Climate change and bad policies have pushed India into a recurring cycle of floods and droughts which is threatening the country’s economic stability and environmental wellbeing. The current floods have so far killed around 250 people and displaced at least a million across four states in southern and western India.

About half of the deaths have taken place in the southern state of Kerala, which was also devastated last year by deadly floods, the worst in 100 years in the state. India has deployed the army, navy and air force along with the National Disaster Response Force for search, rescue and relief operations in the affected states.

India appears to have not been prepared for this deluge even though devastating floods have returned almost every year in recent memory. On average, 7.5 million hectares of land in the country are hit by flooding every year, with 1,560 lives lost and damage to crops, homes and public utilities estimated at 18 billion rupees, according to a 2017 report on the Flood Control Management Program by a working group from India’s Comptroller and Auditor General.

The floods have arrived right after drought wreaked havoc on the country’s economy – particularly its agriculture, on which half of India’s population is dependent. The four worst-affected states – Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat – were facing drought just a few months ago. This cycle of extremes has a long-term effect on the environment. The sudden bursts of rain causing floods are less effective in replenishing water supplies, especially groundwater, and may again be followed by drought conditions.

Twenty-one cities in India will run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting around 100 million people, says a report by NITI Ayog, a policy think tank of the Indian government.  The report also says that 40% of India’s population will have no access to drinking water by 2030. Water resources in Chennai city in Tamil Nadu have already run dry, and the city has been placed on the world map as “extremely water-stressed.”

“Groundwater has long been a fallback mechanism in times of drought in India, which is the world’s largest user of groundwater,” said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. Groundwater levels have severely depleted across India resulting in droughts and water scarcity but the problem is not given importance by policymakers, he said.

Experts say ill-planned development, degradation of river catchment areas and heavy, erratic rainfall have been major reasons behind floods in India. They underline the immediate need to address the anthropogenic causes behind the catastrophe.

The drought-flood cycle has also worsened the ongoing agrarian crisis in the country, which is one of the world’s major producers of grains and pulses. Data from the agricultural ministry show at least six hundred thousand hectares of crops have been damaged due to floods across 13 states. Moreover, a whopping four million hectares of farmland have not been cultivated for winter crops.

Around 150,000 hectares of cropping area alone has been lost in the sugar-belt of Maharashtra, a key contributor to India’s being the world’s second-biggest sugar producer. Maharashtra’s sugarcane area has gone down by about 30% and Karnataka’s 16% for 2019-20, mainly due to poor rainfall since September last year.

Human-induced factors

“The effects of natural disasters are getting aggravated due to human interference,” said Raj Bhagat Palanichamy, an earth observation expert with World Resources Institute. “For better protection against floods, the government needs to begin a massive science and technology campaign to identify, demarcate, and protect flood plains. Ecologically sensitive areas need to be protected and the natural infrastructure would act as buffers to hold and reduce flood effects,” he said.

But the contributing factors for flooding, especially in urban areas, have remained unchanged over the years. Unplanned development has left large areas susceptible to flash floods and landslides. For instance, the international airport in Kerala’s Kochi city was flooded as water levels rose in the Periyar river and a canal adjacent to the airport. The airport was built over vast paddy fields which used to act as feeders to the river.

Kodagu, also known as Coorg, a coffee-growing district situated on the western ghats in Karnataka, has been ravaged by this month’s rains. The flood and landslides were caused by the degradation of the catchment area of the Cauvery river, illegal sand mining and coffee plantations. Unlike traditional trees, coffee plants don’t have deep root and hence, cannot hold soil or water.

Moreover, governments fail to take cognizance of research and reports giving early warnings. In February last year,  a study report released by a team of researchers from the Indian Institute of Science in Karnataka said that development initiatives, including hydroelectric projects, coastal reservoirs and commercial plantations were threatening the ecologically sensitive regions in the Netravathi river basin in the state. The river’s catchment area runs through districts which are currently flooded.

Warnings were given as far back as in 2011 when the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, chaired by the internationally renowned ecologist Madhav Gadgil, submitted a crucial report to the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests. The report warned that an ill-thought-out focus on development was impacting the sustainability of the Western Ghats hill chain, one of the world’s most biodiverse areas. The hills run along the west coast of India.

The report also urged a number of states, including Karnataka and Kerala, to adopt an approach of thoughtful conservation, limiting activities such as quarrying, dams and construction near protected forests in hilly areas. However, the report was rejected by the ministry as well as by both states.

The report was rejected by seven state governments in total because it restricted development in much of the Western Ghats region and declared about 129,000 hectares eco-sensitive. The ministry then constituted the Kasturirangan committee in 2012 to find a balance between development and environmental protection.

Gujarat’s Kutch region in this western state was assessed to be going through the worst drought in 30 years and it’s currently facing floods.

Thakkar pointed out that “In just two days, around 80% rainfall deficit of Kutch was met resulting in floods.” He explained: “It flooded because the capacity of Narmada river’s catchment area to hold rainwater and recharge groundwater is reducing very fast.”

“The government is also not recognizing the need to recharge groundwater which can only be done at the aquifer level. That’s why most of the rainwater has accumulated in the river and the reservoirs, causing floods. Water cannot be only stored in large dams. The focus is totally wrong,” he said.

“Maharashtra, though it has the largest number of dams in the country, is facing unprecedented droughts in many parts,” said Shripad Dharmadhikary, researcher and coordinator of the Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, which studies water and energy policies.

According to Dharmadhikary, the floods are largely caused by mismanagement of the operation of dams. “The dams have a certain capacity and this time most of them are almost full at 90% or above due to heavy rainfall. That is not how it should be. There is a serious gap in coordination between dam operations in different states. And in any case, the designs of these dams aggravate the floods,” he said.

Rainfall pattern

The southwest monsoon, the highest source of rainfall in India, has become erratic and increased flooding.

Soon after last August’s floods in Kerala, the water flow in rivers and streams dramatically decreased due to a deficit in rainfall. By March this year, water scarcity had risen in the southern state creating a drought condition. The southwest monsoon in Kerala was delayed by a month. But just two weeks of heavy rains in August have caused massive inundation of large areas and landslides. In Karnataka too, after a rainfall deficit in June, the August 3 to 7 period was among the wettest in a century.

“There are high rainfall events with large periods of deficit in between,” said Thakkar. “This leads to more floods. It is largely because of climate change. Even microclimate is changing because of deforestation and other reasons. We have to accept that this is how rainfall is going to happen and put systems in place for that.”

India received 45% more rainfall than the 50-year average in the week to August 14, data from the weather office showed. Environmentalists say the government must buckle up because the extreme has now become the new normal.