Rain, floods killed 6,800 people in India in last 3 yrs; Bengal tops list
India has lost 6,811 people in the last three years to hydro-meteorological disasters such as heavy rain, lightning, flood and cyclones till March this year, according to government information to Parliament.
West Bengal topped the list of states with at least 964 such deaths, revealing the state’s vulnerability to climate change. This means one in every seven such deaths were reported from the state between April 2018 and March 21, according to data placed in the Lok Sabha in August this year.
Madhya Pradesh came a close second with 917 deaths and Kerala was placed third with 708 deaths during the same period. Madhya Pradesh alone recorded 674 deaths in 2019-20, mostly due to floods. Data of some states like Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Telengana and Bihar were missing for some years.
Hydro-meteorological disasters include heavy rains, lightning strikes, cyclones, floods, droughts, avalanche, heat wave and cold wave.
“Intensity and frequency of extreme weather phenomenon, such as heavy rain, lightning, thunderstorms, heat waves and cyclones have increased in the last two decades triggered by climate change. Recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment says that for every 1°C rise in temperature, the water holding capacity of the atmosphere will increase by 7%. So the quantum of high intensity precipitation in each of the events is going up and we are seeing the consequences,” said KJ Ramesh, former director of India Meteorological Department (IMD).
Data available with the Union ministry of earth sciences also show that while in 2016, at least four cyclones had hit the Indian coast, out of which only one was a severe cyclone, in 2020 the country was battered by five severe cyclones.
Likewise, events of very heavy rainfall and extremely heavy rainfall have also been increasing, ministry data have shown. While in 2016, around 1,864 IMD stations across India recorded very heavy rain and 226 stations recorded extremely heavy rain, in 2020, 1,912 stations registered very heavy rain and extremely heavy rain was recorded in 341 stations.
The data, however, do not include deaths reported this year during the monsoon season. Data released by the Union government showed that this year between June 1 and September 1, at least 680 people have died in rain related accidents. Around 75 such deaths were reported from West Bengal alone till September 1. In May 2021, cyclone Yaas killed 14 people in West Bengal and Odisha.
In 2020, cyclone Amphan killed 98 people in West Bengal, while cyclone Tauktae, which hit the western coast this year, killed 118 people. West Bengal has been hit by three back-to-back very severe cyclones in November 2019 (Bulbul), May 2020 (Amphan) and May 2021 (Yaas), which together killed around 153 people.
The ‘Assessment of climate change over the Indian region’ – a report published by the Union earth sciences ministry in 2020 – suggests that the frequency of daily precipitation extremes with rainfall intensities exceeding 150 mm per day increased by about 75% during 1950-2015 in central India. The report also suggests that the country’s average temperature has shot up by 0.7% between 1901 and 2018.
“Our analysis of IMD data of a century says that the number of depressions intensifying into cyclones has dropped in the Bay of Bengal. But when a cyclone develops its intensity is very high. Similarly, the overall rainfall in the monsoon season has increased but the number of rainy days has dropped, resulting in intense spells. The latest IPCC report has already pointed out that Kolkata recorded the highest rise in surface air temperature within the studied cities and regions across the world in 1950-2018. Except for desert, West Bengal has everything -- from mountains to sea and river floodplains -- and so it is also vulnerable to the effects of climate change. What aggravates the situation is that while on one hand, alteration of nature is going on in an unbridled way, we lack mitigation and preparedness,” said Tuhin Ghosh, director of School of Oceanographic Studies at Jadavpur University in Kolkata.
West Bengal topped the list of states with at least 964 such deaths, revealing the state’s vulnerability to climate change. This means one in every seven such deaths were reported from the state between April 2018 and March 21, according to data placed in the Lok Sabha in August this year
A slow-motion climate disaster: the spread of barren land
The land has sustained the Dantas family for more than 150 years, bearing fields of cotton, beanstalks up to a grown man’s hip and, when it rained enough, a river that led to a waterfall.
But on a recent day, with temperatures approaching 100 degrees, the river had run dry, the crops would not grow and the family’s 30 remaining cattle were quickly consuming the last pool of water.
“Fifty years from now, there won’t be a soul living here,” said Inácio Batista Dantas, 80, balanced in a frayed hammock. “I tell my grandchildren that things are going to get very difficult.”
His granddaughter, Hellena, 16, listened in — and pushed back. She grew up here. “I plan to work this land,” she said.
Scientists agree with her grandfather. Much of Brazil’s vast northeast is, in effect, turning into a desert — a process called desertification that is worsening across the planet.
Climate change is one culprit. But local residents, faced with harsh economic realities, have also made short-term decisions to get by — such as clearing trees for livestock and extracting clay for the region’s tile industry — that have carried long-term consequences.
Inácio Batista Dantas, a fourth-generation farmer who expects the land won’t be able to support his descendants, with his granddaughter Hellena, near Parelhas in the arid Serido region of northeast Brazil, Oct. 31, 2021. (Victor Moriyama/The New York Times)
Desertification is a natural disaster playing out in slow motion in areas that are home to a half-billion people, from northern China and North Africa to remote Russia and the American Southwest.
The process does not generally lead to rolling sand dunes that evoke the Sahara. Instead, higher temperatures and less rain combine with deforestation and overfarming to leave the soil parched, lifeless and nearly devoid of nutrients, unable to support crops or even grass to feed livestock.
That has made it one of the major threats to civilisation’s ability to feed itself.
“There is a huge body of evidence that desertification already affects food production and lowers crop yields,” said Alisher Mirzabaev, an agricultural economist at the University of Bonn in Germany, who helped write a 2019 United Nations report on the topic. “And with climate change, it’s going to get even worse.”
Brazil’s northeast, the world’s most densely populated drylands, with roughly 53 million people, is among the most at risk.
The region is known for droughts and poverty, inspiring novels about destitute field workers forced to abandon the land, as well as a genre of music, Baião, in which accordion-backed lyrics tell of the difficult life here.
But things are becoming worse. The region had its longest drought on record from 2012 through 2017, and this year, another drought desiccated much of Brazil.
In August, the United Nations’ latest major report on climate change said Brazil’s northeast faces rising temperatures, a sharp decline in groundwater, and more frequent and intense droughts. Satellite images and field tests show that 13% of the land has already lost its fertility, while nearly the rest of the region is at risk.
“It’s reaching a tipping point,” said Humberto Barbosa, a top expert on desertification who has studied the Brazilian northeast for years. “A point of no return.”
President Jair Bolsonaro has taken no significant measures to reverse the process.
Instead, he has pulled back environmental regulations, while empowering miners and ranchers, and overseen a sharp rise in deforestation in the country.
That helps feed the cycles of extreme weather. Government data released last month showed Amazon deforestation is at its worst in 15 years.
Increasing deforestation in Brazil has alarmed officials around the world because it threatens the Amazon rainforest’s ability to pull carbon from the atmosphere.
But it is also a primary cause of desertification, robbing the air of moisture and the soil of shade.
In the Seridó region, a collection of dusty towns, family farms and industrial factories, the residents’ own impact on the land is most clearly illustrated by the rise of the ceramics industry.
In the early 1980s, local businessmen saw an opportunity in the frequent droughts.
When reservoirs and rivers evaporated, they exposed the nutrient-rich clay at the bottom, perfect for manufacturing the red roof tiles popular in much of the country.
Those entrepreneurs began paying landowners for their mud, and in a few years, dozens of ceramics plants employed hundreds of people. Parelhas, population 21,000, built a metal arch over the main road into town, announcing it as the “Tile Capital.”
Adelson Olivera da Costa was a pioneer of the industry, starting as a manager of one of Parelhas’ first factories in 1980 and buying it a decade later. At his small plant recently, a few dozen laborers laid out thousands of tiles to dry in the midday sun.
“For us, the drought is good news,” da Costa said in his cramped office.
He said he had 30 employees, and neighboring plants run by a son and a daughter employed dozens more.
For an area long dependent on crops and livestock, ceramics were an economic jump-start. But in time, the consequences became clear. Factories make the tiles by mixing water with clay, and then firing the result in a wood-burning oven. All those ingredients — water, wood and clay — are in short supply here.
Da Costa’s factory, one of the smaller operations in the area, uses more than 2,500 gallons of water a week, pulled from a nearby well.
“People aren’t sure,” he said of the water, “but we think it will never run out.”
Recent studies estimate, though, that the region’s groundwater is dwindling.
The factory’s oven runs all night, Monday to Friday. Just before 5 a.m. one weekday, two men pulled branches and trunks from large piles and stuffed them into six fireplaces that heated an oven the size of a house. The operation consumes 60 to 75 cubic meters of wood a week, or enough to fill five large dump trucks.
Then there is the tiles’ main ingredient: clay. Years ago, da Costa said he bought clay from the dried-up lake beds within a few miles of his operation. With those now depleted, he is hauling in mud from hours away.
Aldrin Perez, a Brazilian government scientist who tracks desertification, said it takes 300 years to deposit 1 centimeter of soil, while ceramics companies take 3 to 5 feet of soil each time they extract clay.
“In seconds, they destroy meters of depth that were formed over millions of years,” he said.
That can have a devastating effect. The soil and clay they extract are crucial for retaining a proper balance of nutrients and moisture in the
“It kills the area,” said Damião Santos Ferreira, manager of da Costa’s factory, explaining why some people were hesitant to sell their clay. “It’s never the same.”
The factory pays landowners about $10 for 30 tons of clay, he said.
By now, most landowners know the consequences. Yet plenty still get desperate enough to sell. One of them was Dantas.
In 2010, during another difficult dry season, Dantas said his family almost ran out of money. To feed themselves and their cattle, they decided to cash in on their mud.
“Everyone agreed,” Dantas said.
“It was necessary,” said his son, Paulo.
The clay came from a reservoir Dantas’ great-grandfather built in the 19th century to supply water for their 506-acre land. When it evaporated each dry season, the family had planted beans, corn and cotton in the fertile bed left behind. It was one of their most productive plots of land.
But in 2010, instead of planting, the family watched four men with shovels excavate and haul away the soil. It took them three months. They paid about $3,500 for the clay.
The money helped the family survive through the yearslong drought that followed. But the land around the reservoir was left nearly barren. Paulo Dantas planted corn, beans and watermelon several years later, but the produce was so pitiful, they fed it to the cattle.
Last year, it rained much more than usual. The reservoir filled to about 6 feet. Hellena, Dantas’ granddaughter, swam in it. When it dried up, the family planted seeds. Grass for the cattle grew, but the beans and corn wilted.
“I really regret it,” Dantas said of selling the clay. “I saw it wasn’t good. But the children needed it.”
Standing on the reservoir’s embankment, he looked over the parched land as the sun set. “I had no choice,” he said.