India’s Escalating Climate Crisis
Unparalleled rain and flooding have submerged villages in the north-eastern state of Assam, leaving behind wrecked homes. “There is water everywhere, but not a single drop to drink”, is how Ronju Chowdhary described the sites outside her house. Udiana, a remote village where Ronju lives, has been facing ferocious rains and mutinying floods.
She remembers the water rising quickly, and on its path, submerging the streets of her village in a matter of hours. Ms. Chowdhary, in a hassle, describes her situation to BBC, mentioning that even now she hears warnings for further rising water levels. Yet, the tragic experience of when the water gatecrashed her home as her family huddled together in the darkness, replays in her head. The family remains stranded in their house, in an effort to resemble their sole island amid a ruthless sea.
Besides Assam’s devastating floods, those in North India are facing searing heat, leaving a population of millions to face its critical impacts for weeks. Sweltering temperatures have been linked to heat-related deaths, power outages, food insecurity, fires, and severe damage to India’s prime crop industry – with the poor and marginalized communities most affected.
Northern India, this past March, had to face its hottest temperature in the last 122 years. Following this, the months of April and May followed a similar trend, according to India’s Meteorological Department (IMD).
Such high temperatures arrived a month earlier than expected, with temperatures being 4.5°C above the expected average. The state of Haryana, in northern India, reached a peak of 48.1°C, while its neighbor, the national capital city of Delhi, crossed the 49°C mark. Analysis by India’s Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) shows a correlation between Delhi’s growing demand for electricity, particularly for air conditioners, and the ambient heat. The heat exhaust released from the excessive use of ACs results in a positive feedback loop of increasing temperatures.
Such zenith temperatures have resulted in the death of at least 25 Indian citizens, as heat-strokes have become the leading cause of death by natural force. With this, the IMD issued heatwave warnings, as hospitals began to see an increase in patients who succumbed to the blistering temperatures. “Poorer women are particularly affected, as they had to work from home without ACs, while also cooking and gathering provisions from outdoor sources”, said general practitioner, Dr. Madhav Thombre, from Mumbai. Inside the over 750 slums in Delhi itself, the windowless rooms housing big families can become a lethal hotbox.
When taking a closer look, those in India practicing Ramadan or similar practices are increasingly vulnerable to the scorching temperatures, as they follow strict fasting from dawn to sunset. Fortunately, the thunderstorms over Haryana have indicated pre-monsoon activity, which is a potential relief from the intense heat.
Meanwhile, India’s northeastern region was further trapped under devastating conditions. While heatwave warnings are announced for some states, heavy rainfall and floods are anticipated for others.
The eastern state of Bihar experienced this contrasting situation within its own borders. Drought-prone southern Bihar faced heatwave warnings, whilst flood-prone regions in the north and east of the state faced heavy rainfall. Bihar recorded 33 deaths amid the lightning and thunderstorm. Considering that over 50 million people in India are construction workers, the heat stress on these outdoor workers is immeasurable. Therefore, the workforce in Bihar now has changed working hours for laborers and has begun erecting roof structures for outdoor workers.
Further east of India, with incessant rains a couple of weeks ago in Assam, over 721,000 people have been affected, with a death toll surging up to 36 with a wave of multiple missing persons reports. Rushing water burst into houses and roads, resulting in mass displacement and evacuations into over 1,425 relief camps. Large hectares of croplands have also been tarnished, with over 2000 villages still submerged underwater.
“There is no drinking water at the camp. My son has a fever but I am unable to take him to the doctor”, the words of Husna Begum, also a resident of Udiana. The 28-year-old mother had to swim through the gushing water in search for help, yet, today she continues to take shelter in a fragile plastic tent on the street with her two children. The floods have routinely caused havoc and brought chaos into the delicate lives of millions of families in Assam. Ironically, the families that are most affected once took home along the banks of the Brahmaputra river, which is often synonymous to the “lifeline” of the people of the land.
Climate Change, according to the United Nation’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has led to the increased severity and frequency of hazardous and fluctuating weather in the South-Asian region, such as in India. Incessant rain due to the combined effects of deforestation and poor drainage systems has caused fatal floods and landslides in East India. North India, on the other hand, is facing the effects of a lack of periodic rainfall, and anti-cyclones, wherein winds are gentle and there is virtually no weather activity.
Yet, all causes of such weather in India, narrow down to human-induced climate change. The IPCC suggests that global warming mitigation opportunities in urban settlements should aim for net-zero emissions, such as switching oil or gas-powered utilities for electricity-powered utilities, a transition that is challenging for the economically varying Indian populace. Flood resilient construction strategies are also essential, along with added funds for flood relief, which will again impose a financial challenge on a number of Indian states.
Besides, nations are spending barely a fraction in the face of such record-breaking heatwaves and unpredictable floods. A trend is noticed of spending more on post-calamity effects of such events, rather than prevention and root causes. While such events have made international headlines, India is yet to see indicators of foreign aid coming it's way. Not only is it imperative to safeguard the large population of India, but it is also unavoidably crucial to make a collective international effort to safeguard the environment that we all inherit without borders.
It is essential to dissect ‘human-induced climate change’ into identifying how and why the environment is deteriorating, out of which our communities ultimately face the consequences. Varying warnings in states which are in different directions in India show the dangerously versatile nature of recent weather. It is crucial to recognize the inviability of India to tackle such events aligned with the suggestions and strategies of the developed world, such as electronic vehicles and the advent of the Green Economy Transition. Yet, for a developing India, a transition to renewable energy is key in providing energy security to every household, regardless of their economic capacity. Focusing on the use of renewable energy, particularly for rural regions can undoubtedly create sustainable and resilient energy security.
The floods in Assam have had no mercy. Siraj Ali, 64, described his horrors, as the water submerged his village and destroyed everything in its path. Yet, he continued to stay put in his house which is now partly deluged under water, only to guard his “lifetime of memories”. As he described his stories to the BBC, in worry he asked “what to do, where do I go?”, mentioning that he had been starving for three whole days, with his eyes welling up with tears.