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In the beginning of May 2021 –as the hill districts of Uttarakhand witnessed a steady rise in cases of COVID-19 – heavy rainfall lashed down on the Himalayan population. People in these rainfall-hit places were tackling two emergencies at once at that time, even as poor development infrastructure in the state made things worse. Road coverage is already limited in Uttarakhand and rainfall made them even more accessible.
These events of heavy rainfall were hastily termed as ‘cloudbursts’. But were they?
Not according to Indian Meteorological Department (IMD). According to IMD, a cloudburst is a highly localized phenomenon occurring over an area that is up to 20-30 kilometres square and that witnesses a high rate of rainfall (of 10 cm per hour) in one hour coupled with strong winds and lightning. Explaining the reason behind the incidents, Rohit Thapliyal, a scientist with IMD Dehradun said the state had been witnessing rains because of “the Westerly disturbance and thunderstorm activity.”
So how many cloudburst events really did occur in Uttarakhand in the last few months? The South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers, and People (SANDRP) identified 24 events as cases of cloudbursts in the state, based on IMD’s definition.
Cloudbursts and excessive rainfall are not new to the Western Himalayan Region, especially in Uttarakhand, but according to SANDRP, what earlier used to be isolated events in particular geographies have increased in numbers and area of occurrence.
Data collected by SANDRP for the month of May 2021 shows that 3 districts (Haridwar, Nainital, Almora) had around 200% surplus rainfall and 3 districts (Bageshwar, Champawat, Udham Singh Nagar) had over 300% surplus rainfall with 2 districts reaching the count of 400% surplus rainfall. The fact that five districts in the state witnessed the event more than once is in itself is worrying.
These events haven’t been exclusive to Uttarakhand Himalaya either. Like Uttarakhand, Nepal has also witnessed a three-digit percentage increase in rainfall amidst the Ministry of Forests and Environment, the Government of Nepal’s prediction on increasing events of heavy precipitation. In fact, 60% of the rainfall that happened in Nepal this year, occurred even before the season began.
What connects Uttarakhand and Nepal beyond the Himalayan topography is that the events of premature rainfall were preceded by massive wildfires that swept both regions. As per news reports, there was no winter rainfall in Nepal for three months which had an adverse effect on humidity-parched forests as the temperatures started to soar.
Snowfall is an important phenomenon to regulate humidity in the dry regions of Western and Central Himalayas. Lack of humidity and higher summer temperatures makes the highly inflammable chir-pine leaves more susceptible to catching fire. Excess chir-pine monoculture can be stated as one of the reasons which added to the forest fires.
Chir-pine – a variety of pine – is native to the Himalayas, but colonial policies which recklessly promoted plantations of non-endemic pine trees led to unbalance in the lower and middle Himalayan topography. The abundance of chir-pine forests has resulted in making the topography more susceptible to fires because of rising temperatures as the dried leaves are notorious for catching fire easily.
However, like cloudbursts, forest fires are also not unusual in the Himalayan region. A brief period of time between winter and monsoon is when forest fires are witnessed, and the interim is often also called the “forest fire season”. What is alarming, as in the case of cloudbursts, is that between November 2020 and January 2021, the total recorded events of forest fires in Uttarakhand were 470, while there were only 39 reported incidents the previous year.
Cloudbursts followed by forest fires do prompt us to question whether both events are connected to each other? This was earlier only theorized, but now scientists from IIT Kanpur and Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University (HNBGU), Srinagar, are certain that there indeed is a valid connection between the two. In 2020, a team of scientists released a report which shows that aerosols – a kind of particulate matter responsible for cloud formation through condensation populate the atmosphere after the forest fires, changing atmospheric conditions and triggering rapid cloud formations.
While local emissions are also responsible for aerosol formation, a higher concentration was associated with regions where there were heavy forest fires.
If what the scientists have found out is indeed true, then the middle Himalayas are at a higher ecological risk and the entailing economic challenges as they are more sensitive to the change in climate, considering that the middle altitude zone (1000m-1500m) has abundant chir-pine monoculture, which fans most forest fires. This makes the population in the middle Himalayas even more vulnerable to future disasters.
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We need to rethink what we mean by “vulnerability” as not just the susceptibility of people to face extreme events related to climate change but also understand the capacity and capability of the community to both predict, mitigate and recover from the disaster and its impacts. So, while understanding the interlinkages between wildfires and cloudbursts definitely can help in mitigating certain losses pertaining to life and property, disaster preparedness through timely prediction is one area where definite attention is needed.
While we can be better prepared for prospective disasters like the one which happened recently in the districts, one is compelled to think how disasters in the districts of Tehri Garhwal, Rudraprayag, Uttarkashi, and Chamoli have proven difficult to predict for the IMD.
IMD stations are located at the foothills of the Himalayas or 2000 meters above sea level – in Dehradun, New Tehri, Mukteshwar, and Pantnagar, making it difficult to monitor climactic conditions in the rest of Uttarakhand Himalaya. Middle Himalayas, where the susceptibility to disasters is more, does not host any such mechanism yet.
This is also necessary given the fact that the Himalayan region has micro-climates, rather than an overarching climate dome, which also means there needs to be monitoring of weather conditions at a micro and a local level. Under a new proposal, Uttarkashi, Pithoragarh, and Chamoli districts will get two surface laboratories. We can hope to witness the impact of locating these laboratories in the Himalayas soon.
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There also needs to be proper data to determine the losses pertaining to climate-induced disasters. Again, not every even of extreme weather condition is related to climate change, but a record of lives lost will help in understanding the ratio of damage done by climate-related disasters as against natural ones. Disaggregate numbers from media reports do justice to no one – neither to Himalayan environmentalists nor to the people who have lost their lives.
Additionally, the objective is not just to understand the human cost but also the economic cost of climate-induced disasters. An audit on the economic cost of these damages – not only what was lost but what and how much it will take to rebuild is required. There is not only human cost to the events but also livelihood costs, and it should be understood what people do in the face of such calamities, and if migration becomes an option for them.
Detailed documentation of the May deluge by SANDRP shows that the destruction caused by the unfortunate events had material costs – ruining agricultural lands, non-agricultural livelihoods, education, and health infrastructure. This even as extreme rainfall events happen across the state with increased intensity and frequency and the monitoring, prediction, and mitigation work by concerned authorities lags miles behind. It is imperative that we improve our understanding of these disasters, and that the measures that we devise be rooted in justice.