South Asia: Living with Extreme Weather
A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE In May 1996, a fierce tornado tore through northern Bangladesh, leaving more than 700 people dead and 30,000 injured. Winds reached speeds of 125 mph. Within 30 minutes, nearly 80 villages had been destroyed. In the town of Rampur, Reazuddin Ahmed and his family sought shelter behind a concrete wall. All the while, houses were tossed into the air around them. Babul Ahmed, Reazuddin's 10-year-old son, described his family's terror: “It was dust and wind everywhere. We prayed to God: 'Save us.' ” The tornado that terrorized the family was not unusual. It was just one of many types of extreme weather that plague South Asia and make life both difficult and dangerous.
The Monsoon Seasons
South Asia is home to an annual cycle of powerful, destructive weather, including the monsoon. The monsoon is a wind system, not a rainstorm. There are two monsoon seasons—the moist summer monsoon and the dry, cool winter monsoon.
The summer monsoon is a wind system that blows from the southwest across the Indian Ocean toward South Asia from June through September. These winds stir up powerful storms that release vast amounts of rain and cause severe flooding.
The winter monsoon is a wind system that blows from the northeast across the Himalayas toward the sea from October through February. Unlike the summer monsoon, the winter winds carry little moisture. A drought can result if the summer monsoon has failed to bring normal levels of moisture. From March through May, there are no strong prevailing wind patterns.
Impact of the Monsoons
The monsoon winds shape the rhythms of life for South Asia's people and also affect relations between its countries.
The rains that accompany the summer monsoons are critical to the agriculture of South Asia, as the farming calendar on page 597 shows. They help nourish the rain forests, irrigate crops, and produce the floodwaters that deposit layers of rich sediment to replenish the soil. However, heavy flooding can also damage crops.
At the same time, the summer monsoon can cause tremendous devastation. Cyclones are common and deadly companions to the summer monsoon. (These storms are called hurricanes in North America.) Cyclones destroy farmland, wipe out villages, and cause massive flooding.
Their fury is legendary. As you read in the Disasters! feature on pages 578–579, the 1970 cyclone that struck the southern coast of Bangladesh killed more than 300,000 people. It left hundreds of thousands homeless and destitute. In fact, because of the monsoons, Bangladesh was the site of some of the worst natural disasters of the 20th century.
The droughts that come with the dry winter monsoon bring their own problems. Lush landscapes can become arid wastelands almost overnight. These droughts—along with storms and floods—cause havoc for the people and economies of South Asia.
The climate of South Asia makes agriculture difficult. Crops often disappear under summer floodwaters or wither in drought-parched soil. With so many mouths to feed, the countries of South Asia must buy what they cannot grow, and the threat of famine is ever present. But the people suffer from more than just crop failures. They may also lose their homes and families to weather-related catastrophes. Most people are too poor to rebuild their homes and lives, and governments often lack the necessary resources to provide significant help.
However, the people of South Asia have taken some steps to prevent or lessen damage. These include building houses on stilts, erecting concrete cyclone shelters, and building dams to control floodwaters.
The region also receives international aid. Other governments and international agencies have lent billions of dollars to South Asian nations. But often this aid does not go far because of the frequency of disasters. Also, the aid burdens these countries with heavy debts.
Conditions caused by the weather patterns in South Asia have also caused political disputes. For instance, to bring water to the city of Kolkata, India constructed the Farakka dam across the Ganges at a point just before it enters Bangladesh.
Because India and Bangladesh share the Ganges, the dam left little water for drinking and irrigation in southern Bangladesh.
Many Bangladeshi farmers lost farmland, and some illegally fled to India. The two countries finally settled the dispute in 1997, when they signed a treaty giving each country specific water rights to the Ganges.
Still, the dispute provided a graphic example of the role weather plays in both the politics and economics of South Asia. In the Case Study that follows, you will read about another political conflict—a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan.