Almost 20,000 people are stranded and at least 1000 confirmed dead in the wake of extreme floods in northern India, caused by an early monsoon. Experts are blaming poor local planning and a destructive approach to development in the Himalayan foothills. They say these have left the region vulnerable to floods and landslides – which will only get worse under climate change.
"The current devastation and human misery is largely man-made," says Maharaj Pandit, head of the department of environmental studies at the University of Delhi. "Rampant unauthorised and mindless building activities on the river flood plains in the Himalaya", deforestation and other activities that destabilise slopes are responsible for the loss of life, he says.
Cutting trees on mountainsides loosens up the soil, making landslides more likely. In addition, the government has earmarked 292 dams for construction in the Indian Himalayas. Their construction involves diverting rivers, destroying ecosystems and increasing industrial traffic – all of which destabalises the soil on the mountainsides, making landslides more likely, says Pandit.
The dams also directly cause flooding that wouldn't happen otherwise, he says. During heavy rain, dam operators release more water to safeguard their infrastructure. "Delhi, for instance, was flooded because Hathnikund barrage in upstream Haryana released more water," Pandit says.
Allowing enormous flows of religious pilgrims into the area was irresponsible, says Pandit, making the human impact worse as many were caught out by the earlier-than-usual monsoon rains. "We may not have seen the worst," he warns.
Bhupendra Nath Goswami, director of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune, warns that the rapid bursts of heavy rain behind this flood are increasingly likely to happen. "The frequency of extreme rain events is increasing over the Indian continent," he says.
According to Goswami, a strong updraft was produced in recent weeks as warm moist air from the south encountered cold air from the north. "In such a case, all the moisture precipitates in a short time leading to an extreme rain event." It's not clear whether this particular event is linked to climate change, but similar events are likely to happen more frequently. "We must prepare ourselves," says Goswami.
Responsible development is key, he says. "Most of the current devastation is due to mud slides and landslides. For the same amount of rain, an order of magnitude larger damage takes place."
Despite the difficulties predicting weather in the tropics, Goswami says these rain storms were predicted three days in advance. "Still we were not prepared. This is entirely a failure of our disaster preparedness system and disaster management strategy."
Source: New Scientist