India: Unnatural Disaster

Unnatural Disaster
Record floods and drought are devastating South Asia, but man is as much to blame as nature 

(publishedby: TimeAsia Magazine, 09 August 2004)


Monday, Aug. 02, 2004
Lifting off in his Russian MI-17 transporter helicopter from Patna in northeast India and banking low and east along the Ganges River delta, Captain S.K. Singh gets the clearest possible view of South Asia’s water crisis. In front of him is a split-screen of disaster. On the left are catastrophic floods, the worst in a century according to relief workers, which have killed 1,500 people, disrupted the lives of 63 million and released a disease epidemic. A full two-thirds of Bangladesh is now under water, while 1.2 million homes have been washed away region-wide. Out the right side of the cockpit sprawls another equally devastated landscape, this time a drought that has spawned starvation and suicide by thousands of desperate farmers, and even threatens to stunt India’s surging economy. At this moment last Wednesday, Singh has orders to fly to the floods where, skirting the wrecks of two other crashed relief choppers, he drops packets of rice, sugar cane, matches and candles to marooned villagers who are crowding onto treetops and roofs. But Singh knows the mission could switch to the dry side at anytime. “Hundreds of thousands of people are starving,” sighs the 35-year-old pilot. “Whatever we do, it’s chicken feed.”

Droughts and floods account for more than half of the world’s total deaths from disasters, according to the United Nations. But unlike many other catastrophes, most water crises are man-made. Nature may bring the occasional monsoon downpour or dry spell, but environmentalists agree that global warming, dams, deforestation and slash-and-burn farming exponentially exacerbate these seasonal weather patterns. Inept and corrupt water management also contributes to the problem, allowing plentiful water to run off to the seas or leaving it to lie in floods on the land, while a few hours away, crops wither in parched fields. South Asia’s water woes are hardly unique. China faces simultaneous floods and droughts every year, as devastating surges down the Yangtze River cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, while deforestation turns farmland north of Beijing into desert. In Uzbekistan, the Soviets created one of the world’s worst environmental disasters by using the Amu Darya to irrigate massive cotton farms, shrinking the Aral Sea by half and, as pesticide run-off evaporated and poisoned the air, creating a cancer cluster the size of England. Meanwhile, China’s plans to build a series of dams across the upper reaches of the Mekong are expected to halve water flow on the river that provides employment, transport and income to 65 million Southeast Asians. These kinds of water controversies could spark ugly international disputes. Security experts have warned of flash points along the Nile, the Jordan, the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Mekong. As long ago as 1995, the then World Bank vice president Ismael Serageldin predicted: “If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought overwater.”

In a few places is the crisis more apparent than South Asia. Here, every June to September, bulging rain clouds drawn in by the back draft of India’s scorching summer roll in off the Bay of Bengal, prick themselves on the Himalayas and disgorge the monsoon. This year, the rains have been unusually concentrated. In Nepal, a nation that has felled 60% of its forests in just 40 years, the waters gushed from the mountains in flash floods. By the end of last week, 255 km of roads, 76 bridges, 61 schools and 220 people had been swept away. The water then surged into the northeastern Indian states of Bihar and Assam. Poorly maintained embankments burst, and irrigation channels and dams that had been allowed to choke with silt trapped the flood on the land.

By Friday in Assam, 211 people were dead and 1.3 million were forced to shelter in 1,500 relief camps. In Bihar, 520 people were killed, half a million houses were destroyed and 5.2 million hectares flooded. Farmer Kapelshwar Bhagat, 30, saw 25 neighbors drown in a day, including his 62-year-old uncle who slipped into the torrent after trying to save his own son. Now, Bhagat’s one-year-old daughter has cholera and he has only enough wheat to last his family two months. “We’re told the floods won’t drain from our fields until winter,” he says.

Downstream in Bangladesh, a Wiscon-sin-size delta of 250 rivers, half of the capital, Dhaka, is under water. Thirty million people are in distress nationwide; nearly 500 people and 55,000 cows have died from drowning, disease or bites from snakes crowding the dry land. In her hut in eastern Dhaka, 20-year-old garment factory worker Rahela Khatoon chained her two-year-old son to a bamboo pole to save him from a black tide of sewage, pollution and the occasional swollen body floating past her front door. “It’s like living on the edge of a boat,” she says. “The snakes swim under the bed.” With August historically bringing the heaviest rain, the U.N. is warning of worse to come. As corpses rot and contaminate the floodwater, doctors expect the death toll to skyrocket, with waterborne diseases such as cholera (already contracted by 15,000 Nepalis) and dysentery (currently infecting 5,000 people a day in Bangladesh) turning into full-blown epidemics. “This is just the beginning,” says Dr. Sudhir Kumar as he distributes medicine and water-purifying tablets to refugees outside the Bihar city of Darbhanga, which has all but disappeared beneath a vast new lake.

The devastating floods, though, are only half the story. To the south and west, another disaster is taking shape, albeit at a slower pace. Despite seven years of poor rain, state governments have yet to produce coherent plans for rain harvesting or water storage, and existing reservoirs, channels and pipes are notoriously badly maintained. In 11 states across central and western India—including the “bread basket” states of Punjab and Haryana—this year’s rainfall is 20-59% below normal. In Vidarbha region in central India, only 10% of the land is irrigated, despite continual pleas from farmers for the local government to provide a more comprehensive watering system. Farmers’ federation leader Vijay Jawandhia estimates that up to 40% of Vidarbha’s soybean and cotton crop is already lost. With 22% of India’s GDP coming from agriculture, chief economist Subir Gokarn at ratings agency Crisil predicts that crop losses will cut the country’s growth rate from 8.2% last year to no more than 5.75% this year. But given that three-quarters of India’s 1 billion citizens live off the land, the human cost of the drought is nearly incalculable. Vidarbha villager Satish Bhuyar was counting on a bumper crop of soybean and cotton to help pay off loans for his sister’s wedding. The monsoon arrived in early June, Bhuyar sowed his fields, but the rains stopped and his saplings died. The rains came again in late June, Bhuyar planted once more, but again the crop withered. In desperation, Bhuyar sowed a third time. The rains didn’t return at all. On July 13, Bhuyar walked out into his barren fields and swallowed pesticide. It’s a familiar story. Thousands of Indian farmers have committed suicide the same way since the rains began failing seven years ago—2,000 in and around the small southern town of Anantapur alone—and hundreds more in the past two months. Vidarbha farmer Prabhakar Khatale, 36, planted his soybean seeds on June 10 and killed himself on July 3. “If the rains had come on time,” says his father Shyamrao simply, “we wouldn’t have lost him.”

The dichotomy of farmers with too much and too little water just hours apart from one another produced a bizarre schizophrenia in India’s government last week. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh toured the floods, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram was asking businessmen to pray for rain and warning that drought might cut economic growth to below 5%. And when Singh arrived in Bihar, the state asked in the same breath for $2.4 billion for flood alleviation and $890 million for drought. “It’s crazy,” says Bihar air-relief coordinator Gautam Goswami. “Absolutely crazy.”

No one can control where or when the rains come, of course. But India has the power to alleviate its water woes, according to Sumita Dasgupta of the independent, New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment. “India has a lot of water,” she says. “Even in drought years, we get enough. We just don’t manage it.” P. Chengala Reddy of the Indian Farmers and Industry Alliance lobby group goes further: “There is absolutely nil long-term planning.” What management there is, says Dasgupta, ignores traditional methods of water storage in dry areas—such as the now disused network of channels and tanks built by the Mughals back in the 16th century to irrigate much of central India—and focuses instead on dams and embankments for flood prevention. Yet because India’s flood-control infrastructure is poorly maintained, dams and embankments often block rather than facilitate drainage, says Dasgupta, while their huge construction costs might attract corruption. Says Pushpender Kumar Singh, regional manager for flood-relief group Action Aid: “[Floods] used to go by in two or three days. Now, they’ll be here until March. So no crops. And more disease.” As a result, he predicts 3,000 drowning and disease deaths just in Bihar, which would make it the deadliest flood on record there.

Despite the dire situation, South Asia’s leaders seem more focused on doling out blame than tackling the problem. Indian politicians like to accuse Nepal of releasing too much water. Nepal says India clogs drainage with its badly managed flood-control system, and Bangladesh’s leaders blame both countries for inundating them. All three nations see more antiflood infrastructure as the solution. Bihar’s water resources minister Jagdanand Singh backs an extraordinary project popular across the political spectrum to build thousands of kilometers of canals that would link every river in the country. In theory, the network would allow engineers, with the help of gravity, to divert water from wet areas to dry as easily as power companies manage the electrical grid. Environmentalists are aghast. In addition to the phenomenal engineering and maintenance costs, as well as the corruption that such a megaproject might attract, they say the plan—which essentially throws more clogging dams and embankments at the problem—is simply bad science.

Just north of the border with Bangladesh, the hillside village of Cherrapunji offers an even better insight into India’s water paradox than the view from Captain Singh’s cockpit. The women of Cherrapunji are small and muscular, their cheeks lined with the same parched wrinkles as the wild land of their birth. Their sinewy bodies tell the story of how, six months of the year, they lift empty oilcans on their backs and trek a kilometer to a stream to fetch water. “Still, there isn’t enough,” says widow Dorjon Nongrun. Once called the “Scotland of the East” by the British, Cherrapunji lost its trees and topsoil after decades of slash-and-burn agriculture. Today, fruit and vegetables are trucked in from hours away. It’s a scene repeated across many arid parts of India and would be unremarkable but for one fact: with an average 12 m of rain a year, Cherrapunji is the wettest inhabited place on earth.

Despite the plentiful rain, the local authority says it doesn’t have the money to build water traps to stop the deluge from washing into Bangladesh. A rain-harvesting scheme died after residents complained that maintaining the water tanks was too expensive. But the larger truth in a country where droughts and floods are annual events is that only catastrophe prompts action. That may come to Cherrapunji one day, as it did to others this year. But for right now, it never rains in Cherrapunji. And then it pours.

—With reporting by Aravind Adiga/Vidarbha region, Faizan Ahmad/Patna, Yubaraj Ghimire/Kathmandu, Farid Hossain/Dhaka, Sara Rajan/Cherrapunji and P.P. Singh/Guwahati

From the Aug. 09, 2004 issue of TIME Asia Magazine


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