A flooded street in Mumbai. Michael Kohli, Flickr

Water everywhere: Heatwaves and floods in India

Two of our regional young forestry experts give insight from the ground

By Esha Mitra and Damya Srivastava, Asia and the Pacific GLF Youth Project Team

India, the world’s only subcontinent, is admired for its diverse yet harmonious geography. However, the increase of extreme natural calamities is threatening the country more and more each year. 

India can be seen as having a sort of blueprint for climate extremities, regularly experiencing heatwaves and soaring temperatures, as well as floods and cyclones amid rapidly shifting seasons. All are aggravated by humans, yet it’s their common correlation with water that draws an ironic contrast between them. What do we mean by that? Let’s take a quick look at the realities on the ground.

Heatwaves and extreme temperatures

“The accelerated pace of the heatwaves is unnatural,
every grandparent and scientist can attest to it.”
(Damya Srivastava, New Delhi, India)

In India, congested concrete jungles, fragmented green cover and the accumulation of greenhouse gas create a cycle of cause and consequence, together trapping solar heat over the land. This generates urban heat islands (UHIs) and causes heat waves. Meanwhile, climate change causes temperatures to soar by increasing pressure systems, due to the delay of seasonal rains and winds, which would otherwise help reduce high temperatures.

Figure 1: Temperature Change in India since 1901.
Blue stripes depicting cooler temperatures and red stripes showing the hotter ones.
Source: Ed Hawkins, University of Reading.

The stripes getting increasingly red in the chart above show the temperature shift over the last century. This year, India faced the hottest March of the last 122 years, with a recorded 280 heatwave days across 16 states and a reported rainfall that was 71 percent below normal.

Floods and cyclones

“In the last three years, we faced back-to-back floods, cyclones
in coastal areas and landslides during monsoon.”
(Annie Biju, Kerala, India)

Despite being on a different part of the natural disaster spectrum, floods have been similarly exacerbated by anthropogenic causes: deforestation, rising sea-levels, and human encroachment into the buffer areas between land and sea.

Two major hotspots for floods in India are riverine regions and coastal cities. The former, being harvested by rain-fed rivers, have annual floods because of irregular monsoons; and the latter, being surrounded by the Indian Ocean, face a similar fate due to rising waters. In addition, hilly terrains across the subcontinent face landslides and flash floods because of heavy rainfall and irresponsible human infringement. 

Shifting seasons

“My grandpa tells us the story of how summer used to be enjoyable and rain used to begin just before the sowing time of rice; it seems everything was in sync back then.”
(Esha Mitra, West Bengal, India)

Among all the extremities of periodical climate impact, the most concerning is the shift in timing of the seasons, moving them out of balance with ecological and human cycles.

There has been a common scenario for the last few years, in which one end of India is facing heavy rainfall and the other delayed rain and drastic heatwaves. High temperatures flourish in the northern reaches until late summer, with the monsoon bringing relief in late autumn. All the while, the southern regions are getting waterlogged by sudden, impromptu rains. Even winter rain, which is historically unusual for India, has become more common in the last few years.

In subtropical climate zones, winters are getting shorter, but in temperate zones, snowfalls are starting earlier, breaking decadal records of subzero temperatures. Kashmir, the northernmost geographical region, faced the harshest winter this season.

Impacts on society

“The climatic change is real, and it has taken a great toll on human lives.”
(Neekita Urang, Assam, India)

The impact of climate change is visible and devastating. From human life to livestock, and from agricultural land to forest patches, natural extremities are putting the planet and its well-being far out of balance.

Health-wise, people are suffering headaches, fatigue, heat strokes and dehydration, driving up mortality rates. Similarly, mental health is affected by heat stress and climate anxiety, leading to higher aggression and suicide rates and lower economic productivity.

Society-wise, children are most vulnerable to climate adversities, with increasing rates of school dropouts, missed immunizations, and inaccessibility to nutritious food, clean water and sanitation facilities. This is compounded by increases in violence, exploitation and abuse as well as child marriage trafficking and labor.

Economy-wise, agriculture, which employs more than 50 percent of India’s population, sees an average yield loss of 20 to 60 percent in hard-hit states because of crop damage and drying water sources. In the urban sector, heat lowers employees’ productivity, affecting working hours and yearly results.

Focusing on solutions for judicious land use is a good way forward. However, actionable steps toward reducing global warming and climate change are built upon our daily decisions and the frequent option to choose between what is right for the planet and what is easy. Which do you – and will you – pick?

Article tags

climate changefloodingheatwavewater



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