Extreme rainfall and bad infrastructure lead to extreme Indian floods

Extreme rainfall during the monsoons is the new normal in India, but the ensuing floods killing thousands and displacing millions are partly due to reckless development and inefficient water management
<p>18 August 2019: Residents of Prayagraj, India, move their belongings to drier ground after the water level of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers rose rapidly during monsoon rains in the region (Image: Alamy)</p>

18 August 2019: Residents of Prayagraj, India, move their belongings to drier ground after the water level of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers rose rapidly during monsoon rains in the region (Image: Alamy)

It now seems difficult to imagine that many places in India were facing drought in late July 2019. In August, a few bouts of heavy rain changed that to devastating floods, killing over 1,500 people and displacing millions in much of northern, western and southern India.

In mid-August, floods hit the southern and western states of Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat. Several hundred people died. Floodwaters damaged property and roads, and destroyed thousands of hectares of summer crops.

Kerala was particularly badly affected. Reeling under a rainfall deficit of 27% till August 7, the next day the state received 368% more rainfall than average, triggering widespread floods and displacing close to two million people. By August 13, incessant downpours sliced the seasonal deficit to 3%, a massive 24 percentage points difference. The state was still recovering from last year’s floods, the worst in a century.

In Maharashtra, two weeks of heavy rainfall flooded many western districts of the state such as Pune, Kolhapur, Satara and Sangli, killing 50 and displacing half a million. And all this while the monsoon rain shadow areas of Marathwada and Vidarbha remained drought hit.

Karnataka swung between a monsoon deficit of 13% to an excess of 10% on a week’s heavy rainfall. On August 8, some districts received up to 32 times their normal rainfall. Floodwaters rushed into 12 districts, mostly in the northern and central parts. Monuments in the World Heritage Site Hampi were submerged by the swollen Tungabhadra river.

If this wasn’t enough, there were cloudbursts in the Himalayan states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Extreme rainfall on August 18 wreaked havoc in Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand, washing away dozens of houses in several villages. Heavy rains over the weekend in Himachal Pradesh poured enormous quantities of water in many parts of the state, causing floods and landslides. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) said on Sunday that Himachal Pradesh received the highest-ever rainfall for 24 hours since records began some 70 years back.

The rain in the uplands saw floods spilling over the plains of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, where massive relief work is in progress. The headwaters of the Ganga in Uttarakhand are in spate, with the river crossing the danger mark in Haridwar. The water of the Yamuna has risen alarmingly, triggering a flood warning in the national capital.

A disaster foretold

This kind of sudden and heavy rainfall is not unexpected. Scientists have long warned that extreme weather events brought on by manmade climate change is inevitable, and such weather extremes have arrived in India. The trend of extraordinary precipitation over shorter periods of time has been well documented.

“Although prediction of such extreme weather events is still fraught with uncertainties, a proper assessment of likely future trends would help in setting up infrastructure for disaster preparedness,” said a 2006 study led by B.N. Goswami of Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology. The study of rainfall data of the southwest monsoon, the study found that there is an increase in the number of extreme monsoon weather events over India over the past half century, although the seasonal mean monsoon rainfall remains stable for the same period.

“There is a 10% increase per decade in the level of heavy rainfall activity since the early 1950s, whereas the number of very heavy events has more than doubled, indicating a large increase in disaster potential,” the study found. “These findings are in tune with model projections and some observations that indicate an increase in heavy rain events and a decrease in weak events under global warming scenarios.”

In 2011, P. Guhathakurta, O.P. Sreejith and P.A. Menon of the India Meteorological Department investigated the occurrence of exceptionally heavy rainfall events and associated flash floods in many areas in recent years. They found that extreme rainfall and flood risk are increasing significantly in the country. The frequency of very heavy rainfall events and risk of floods is likely to increase over India, said a 2008 study led by M. Rajeevan of the National Atmospheric Research Laboratory.

Although for some two decades the scientific evidence has been pointing to more such calamities occurring more frequently, such scenarios were mostly ignored by policymakers. As a result, this year’s cloudbursts have caught the authorities unprepared.

Worsening the disaster

At a time when extreme rainfall is more likely, experts are saying that the resulting floods, loss of property and human displacement and suffering are made worse by wrong-headed development and poor water management.

For instance, the extensive floods in Kolhapur, Sangli and Satara in the upper Krishna river basin in Maharashtra could have been somewhat mitigated had the dam operators in the region acted wisely, alleged the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), a research and advocacy group. Poor management of dams has worsened the floods instead of mitigating them, it said in a report.

“In the same period when these districts were getting high rainfall, the dams in these districts started releasing large quantities of water, which played a major role in creating the flood disaster,” the SANDRP report said. “The dam operators are likely to turn around and say that but the dams were full and we had no option but to release water. The question is: why were the dams full when monsoon is just about halfway through and IMD has predicted much higher rainfall in the remaining part of the monsoon compared to the first half?” the report questioned.

The opening of sluice gates of reservoirs, such as the Bhakra Dam on the Sutlej River in Himachal Pradesh and the Kota Barrage in the Chambal River valley, caused much of the floods in northern India. If India has to mitigate the impacts of extreme rainfall, it has to devise ways to manage its dams.

The first step towards a course correction is to recognise the problem. But the government seems to be in denial. “The climate in various parts of the world is changing, but it would be wrong and unscientific to attribute the current flood situation to climate change,” India’s Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said at a media briefing in Pune.

It’s true that climate scientists are wary of attributing a particular extreme weather event to climate change. However, it is also undeniable that scientific evidence points clearly to an increase in such occurrences due to global warming.

Reckless development

Besides faulty water management, the frenzy of ill thought out development has also worsened the impacts of the intense rainfall. In the western Himalayas, for instance, there has been a massive thrust in building infrastructure that has put enormous pressure on the region’s natural environment. Environmentalists and experts have cautioned against the massive road and tunnel-building projects in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

In 2013, heavy rainfall and unprecedented floods had devastated Uttarakhand. At that time, the federal home ministry had blamed deforestation, building of roads that cut through mountains, construction of hydropower projects, and tourism-related construction on floodplains and mountain slopes for worsening the scale of the disaster.

But the lessons of 2013 have remained unheeded. In fact, the government has embarked on the contentious Char Dham highway project to connect four Hindu shrines in the state, though local residents and environmentalists say that it endangers the fragile mountain ecosystem.

See: Highway project poses great danger to Himalayas

In the south, the floods and landslides in Kerala have again focused attention on the 2011 report by the Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel led by Madhav Gadgil. The Gadgil report had warned that cultivation of commercial crops on steep slopes was leading to rapid erosion and increased run-off.

It had also said there was a need to control the massive encroachment and deforestation in the catchment of major rivers such as the Godavari, Krishna and Cauvery. It also spoke against building large dams in the ecologically sensitive area.

The warning and recommendations of the Gadgil report were actively opposed and ignored. The terrible results of that became evident when there was unprecedented rainfall in Kerala last year. Scientists said the impacts of the Kerala deluge was made worse by massive deforestation over the years, unrestrained construction, and most of all, stone quarrying that destabilised hill slopes.

See: Extreme rainfall and human interventions devastate Kerala

This intense rain in the southern state again this year could just be one in a string of such events occurring in the future elsewhere in the country as well. Unless there is a change in the way development is carried out in India, the damage from extreme weather events will only be magnified.