Indian farmers had been praying for rain after the weakest monsoon season in 40 years had left their crops stricken by drought. But when the rains finally came, forceful and incessant at six times their normal levels, they left behind the worst floods southern India had seen in more than a century.
Weather officials blamed the heavy rains in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh on a low-pressure system over the Bay of Bengal. So far, over 250 people have died in flooding made worse when officials were forced to open dams for fear they might burst. Some 1,500 relief camps have been set up for the estimated 2.5 million people who were displaced as the raging water destroyed entire villages, washing away roads, bridges, crops and livestock.
Although flooding has recently become commonplace in India in 2008, over 3 million people were displaced when the Kosi river in Bihar burst its banks but this year's deluge came as a shock because if followed a protracted drought, and a monsoon season branded a dud by the authorities. To experts who've tracked the effects of climate change, however, the flooding came as no surprise. In its fourth assessment report in 2007, the Inter- Government Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that more extreme droughts, floods, and storms, would become commonplace in the future, and that these intense weather conditions would follow in close succession to each other, often in the same areas.
The volatile weather patterns predicted by the IPCC are already beginning to show in India. The Doni river, a 93-mile stretch of water in north Karnataka has come to be known as "the Yellow River of Bijapur," after China's Hwang Ho. While the Chinese river is infamous for its sudden changes in course, the Indian version, whose water many consider no longer fit for human consumption, is gaining notoriety for its unpredictable nature flash floods one day, barely a trickle the next. "We need to find a way of storing the excess water and using it through the rest of the year," says A.K. Bajaj, Chairman of India's Central Water Commission.
The IPCC's predictions are grim for a country that still hasn't figured out an effective strategy for water management. In the northwest alone, the water table is falling by about 1.6 inches per year, according to the GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) mission. At least half of India's precipitation comes from the annual monsoon rains, and as they become increasingly diminished and unpredictable, the country faces an imminent threat of extreme water shortages. Changing rainfall patterns aren't the only climate- change effect threatening India's water supply: Himalayan glaciers the source for the many Indian rivers such as the Ganges are melting at a rapid rate as a result of warmer temperatures.
Meager monsoons mean meager crops, and meager income, for Indian farmers. This year alone, the loss to crop yields and property in the two states has totaled almost $7 million. Dr. William Cline, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development (CGD) and the Peterson Institute for International Economics says that of all the potential damage that could occur from climate change, damage to agriculture is likely to be the most devastating. "In the southern parts of India, damage will be substantial and similar to that in other countries also located close to the equator," he says. "In these locations, where temperatures are already at high levels, an increase in temperature will surpass crop tolerance levels."
Already, food shortages have become a major concern for the government, as the retail prices of vegetables shoot up. Damage to the onion crop in the recent floods, for example, saw the vegetable's price double within days.
Even without factoring in climate change, India's got a plate full of problems to deal with. Officials say ineffective management, bureaucracy and disaster planning have all contributed to the worsening of an already bad situation.