‘Climate change killed my family’: Unusual monsoon hammers India’s Himachal

Record-breaking torrential rain leaves a trail of unprecedented devastation in northern India’s Himachal Pradesh state.

Himachal survived worst monsoons in a century
Flash floods in the Prashar Valley wreaked havoc after unusually intense rains from July to August [Srishti Jaswal/Al Jazeera]

Kaleshdhar, India – Om Prakash, 42, was found alive in the debris of a collapsed house after a landslide triggered by relentless rain in this remote village of Himachal Pradesh.

Prakash’s family, belonging to an Indigenous farming community, had gathered on August 14 to pay homage to the rain gods, a tradition during the monsoon months.

“It was raining intensely. Around 4am I heard a deafening crash. Just behind the house, the entire hill collapsed and unleashed a torrent of water and mud that destroyed everything. I survived, but my daughter, wife and my mother died in their sleep,” Prakash said.

Of 18 people who gathered to celebrate the monsoon rains at the home, seven died that morning.

Apart from Prakash’s family, the landslides and flooding killed more than 400 other people in the northern Indian state with 38 people still missing. The record-breaking torrential rainfall left a trail of unprecedented destruction and cost the state about $1bn.

Himachal Pradesh is nestled in the embrace of the Himalayas with snow-capped peaks and lush green valleys. It is often hailed as Dev Bhoomi, or Land of Gods.

But it’s precisely that beautiful landscape that makes extreme weather so treacherous, said Dericks P Shukla, associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Mandi.

“This bowl-like geological set-up often traps moisture-laden monsoon clouds, resulting in cloud bursts when they encounter the steep slopes of the Himalayas. We have seen this phenomenon in Prashar Valley, where Prakash lives,” Shukla told Al Jazeera.

Himachal survived worst monsoons in a century
Om Prakash recounts the climate-driven calamity that killed his family [Srishti Jaswal/Al Jazeera]

Himachal witnessed eight periods of extreme rainfall from mid-July to the end of August, breaking 100-year-old records in some districts, according to the state’s weather bureau.

“Due to global warming, the monsoon winds now carry more moisture from the sea along with dust and pollution from the plains. Himachal’s bowl-like topography captures those moisture-laden clouds. This leads to excess monsoon rainfall in less periods. The result is flooding,” Shukla explained.

After spending a month in the hospital, Prakash now lives with relatives in Kautala village in Mandi district. With his face bearing scars and his ribs badly bruised, he voiced frustration at the changing weather and the havoc it is wreaking.

“In the past, the rains in my village would span an entire week, accompanied by gentle droplets that left the air refreshingly cool. But now the weather patterns can no longer be counted on. Climate change killed my family,” Prakash said.

In June, the family of Balwinder Singh, 53, a crematorium caretaker in Mandi district, narrowly escaped raging floods that burst the banks of the River Beas. Singh said he had not witnessed anything like it in his 20 years in the area.

“My wife woke up early in the morning as she heard the loud noise of the aggressive river. She was shocked to see how close the river was. My family had time to only save ourselves. What if the river engulfed us at night while we were sleeping?” he said.

Himachal survived worst monsoons in a century
Water rises in the River Beas after unprecedented monsoon rains [Srishti Jaswal/Al Jazeera]

Stopping the flow of rivers by dams in Himachal Pradesh has led to severe riverine disturbances, said Manshi Asher, co-founder of the environmental group Himdhara.

“When the water increases beyond the holding capacity of the dam, they open the floodgates without warning. The impact is visible in the form of landslides and floods,” she said.

The lack of comprehensive data on the environment in the region has also made the situation more dangerous.

“Due to a severe lack of data, infrastructure has been built on floodplains and streams. During periods of higher precipitation or cloudbursts, damage is caused to life and property when these water bodies reclaim their paths,” Asher said.

She noted it is those with the fewest resources who pay the highest price during climate catastrophes.

“This is how such calamities widen the gap between rich and poor. Himachal, which is otherwise a poor, debt-ridden state, was able to carry out rescues, but there is no money left for relief, rehabilitation and prevention,” Asher said.

For Singh and his family, this is especially true.

“In Himachal today, the poor and homeless are worst affected. It was not my first choice to live by the river. I lived there because I did not have money to buy land. Now all my life savings – money, clothes, electronics, documents – are lost in the floods. I am homeless once again,” he said.

Himachal survived worst monsoons in a century
Debris is scattered after landslides in Himachal Pradesh state [Srishti Jaswal/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera