After months of rain from July to September, when dry weather finally began to show up, people in the hill state of Uttarakhand assumed that the monsoon had receded. There was even an official announcement of the departure of 117 active monsoon days.

However, in the second week of October, they started getting text messages from the local regional office of the India Meteorological Department, raising an alarm about adverse weather conditions.

Heavy downpour then started from October 17 and gained impetus by October 18. Roads in several regions of the state were blocked and news of deaths owing to heavy rains in the state made headlines by the evening of October 18.

Loss of lives

Uttarakhand, in recent days, has reported a loss of 79 lives so far because of the extreme rains, besides severe damage to the standing crops and cattle. Many claim that the warning issued by the India Meteorological Department was not taken seriously as there were continuous sunny days.

The rains hit hard in districts like Nainital, Almora, Pithoragarh and Champawat. Small canals started overflowing and water flowed down with loads of debris and broken rocks. Several of the houses were seen flowing with the flooded waters or getting crushed.

Affected families started moving to safer places in search of shelter but the impact of the heavy rains took up to 79 lives. The assessment of the damages is yet to be done even Union Home Minister Amit Shah toured the area to assess the damages and talked about sending central teams for assistance.

Available data claims that the number of fatalities in this single bout of rain is more than double the deaths reported in the state during the monsoon season between July to September this year. A total of 36 people died in the monsoon months this year, while 79 lost their lives in the latest off-season rainfall.

In 2021 alone, the state reported a total of 330 deaths attributed to natural disasters, including the 220 people that died when a glacier near Sriganga burst. According to the figures from the state Disaster Management Authority, after 2013, the year of the Kedarnath floods, this year, 2021, proved the most fatal for the state in terms of disasters.

According to figures from the National Disaster Response Force and Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority, in the last 10 years, after 2013, the maximum deaths were reported due to water-related disasters.

According to rain-related data shared by the India Meteorological Department, out of the 13 total districts in Uttarakhand, heavy to very heavy rains were reported from nine districts. Rainfall beyond 64.5 mm is considered as heavy rainfall according to the meteorological department’s norms.

Figures from the Dehradun-based State Meteorological Department claimed that rainfall between the evening of October 18 to October 19 broke all previous records in Kumaon Division, reporting an average of 197.5mm of rainfall.

In other parts like Pancheswar in Nainital district and Panthnagar in Udhamsingh Nagar, the local met office records show the highest rainfall recorded in these districts in 24 hours was last in 1914 and 1990 respectively. On October 19, the all-time high record was broken with 403.2 mm of rainfall.

Nainital worst affected

Nainital, a popular tourist destination in the state, was the worst affected by the October rains. Five days after the disaster, Mongabay-India toured the Ramgarh and Ramnagar development zones, the most affected parts of Nainital district. Ramgarh witnessed the maximum deaths in the disaster.

For farmers, several of their full-grown fruits perished and washed away in the rains.

Forty households in Nainital swept away in Nainital district. Photo credit: Trilochan Bhatt

Ninety-three-year-old Deewan Singh, one of the fruit growers from Bohrakot in Ramgarh block told Mongabay-India that his whole fruit garden was destroyed due to the heavy rainfall. Deewan Singh has two sons and both of them are engaged in the fruit garden until the rains hit their livelihood source.

“In our garden, there were around 1,500 trees of apples and peaches which have now been destroyed,” Singh said. “Now only around 24 trees are standing. Earlier we used to earn around Rs 8 lakh from each season from these plants which have now perished. We also had some cows which helped us in our survival but six cows also died.”

At Talla Ramgarh in this block, 12 households have been fully swept away or destroyed. People living in these areas survived by fleeing from these troubled zones. Deepa Devi, one of the villagers from this area told Mongabay-India that around 3 am on October 19 there was a massive surge in the water near the drainage next to her house.

“I first thought that the water levels would come down but it did not happen and the debris and water from outside started coming into our house and then we got alerted and fled the house for safety reasons,” she said. “However, we could not save our house and it was swept away. We now have no utensils and no ration to cook. We are now awaiting government assistance which is yet to reach us.”

In the Ramnagar block, close to the Kosi river in the Nainital district, several villages have been affected badly. One among these affected villages is Chumuk. This is one of the very few villages which gets cut off when the water levels in Kosi River rise above during rainy seasons.

The villagers here had been demanding the construction of a bridge over the river for long but in vain. They often stash ration for four months before the onset of monsoon. Usually, they swim to the other side of the river when the water levels recede but now due to heavy rains they are failing to find a solution.

Villagers from Chumuk told Mongabay-India that the river changed its path due to the recent extraordinary rains.

“Earlier it used to flow around 1.5 km away from our village but now it has come very close to our habitation,” one of the villagers said. “On the night of October 19, huge amounts of water came closer to us and the whole village got waterlogged. People saved lives by climbing on some elevated areas close to their house. Around 30 households have washed away and many are now living by installing tents as shelters.”

“Earlier around 500 metres away from here I had my house and farming land there but they all got washed away and damaged due to the heavy rains,” Champa Devi, a resident from the village said. “Now that area hosts only rocks and debris.”

Reasons behind tragedy

Dehradun-based regional India Meteorological Department director Bikram Singh said that between October 17 to October 19 there was a strong westerly winds active in the region and the department had informed the local population about the same.

“Due to the westerly winds, winds from the Bay of Bengal hit Kumaon region due to which heavy rains were seen in this region and some adjoining regions like Garwal, Chamoli and Pauri,” he said. “After the receding of monsoon such incidents were never reported here earlier. Earlier the all-time high rainfall records were created during the monsoon season but this time it was created during non-monsoon season.”

Other experts meanwhile link such an extraordinary case with climate change. SP Sati, Scientist (Geology) from Uttarakhand said that during this year monsoon there was less than normal rainfall but the rains post-monsoon broke all previous records in many areas.

He said that even after this if the average rainfall is calculated at the end of this year it could be close to the performance of the last six years.

“Such erratic changes have been seen in the last few years in different parts of the world,” he said. “This is a reality that sometimes extreme rains are happening and on other days there are drought-like situations in the same area.”

Bohrakot was heavily impactd by the unseasonal rains. Photo credit: Trilochan Bhatt

Sati blamed the unregulated development works for such climate-related disasters in Uttarakhand valleys. Citing the example of Chumuk village in Nainital district, he said that earlier the Kosi river used to flow around 1 km away from the village.

“But in the last few years on the other side of the river big resorts were created,” he said. “Due to the resorts on the floodplains of the river, they obstructed the free flow of the river during floods leading to destruction activities in human habitation areas.”

He also said that many houses were constructed on the floodplains of rivers and their tributaries and other water canals which during rainy seasons often faced destruction.

Downpour in Kerala

Far away from the hilly terrains of Uttarakhand, the southern Indian state of Kerala also faced rain fury leading to a severe loss of lives and properties owing to the natural disaster. According to the IMD bulletin released on October 26, Orange Alert was issued for 12 districts of the state till October 30.

In the state assembly, Kerala Chief Minister on October 20 said that 39 people died due to landslides till now due to heavy rains while six were missing. “Heavy rains have been reported since October 11,” he said. “Due to low pressure developed in Bay of Bengal, several areas in the state saw heavy rainfall.”

As per the latest information shared by the IMD, between October 1 to October 26, Kerala witnessed 542.2 mm of rainfall that is 109% more than the normal limits. All 14 districts of the state received rainfall more than 60%.

In Kerala, lesser rainfall was reported during the southwest monsoon time. As per figures between June 1 to September 30, an average of 1,718.2 mm of rainfall was recorded here whereas the average rainfall in Kerala stands at 2,049.2 mm.

This meant that the monsoon brought 16% lesser rainfall whereas the northeastern monsoon that subsides in Kerala between October to December is now bringing higher rainfall. Till October 26, rainfall in 109% excess has been reported in the state.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.