Dozens killed during unusually heavy rains in India and Nepal
By Emily Schmall
Unseasonably heavy rainfall has destroyed crops, washed away bridges and killed dozens of people across India and Nepal in a reminder of the devastation caused by a changing climate.
The death toll continued to rise on Wednesday as landslides and flooding damaged homes and stranded thousands of tourists flocking to vacation spots and pilgrimage sites during Hinduism’s festive season, which coincides with the fall harvest.
“Historically October is the start of post-monsoon,” said R.K. Jenamani, a senior scientist from India’s meteorological department. “But this time what happened was that western disturbances were very, very intense.”
Cyclonic conditions in the Bay of Bengal off India’s east coast sent heavy winds and rainfall across the subcontinent, reaching the Himalayas in Nepal and spreading all the way down to the coastal ravines of India’s southwestern peninsula.
In the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, days of heavy rainfall — in one place, the most since 1897 — killed at least 46 people and left hundreds more stranded in hillside resorts, with flooded lakes swamping roads.
South Asia’s monsoons have always arrived with fury. But the scenes of death and destruction playing out in the region are yet another reminder of the urgency of climate change, experts say. A warming climate will mean more frequent extreme rainfall in many parts of the world, scientists have said.
India and its neighbors have struggled to square development projects intended to lift millions of people out of poverty with the risks of a changing climate.
Highways and bridges have been built in remote districts increasingly prone to landslides and floods. And countries, particularly India, are relying heavily on coal to fuel growth, something that is likely to come under the spotlight at the United Nations’ COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, this month.
Governments in South Asia are expected to push wealthy countries for financial aid to help them shift away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner sources of energy.
That switch — if it happens — could take years, stalling not only international pledges to reduce global carbon emissions, but also projects to mitigate the effects of a less predictable and more dangerous climate.
Meteorologists were not expecting the catastrophic rainfall that has deluged India and Nepal in recent days.
About 100 people were evacuated from a Lemon Tree resort in Nainital, a former British colonial hill station in Uttarakhand. Hotel management staff remained to care for older adults, after rescue workers decided that an evacuation could be too risky for them given the hairpin turns and steep drops on the district’s narrow mountain road.
“The water is receding now, but the vehicles are still stranded,” said Akriti Arora, a company spokesman.
Uttarakhand officials feared the death toll could rise further as the receding waters exposed people trapped under the debris.
Torrential rains also soaked southern India, triggering flash floods and landslides in the state of Kerala.
A couple sailed through the flooded streets of their village in an aluminum cooking pot to get to their wedding.
More than 40 people in Kerala drowned or were killed in the recent landslides and floods, said Neethu V. Thomas, a hazard analyst at Kerala’s disaster management agency.
“All the forces are on the ground,” she said.
Still, the forecast of another bout of heavy rainfall in the days ahead complicated a full assessment. “It’s difficult to get all of the details,” she said.
This week, officials in Kerala opened overflowing dams, the first time state officials had made such a move since catastrophic flooding killed more than 400 people in 2018.
India deployed navy and air force personnel to assist with rescue efforts, and to force people living in the path downstream from the dam to evacuate.
Landslides and floods also struck Nepal this week, with at least 50 people killed in inundated far-flung villages. Hundreds of houses in hilly areas were swept away. Highways were blocked, and a regional airport, its tarmac submerged, was forced to cancel flights.
There, too, the cloudbursts surprised scientists, who had forecast that the Himalayan nation’s period of heavy rains had ended more than a week ago.
Rice paddy that was ready for harvest was damaged in the rain, causing Nepal’s farmers to despair and prompting fears of a food crisis in one of the world’s poorest countries.
“Rainfalls in October were reported in the past, too, but not to this intensity,” said Ajaya Dixit, an expert on climate change vulnerability in Nepal. “Climate change is real, and it is happening.”