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Natural Environment

On the Brink: Intense monsoon floods are hampering South Asia’s COVID-19 response

Due to the increasing severity of seasonal floods across the Indian subcontinent over the last few decades, millions have been displaced, and extensive damage caused to life, livelihoods, and property. Infrastructure intensive approaches to the prevention and mitigation have failed and, in many cases, exacerbated the situation. It is time for a new approach.

Mandakini Surie, International Development Consultant
27 August 2020

Here in South Asia, we are deep into monsoon season. Coming on the heels of a scorching summer, the rains that cover the entire subcontinent between June and September provide welcome relief. The yearly monsoon is intrinsic to the social and cultural fabric of the region and vital to its economic growth. In India, the monsoon forecast is eagerly awaited, not just by farmers, but by governments, big business, and the stock market. Roughly half of the region’s working population is engaged directly in agricultural work, and agriculture-reliant industries employ many millions more. A strong monsoon spells plentiful rainfall, bumper crop yields, food security, jobs and economic opportunities. The season is a time of renewal, reviving and hope, widely celebrated in festival, film and song.

But, while the monsoon is life giving, the reverse is equally true. Already this year, an estimated 25 million people have been affected by floods across large parts of India, Nepal and Bangladesh. With government resources and efforts already stretched by the COVID-19 pandemic, the floods could not have come at a worse time.

Managing water risk: inundation and scarcity

Scientific consensus states that an uplift in global temperature of 1.5 degrees will cause a 1 meter rise in sea levels by the end of the century, threatening catastrophic floods in low lying regions, and at the same time usher in an age of frequent drought events in areas prone to hydro-shortages. Clearly, our ability to manage water in times of both inundation and scarcity will be key to global economic prosperity and wellbeing.

Earlier this month, in India’s commercial and financial capital Mumbai, 294mm of rain fell in a single 12-hour period. The city received nearly a year’s worth of rainfall in just one month. The deluge was exacerbated by battering winds that reached speeds in excess of 100kph. For Mumbai residents, whose lives have already been severely disrupted by the pandemic, the flooding has brought further misery. This is especially true for the city’s vulnerable and disadvantaged living in slums and informal housing, has left them even more exposed to the virus.

Mumbai’s story is not unique. Floods and landslides have killed over a 100 people in Nepal, while an estimated one-third of Bangladesh’s land area is said to have come under water. The crisis has galvanised international support. Climate activist Greta Thunberg and the European Union have made contributions to support the relief efforts. As such, it’s tempting to say that this year’s monsoon has been extraordinary. But numerous studies have shown a recent increase in extreme precipitation events – marked by heavier rainfall over shorter periods of time – across the region.

South Asia’s unique geography is, of course, a factor. The Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, emanating from the headwaters of the Tibetan Plateau, support an estimated 700 million people in the region. They are a vital source of water, energy and food to the sub-continent. But a recent study by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Research suggests that climate change is stressing these great civilisational waterways. Glacial melt in the high mountains of the Hindu Kush Himalayas, often referred to as the region’s “third pole”, is directly contributing to outburst flooding, landslides and other extreme events. As rivers cross boundaries, the risks from upstream events are magnified downstream, exposing multiple nations to increased flood and disaster risks. Numerous river and water cooperation agreements exist between countries in the region, but the scale and magnitude of these transboundary floods has rendered them largely useless.

A recent study by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Research suggests that climate change is stressing the great rivers of South Asia. Glacial melt in the Hindu Kush Himalayas is directly contributing to outburst flooding and other extreme events. As rivers cross boundaries, the risks from upstream extreme events such as floods are magnified downstream.

Successive infrastructure intensive policy interventions have also served to compound what is now a chronic seasonal problem. Large engineering works such as dams and embankments on paper  serve a purpose, but more often than not they make things worse. . Take the example of the Koshi river that flows from Nepal into parts of northern India. For decades, governments on both sides of the border have invested in flood control measures that include the construction of embankments aimed at taming the river’s flow. Several studies indicate that these man-made structures do more harm than good, causing widespread erosion, water logging, and siltation.

In 2008, a breach in one of the embankments caused severe flooding in parts of Nepal and the Indian state of Bihar, sparking a humanitarian and natural disaster on either side. Cut to 2020, and the Koshi is in spate again. As governments on both sides of the border enter a now familiar blame game, those who have lost their homes and livelihoods are again left wondering why. As with all humanitarian crises and natural disasters, it is the most vulnerable populations – women and children, ethnic minority communities – that have felt the impacts most acutely. The flood relief camps that house them, already hotbeds of water-borne disease, are highly susceptible to COVID-19 outbreaks.

For decades, technocratic approaches to dealing with nature have dominated pedagogy, practice, and policy in South Asia. Large infrastructure projects are widely viewed as symbols of economic growth and development. They are politically popular and economically productive, boasting a fiscal multiplier effect that promises lucrative contracts for businesses and potential employment opportunities. Dams, bridges, embankments, canals and river linking projects are celebrated even as they re-engineer nature and the natural flow of rivers and other water resources. The effects are often devastating.

Large infrastructure projects are widely viewed as symbols of economic growth and development. Dams, bridges, embankments, canals and river linking projects are celebrated even as they re-engineer nature and the natural flow of rivers and other water resources. The effects are often devastating.

While the evidence against such approaches continues to grow they continue to be viewed as the default solution. South Asia is not unique in this respect. Across the world, and particularly in growing economies, growth and conservation are often seen as contradictory, rather than complementary, concerns. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed this falsehood; our environments, our lives and our economies are deeply interconnected.

Now more than ever, there is a need to fundamentally re-think conventional approaches to river management, flood control and mitigation and adopt more holistic, environmentally and ecologically sound approaches. Moving beyond cement and concrete, a greater emphasis must be placed on understanding and building nature’s own flood defences – i.e. basins, forests, wetlands, marshes etc. Governments, local authorities and urban planners must consider the role of these natural defences in planning cities, towns and in fortifying villages and other habitations. In the long term, a combination of natural and built infrastructure approaches must become the central pillar in their climate adaptation and flood mitigation measures.