Three noteworthy, interconnected but unusual events shaped the 2019 monsoonThe concerned response agencies must revisit their usual response strategies and think of innovative ways to address disaster.
In South Asia, three noteworthy, interconnected but unusual events shaped the 2019 monsoon. The events, however, continue to worry planners and environmentalists alike. In the beginning, Cyclone Vayu, a severe cyclonic storm—the second of its kind of this cyclone season in the Indian Ocean, and the first to form over the Arabian Sea—slowed down an already late monsoon by another week, subsequently delaying monsoon in Nepal by almost four weeks. When the monsoon finally commenced, the heavy rain brought massive floods across the entire region in patches—from Nepal in the north, to the Indian state of Kerala in the south almost simultaneously.
Another unique observation this year has been the presence of the low-pressure belt—the monsoon trough, which guides the concentration of rainfall, moving to central India six times in quick succession in August alone, bringing torrential rain to the central and southern parts of India. Consequently, many parts in the Indian state of Maharashtra, particularly around Pune district, received more rain than Cherrapunjee in Meghalaya, which has often been credited as being the wettest place on Earth. Tamhinighat in Pune district received 5,959 mm of rainfall compared to 5,346 mm rainfall in Cherrapunjee between June 1 and August 5. The skewed distribution of rain caused widespread damage in areas influenced by the low-pressure belt.
The third phenomenon is in the Himalayas, where some areas failed to receive rain at all. Two rural municipalities in Panchthar and one in Terhathum districts in eastern Nepal faced severe droughts while heavy rains were lashing central and southern parts of India. Generally, monsoon brings 80 percent of the annual precipitation between June and September. Given that, Panchthar and Terhathum should have received a bulk of its yearly water share during the same period. Unfortunately, these three rural municipalities experienced severe droughts, affecting the lives of 1,600 families who lost their summer staple crops. The area also experienced droughts during the 2018 monsoon, affecting more than 1,800 families. Droughts in this area were unimaginable because the eastern part of Nepal is considered to be water-rich; the National Climate Vulnerability Risk Map, prepared in 2010 to formulate the National Adaptation Program of Action (NAPA) in the context of climate change, had ranked the area where these districts are located less vulnerable to drought.
Impacts of the unfolding scenario
It appears that the shifting away of the low-pressure belt from the Ganga basin for most of the monsoon period has led to rain deficit in the basin, including Nepal Himalaya. According to the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, large parts of Nepal received below-normal precipitation. Far-western parts of the country received below 70 percent of normal precipitation during June-August of this year. The overall rainfall scenario in the east and north-east Indian region shows that there is at least a 20 percent rain deficit so far. If this is an indication of long-term shifts in the monsoon, which is quite likely considering the trend observed in the past few years, this change will lead to a decreased flow in our groundwater-fed rivers affecting our lives, our economy, and everything that depends on the availability of water. The pressure to import food to meet food shortages will drain the economy further, while pressure on the administration to provide food and water to drought-hit areas would become a core concern of the government. Displacement, due to water shortages, will rise exponentially.
Our mountains have been drying over the past few decades. One can draw parallels from the case in the hills in Uttarakhand, India, where almost 94 percent of wells and springs have dried, and assess that an equally high percentage of springs in Nepal Himalayas have probably also dried. This was also echoed by the National Climate Change Impact Survey 2016, which revealed that a majority of the springs in our mountains have either dried or are drying. The impact of drying hills has been further compounded by the rise in temperature with the spread of insects and pests. In areas where they received some rain this year, the infestation of the American fall armyworm destroyed maize crops in vast regions across the eastern hills.
The consequences of drought in already dry mountains are perhaps beyond our understanding yet. Therefore, the case of the 1600 drought-hit families should be considered a crisis. If we fail to notice this seemingly small incidence of drought during the monsoon as a giant warning sign, and do away with every crisis like this by providing relief packages of a few thousand rupees, we will end up facing situations in the future beyond our capacity because there are many other areas similar to this pocket across the country that are unique in responding to changing weather patterns. The spread of Dengue in Kathmandu and elsewhere in the country coupled with the state’s response thus far illustrates how our institutions cannot handle such crises.
We can’t be complacent
The baseline conditions of climate, on which depend the weather events, have changed due to the warming of oceans. The fact that about 93 percent of the heat trapped inside the climate system by human emissions is going into the oceans means that Earth will keep on warming. This year, the warming of oceans has made the oceanic indices, such as the El-Nino and Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), favourable for the monsoon in terms of rainfall. But a change in the timing of rain coupled with its temporal and spatial distribution has become a matter of grave concern. Heavy rains have continued in patches until mid-September when it should be waning. One may argue that this rain helps balance out the deficit in terms of annual precipitation in the remaining monsoon period, but the damage to agriculture and our economy by the unusual monsoon has already been done.
The authorities at the local level do not have enough time to address climate impacts. Lives have already been affected, and actions must be in place to focus on them. Whether it is drought, floods, landslides, or the spread of vector-borne diseases, and pests, the developing scenario seems to have added challenges to understand the rapidly unfolding situation across the country’s diverse landscape and suggests adaptive measures. Changes in weather patterns are progressively becoming unpredictable. The concerned response agencies must therefore, revisit their usual response strategies and think of innovative ways to address disaster.
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