When the Floods Hit

The catastrophic flooding in India shows that the greatest victims of global warming will be those least responsible for it.

Flooding in Assam, India in 2012. Oxfam International

Extreme rains lashed Mumbai, the iconic city on India’s western coast, in the final days of August. On August 29 alone, fourteen and a half inches of rain poured down in less than twenty-four hours. Fourteen people died, and tens of thousands were stranded at their workplaces and schools. Two days later, battered by the powerful rains, an old residential building collapsed in south Mumbai, killing thirty-four.

For many people in this city of twenty million, it was not just the travails of the ongoing flooding that dogged them but the trauma it evoked, of another rain, at another time. On July 27, 2005, more than thirty-eight inches of rain fell on North Mumbai, and well over five hundred people died in the ensuing floods. That nightmare has hung over every intense downpour since.

And unfortunately, there have been a lot of them. Climate scientists caution against blaming any single extreme rainfall event on global warming, and instead urge that we look at general trends. And the trends are becoming obvious. “Extremely heavy rainfall” — defined by the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) as more than 244.5 mm (or 9.6 inches) in a single day — has hit Mumbai nine times since the turn of this century. Not unrelatedly, the city’s average maximum temperature has risen by 1.6 degrees Celsius since 1901.

The spike in temperature, according to the IMD’s former deputy director general, is helping amplify the intensity of downpours. A warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor. Then it lets it go in fierce bursts. This monsoon season, whether in the east (Agartala), the west (Ahmedabad, Mumbai), the north (Chandigarh), or the south (Bengaluru), many towns in India have received a significant portion of their entire season’s rainfall in just a day or two. Nearly 150 of India’s 707 districts have been hit with over 100 mm of rain in a few hours, according to the Center for Science and Environment.

The brunt of this deadly weather has been borne most acutely by people in the North Indian state of Bihar, where torrential rain in the north and adjoining southern Nepal triggered flash floods that have taken the lives of more than five hundred people. More than twelve million people in Bihar are now homeless. And this devastation has spread across large parts of the subcontinent, including Nepal and Bangladesh.

The Victims

Increasingly, these intense bursts of rain and the deadly flooding that accompany it are being recognized as the new normal. Less commonly noted is how this “new normal” tends to disproportionately hit the underclasses — the urban poor, agriculturalists, coastal communities, and poor women everywhere.

In Bihar, untold numbers of people are currently stranded on river embankments and state highways; most of them are small farmers and agricultural workers who have lost their homes, belongings, and cattle. In Mumbai, over half of the city’s twenty million people reside in jhoppad pattis and other shanty housing especially vulnerable to intense flooding; in 2005, for instance, many of those who perished were poor residents of North Mumbai whose shanties collapsed. In Chennai in December 2015, huts were washed away, dozens died, and massive numbers were displaced. Many lost the means of their livelihoods: sewing machines, handcarts, tools, livestock. One common way the urban poor also get hit during floods is the loss of documentary proof essential to access welfare and their daily lives — voter IDs, ration cards, etc. In the 2013 floods in the state of Uttarakhand, possibly India’s worst-ever climate disaster, even the official figure of eleven thousand dead is an underestimate because thousands of Nepali and Indian migrant workers were at work during the tourist season and not all are accounted for.

This is something climate justice activists, indeed anyone engaged with global warming, can never underline enough: those most affected by global warming’s impacts are the people least responsible for them.

Exacerbated by “Development”

Ordinary Indians have often shown remarkable solidarity in the face of catastrophic flooding, reaching out across usual divides of community. The state’s performance has been far less commendable.

The authorities in Mumbai did widen storm-water drains and implement preparedness measures after the 2005 floods, but those steps have been partial and insufficient. And much misery might have been averted last week had sufficient advance warning been given, and schools and offices kept closed. In Bihar, the state has been absent in many places several days into the flooding. “Survivors eat snails, fish and rats, anything they can lay their hands on, and drink the floodwaters, and wait for days for help to reach them from somewhere,” one national newspaper reported.

But even more than immediate acts of omission, the effects of climate change in India are exacerbated by the lopsided development promoted by the state (and pushed by private capital), which favors the better-off and whose underlying aim is not just buoying profits but maximizing them.

In Mumbai, private builders have built houses for the rich on what used to be water drains; wetlands have been encroached upon, and mangroves cut. In Uttarakhand, the widening of roads (to promote elite tourism) and the blasting of mountain sides (for run-of-the-river hydropower projects) intensified the flooding’s effects. In Chennai, the Pallikaranai marshlands used to sprawl over a fifty-square kilometer area; over time, they have been shrunk to merely 4.3 square kilometers, thanks to the intrusion of both public construction and private builders. When the floods hit, the waters had nowhere to go.

Three Trends

Intense rainfall and consequent nightmarish flooding is only one manifestation of climate change in India. In different regions of the country, ordinary Indians see a raft of other deleterious effects: sea level rising, extreme heat stress increasing, rains becoming more erratic, droughts spreading. Regardless of whether global emissions are brought down, all of these effects will become more acute or more frequent because of unavoidable further warming due to the carbon dioxide already released into the atmosphere.

A warmer world does not bode well for India’s underclasses, given three unfolding trends: one, an intensifying inequality of both income and wealth over the past twenty-five years, worsened by regressive taxation and other neoliberal state policy. Two, a chaotic urbanization — in which millions of the urban poor are barely serviced by the municipal authorities — and the spread of peri-urban areas, driven by construction lobbies, which has brought concrete and cement where there was once agricultural land, wetlands, or grasses. (The former environment absorbed excess water during floods and, incidentally, carbon dioxide.)

And finally, the geographical spread and deepening of capitalism, particularly in Indian agriculture. This spread of capitalism has been a boon for some, but has heightened risk for the majority: it is not a coincidence that over three hundred thousand farmers have committed suicide in India over the past twenty years.

A warming planet introduces even more volatility, with at times lethal consequences. A recent, widely reported paper claimed that global warming “over the last thirty years is responsible for 59,300 suicides in India.” The paper was methodologically flawed, but it helped draw attention to one causal link that may increasingly bedevil us in a hotter world: that for untold numbers of farmers and agricultural laborers facing heightened risk, climate change may well be the last straw that breaks their backs.