Why The Floods In South Asia Matter

Monsoon flooding in South Asia has left 200 people dead and six million displaced in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan in the past week. Over 1,800 villages are swamped in the Northeastern Indian state of Assam after the Brahmaputra River burst its banks and officials estimate that one-third of Bangladesh is underwater. Landslides triggered by the floods have destroyed around 400 refugee camps in Bangladesh which had housed 3,000 Rohingya Muslims after they fled neighbouring Myanmar. 

Relief programs are underway, but food, water and power supplies are still troubled, particularly in remote areas. Monsoons happen every year in South Asia and measures are in place to divert floodwater from cities, however, climate change has made the weather in this region more extreme and erratic. It is also possible that last month’s drought in India made the current floods worse by making the ground so dry that it became less absorbent when the rain did arrive. 

Governments have set up emergency relief centres in response to the floods and more than half a million have been evacuated across the affected countries. ‘‘We’re trying our best to reach out to the affected people in whatever way possible but yes, the situation is indeed very bad,’’ is what Pramila Rani Brahma, the Social Welfare Minister for Assam, told Reuters.

Others are concerned with the less immediate consequences of the floods. Ned Olney, Save the Children’s Director for Nepal, recognized the need to prevent the floods from creating a ‘‘health emergency.’’ The head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ (IFRC) Bangladesh office, Azmat Ulla, recognized the damage done to farmland and how that could cause serious problems for many: ‘‘There are still communities that depend very much on the crops… They lose their crops, they lose their livelihoods.’’

The efforts made by governments and organizations to help those affected by the floods are commendable, but the actions taken are mostly reactive. They aim to fix or mitigate the problems caused by the floods, not proposing solutions to what is making the weather so extreme and erratic – climate change. Floods in the past two decades indicate how vulnerable South Asia is to the adverse effects of global warming and that existing measures, such as the Koshi Barrage in Nepal, can no longer be relied upon to prevent flooding. If governments want to stop the weather from becoming more and more extreme, then action on climate change is imperative. 

All four countries have signed up to the Paris Agreement, and, with the exception of India, contribute less than 1% each to global greenhouse gases. India, which is the third-largest emitter has pledged to reduce emissions intensity by 33-35% by 2030. Nevertheless, these actions have not been enough to stop billions of tonnes of the Himalayan glaciers melting between 2000 and 2016, double the amount between 1975 and 2000. 

However, there are considerable obstacles in the way of South Asia dealing with climate change and its repercussions effectively. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh all have huge populations which are continuing to grow, thus creating a greater strain on resources and greater demand for food. Plans for economic development will further exacerbate climate change as urban spaces spread and energy use rises. 

The crux of the matter is that climate change is not restricted to South Asia, or the polar ice caps, or small islands. It is a global problem and requires a global solution. Countries that can afford to act on climate change need to start pulling their weight, regardless of the extent to which they will be affected.