The answer to whether recent floods in the Himalayas is linked to climate change is not that simple.
India-administered Kashmir, located in the Himalayas in the country’s north, has been totally devastated by floods – the worst in more than 60 years.
Even as the region grapples with the aftermath of the swirling waters, which have left more than 250 dead and millions homeless, the question is why this flood? Is this enormous tragedy a natural event or could it have been prevented by better weather forecasting data? Was the state’s preparedness with disasters adequate at all?
But more importantly, is there a link between the repeated floods occurring in the Himalayas and climate change? And if so, what can the country do to cope with a disaster of this scale and magnitude?
The answers are not simple. The fact is that unseasonable and extreme rainfall began in the region on the night of September 2. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) had issued a warning about the possibility of heavy to very heavy rainfall. But it was not heeded. It can be argued that such warnings are rarely “actionable” – governments do not comprehend that such rainfalls could have horrific consequences and so do not act in time.
But rain did wreak havoc in this high Himalayan region. In some places, it was 400 percent more than the monthly average. In no time, the city of Srinagar was submerged. The government of India-administered Kashmir, in the words of its chief minister, was “completely paralysed”.
It would seem that the flood came unexpectedly; that the waters of Jhelum – the river that flows through Srinagar – rose without warning. But it is not, as I maintain, so simple.
It was barely a year ago that Uttarakhand, another Himalayan state, was devastated by floods. There, also, the rainfall was unexpected and extremely high, and authorities had ignored warnings. Raging floodwaters killed more than 5,000 people and many are still missing. The human tragedy in Uttarakhand was enormous.
The fact is that there is evidence proving a change in global weather patterns and its natural variability, ie, climate change, brought about by man-made carbon emissions is heating up the atmosphere faster than normal.
Scientists who study monsoons tell us that they are beginning to make the distinction between a “normal” monsoon and an extreme amount of rain. Remember that monsoons are generally confounding natural events that are hard to predict and even harder to pin down. Even then scientists are able to find a change in patterns.
Climate models predict that heavy rain events will increase over the Indian subcontinent. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change reports confirm that climate change will lead to an increase in frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration, and timing of extreme weather events.
This is further confirmed by Indian scientists working at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, based in Pune, who have found that very heavy and heavy rainfall events – over 150-100 mm/day – are on the increase while moderate events are decreasing over the Indian subcontinent.
There is also evidence that the Himalayan region will be the worst hit with extreme rain events. Given that this is the world’s youngest and most fragile mountain region, it spells big trouble.
But this is not all. All this is further complicated by the fact that multiple factors affect weather and another set of multiple factors affect its severity and impact.
In other words, the causes of devastation following extreme events – such as droughts or floods – are often complicated, and mismanagement of resources and poor planning also share the blame.
Kashmir’s unusually high rainfall was only part of the problem. The state does not have a flood forecasting system or capacity for disaster preparedness.
Most of the natural drainage channels have been destroyed due to utter mismanagement. The traditional system of flood management was to channelise the water from the Himalayas into lakes and water channels. The Dal and Nageen lakes in Srinagar are not just its beauty spots but also its sponges.
The water from the massive catchment comes into the lakes, which are interconnected. More importantly, each lake has its flood discharge channel from where the water spills over for drainage. But over time, we have forgotten the art of drainage – we only see land for building, nothing for water.
Climate change action
The attitude is, it will rain for a few days and why should we “waste” land for this. This is what has happened in Srinagar. Residential buildings have come up in the low-lying areas of the city, flood channels have been encroached upon or simply neglected. Now, when the extreme and heavy rains come – with greater frequency and intensity because of climate change – the water has nowhere to go. Floods and devastation are inevitable.
So, all this makes for a double-whammy: On the one hand, we are mismanaging our water resources, intensifying floods and droughts. On the other hand, climate change is beginning to make the country even more vulnerable because of increased frequency of extreme weather events.
This is the real tragedy of the floods that are hitting Kashmir. And only if we can learn the real lesson behind it can we find ways of dealing with it in the future.
First, it requires countries such as India to raise the importance of climate change action – the need for an ambitious and equitous agreement with the world community. As yet the world, particularly the rich and already developed world, is doing too little to cut its emissions that cause climate change.
Secondly, it requires accepting that dealing with climate change impacts is urgent and imperative. Adaptation will require relearning the art and science of water management so that regions such as Kashmir can cope with excess rain in the future.
It also means increased capacity of forecasting and information dissemination so that people are aware of the dangers and lives are not lost.
This is a sign of what the future holds. It is time we read the writing on the wall.
Sunita Narain is an environmental activist and the editor of Down To Earth magazine and director of Centre of Science and Environment based in New Delhi.