raised roads, embankments on rivers, and immense deforestation that have led to heavy siltation.

Similarly, in southern India, the Cauvery Delta region – the granary of Tamil Nadu – is turning into vast stretches of waste land. An analysis of droughts and floods spanning four decades has shown the impact on crop cover in the region, even though sea water ingress has given rise to shrimp farming – which is detrimental to agriculture.

Shekhar is disappointed that the National Green Tribunal, which was established to effectively address issues pertaining to the environment at large and enforce legal rights, continues to “play for the gallery by not passing cohesive orders.” He claims that even though the NGT comprises experts, the dominance of political bigwigs that overlook the environment while giving the green signal to infrastructure projects renders such systems ineffective.

Dinesh Mishra, an engineer-turned-activist who has been mobilizing people since the 1980s toward understanding flooding patterns and adaptation, says that the sediments from rivers have given rise to new patches of arable land, which should not be used. “Every solution towards flood mitigation has only given rise to a newer set of problems,” he says, adding that the sole intent of flood control leaves no room for understanding river patterns.


Too often, embankments on rivers have been the chosen road toward containing floods, even as they block the river’s flow. Almost all of Bihar floods, Mishra says, have taken place when erected embankments were forcefully torn apart through raging waters. Recently, the government of Assam announced a 1,300 km (800 mile) long road-cum-embankment along the mighty Brahmaputra River in Assam, at as estimated cost of $620 million. The river annually causes floods, and almost every embankment has suffered breaches.

On the other hand, cities like Mumbai have invited wrath upon themselves by not maintaining and upgrading the drainage systems to meet the requirements of a country whose population is heading to the cities. With nearly 50 percent of the country’s population set to be urban by 2040, cities are looking at grim situations every year.

On July 26, 2005, Mumbai received 944 mm of rain in a few hours, killing 445 people and rendering losses of $41 million; one third of that was damage to infrastructure. The city’s airport, which lies on reclaimed land, where the Mithi river was bent twice at right angles to permit runways, was inundated for three days. Further south of Mumbai, sea levels have risen by five to six cm in the last two decades, causing sea water ingress up to one kilometer, eroding beaches and harming mangroves as well as coconut and cashew plantations.

Apart from the obvious cost of flooding and the loss of lives, agriculture is set to be deeply impacted by climate change in India: the rise of temperature by 1-2 degrees has already shown disastrous impact on crops. Traditionally, agriculture in India has been dependent on monsoons and the surface water is available up to January, following which the groundwater is used. But with the water tables depleting, water cannot be budgeted for agriculture effectively.

Those with better access to water are cultivating paddy, sugarcane, and other cash crops, which consume more water. Lower levels of groundwater have led to concentrated geogenic levels, leading to diseases. “We have to encourage the cultivation of low water-intensity crops like millets, which would mean changing our consumption patterns based on what is grown and not what we want. The market cycles are killing the farmers with debt,” says Shekhar, calling for a sustainable lifestyle.

In 2010, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) examined climate change implications for India in 2030, and noted its severe impact on Indian agriculture, with rising sea levels and temperatures, increased flooding and severe drought. The “Climate Change and India: A 4X4 Assessment” report indicated that temperature rise would lead to increased yield of irrigated rice and coconut, while the opposite for maize, sorghum, and apple production. The warming would also benefit marine fisheries, while stresses on livestock would impact milk production.

The Maharashtra State Council on Climate Change was formed in September 2008, and it is only in October this year that the state announced an adaptation and mitigation strategy. It directs district officials to prepare strong action and disaster management plans, and every department has been issued specific instructions. Another policy aims at tapping into the indigenous knowledge of 60 coastal villages, to protect the state’s 15,088 hectares of mangroves along its 720-km long coastline.

But are these steps enough? When Mumbai was crippled by floods in 2005, the city got back to its feet, championing the “Mumbai Spirit.” This year in August, when the city once again suffered heavy rains and tremendous flooding that killed 14 people, the city questioned that same resilience, which, citizens rightly expressed, was something that allowed the administration to be lackadaisical in addressing glaring issues. In various parts of Assam, disappeared roads have given rise to a new form of boat economy, which is increasingly operational for more months than previous years. The indigenous Mishing community in Assam, which has always led a symbiotic relationship with the river by constructing stilt houses, is now grappling with sand washed ashore and filling their basements.

Once an engineer, Mishra debunks the myth of the expert opinion: “We need to listen to the rivers and those who knew how to welcome and live with floods. We need to stop the attitude of conquering nature; it is already conquering us when we don’t listen well.”

Priyanka Borpujari is an India-based journalist. She writes for The Diplomat‘s Pulse section.