Thursday, June 20, 2013

Drought and Cloudbursts, Manmade Monsoon Fury

The past week, has been quite a dramatic one - if one is a viewer of any of the 24x7 Television News Channels. We have been constantly bombarded with images that one normally saw only on viral YouTube videos prior to this. Two and Three storied buildings just collapsing like a pack of cards, cars floating furiously away along in the current, dashing into other cars, bludgeoning buildings and bridges along the way, and dramatic pictures of mudslides having decimated holy towns on the banks of the Ganga, after they having stood strong for over a hundred years.

Officialdom is as usual, wringing its hands and begging us to appreciate the fact this is a natural calamity of gigantic proportions, and hence their sorry and uncoordinated rescue attempts need to be seen as brave and heroic by all patriotic Indians. Only the Armed Forces seem to be doing anything credible or worth appreciation in the search and rescue efforts. On the other hand, News reporters have already alleged that this is a 'manmade disaster' and have started pointing out that most of the buildings that were damaged, were illegal or permitted to be built on the river banks in contravention of Environment Ministry norms, and ignoring even the basics of engineering design. Focusing on the illegal structures alone seems to indicate that the reporters too are willing to accept the view that the cloudbursts are indeed natural disasters, and only the consequences thereof were manmade. It is depressing to observe that no one is studying this from a continental perspective, as I sincerely believe that this problem is entirely manmade, including the cloudbursts and feel that nature is wrecking her revenge on us for having raped and pillaged her incessantly for the past 40 odd years. What follows is my perspective as to the causes of the sudden cloud bursts and consequently, the still unknown number of lives lost and immense loss to property.

I’m sure everyone who was a child of the ‘70’s and the ‘80’s will remember the Weather Reports on the Doordarshan channel, in which, the progress of the monsoon used to be tracked from the 1st of June onwards, by showing a Monsoon Front Line moving in slowly over the sub-continent until it was shown to cover the entire Indian landmass by the first week of July or thereabouts, when it finally became a spent force while battling the might of the Himalayas. One could see the front moving faster over the sea due to the absence of obstruction, and lagging over the land by a few days. The terms used the news readers are still fresh in my mind “The Monsoon front has progressed to cover Lakshadweep and Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Costal Kerala, South Interior Karnataka, North Interior Karnataka, Rayalseema and the Konkan regions. It is expected to further progress over the Deccan Plateau, Goa and Coastal Orissa in the next two days. The Monsoon is also expected to reach Delhi and Rajasthan which are currently reeling under heat-wave conditions, by the 30th of June”, or something to that effect.  Thus, an entire month of rains starting from the 1st of June had to first drench the rest of India before it could even reach the foothills of the Himalayas. This time, it took just about 10 days, and like it has done over the past few years, it has entirely skipped Karnataka and Maharashtra, and reached Delhi and the foothills. Why could this be happening?

In a similar vein, I am also quite irritated whenever a discussion on climate takes place on TV for instance, where residents of Bangalore mention that they never saw temperatures in the high 30’s back when they were kids, and the ‘Experts’ will be quick to point out that in some obscure date in May of 1937 or 1928 or whatever, Bangalore had recorded a temperature of 38.7 Deg. C, and hence there was no truth in the alarmist theories of Global Warming. The so called experts are also quick to point out that the 'Average Temperature of Bangalore has remained more or less constant over the past 100 years'. This needs to be debunked in the strongest possible terms, as I have personally seen the change in the temperatures in Bangalore, and never before was it as hot as it is in summer or as cold as it is in winter now. Thus, it seems that nature has a way of ensuring that the average is maintained – warmer summers are compensated by colder winters and thus, when the average temperature is mapped for the entire year, it will seemingly remain same as the average recorded in the ‘70’s. What this average hides is the earlier maximum – minimum range and what change that has undergone over the past 40 years. Similarly, showing us a record of some extreme temperature when our Grandparents were kids in Bangalore misses the fact that back then, such high temperatures were an absolute rarity, and may have appeared on a couple of days due to some global phenomenon like the El Nino effect, while these days, we see Bangalore suffering temperatures of mid-to-high 30’s for over 45 days in April and May, which was unheard of back then. For a city that needed no ceiling fans when we were kids, this is tragic. Nowadays, an Air Conditioner is the ubiquitous adornment for most bedrooms, adding to the environmental impact and climate change, making them more and more inevitable each season.

So, getting back to why the monsoon traversed the sub-continent so rapidly, I think it basically boils down to this – Deforestation. The monsoon front used to traverse very slowly over the peninsula landmass due to the very extensive forest and tree cover over the Malnad region of Karnataka, and the greenery of the North Karnataka and South West Andhra regions. This green cover not only slowed down the movement of the front, but also divested of it a major portion of the water content in the monsoon clouds by forcing copious yet gentle precipitation for weeks. This helped to not only slow down the movement of the front, but also resulted in controlling the amount of precipitation they retained when the winds finally hit the Himalayas, as the mountains seemingly possess the ability to extract every last drop from the clouds. Now, with the forest cover in Karnataka reducing each year, and the whole of Hyderabad Karnataka and Andhra a veritable gaping wound due to the open cast mining rampant there, means that the clouds are able to just pass over the entire landmass virtually unchallenged, and hence arrive still swollen with rain at the foothills of the Himalayas. This leads to cloudbursts, simple. Thus, this extreme weather phenomenon has been caused in part due to the greed of man, and of course, corruption. Greased palms have never possessed the ability to protect our forests, and much like the rain bearing clouds, they slip through the rules, and lay bare larger and larger swathes of forest land.

Touching upon the aspect of how the Himalayan region has been managed, and why the raging rivers have managed to wreck so much havoc, one only needs to look at the flood waters to understand that even in the Himalayas, the greed of man and the lucre of money has apparently laid bare the timeless hills. The water is a deep chocolate brown due to the millions of tons of precious topsoil that has been washed off the hills due to the absence of a tree root network that once bound it together. Further, it must be understood that this is pretty much a one-way street - as water that is mixed with soil and moving at a fast rate becomes virtually an unstoppable force, as the density of the mixture rises, so does its destructive power, eroding away more and more soil to feed the frenzy. Add to this a million trees, a few hundred thousand boulders, several houses and an assortment of cars to the mixture, it will be no different than a weapon of mass destruction, and nothing will stand in its way, especially not the shoddily constructed illegal guesthouses and cheap hotels that sully the banks of the Ganga all along its course.

I do hope that the Experts will wake up and instead of just rationalizing the problem, do something about it. We need to revert Karnataka to the earlier forest cover, ensure that the bald wounds inflicted by the iron ore mining are all greened over, and the forest cover of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh are similarly improved to form an effective monsoon barrier or sponge, that traps the rain in a gentle and sustained manner. In the hills themselves, the pressure of human settlement has to be eased and extensive reforestation taken up to prevent topsoil runoff. All along the banks of the rivers, a respectful buffer zone or Ecological Zone needs to be created and the course of the rivers and their flood plains kept unpopulated. Finally, all buildings on the hills have to be restricted to a single level only, so that the pressure on the inclined soil plane is minimized. The officials tasked with the maintenance of ecologically sensitive zones need to faithfully perform their duty and preserve our nation and its precious ecosystem for our children.

Lastly, India as a nation – every single man, woman and child will have to abhor corruption. As long as we are willing to pay a bribe as speed money for our own selfish reasons, the officials will see no reason to reform themselves. Ultimately, it seems that any disaster, natural or manmade can be connected tenuously or otherwise to acts of corruption. This has got to stop!


  1. Hi,
    The Interesting fact is with so much of technology and advanced scientific research on material and its stability - almost all the newly or recently constructed buildings are collapsed around that area - but look at the Kedarnath Temple is standing tall which was built so many years back without any help of technology. No doubt if corruption is out of our country any disaster can be prevented.

    1. Dear Ganesh,

      I couldn't agree with you more. The recently built constructions are largely illegal, built unscientifically and almost always in a shoddy fashion. The fact that they were all in the rivers' flood plain certainly did not help.

  2. I'm thrilled to mention here that my most favorite environmental blogger Sunita Narain who writes for the Center for Science and Environment, wrote about my blog and about my attempt to bring it to her notice. Thank You, Ms. Narain!
    Just about a week after I had written about the manmade disaster in the Himalayas, I was very pleased to read a blog by Ms. Narain expressing almost a similar view. Her blog can be accessed here at ( and we had a short email exchange, which is reproduced here:

    From: "sharma hemanth"
    Sent: Thursday, July 4, 2013 1:13:27 PM
    Subject: Your Blog - Himalayan blunders

    Dear Ms. Narain,

    Tried to leave a comment at the end of the article but due to some technical issues the facility was not available.

    I read your article with much interest and must say that I agree wholeheartedly with your views on the disaster being totally manmade. In addition to the environmental degradation and unchecked building activity and unrestricted tourist influx, I draw your attention to the fact that the monsoon was supposed to reach the Himalayas in July but got there 3 weeks earlier. My inference is that the entire subcontinent is suffering from extensive deforestation due to which the traditional sponge-like barrier that this green cover provided for checking the progress of the monsoon seems to have been lost.

    Thus, instead of looking at this problem as a local one and arriving at solutions for it on that basis, we may be better served if the scope of the intervention is more broad-based and the solution attempts to address the ecological repair of the entire subcontinent and not just the Himalayas and the Gangetic drainage zone. I do hope you will use your considerable clout to get the Government thinking along these lines.

    Please see an article I had written about this issue

    Hemanth Sharma

    Sent from my iPhone

    ----- Original Message -----

    On 05-Jul-2013, at 13:09, Sunita Narain wrote:

    July 4, 2013

    Mr Hemanth Sharma

    Dear Mr Sharma,

    Thank you very much for your email of July 4, 2013 and for your words of encouragement and support. I am delighted to hear that you found my article interesting. I also completely agree with your views. I will also read your blog with great interest. Thank you again for writing to us.

    With my very best wishes,

    Yours cordially,

    Sunita Narain

    ----- Original Message -----

    Dear Ms. Narain,

    Thank you for your quick revert and kind words.

    I do hope that we can all soon work on intense reforestation efforts for the subcontinent as a whole, as it seems that loss of green cover in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh has contributed in equal measure to the recent disaster, and not just the destruction of the hills themselves.

    Do keep up the good work.

    Thanks & regards,
    Hemanth Sharma

    Sent from my iPhone