Floods Soak India and Canada, But Did Humans Make Things Worse?
This past week, both India and Canada endured massive flooding due to record-breaking rains, causing damage, injuries and even death. While nature certainly brought the storms, many have begun questioning whether human activity made the consequences worse than they could have been.
More than 1,000 people, if not thousands more, perished in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand after torrential rains set off landslides and floods in the Ganges River last week. Whole villages in the Himalayas in India were engulfed in debris and mud after landslides. 440 percent over the usual amount of rain fell in the first few weeks of June, Kavitha Rao writes in the Guardian. The Indian army was deployed and rescued 33,000 people; 19,000 remain stranded.
In Canada, 36 hours of extremely heavy rains last week filled rivers and streams in south Alberta so quickly they flooded Calgary, the center of the country’s oil capital, inundated communities including the Siksika First Nation reserve, and left three dead. Parts of Alberta received six months of rainfall in just two days and some 75,000 residents of Calgary fled as the Bow and Elbow Rivers rose. Most have been allowed back, but those in other communities including Medicine Hat have not yet been able to. Alberta’s officials are predicting that the floods have caused so much damage to property and to the infrastructure — some say totaling $10 billion — that it will take ten years to recover.
Many of Canada’s oil companies are headquartered in Calgary where it could take a month to restore power areas. The heavy rains are very likely the reason that 750 barrels of synthetic oil spilled from a pipeline 43 miles south of Fort McMurray in northern Alberta. Enbridge, Canada’s largest oil company, is shutting two major oil pipelines that serve the country’s oil sands region as a precaution. The floods are also hampering efforts to clean up a spill of more than 5,000 liters from a pipeline operated by PennWest.
Officials in Medicine Hat have said the flood is worse than the 1995 “flood of the century.” “Unprecedented” extreme weather is also being blamed for the heavy rains that led to the floods in India. There is no question that we are living in a wetter world as a result of climate change.
But government have yet to fully acknowledge this and to be prepared for another “record-breaking” flood. As Rao writes, India’s State Disaster Management Authority has “never met, has received no funds, and has framed no plan to cope with disaster, despite a series of deadly landslides over the past few years.”
Rao also raises the issue of development (such as the building of as many as 70 dams on the River Ganga) in the Himalayas, something that politicians have insisted is essential for Uttarakhand’s residents, over and above environmental concerns. Many Hindu shrines are located in the Himalayas, and this year 30 million pilgrims visited them, putting a huge stress on the area’s ecosystem. Thousands of pilgrims have been among those who have been trapped by the floods. One man interviewed by the New York Times had to stay on a bus with his family for three days due to the flooding.
After the floods, some geologists have called for regulations on tourism in the area. This is something that is unlikely to occur says Rao, as “a move to restrict the entry of pilgrims would be immensely unpopular in such a religious country,” and politicians actually “refuse to discuss” the issue. Previous attempts to create an eco-sensitive zone (where construction would be banned) along 135 kilometers of the Ganges River have been unsuccessful.
Similarly, environmentalists in Canada are pointing out that the “successive” Conservative governments have failed to do anything about a “shelved 2006 flood-mitigation report that critics now say may have significantly reduced flooding, the displacement of thousands of people, and potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.”
A minister in India is now “strongly supporting an eco-sensitive zone.” But once again, the response of governments to “record-breaking” natural disasters that are becoming too routine is after the fact. Calgary leaders are insisting that the annual Calgary Stampede will still be held on July 5 “hell or high water” — given recent events, the latter seems more than a little likely.
Photo via Government of Alberta/Flickr