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5 Jul 2022 2:48
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  •   Home > News > International

    South Asia's record-breaking weather set to worsen as climate change brings more dangerous monsoon seasons

    South Asia is home to millions of the most vulnerable people in the world and this year has become the embodiment of climate extremes and weather records. Scientists fear it will only get worse due to climate change.


    Shatadeepa is familiar with the heavy rain that heralds monsoon season in the Indian town of Silchar, but this year she has witnessed flooding like no other.

    Last month, as one side of India's north faced a heatwave with the hottest temperatures on record, Shatadeepa's hometown in the east was dealing with unseasonable and devastating flooding.

    Now Silchar has been inundated again, this time with what has been described as the worst flooding in a century.

    "I live with my parents, we stay in a four-storey building on the first floor and now our apartment is totally underwater, up to our necks, and that water is rising," she says.

    South Asia, a region with millions of the most vulnerable people in the world, has this year become the embodiment of climate extremes and weather records.

    In Pakistan's Turbat, people faced temperatures of almost 50 degrees Celsius during a May heatwave, previously unseen at that time of year.

    A few weeks later, melting Himalayan glaciers caused flooding and a bridge to collapse.

    On Friday, the Indian town of Mawsynram, which is known as the wettest place on Earth and is near Shatadeepa's home, set a new June rainfall record of more than 990 millimetres.

    "Record-breaking" is a term that's lost all meaning in South Asia this year with constant, unprecedented weather events debilitating people living through them.

    Higher temperatures and heavy rainfall are common during the region's annual monsoon season from June until September.

    But research has shown they are getting more erratic and unpredictable because of climate change.

    Millions displaced as towns left without power

    In neighbouring Bangladesh, a quarter of people have now been displaced because of flooding.

    Swollen rivers have cut them off from essential supplies and communication lines.

    Tarek Rubbani is in one of the worst-affected towns in Sylhet, in northern Bangladesh.

    It has had no electricity for five days after the town was submerged.

    Mr Rubbani spoke to the ABC using the last of his phone battery.

    "The whole place is underwater, many people are dying, and a police officer died a few hours ago," he says.

    "With extreme levels of flooding, it's raining heavily, there's no electricity or wi-fi. People have no food."

    In the first wave of floods, millions of people were displaced. But before they had time to rebuild their lives, record-breaking flooding caused further damage, triggering a humanitarian crisis.

    People can't access food or clean drinking water, so the military is handing out supplies to residents who have sought safety on the upper floors of buildings or in schools turned into shelters.

    This is how extreme weather affects day-to-day people and it's something Mr Rubbani says his parents and grandparents never experienced.

    "The previous generations didn't face disasters like this," he says.

    "This area often faces flooding but this time it's extreme, something the older generations didn't ever face in their lives."

    Short bursts of heavy rain trigger deadly floods

    The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found India will be one of the countries most vulnerable to weather events caused by warming temperatures.

    It has also said 17 per cent of people in Bangladesh will have to be relocated in the next decade because of rising temperatures.

    While South Asia has an annual monsoon season, which can often cause flooding, research shows these periods are getting wetter and more dangerous because of climate change.

    "The flood intensity has been increasing year on year and that has been quite a big issue for communities who live along the river both in India and Bangladesh," Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, a water researcher from India's Institute of Technology, told the ABC.

    "The catastrophic nature of the floods is basically assessed by how communities are being able to adapt to it.

    "So earlier, the floods used to happen in one cycle but now the floods are happening in five different cycles within a given year."

    Mr Rahman says the millions of people affected by these worsening floods are struggling to adapt to them.

    "Communities were being able to adapt to floods easily but now it is becoming increasingly difficult for them in the face of climate change events, as well as in combination with whatever infrastructure that we have laid on the ground," he says.

    "That combination is actually creating quite a lot of disaster."

    But it's not just climate change that's contributing to the chaos of these extreme weather events.

    Researchers say towns and cities haven't been built to withstand the changing environment.

    More than 160 million people live in Bangladesh, for example, in low-lying areas prone to floods and cyclones.

    Meanwhile, experts suggest many cities also likely to face sweltering temperatures in South Asia are full of tall buildings and flats that absorb and retain heat.

    "It is the combination of climate change plus the infrastructural interventions that we have done without properly scientifically studying the flood plain," Mr Rahman says.

    "That is actually creating the problem in [these] popular population-dense areas of north-east India and Bangladesh."

    It has also made it difficult for emergency services to get aid to people in these flood zones.

    "Is there a way to get drinking water to our area? Each and every one of us must have water for drinking, but I think everyone is very helpless," Shatadeepa says.

    "The government is trying to help their cars and fix the damage, everyone's cars are getting submerged underwater.

    "People will have big financial losses after the flood winds up."

    Monsoons are only going to get worse

    South Asian researchers are now calling for developed countries like Australia to help with climate forecasting.

    "Australia, which has advancements in flood forecasting and other integrated water resource management, ideas and knowledge, can definitely help South Asia," Mr Rahman says.

    "That can actually help communities to better plan their water infrastructures so that these do not lead to catastrophic events."

    As politicians continue to argue about how to deal with what they say are the future effects of climate change, people in South Asia are facing it in the here and now.

    It's not just leading to deaths and humanitarian problems, but also economic damage in some of the poorest parts of the world.

    Researchers say global unity is the only way to fix this global problem.

    "Include India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and China together and have a kind of a multilateral understanding on the ecology of this region," Mr Rahman says.

    "Because interventions on a national scale will only accelerate these kinds of disasters in the future.

    "We have to get this conversation going on a regional basis."

    In the meantime, people like Shatadeepa say all they can do is hope things will get better.

    "I wish to God almighty this situation will clear soon. So I am praying," she says.

    © 2022 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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