Friday, August 10, 2007

The World is Wet: The Globalization of Monsoon

It's raining, again, in Manhattan. Two days ago, torrential rains virtually shut down New York City. Thousands of commuters were stranded when the downpour flooded the city's subways and brought mass transportation to a grinding halt. Given no information by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, commuters desperately made calls on their mobile phones. Hundreds massed at street corners hoping against hope for a cab. Thousands crammed into overloaded buses.

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Now where have I seen this before? Oh right, July 2005, Bombay! Rains fell so hard and fast the city was paralyzed. Over 2,000 people died.

It was raining in Paris when I left last week. Unusually heavy rains paralyzed Britain last month, stranding residents and tourists alike, drowning motorways, campgrounds, and city streets. My Parisian and Londoner friends complain that this has been the dreariest summer they can remember. You'd be better off taking a rain umbrella than a beach umbrella to Paris Plages this year.

But none of the inconvenience the rains have inflicted on Britons, Parisians and New Yorkers this summer can remotely compare to what they have done to the long-suffering rural poor of India and Bangladesh. There, the monsoon is an annual event, essential to the survival of billions of people in South Asia. Every year, there is flooding. Some damage and deaths are expected. 2005 was really bad. Last year was also bad.

But this year has been unusually bad. Fields waiting for a good soak were entirely submerged for days longer than anyone could remember, ruining crops that in many cases were farming families' only hope for survival. Entire villages were drowned. Refugees from the floods have not received enough food aid. Now, as the waters recede, fears of massive epidemic disease are growing.

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For this, and other reasons, India will again have to import grain this year to meet its basic needs. The price is likely to be high.

In France and in the United States, a dry spring followed by the freakishly wet summer have hurt the grain harvest badly. Yields are expected to be as much as 30 percent lower this year over last in some areas.

And as if this weren't bad enough news for global food security, an increasing proportion of productive farmland is being used to produce biofuels. The current rush to get into the potentially lucrative biofuel business is great news for the big agricultural industrialists and terrible news for small farmers in the United States and hungry people in Asia and Africa.

Meanwhile, Greece, Romania and Croatia were treated to searing temperatures as high as 45 C that sparked massive wildfires, turned normally fertile fields into hard-baked wastelands, and killed a certain number of people who simply couldn't cope with the heat. We learn that the amount of ice that has melted at the polar ice cap this year puts previous years to shame.

In New York this past year, the daffodils bloomed in December. It snowed in April. Torrential rain in August? Why not?

In addition to the rain on Wednesday, a rare tornado touched down briefly in Brooklyn, sending trees crashing down onto parked cars and ripping roofs off row houses. Meanwhile, understandably insular New Yorkers learned our fair city was ripe for getting slammed by a hurricane of potentially record-breaking proportions that would make last Wednesday's flooding look like a bare sprinkle. I live on the 2nd floor (1st floor in the rest of the world) of a small building in the East Village, a neighborhood almost entirely built on reclaimed marshland. Time to move?

But where to go when the monsoon has gone global? If this summer isn't a wake-up call for citizens around the world that it's time to do more than talk about dealing with global warming, then I don't know what is.

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