Devastating Floods in South Asia Expose the Region’s Unpreparedness to Combat Climate Change

More than 25 million people have been adversely affected by extreme flooding in South Asia as the local monsoon season sets into full swing. The worsening situation in the region serves as an indication that much of the world is desperately lacking the infrastructure needed to combat the economic and physical ramifications of climate change. 

More than 670 people have died in the flash floods and lightning strikes plaguing South Asia as its annual monsoons come into full effect on the heels of devastating regional droughts. Between July 10 and July 26, 5,571 people in India and Nepal alone have contracted diarrhea, and 1,905 people have been infected with skin diseases. In Bangladesh, the government has opened over 1,000 temporary relief shelters, but like many other countries in the region, they are still overwhelmed by the scale of the displaced population. Foyez Ahmed, the deputy commissioner of Bangladesh’s Bogra district says that “We have enough relief materials but the main problem is to reach out to the people… we don’t have adequate transport facilities to move to the areas that are deep under water.” Not only is there a lack of safe, adequate transportation to traverse the floods but basic means of transportation in many countries have shut down. In India, where an extensive network of trains lie at the heart of the country’s transportation system, floods have forced railroads to shut down across the country. As a result, on Friday night, authorities had to send in helicopters and diving teams to rescue 1,050 passengers on the Mahalaxmi Express near the town of Vangani. The lack of proper transportation and other forms of infrastructure have prolonged the devastation even as first wave of monsoons appear to be dying down.  

The effects of the flooding have borne a particular blow on the lives of millions of children who too have been unable to escape this catastrophe. Around 4.3 million children in India have been displaced by the heavy rains. Anindit Roy, program and policy director of Save the Children India, cites blocked roads and widespread power outages for exacerbating the situation and keeping towns “cut off from the outside world.” He added that “children are disproportionately affected by such calamities, (and) more vulnerable to disease, injury, displacement and hunger.” The organization warns that as the monsoonal season ratchets up, the spread of water-borne diseases and increased displacement could turn the situation into a full-blown humanitarian crisis. The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) Regional Director for South Asia, Jean Gough, says that “millions of children have seen their lives turned upside down by the torrential rainfall, flooding, and landslides.” According to UNICEF, more than 2,000 schools in the Assam district of India alone have been severely damaged due to flooding. With both their schools and homes destroyed, many children have nowhere safe to stay in these hard times. Similarly, refugees residing in the affected regions have also been particularly vulnerable to the fallout of the flooding. The homes of 6,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar taking refuge in southeastern Bangladesh have been destroyed forcing them to disperse and flee once again. With nowhere to go, they are among those whom aid agencies have struggled to reach due to the lack of proper, available infrastructure amid this growing crisis.

Besides displacing millions of people, the destructive monsoon rains are set to have big economic ramifications. The heavy rains have flooded paddy fields and drowned livestock, severely hurting farmers throughout the region. This year’s combination of drought followed immediately by acute rainfall has severely crippled the agricultural sector of much of South Asia. According to Dr. Aban Gautam, the president of the Mountain Heart Nepal, “many of the people in this region are rural farmers for whom a bad harvest is devastating” as “the whole family depends on income from livestock and from farming.” 

Experts on the issue say that climate change is to blame for the recent volatility of monsoon rains in South Asia. A study in the journal Nature cites the warming of the Indian Ocean and rapidly increasing air pollution levels as responsible for the harsh, unforgiving drought-downpour weather patterns plaguing the subcontinent. These "widespread extreme rain events" have increased three-fold between 1950 and 2015 and have exposed just how unprepared the region is to combat the effects of climate change. 

Although in his monthly radio address Prime Minister Modi assured people “that the Centre and the state governments are working together to provide speedy relief," the overwhelming amount of people being directly affected by the flooding made the region’s shortcomings in its efforts to fight climate change blatantly obvious. It took more than 15 hours for Indian government officials to rescue train passengers who had been trapped onboard due to flooding and landslides early last week. Beda Nidhi Khanal, the head of the National Emergency Operation Center, blamed the lack of emergency infrastructure for the severity of the situation, pointing out that only two helicopters were available to carry out disaster relief on the India-Nepal border. Despite his assurances, the Modi administration is both ill-equipped and ill-prepared to properly handle this crisis and any other ones that may arise in the future. The severity of the effects of this year’s flooding shows that the region as a whole has failed to learn from the disastrous monsoons of 2017 and improve upon their mistakes. Prime Minister Modi and his regional counterparts must take concerted actions to build emergency relief infrastructure and train locals in disaster protocols if they are to prevent a natural disaster of this scale from happening again.

The situation in South Asia should be a lesson to the rest of the world that climate change is no longer an issue that can be ignored and left for the future, but a serious issue that needs to be addressed immediately. Without the proper measures in place, the flooding and landslides, which are currently relatively isolated to South Asia, will soon become a global phenomenon. 

Photo Credit: New York Times