The Climate is in High Water and so is South Asia

Flooded street in Trivandrum, India. By     India Water Portal   .    CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Flooded street in Trivandrum, India. By India Water Portal. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Torrential monsoons throughout South Asia are causing devastating flooding, making the death toll seem to rise as fast as the water. At least 160 people have died across India, Nepal and Bangladesh since the flooding started last weekend. 

UNICEF estimates that 18 million people have been affected so far, and these numbers are expected to rise as the monsoon season continues. Almost 2,500,000 acres of cropland have been submerged leaving many concerned about future food shortages. The flooding has swept livestock, damaged roads and destroyed homes leaving millions displaced. 

Earlier this week the floods swept through one of the worlds biggest refugee camps, located in Southeast Bangladesh. Hafiz Ullah and his family, refugees from Myanmar, abandoned their makeshift bamboo home and took shelter inside a nearby school.

"We can't cook anything because I think my stove is damaged," Hafiz told CNN. “We don't have food to eat now, so we can't give anything to our children and they can't drink the water or go outside because of the floods."

South Asia has seen flooding worse than this in recent years. Catastrophic floods which swept across Bangladesh and India in June of 2017 killed 1,200 and affected more than 41 million. Meanwhile in South China, 12 million were forced to leave their homes in the same monsoon season.

“We are seeing an increase in the severity and frequency of weather-related disasters as a result of climate change,” said Loretta Hieber Girardet, Chief of UNDRR Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. “This is especially true of floods, which this year have impacted much of South Asia all the way west to Iran.” 

According to the IMF, average temperatures in South Asia have risen every decade since the 1960s. 

In June 2018, the World Bank released a study warning that climate change could drastically diminish the living condition of up to 800 million people living in South Asia; a region which was already seeing rising temperature and rainfall. The study predicted that climate change would take the worst toll on developing areas with limited access to markets, poor road connectivity and low household consumption. 

In other words, climate change will exacerbate poverty in some of the poorest corners of the world. 

But if increasing death tolls aren’t a warning sign that these countries are, quite literally, in high water when it comes to climate change, then what will be? 

Part of the reason disasters go undelt with in South Asian countries is that these countries simply don’t have the infrastructure to deal with a long term plan for relieving the hard felt blow of flooding. 

“Through disaster risk reduction, countries can address root causes of such disasters such as improper land use planning and environmental degradation.” Girardet told Catalyst. 

Improper land use is one of the major problems faced by South Asia cities such as Mumbai, which doesn’t have a proper drainage system. After floods killed over 1000 residents of the city in 2005, Mumbai launched the “The Brimstowad Project” to overhaul the cities outdated colonial area drainage system. 14 years later, the project still isn’t complete. 

A truck moves residents out of flood waters in China.  By    sporkmaster   .    CC BY-NC 2.0

A truck moves residents out of flood waters in China. By sporkmaster. CC BY-NC 2.0

“Also, we believe the response to climate change should focus equally on mitigation, to reduce global warming, and adaptation measures such as investing in resilient infrastructure and nature-based solutions.” Girarder added. 

This opinion is shared between both disaster relief authorities, and urban planning experts.   

According to Abhas Jha, World Bank sector manager for Transport, Urban and Disaster Risk Management for East Asia and the Pacific, the two options are investing in infrastructure to alleviate flooding when it does happen, or investing in preventative measures to stop abnormal climate activity from causing floods in the first place.    

"Preparedness, early warning systems, green infrastructure, things like that ... we've found that early warning systems are perhaps the best investment that a country and a city can make," he told CNN. 

The world would have to act fast to lower greenhouse gas emissions linked to the rising temperatures in South Asia. Across the region, annual average temperatures are projected to rise by 2.2 degrees Celsius (3.9 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2050 relative to 1981 to 2010 conditions under the “high emissions scenario” predicted by the World Bank. Under the “low emission scenario” decreasing living standards would occur in South Asia at a less calamitous rate.  

While there’s a temporary break in the Monsoon rains, refugee Hafiz Ullah says his priority is to repair his family's makeshift shelter so they can return home.

But his makeshift bamboo hut appears no match for more heavy rains; just as cities throughout the developing world appear unequipped to deal with the climate crisis steadily approaching. 


EMILY DHUE is a third year student at the University of Virginia majoring in media. She is currently studying abroad in Valencia, Spain. She's passionate about writing that makes an impact, and storytelling through digital platforms.