Devastating floods have been creating havoc in northern India for over a week now, killing more than a hundred people and displacing hundreds of thousands from their houses.
Even a large part of India’s capital, New Delhi, was inundated with water from an overflowing Yamuna River for days. It will take some time to estimate the economic cost of this disaster, but undoubtedly it will be massive.
Like hotels and big buildings collapsing like houses of cards and washed away in the flood waters of the Beas River in India, similar images of devastation during the last year’s floods in neighbouring Pakistan had also stunned the world.
Last year’s catastrophic flooding in Pakistan caused at least $40 billion in damages and killed nearly 1,500 people. Besides Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nepal also witnessed severe flooding in 2022. This year, the flood season has just begun in the subcontinent, as the large areas of the region can experience flooding till the end of September.
South Asia is highly vulnerable to floods. Inundation is a regular phenomenon, which often causes loss of lives and damage to properties and infrastructure. What is new for the region is that extreme floods have become more frequent and devastating, causing much more damage than ever before.
As usual, the ongoing floods in Northern India have led to a political blame game over rescue and relief measures between the centre and states and between the government and the opposition.
About the causes, fingers are being pointed at erroneous urban planning, increasing exploitation of flood plain, and systemic corruption. No one can disagree with these assessments.
However, it is also important to point out the unusual rainfall pattern often precedes the devastating floods that the region is experiencing in recent times.
As scientists have already pointed out, the major shift in this rainfall pattern has been due to global climate change.
Before the 2022 devastating flood in Pakistan, the country had experienced record-breaking monsoon rainfall from mid-June to the end of August.
The southern part of Pakistan experienced its wettest August ever recorded last year, receiving 7 to 8 times its average rainfall that month. Undoubtedly, last year’s flooding became so catastrophic in Pakistan because of extreme monsoon rainfall.
Similarly, Himachal Pradesh in India, the state most affected by the flood this year, has also experienced unprecedented rainfall.
It received 271.5 millimetres of average rain from June 1 to July 9, almost 70 per cent more than the average. Similarly, the Sunday before the flood water inundated a large part of New Delhi was the city’s wettest July day since 1982, receiving more than 15 centimetres of rainfall.
Longer duration of intense rainfall in flood-prone areas leads to extreme floods. As global warming increases the possibility for more extreme weather events to occur, more extreme flooding must be expected in the region and the areas where devastating flooding has already occurred; it would not be a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ event, but now far more frequent.
Scientists have already confirmed that floods and droughts have worsened worldwide due to climate change, and extreme floods and droughts have increased sharply over the last two decades.
A warmer atmosphere leads to increased water evaporation during dry seasons. For every 1 degree C of warming, the atmosphere is expected to hold 7 per cent more moisture.
Significant flood risks
Thus, an atmosphere with more water vapour leads to more heavy rainfall events. Climate change has also led to more wildfires, and the resulting lack of vegetation causes increased mudslides and debris flows during rainstorms, making the floods more difficult to control.
The recent devastating floods in South Asia have occurred in the Indus River system that originates from the Himalayas. Last year’s flood in Pakistan was in the three western flowing rivers of the Indus system, and this year’s flood in India was in the other three eastern flowing rivers.
Global warming affects the flooding of the rivers that originate from snow-clad mountainous regions. Due to warmer winters, the mountains are receiving less snowfall and more rainfall, and the shift from snow to rain dramatically impacts flooding.
There is no doubt that climate change has already made the flood situation in South Asia much worse. As the planet continues to get warmer, the region is expected to get more and more heavy rain in the future, making it highly vulnerable to dangerous flooding.
Unfortunately, South Asian countries also suffer from poor infrastructure, thus being less equipped to cope with and manage extreme flooding.
Moreover, the major rivers in South Asia, like the Indus and Ganges and the Brahmaputra, which pose significant flood risks for the region, are transboundary in nature. Unfortunately, there is very little cross-border cooperation among the South Asian countries over managing the floods of these rivers.
Given the fast-worsening extreme flood situation in South Asia, countries must prioritise taking adaptation measures to cope with this climate change-caused crisis. Just blaming each other for causing climate crisis will not help them overcome the challenge of devastating floods.
For their survival and well-being, the region’s countries must do what they can and what they should do.