As Jammu and Kashmir struggles to deal with floods that have caused havoc and killed nearly 200 people while leaving over half a million stranded, a New Delhi-based think tank has pointed out that climate change may have triggered the sudden, intense rainfall that led to the worst floods that the region is facing in over a century.
“The Kashmir floods are a grim reminder that climate change is now hitting India harder. In the last 10 years, several extreme rainfall events have rocked the country, and this is the latest calamity in that series,” said Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and the head of its climate change team.
On September 2, Kashmir was hit by sudden unseasonal and heavy rainfall. It rained more than 200 mm within just 24 hours – four times the average monthly rainfall.
According to CSE, this could very well be another manifestation of an extreme weather event – induced by climate change.
Studies by Indian scientists show an alarming trend. A 2006 study by B.N. Goswami of the Pune-based Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology showed that from 1950 to 2000, the incidents of heavy rainfall events (over 100 mm/day) and very heavy rainfall events (over 150 mm/day) increased while the moderate events (below 100mm/day) decreased.
The Kashmir disaster was caused by an event that fell in the ‘very heavy rainfall’ category. The fear is that due to climate change, this can become the new normal.
The recently-released fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that India will get more intense rainfall even as the number of rainy days decrease due to changing weather patterns.
A projection by PRECIS, a regional climate modelling system, shows that rainfall patterns will change between 2050 and 2100. Rainfall in the sensitive region of the Himalayas will increase by as much as 250 to 500 mm annually while some locations will register an increase of more than 500 mm.
As for Kashmir, while the weathermen have blamed the interaction of the western disturbances with the monsoon current for causing the heavy rain, environmentalists wondered why the government is silent on the issue of climate change.
“The Indian government must discard its ostrich-like policy and get out of its denial mode. We will have to see the linkages between climate change and the events such as those unfolding in J&K. We will have to accept that climate change is going to affect us more and more in the future. We will, therefore, have to start preparing to adapt to the changing climate,” said Sunita Narain, director general, CSE.
“India should start internalising climate change adaptation in all developmental policies and programmes. From building of city infrastructure to agriculture and from water supply to energy infrastructure, we will have to make changes to incorporate climate change impacts.”
Bhushan added, “Saying that it (the Kashmir flood) happened due to western disturbances and monsoon interaction is not a good enough answer. We have to take the research to the next level and find out why this is happening. The answer cannot just end there. They always mention various weather phenomena but they never mention the term climate change.”
In the case of Kashmir, extreme events coupled with bad development and poor preparedness has worsened the impacts. For instance, despite the fact that the area is highly flood-prone, the state doesn’t have a single flood forecasting station, though India has 175 stations. Neither does it have a separate disaster management department.
However, the India Meteorological Department had issued a heavy rainfall warning.
“Himalayas are young mountains. They will continue to be lashed with rain and huge landslides. We have to think doubly,” said Narain.
Kashmir – often called heaven on earth – is a major tourist attraction. But this has also become a bane for the state leading to unchecked, ill-planned constructions which are choking the floodplains of the rivers. As concrete structures take over wetlands, rivers and streams have lost the ability to carry extra water when it rains heavily.
“The flood channels that used to take the excess water away have been destroyed. The posh areas in Srinagar that have been affected badly by floods are the ones that have come up on the floodplains,” said Narain.
A 2004 analysis by the Jammu & Kashmir Remote Sensing Centre shows that Srinagar and its suburbs alone have lost 55% of the lakes and wetlands area due to encroachments. Between 1911 and 2004, the area of wetlands went down from 13,426 hectares to 6,407.
“This data is just till 2004. If we had current data, it would have shown a situation that’s even worse. The losses of the water catchment areas will come to be much higher now than in the 2004 study,” said Narain.
The focus in Kashmir is now on rescuing people marooned by the flood. But if the causes of the disaster are not tackled through better adaptation to climate change and long-term disaster prevention measures, disasters of this scale may become a regular feature.
This report first appeared in indiaclimatedialogue.net