A monsoon warning

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015


As I write this my city Delhi is drowning. It started raining early this morning and within a few hours the city has come to a standstill. The television is showing scenes of traffic snarled up for hours, roads waterlogged and people and vehicles sunk deep in water and muck.

The meteorological department records that some 60 mm of rain has fallen in just about 6 hours; 90 mm in 24 hours; and with this the city has made up for its deficit of rainfall this season. In other words, in just about 24 hours Delhi and its surrounding areas got half as much rain as they would in the entire month of September. Delhi, like all growing cities of India, is mindless about drainage. Storm water drains are either clogged or do not exist. Our lakes and ponds have been eaten away by real estate. Land is what the city values, not water. So when it rains more than it should the city drowns.

This month almost all parts of the country are hit by rain and flood. We don’t know the extent of damage because putting together news from across the country is difficult and the national media, obsessed as it is with corruption and the antics of politics, fails to present us with the scale and magnitude of breakdown and suffering.

Then we also take for granted that at this time of the year there will be rains and then floods. We do not look for news in these events; that there is something unusual about the ferocity of the rain and the extent of the damage.

I say this as a keen recorder of these events. Each year, unfailingly, around this time I end up chronicling the floods in most parts of the country. But each year, as I learn and write, I find the floods grow in intensity. Each year, the rain events get more variable and more extreme. Each year, the economic damage because of floods and rain increases. This year, for instance, the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh says its bill for rain damage is Rs 334 crore, roughly half the year’s budget for roads and infrastructure. As many as 30 lives have been lost as rivers have broken their banks, landslides have destroyed homes, hydropower stations have been shut and roads and crops damaged. What is worrying is the emerging pattern. Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal says that in his state rains were normal in June, deficient in July and hyperactive in August. A record 342 mm of incessant rain within 24 hours on August 13 left the state shell-shocked and deeply damaged.

In Gujarat rains have left behind trails of damage. Over the past two months in different regions of the state, there have been cloudbursts and torrential rains, which have led to flash floods, ravaged homes and killed 140 people. The common thread in the events is the manner in which the rains have come—abnormally heavy rains with huge sub-regional variations. For instance, earlier this week, Becharaji taluka in Mehsana district of north Gujarat recorded 62 mm of rain, equivalent to a third of its annual average. On one single day, the otherwise dry region of Kachchh got nearly as much rain—some 250 mm—as it gets in a year.

Even as I write this, another region of India, Odisha, is struggling to cope with floods of high magnitude. Some 0.7 million people are already displaced as the Mahanadi has burst its banks at many places. My colleagues tracking developments there say this is mainly because there has been heavy rainfall in the catchment of the vast Hirakud dam. As a result in less than 24 hours the Hirakud managers, without warning and notice, opened all its 59 gates, releasing huge volumes of water into the already swollen river. This part of the country, which was recorded to have deficient rains of 40 per cent, is now in surplus. In just three days enough water has fallen to make up for the shortfall.

There is no doubt, therefore, that something strange is afoot. Scientists will tell you that there is a difference between weather and its natural variability and climate change, a pattern brought about by human emissions heating up the atmosphere faster than normal. Scientists who study the monsoons will tell you that they are beginning to make that distinction between “normal” monsoon and what is now showing up in extreme rain events. This when the monsoons are a capricious and confounding natural event, hard to predict and even harder to pin down.

Clearly, it is time to accept that we are beginning to see the impact of climate change. It is time to demand that the world change its ways to mitigate emissions. It is equally important we change the way we deal with water. The opportunity lies in making sure that every drop of the rain is harvested for future economic use. Since rain will come in more ferocious events we must engineer for its drainage and storage. Channelising and holding rain water must become the nation’s mission.

This does mean that every waterbody, every channel, drain and nullah and every catchment has to be safeguarded. These are the temples of modern India. Built to worship rain. Built for our future.

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  • It's time to wake up to the

    It's time to wake up to the reality of climate change, and for governments and industry to act quickly, instead of obsessing over economic growth premised on the old fossil fuel economy.
    Yesterday's worldwide broadcast "24 Hours of Reality" should help dispel some of the denial that climate change is already upon us.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • You are absolutely right in

    You are absolutely right in highlighting the 'freaky' rains. Such rain events and droughts are going to be a routine now. We have to brace for the worst. Our future generation's survival in this hostile situation is at stake. Our urban areas lack drainage. The concrete jungles do not permit recharge of aquifers. Thus there will be rain but we will face acute shortage of water. It is for us to awaken from our slumber and start removing the tiles from the pavements and concrete from our compounds.
    The mountain states specially the newly formed Uttarakhand is likely to face the worst damage. In a spree of 'development' they forgot the thumb rule that disturbing the angle of repose leads to landslides. Topped with incessant rains landslides will create havoc. Last years scars had not even healed while another bout of rain is on.
    Urban floods are going to be another hazard. We have seen how Mumbai was paralysed. Now we are likely to witness people using boats to go to their offices in the vicinity of ITO in New Delhi.
    Kudos to DTE for highlighting such issues.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • The last paragraph of your

    The last paragraph of your article is the "bottom line of the issue". Its a poignant reminder of things to come! The irony is that for far too long scientists became pawns in the hands of big businesses and political godfathers creating an unholy nexus. Nett Result is your observations that you've made in your article. This has led to people having little or no faith either in science or worship. You've been crying hoarse pleading for good sense or better still common sense to prevail. Will it?

    Tank beds, nullahs, drains and catchment areas have become stadiums, housing colonies or some other money making encroachments... catchments of corruption... hopefully the deluge will wash away the filth that has permeated every walk of life.

    You talk about temples of modern India... if the good God were to comedown to earth God may consider outsourcing the problem... question to whom? Our constitution starts "We the People..." Where are WE?

    Its the pockets of faith that are still left who make earnest attempts... people like you who still try to make a difference... lets all Pray to God more people listen to the voices of concern...

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • nice editorial. yes, land is

    nice editorial. yes, land is valued and water ignored. but it makes an about turn when profit flows with water.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Ms. Narain What a

    Dear Ms. Narain
    What a realistic picture you have provided. One wished proactive steps are taken to contain further degradation of the environment.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • very good editorial, well in

    very good editorial, well in time and an eye opener. The concerned authorities should take note of it and act accordingly.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • The yearly water cycle is

    The yearly water cycle is inevitable. True reasons for warming need to be understood, e.g. water vapour in the air is an effect of warming and not the cause. Heat index should be the true measure of warming and not just temperature. Particulate haze blocks radiations coming in and also reflected back to space, and we need to reduce the smoke produced. We ignore the fact that black smoke absorbs heat and blame the rise in carbon dioxide for heating the atmosphere.
    I have seen a brief spell of rain on a one km strip of trees planted along the Indira Gandhi Canal in the Thar Desert (to prevent sandstorms blocking the canal) while the dry sand dunes a few km away got no rain. Obviously it was the vegetation that attracted the rain.
    We cut trees, pave the ground and pollute water and air in the name of development. Remember, if Earth is compared to a football, then our atmosphere is just a thin sheet of paper, the effect of water that percolates into the ground that is blocked in urban areas may be the same.
    Climate change is serious and the human race is literally and figuratively on thin ice.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sunita, What should we

    Dear Sunita,
    What should we citizens do protect our future if Govt is not serious about it? I am sure there are many who are feeling restless to do something about these issues but do not know how to go about it.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • The article has raised

    The article has raised critical environmental issues which we are going to experience in future.Due to indiscriminate increase in construction activities and manifold increase in emission,the future rainfall is going to be characterized by disparities. Time has come to seriously think to revitalize the urban drainage system,serious attempts to reduce the use of personal vehicles( especially use of AC)and plan the cities to ensure connectivity and accessibility by public transport.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • There may be some impact of

    There may be some impact of climate change. But to blame climate change for everything is not correct. I remember that few years back the DDA officials had built flats in Delhi without foundation. The buildings were crumbling like pack of cards. When complaint was made and the matter became a serious issue, some very senior official of DDA had told to the media that a black cat used to visit the area. On whichever building the cat stood and mewed, the building came down.So, it was the cat which was responsible.
    In case of floods too, it is similar story. Floods bring calamity for common people. But it brings good luck for politicians, officials, contrators, middle-men, power brokers. They will never like that any area should become flood proof. Otherwise how will they make money year after year. I have lived for several years in a flood prone area and I have seen how the funds for flood protection are swindled and once the floods were there, how people made money in the name of repairs, relief works etc. Now they will be happy to know that they can put all the blame on climate change.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Nehru then told Dams are

    Nehru then told Dams are temples of modern India ,now Narain.S says every WATERBODY,CHANNELS,DRAINS AND NULLAS ARE TEMPLES OF MODERN INDIA .

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Hope that the citizens and

    Hope that the citizens and RWA s of Delhi, keep their rainwater drains open and not bury their garden spaces and pavements under cement. It is a sad sight to have good rains only to find water flooding roads and cars without an inch of bare earth to sink into. Especially to watch trees in monsoons, with Water water everywhere not a drop to drink .How can they, when they are cemented by the city upto their trunks?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Dr.Narain, I can see a

    Dear Dr.Narain,

    I can see a large number of letters have flooded your desk on the subject of climate change in the offing as perceived in terms of heavy downpours in Delhi and other areas and the serious concerns voiced by your readers. Aside from the travails, sufferings and damages caused on the flip side, however, i believe that Rain God must have been profusely propitiated by the economic priests in Delhi since every year they prophesy that come September a good monsoon will cool off the heat that scorches the middle class from the price rises. Of course the Govt is helpless, so we are told, about the petrol price hikes every 4 months in a year as a matter of routine governance.

    But permitted to be a little cynical, jumping to a conclusion about the much feared climate change may somewhat backfire. Dr. Pachauri must be still rankling from the high embarrassment. I recall then Governor Gopal Gandhi's speech in Ghoramara on the occasion of your releasing MSL documentary. Last year we had a very good winter in India. Snowfall was also a welcome event in the global perspective. Perhaps the feared climate change (Damocles' sword) has been staved off for the time being, if that comes at all. But your concern of too much rain as an inkling of a way forward to the dooms day may enrage the economic priests in Delhi who only sit a lame duck on commodity and gold prices soaring and ballooning till cloudbursts someday will cool them off. I take pity on these Great economic priests in Delhi!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Thank you Sunita! Your edito

    Thank you Sunita! Your edito is excellent, as always! How can we make politicians listening your words and the voice of the international rainwater harvesting community? What can we do so that a new vison on rainwater management is finally adopted? The theory and practice of Integrated Water Resources management (IWRM) should open also a little more space for it. Please send to the IRHA all political decisions going in this sense, and let us try together to raise the place of Rainwater Harvesting in the political arena.
    Vessela Monta

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Ms.Sunita Narain, The

    Dear Ms.Sunita Narain,

    The Article on Monsoon Warning is very elaborate and depicts the sorry state of affairs regarding Water Management in the country. The main reasons attributable are:

    1. We must confess that we are an indisciplined and selfish community and in the name of development of City, a mushrooming of new colonies in an uncontrolled manner is being done, where the Ponds, Nalas and Water Bodies are being eliminated in the name of Real Estate development.

    2. These Water bodies were life-line of village life through which the Borewells, Drinking Water wells and underground charging of soil is done to meet water requirements of the villages for the full year.

    3. The floods are causing havoc by way of loss of crops, erosion of soil nutrients, loss of human life and animals and causing consequent dieseases.

    4. Rain Water harvesting is not being impleented in true spirit. We understand that Australia has lesser rain-fall than India, but they are able to manage through rain water harvesting for their water needs.

    5. During monsoons, the submergence of roads, and clogging of drains is a repeated phenomona in many cities every year as the concerned authorites do not do their duties rightly in time.

    6. The consturction of roads is pitiable as so many pot-holes and ditches are rampant on the roads because of no proper drainage system provided along with the roads and roads do not have gradient/slope for the flow of water.I wonder whether PWD or road consturction enginers are ever exposed and are appreciative of the huge wastage of fuel energy, wear-and-tear of the vehicles and consequent pollution in the form of noise and unburnt hydro-carbons created due to the pot-holes on the roads as all vehicles have to break their speeds at such locations.

    Summarily, there has to be a control on the development of colonies in a systematic manner by not using agricultrual land and water bodies and all buildings must have necessarily rain water harvesting provision. The idea of linking rivers to control the spate of flooding rivers has been side-tracked as there is no Will-Power in the Government.The controls are possible, only if there is strict discipline in the Community and proper and able governance.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply