Basahi (Bihar): When the monsoon comes each summer to this poor Indian village, it brings misery.
Raindrops as wide as nickels fall straight and hard. They pool in fields and churn dirt lanes into mud.
But this year’s monsoon rains were the heaviest anyone in Bihar can remember. Something has changed, they say, and their fears are confirmed by many in the scientific community who say India’s floods are getting worse as global warming alters the earth’s climate. In the past, the rains were always interrupted by glimpses of the sun. But this year 20 straight days of rain dumped 3ft of water, a record for most of the state.
Hard reality: A flash flood in August destroyed many houses in Basahi, Bihar, and left 22 people dead.
Together with increased run-off from glaciers in Tibet and Nepal, the water swelled the local Budhigandak river and in early August it breached a levee and sent giant waves crashing through the village of Basahi, killing 22 people and adding to a death toll of more than a thousand in Bihar, the least-developed state in the country.
For India and the world, the suffering is a warning of worse to come, many scientists say. As the earth has heated over the past century due to global warming, evaporation has increased and the atmosphere has become wetter, leading to heavier storms and more floods.
Globally, the number of floods—which generally are caused by heavy rainfall but can be made worse by factors including deforestation, poor government planning and population growth—has increased sixfold since 1980. This year, flooding affected more than 250 million people, according to a report released last month by Oxfam International, a non-profit group based in Oxford, England.
Many scientists link global warming with recent record-breaking floods in the US Midwest, England and Mexico, where five days of torrential rains in November left most of the state of Tabasco under water and damaged the homes of nearly a million people.
But with a four-month monsoon season and hundreds of millions of poor farmers, India and neighbouring Bangladesh are arguably the world’s nations most at risk to increased flooding.
To some observers, the impacts of climate change on flooding already are obvious.
Evidence suggests that India has experienced a shift in where floods occur as parts of the country have warmed faster than others and weather patterns have changed.
While monsoon rains “had been very predictable in the past,” in recent years rainfall has become more variable, said Murari Lal, a New Delhi-based climate change scientist who has worked for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “Regions that were not prone to droughts and floods are now prone to them,” he said.
In Rajasthan, five districts that were flooded for more than two months last year had never experienced flooding. Meanwhile, northeastern Assam, which remained mostly dry between 2004 and 2006, “used to be under water for four or five months every year,” said Neel Kamal Singh, director of information for the Indian Red Cross.
Extreme downpours also have become more common. A study by Indian scientists published last year in the journal Science found that while the total amount of rain dropped by the monsoon over central India had remained roughly constant over the past century, the number of “very heavy events”—defined as at least 5.9 inches of rain in a day—had more than doubled since 1951.
At the same time, increased run-off from the Himalayas has intensified floods in northern India. Himalayan glaciers are “receding faster than in any other part of the world,” according to IPCC. The glaciers are likely to disappear by 2035 if the world continues to warm at its current rate, it said.
“There has been a shift in the climate cycle,” Lal said. “The society needs to be made aware and change in a big way."
Basahi, a village of 2,500 people, offers testament to the power of floods. On the evening of 2 August, two days after this year’s monsoon rains ended, the swollen Budhigandak river breached an enforced embankment and sent water roaring into the village.
Ram Kumar Mahto remembers the flood as a series of waves—first waist-deep, then, seconds later, to his chest.
When the first wave hit, he helped his wife and one daughter to safety on a nearby hill. But within minutes, the torrent of muddy water was too deep to cross, and when his mother tried to help Mahto’s second daughter reach the hill, the water pulled the girl away and she drowned, one of 22 villagers killed that night.
Yet, in Basahi few people blame global warming for their plight. Instead, they focus on things easier to understand: The government must fix the embankment before the monsoon rains begin next year, they say.
By the ruin of a former government office, villagers have built a shrine to Vishnu—god they believe offers protection.
On a recent evening, Mahto stood in front of the tiny structure and muttered a quick prayer. “Maybe you can pray for us, too,” he said.
©2007/Cox News Service