Floods and Landslides in Northeast India

Mawsynram received over a metre of rainfall in a single 24-hour window. That’s far more rainfall than Delhi gets in a year, or what some places in Rajasthan receive in 8 years! Zooming out, rainfall in Northeast India has been well over normal.

Daily Rainfall in East & Northeast India from IMD

Couple of possible reasons for this plentiful rain: La Nina conditions prevail over the Eastern Pacific and the Madden Julian Oscillation (a moving band of clouds and rainfall) moving over India in mid-June.

Such rainfall has a high human cost. 110 lives have been lost in Arunachal/Assam/Meghalaya/ Nagaland and Tripura as of 19/06/22 as per the Situation report released by the Ministry of Home Affairs. The puzzling (and tragic) bit for me is Himachal Pradesh: 142 lives have been lost as per the Situation report, but I have been unable to find any news item on this across media/social media.

Source: Flickr/Indiawaterportal

Apart from the loss of life, millions have seen their lives upended in this predictable annual spectacle. Every June, the rains arrive and with the climate heating up, those rains are more intense. If you’re the wettest place in the world, you’re used to the rain, but even for Mawsynram (which vies with neighbouring Sohra for the Wettest Place In the World title), the metre of rainfall it received on 17th June broke previous records. Many of us goggled at the awe-inspiring waterfall in Meghalaya – one offspring of this ferocious rain.

Originally posted on Twitter under @US_Stormwatch and attributed to Weatherman Shubham.

But the other, more tragic children of this rain are landslides and flooding. Especially when the rain falls on the steep slopes of the Himalaya. As a South Indian accustomed to the more modest Western Ghats, I was dumbstruck when I saw the Himalayas for the first time. The mountains rise, almost vertically to the sky, the visible manifestation of two giant landmasses colliding. And the road winds up steep and narrow up and down these mountains. The roads are necessary, but they do destabilize the slopes – because to build a road, the slope needs to be cut into and the trees cleared. And these trees provide the scaffolding to hold the land in place when the torrential rain pounds down upon it. With the trees gone, the land slides down.

Landslides – near and far – Sikkim

The Northeast, especially Meghalaya, is a hotspot for deforestation. As per GFW, Meghalaya alone lost over 45000 ha of forest between 2002-2021. Meghalaya also lost about 200,000 ha of forest in the 1970s, and more still between the late 19th century and the 1960s.

Source: Global Forest Watch, Tree cover loss from 2001 to 2021 (Pink = loss; Dark Pink = more loss)

Such deforestation has consequences. 23 people have died due to landslides as of 19/06/22 in Assam and Meghalaya. Losing forest anywhere is not a great thing. Losing them where the rain falls so furiously and in a heating climate is senseless.

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