Monday, June 6, 2016

When it Rains, It Pours

On Saturday it rained. Not some pizzly drizzle, but a proper downpour. And as I revelled in the excuse to remain at home - luxuriating in the slothfulness of a damp day, listening to the melodic drum of the raindrops on the roof - it struck me how much the relationship with rain has shifted for over half the world's population (see urbanization post...). In the concrete jungles we have built to house a rapidly growing global population, water finds few permeable surfaces to infiltrate the soil below, and heavy rainfall often means the floodgates open, infrastructure is damaged, and lives are lost. We've seen this recently: people paddling through the streets of Paris, much of Texas submerged, and residents of Sydney (among many other areas of eastern Australia) fleeing for high ground. This simple molecule of hydrogens and oxygen wreking havoc on society.

Perhaps it is this urban existence that leaves us unaware of the vital role precipitation events and flooding played and continues to play in the existence and continuation of society. Yes, water quenches a thirst, but it also feeds the soil. Human habitation and subsequent civilization crept up around bodies of water that flooded regularly. For instance, the Nile supported the empire of Ancient Egypt, whose fertile growing regions depended on the influx of nutrient-rich silt from the highlands of Ethiopia, transported during the flood season. The floodplains back home in Puget Sound serve the same end, yielding highly productive agricultural zones and salmon habitat, supporting people back probably thousands of years when Native Americans first settled the region. 

In South Asia, people similarly depend on the arrival of the rains, here in the form of the monsoon. The summer monsoons in India recharge aquifers, drive hydropower, and enable the production of rice, tea, and dairy where rainfed agriculture still dominates. Because of the importance of the arrival of monsoon rains, festivals and traditions arose over time. In the past twenty or so years, with decreasing dependability of rainfall in the region, countries like India have seen an increase in the number of farmer suicides as the industry's prospects look more and more bleak.

Now these deluges are not always causes for celebration even if they are an essential life force; they still bring devastation when in excess. I suppose humans have dealt with these ups and down throughout our history; but with more of the landscape heavily modified and the climatic trends moving towards less predictable and more extreme, the challenges are likely to overshadow the benefits. Food for thought on the next rainy day.

No comments: