India: How climate change is causing an environmental crisis

Torrential rains have caused flash floods and landslides in parts of India, causing death and destruction. The heavy rain comes after an unbearable heat wave.

Representative image; dark clouds over a highway (photo: DW)
Representative image; dark clouds over a highway (photo: DW)
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DW

Intense monsoon rains have lashed parts of northern India over the past few days, leaving a trail of death and destruction, as well as rendering many areas inaccessible.

The state of Himachal Pradesh has been the hardest hit.

Television footage showed landslides and flash floods, washing away vehicles, destroying buildings and ripping down bridges.

India's meteorological department (IMD) said that torrential rains across the South Asian country in the first week of July have already produced about 2% more rainfall than normal.

The agency has forecast more rain across large parts of northern India in the coming days.

"The region, which is usually one of the driest, has received disproportionately high rains," an IMD official told DW.

Climate change and environmental catastrophes

The summer, or southwest, monsoon brings India around 70% of its annual rainfall.

It is crucial for the nation's agriculture, which accounts for just 11% of India's total economic output, but employs over 40% of its labor force.

The rains also often cause widespread devastation and death due to flooding and landslides.

Scientists say the rainfall is hard to forecast and varies considerably, but climate change is making the monsoon stronger and more erratic, increasing the frequency and ferocity of the floods.

"Human-induced climate change is already intensifying hydrological extremes in India, and the recent floods in parts of northern India are yet another example of how extreme events can be more disastrous in hilly regions than in plains," Akshay Deoras, a research scientist at the UK's National Centre for Atmospheric Science and the Department of Meteorology, told DW.

Deoras pointed out that extreme weather events are set to intensify as the planet continues to become warmer due to growing emissions of greenhouse gases.

"This does not necessarily mean that high-impact events would occur every year, but whenever they occur, there would be a greater chance of them being more impactful than previous such events," he added.

How many extreme weather events last year?

Last year, the Center for Science and Environment (CSE), a New Delhi-based public interest research and advocacy organization, tracked extreme weather events in India.

It found out that the country, on the whole, experienced extreme weather events on 314 out of the 365 days, meaning that at least one extreme weather event was reported in some part of India on each of these days.

The report concluded that these events caused over 3,000 deaths in 2022, affected some 2 million hectares of crop area, killed more than 69,000 livestock and destroyed around 420,000 houses.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also released a report last year painting a bleak picture for India.

It warned that the country could face multiple climate change-induced disasters in the next two decades.

Unless greenhouse gas emissions are drastically reduced by 2030, it will become impossible for Indian authorities to reverse an imminent climate catastrophe, it said.

Heavy rains follow sizzling heat wave

"Climate change is accelerating at a fast pace, throwing off extreme weather events one after the other. This is faster than what we thought earlier," said Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune.

"South Asia has become the poster child of climate change. The entire region, not just India, is witnessing a clear trend in rising heatwaves, floods, landslides, droughts, and cyclones. This is already affecting the food, water, and energy security of the region," Koll told DW.

The heavy rains come after a blistering heat wave that caused temperatures to soar to as high as 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) in large parts of the country, taking a toll on people's lives.

Even though the main summer months — from April to June — are always hot in India, temperatures have become more intense in the past decade.

And around 80% of the population also live in regions highly vulnerable to extreme disasters like heat waves or severe flooding.

What needs to be done?

As part of India's efforts to tackle global climate change, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration has vowed to cut the nation's greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2070.

But against the backdrop of increasing extreme weather events, experts say the government needs to also focus on adaptation measures.

"More needs to be done for climate adaptation to prevent economic losses and food insecurity," CSE director Sunita Narain said.

"We need to relearn land and water management strategies. India has much to learn, from not building habitations in flood-vulnerable areas to channeling river water instead of taming rivers within embankments that invariably break or just do not work," she told DW.

"The moot question is, how fast can we learn in a climate variable world? The answers will determine our future. The window of opportunity to deal with the crisis is closing."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

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