(Photo: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

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If Monsoons Were Not Extreme Enough Weather for You, You’re In for a Treat

Facing more intense seasonal rains as a result of global warming, India’s and Pakistan’s poorly planned infrastructure could lead to worsening floods.
Jul 17, 2015· 6 MIN READ
Sandeep Ravindran is a freelance science writer based in Washington, D.C. He has a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from Stanford University.

By the time this year’s monsoon arrived in India on June 5, four days later than normal, Ahmed Pasha had seen quite enough of the heat wave that swept across the country, melting asphalt as temperatures topped 118 degrees Fahrenheit in spots. Many could find no respite, and hospitals overflowed with victims of dehydration and heatstroke; more than 2,500 died. In Nalgonda, where Pasha raises buffalo and goats on 12 acres, wells ran dry, and without irrigation most of the grass he relies on to feed his livestock dried up too, he told BBC News.

A study published in the journal Regional Environmental Change in April found that such heat waves are likely to occur more frequently in India, become more intense, and last longer because of climate change. The monsoon rains take a month or more to move north and east from the Arabian Sea, crossing the region where Pasha lives before heading northwest towards Pakistan. Pushing the heat off the subcontinent, the rain brings relief, and as it does every year, the monsoon will play a crucial role, filling reservoirs for hydroelectric power and drenching crops that feed hundreds of millions of people. From June to September the monsoon provides about three-quarters of India’s annual rainfall.

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But the monsoon brings its own problems: the risk of floods. June’s rains caused flooding in multiple Indian states, including in Andhra Pradesh where a a three-year-old boy reportedly died when his house collapsed. At least five more died in Kashmir on Thursday, the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported. Severe floods in Kashmir in September 2014—the worst in 60 years—destroyed the year’s apple harvest and sank the trees that are the region’s top source of agricultural revenue. Deeba Farhat lost all the books she needed to study for India’s prestigious civil service exam, according to local newspaper The Tribune; Majid Nakash’s home in Srinagar experienced around $8,000 in damages (India’s per capita GDP is about $1,500), he told Thethirdpole.net. More than 500 people died. The 2010 Indus River floods in Pakistan killed approximately 2,000 people and caused nearly $10 billion in damages.

Any extreme rainfall event will lead to some level of flooding, but it's exacerbated by poor planning and development.

Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi

As with extreme heat events, extreme rainfall events are becoming more frequent in South Asia just as unplanned development in the two countries is exacerbating their impact. The scale of devastation has increased. A 2006 study found a rise in the incidence of heavy and very heavy rainfall events in India, and a decrease in moderate rainfall events, between 1950 and 2000. Looking ahead, South Asia is expected to experience an increase in extreme rainfall events and a decrease in light rainfall events in the future, according to the contribution of Working Group II to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. Infrastructure developments, meanwhile, seem created for a climate that doesn’t exist anymore.

“The data are quite clear that extreme rainfall events are increasing,” said Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi. “Any extreme rainfall event will lead to some level of flooding, but that event is exacerbated by poor planning and development. Right now, a lot of our development is making us more and more vulnerable to the kind of devastation that we are seeing.”

India has experienced phenomenal economic expansion recently—GDP is up nearly 600 percent in the last 20 years. But growth has come at a price. Floodplains, riverbeds, and wetlands, which absorb floodwater, have been built over, increasing not only the chance that floods will occur but also the loss of life and property that comes when they do. For example, in the far north of India, Wular Lake and its associated wetlands play a major role in absorbing floodwaters; over the 20th century they shrank by half as encroaching agriculture and settlements led to their being drained.

“Encroachment on the riverbeds through real estate, roads, and other things adds to the disaster potential,” said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. Development also contributes to deforestation, and with fewer trees to hold the soil in place, sediment fills rivers and increases the risk of their overflowing.

Along with the damage they can bring, the heavy rains of the Indian subcontinent are a multifaceted resource. They provide water for agriculture, consumption, and sanitation and are harvested for electricity generation. India is home to more than 5,000 hydroelectric dams, which provide about 15 percent of its electricity, while Pakistan gets about 30 percent of its electricity from 150 or so dams. With demand for power generation growing, the Indian government is planning to build 292 more dams over the next few decades in the flood-prone Himalayan region.

The annual summer monsoon travels from the Arabian Sea across
southern India before shifting northwest toward Pakistan. The late
arrival of the monsoon this year allowed an extreme heat wave
to linger, and when it did come, flooding resulted.
(Map: Courtesy Press Trust of India)

Though they may be thought of as helping with flood control, dams can make things worse. First, they increase flood risks during their construction phase (which can last decades). Dam projects involve deforestation and mining; waste from these activities is often dumped into the river, making it more prone to flooding. Floods can then permanently change the landscape, changing the conditions that prevailed when dams were approved and turning their subsequent effects on the landscape into a giant unknown.

Once up and running, some types of hydropower dams could help with flood control. But maximizing a hydropower dam’s ability to generate power can come at the expense of its ability to mitigate disasters that come from the monsoons: Water levels in the reservoir usually need to be kept high, which can limit the amount of floodwater it can hold.

To help with floods, dams would need to be built and operated to store excess water and reduce the flood peaks downstream, Thakkar said. “But if the projects are not operated in such a way, and there is no transparent and accountable system in place to ensure this is happening, then they can actually increase the flood peaks downstream,” he said. “That's the reality in India.”

Because stronger and more erratic monsoons have been associated with climate change, nations like India that have only recently begun contributing significantly to industrial emissions are looking to the developed world for help.

“There is no doubt that every unusual flood event, at least since 2000, maybe even a little earlier, has a climate change footprint,” Thakkar said. “The direct implication of this is that because most of the greenhouse gas responsible for climate change is from the developed world, the Indian government should raise this issue of flood damages at the international forums and demand justice for the victims of these disasters in terms of compensation from developed countries,” he said. “The issue is not even there on the agenda internationally, and there are no signs as yet that this is going to change.”

The Prakasam Barrage, completed in 1855 over the Krishna River at Vijayawada, is one of the relatively few dams in India constructed for irrigation and flood control. (Photo: M. Balan/Getty Images)

The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage Associated With Climate Change Impacts might be a way for India to get what Thakkar says it deserves. Established in 2013 to promote “implementation of approaches to address loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change,” the WIM is aimed at helping “developing countries that are particularly vulnerable” by sharing expertise and knowledge, and providing technological and financial support. Details are still being worked out, but the WIM does not guarantee compensation from developed countries for damages in developing nations caused by climate change. “It's still not good enough,” said Bhushan, though he noted that discussions will continue for another two years.

Compensation for recent or future flood disasters is unlikely unless the government brings it up at the climate talks in Paris this winter, Thakkar said. “The Indian government has neither accepted this link at the national and global level—that all these weather events have a climate change footprint—nor have they demanded justice for the victims of these events,” he said. This may be changing, however: Last month India’s earth sciences minister blamed the heat anomaly on climate change.

Developing countries like India and Pakistan may be eligible for funding to adapt to and mitigate climate change, thanks to the Green Climate Fund established at the 2010 U.N. Climate Change Conference. The centerpiece of an overall funding goal of $100 billion per year by 2020, the Green Climate Fund has so far received pledges of about $10 billion.

That funding could help, as a lot can be done in India and Pakistan to prevent flood-related destruction. A better understanding of the flood risks in different areas could help guide infrastructure planning and development, including where dams are built and how they are used. Any future infrastructure and development projects should include assessments of how they will increase the disaster potential of the area, said Thakkar.

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There is also the potential for better forecasting of extreme weather, and preparation for and management of floods when they occur, Bhushan said. “These extreme weather events will happen, and therefore we need to have very good forecasting and warning systems in place, which will make sure people know what is going to hit them,” he said. That shouldn’t be beyond the country’s capabilities; Bhushan pointed to India’s advanced cyclone projection, forecasting, and warning system. “We have developed an excellent system, and we have set up a system to evacuate people,” he said. As a result, despite an extreme cyclone that hit India’s eastern coast last year, “we practically didn't lose any lives, unlike in the past where thousands of people used to die. A similar system will have to be built for floods and extreme rainfall,” Bhushan said.

Both India and Pakistan will need to take complex, costly, and often politically difficult steps to deal with the extreme heat and more severe monsoons likely to become more frequent because of climate change. Whether in Himalayan towns submerged in floodwaters or in villages like Ahmed Pasha’s whose wells and crops have dried up from the heat, help can’t come soon enough, and the consequences of inaction are likely to be dire.