Writ in water
India’s monsoon season officially ended on Monday. But a telling image of the vagaries of climate was captured by a photograph taken that day. The visual showed Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi and his family, bag and baggage, after they were rescued from their flooded home in Patna by disaster relief personnel. Bihar is amongst the worst hit by the late monsoon rains that have inundated several parts of the country. Nearly 30 people have lost their lives in the state. In neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, floods have claimed more than 100 people. The death toll in Maharashtra is more than 20. A common feature of the flood stories in all three states is that of civic authorities caught unawares.
Normally, the monsoon begins to retreat in the first week of September. But this year, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) reckons that the monsoons will not withdraw from the northwest of the country before October 7. As a result, the rainy season is likely to linger till October 15. This, according to the IMD, is the most extended monsoon season in more than 50 years — in 1961, the monsoons withdrew on October 1. The recent floods are not the only ones to have hit the country in the current monsoon season. In fact, the season began with Bihar being deluged by a flash flood. Maharashtra, too, had an earlier spell of floods this year. Karnataka, Gujarat, Assam and Kerala have also suffered the ravages of incessant rainfall. Such extreme precipitation events interspersed by dry spells, several studies reckon, could become the new normal for the country.
Dealing with the changing contours of the monsoons would, however, require coordination between weather authorities and state governments. For instance, authorities in Bihar were not prepared in spite of the red alert issued by the met department. Moreover, the drainage systems of most Indian cities are ill-equipped to withstand this change in precipitation patterns. Patna, for example, had more than 1,000 water bodies, which would absorb excess rainfall, 30 years ago. Their number has gone down to less than 500. Pune’s canals and streams are similarly encroached upon. Disregard for hydrology has, in fact, been the Achilles heel of planning in most Indian cities. Reviving drainage systems might take time. But civic authorities could make a beginning by unclogging stormwater drains, which often become garbage dumps in several Indian cities. Urban planners should read the warning in the floods this year.