Are the Devastating Floods in Karnataka, Kerala, and Maharashtra the New Normal for a Changing Climate?

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Are the Devastating Floods in Karnataka, Kerala, and Maharashtra the New Normal for a Changing Climate?

Illustration: Arati Gujar

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lmost a year ago, in August 2018, devastating floods wreaked havoc across the state of Kerala. It took a massive co-operative effort between locals, NGOs, and the government’s disaster management forces to contain the damages and reduce loss of property and life. A relief fund was set up, with concerned citizens from across the country pitching in to help the afflicted state back onto its feet in the wake of such an implacable natural disaster. Nobody would have wanted this to become an annual tradition, but history has chosen to repeat itself 12 months later, as three days of torrential rainfall have once again brought Kerala to its knees. This time around, Karnataka and Maharashtra have also been swept up in the fury.

Across these three western states, severe flooding and unpredictable landslides have reached a death toll of 86, with that number feared to climb even higher as rescue efforts reach Kerala’s Wayanad and Malappuram districts, which were exceptionally afflicted by landslides. Hundreds of people have been injured, thousands have been evacuated, and roads, homes, and business establishments alike have all been heavily impacted by the monsoon. Kerala’s Kochi airport has been shut down until Sunday, so that the water has time to recede. A week that began with all eyes on the country’s northern tip in Kashmir has gradually seen focus shift to its southern tip in Kerala, one terrifying viral video or news report at a time. Even the government’s historic decision to abrogate Article 370 with regards to Jammu & Kashmir had to cede the media’s and nation’s attention to the rising waters that threatened to submerge parts of Karnataka, Kerala, and Maharashtra.

Even before the downpour that threatened to drown the three states began three days ago, this monsoon has been accompanied by strange events. After being delayed from making landfall in Mumbai throughout June, it arrived in the parched, water cut-suffering city in July, and after providing some initial relief from the heat, promptly made itself unwelcome. The kind of rain that evokes headlines about “Mumbai’s spirit” began to batter the city, grinding it to a standstill and even claiming lives in building collapses in suburbs like Thane. As the monsoon continued on its path toward the interior and north of India, it was so fierce in patches that it turned an urban legend into reality – in a small town in Maharashtra and in Vadodara, Gujarat, the floodwaters allowed crocodiles to venture from their regular river haunts into the sewer systems and streets of these settlements.

Against this bizarre backdrop, extreme rainfall events began concurrently occurring over Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Kerala, triggering the catastrophic floods and reviving memories of last August, where almost 500 lives were lost in the Kerala flooding. The fact that this kind of unpredictable event is actually taking place with predictable regularity is worrying. Two times might be a coincidence, but three will start pointing toward a trend. While nobody wants such a disaster to revisit the country a third time, the question must be asked – in a world impacted by climate change, will events like the Karnataka, Kerala, and Maharashtra floods become increasingly commonplace?

The fact that this kind of unpredictable event is actually taking place with predictable regularity is worrying.

The former head of IIT Delhi’s Centre for Atmospheric Sciences, SK Dash, seems to think so. In an interview with Economic Times, he says, “Due to global warming, frequency of rainfall as well as temperature extremes are increasing, and will go on increasing in the future.” And it’s not just our own domestic experts who are sounding the warning bells. The same report also cites the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) dire prediction that both droughts and floods were to increase in the subcontinent.

Another report, from fortnightly environmental publication Down To Earth, is more direct with its accusation, carrying an article titled “How Climate Change has Increased Flood Events in India”. The warming global temperature has affected patterns of precipitation, making rain fall sporadically in short and intense bursts, as opposed to evenly over the entire catchment area. The article states, “Global rainfall data for over the last century also shows an alarming trend. The number of rainy days is decreasing while intense rainfall events of 10-15 centimetre per day are increasing. This means that more amount of water is pouring down in lesser time.” And we’ve seen, to our horror, what happens when too much water comes down in one place all of a sudden.

This might be our new normal – a chilling thought. And even as most of the country celebrates the rewriting of history in J&K, it’s also worth sparing a thought for what our world will look like in the future, and what we’ll be forced to do, to endure it.

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