09/17/2014 03:52 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

Grappling With The World's Man-Made Extremes

The river was cold, fast, and had a wavering log and three rocks as a bridge. Water sprinted past me, down the mountainside, stalling my exit from a village in Himalayan India where I was studying impacts of global climate change.

Two girls from the village had been swept over the mountain edge the previous week by the river's rushing water. The monsoon rains in Himalayan India had come especially hard this season, washing out the only entrance to the village. The girls had been holding hands to steady each other as they scrambled across the log and three rocks to visit a friend who lived in a village on the other side of the newly rerouted river. One girl slipped, the log rolled, and the river rushed them down to the valley 100 feet below. It happened fast and randomly with many attributing the deaths to climate change.

The river that washed these girls to their death begins, as most do: small and high up in the mountains. In a typical monsoon season of the past, before the climate in the Himalayas started to dramatically change, this river had meandered down to the altitude where I stood and it flowed between two rice fields, where its gentle irrigation helped feed the entire village. This season's rain had shifted the river west, high above where I stood on the mountain. The rains pushed a strong current through the Himalayan cedar mountainside. As the river descended, it gained speed and mass, fed by the monsoon rains pelting down, to pour across the one road that provided access to the village.

Before arriving here, I had thought this was what monsoon season meant: constant torrential rain. Heavy rains, I imagined, had to be better for agriculture than the previous multi-year drought. But I was wrong.

A heavy rain destroys crops as unmercifully as does a prolonged drought. A heavy rain creates dangerous situations equal to the terror of children being swept down mountains.

A drought hides around the corner of mountain peaks suggesting the idea of rain but never providing. In a drought, villagers are forced to watch their crops die from thirst. The individual inch-long leaves of the lentil plants lose their smooth dark green color to become a brittle brown. Every day until death finally settles in, villagers can hope that the crops could still survive if only a gentle rain would come. The hope that just maybe everything will sort itself out tomorrow shrivels along with the landscape.

In contrast, a heavy rain comes fast, beating itself against the ground, whipping plants around, and starting landslides. The clouds burst in the sky as if a weapon had gashed them. The entire contents of the clouds dumped in a few minutes onto the land below. The rain pours itself down the mountainside at such volumes that large sections of earth break, separate and flow down the mountain carried by the torrent of water. The combination of water and earth suffocates plants and destroys houses. The crops that escape the flooding are often uprooted, mangled and destroyed by the pelting raindrops.

When the season comes to pass, the village can still face extraordinary hardships (especially for someone like myself, who shops at the supermarket): the lack of food, the death of crops. Whether the crops died a slow drying death or a fast drowning death, the villagers feel the repercussions for months to come. Even if resources and water come later, the crops have already shriveled or washed away with the village watching as their food dies. A good rain helps grow crops; a bad rain kills them.

Monsoons hold one-third of humanity at their mercy, most of whom live in already impoverished areas, constantly on the edge of losing everything, praying for good rain. Scientists predict climate changes will soon irreversibly shift monsoons. The changes will affect where the monsoon rain falls, how strongly those rains come down, and at what frequency the rains occur. Most scientists agree that the extremes of excessive and inadequate rain are likely to become much more common. The days of a gentle, constant monsoon rain season will likely soon end, with major repercussions for the world.

As I stood looking back at the rushing river, I wondered not if a disaster would damage the village, but which type of disaster would come. I thought of ways to change what seems to be a terrifying, inevitable future for regions such as Himalayan India. Immediate adaptation safeguard measures need to be put in place in at-risk communities across the globe (as is already happening to a degree), and future climate-changing emissions must be mitigated (at rates much higher than present). It seems painfully evident that sources of energy alternative to the typical coal-gas-oil trifecta require our public's attention and politicians' legislation. Our choices of energy sources cause climate change, affecting all peoples of the world. Without significant changes to our energy supply sources, villages like the one I visited in Himalayan India will be subjected to future abuses of climate change.