The Elements Wrath: Droughts and Floods

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We have all experienced days when it would rain non-stop for hours, even days, causing mayhem as draining systems become unable to cope with the sudden excess of water, causing roads to overflow and become blocked. Life can come to a standstill; but, why?

Not only is it due to poor infrastructure; but, when it rains, water would naturally soak into the soil, not concrete. The urbanization of large areas with buildings and concrete roads has left rainwater with no other option but to go down small drainage holes in the ground, assuming this would be enough. However, this is often hardly enough and water gets trapped, flooding the streets of many cities around the world.

Flooding also occurs when there is a large downpour of rainwater, like what happens during the rainy monsoon season, which leads to a lot of destruction, especially on farmlands, as crops end up drowning and the soil over-saturating with water, potentially leading to a food crisis. During most of the year, the winds blow from land to ocean, which makes the air dry; monsoons occur during the months of the year when the winds blow from ocean to land making the air moist, leading to monsoonal rains.

Among the countries that witness heavy monsoon rainfall and consequential flooding are India and Pakistan. The high elevation of the Tibetan Plateau in the north of India, which is one of the largest and highest plateaus on Earth, increases the probability of the development of a low pressure zone that leads to intense rainfall come monsoon season.

In 2010, Pakistan witnessed the worst flooding in its history as a result of heavy monsoon rains that affected the Indus River basin. Around one-fifth of Pakistan's total land area was engulfed in flood waters, which had a drastic impact, directly affecting about 20 million people, whether by destroying their homes and properties, or their livelihood and the infrastructure of the affected areas. An estimated 2000 people lost their lives in the natural disaster.

In December 2010, Australia’s Queensland experienced its wettest season on record; record high rainfall occurred in a total of 107 locations during the month. Tropical Cyclone Tasha was the main cause for the high precipitation rate; when the rain continued, it caused the river to swell and eventually break its banks leading to a series of floods. The floods affected primarily the State of Queensland including its capital Brisbane. The floods forced the evacuation of thousands of people from towns and cities; over 200,000 people felt the brunt of the floods in at least 70 towns. The damage was very costly and was initially estimated at around AUD one billion.

However, water disasters do not only occur when there is too much rain; they can also occur when there is not enough of it. In many areas around the world, countries suffer from severe extended periods of drought, forcing people to abandon their homes, especially in the countryside where farms are located. Instead of lush green pastures and crops, and lazily grazing cattle, there would be brown brittle bushes, sundried caked and cracked earth, and sad dried cattle carcasses.

One such drought-affected area is the Horn of Africa where severe drought affected millions of people in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. Seasonal rains were disrupted due to weather conditions over the Pacific, for one year in Kenya and Ethiopia (2011), but it was disrupted for two years in Somalia. The main rainy season, from April to June, witnessed a decrease in precipitation rates; in many areas, the percentage of precipitation was significantly lower than past years, some areas receiving less than 30% of the average rainfall.

This lack of rainfall had an adverse effect on crops and livestock; food prices skyrocketed, and wages decreased leading to economic problems in the region. People’s livelihood was threatened; many people were dislocated and tried to find refuge in other neighboring countries, pressuring refugee camps and stretching food supplies pretty thin. Due to political obstacles, aid did not easily reach those who needed it most, and an unfortunate famine claimed the lives of thousands.

Rajiv Shah, Head of the United States Agency for International Development, believes that climate change increased the severity of the problem: “There is no question that hotter and drier growing conditions in sub-Saharan Africa have reduced the resiliency of these communities”.

Others, on the other hand, do not believe that climate change is connected to the drought, or played a role in the crisis; two experts with the International Livestock Research Institute suggested that it was too early to blame climate change for the drought, and insisted that more research is needed to study the suggested connection between the two.

In May 2012, the United Nations Humanitarian Chief warned that about 18 million people were facing hunger across eight countries in West Africa, including the Sahel region. The Sahel is the eco-climatic and bio-geographic zone of transition between the Sahara Desert in the north of Africa and the Sudanese Savannas in the south, covering an area of 3,053,200 km2. It is a transitional eco-region of semi-arid grasslands, savannas, steppes, and thorn shrub lands.

The famine was due to a combination of failed crops, insect plague, high food prices, conflict and drought. The drought affecting this region is no newcomer, and has in past decades led to much suffering in the form of food insecurity. Some scientists blame the drought on humans’ misuse of environmental resources, while others see it as consequences for global climate changes.

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