Floods are devastating South Asia, too

September 6, 2017

Navine Murshid examines the social roots of another unnatural "natural disaster" as historic rainfall has submerge large areas in South Asia.

WHILE HURRICANE Harvey wreaked havoc in Texas, another climate tragedy was unfolding halfway around the world.

The worst monsoons in decades have left 1,400 dead across the region and millions without shelter, food and potable drinking water. Flooding and landslides have directly affected at least 41 million people in Bangladesh, India and Nepal. In some of the poorest and hardest-hit areas, disease is beginning to spread. The rains submerged roughly one-third of the entire land mass of Bangladesh.

After Katrina, Sandy, and Harvey, perhaps Americans can now better identify with the insecurity that floods--and other "natural" disasters--bring to the people of South Asia year in, year out.

During August, there were simultaneous floods across the globe--in the U.S., Niger, Yemen, Sierra Leone, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Ferocious rains of historic proportions aren't the only similarity that the flood zones shared. In Houston; Niamey, Niger; Dhaka, Bangladesh; and Mumbai, India, urban development--in particular, pouring concrete over wetlands--literally paved the way for deadly flooding by covering over the geography that has historically served as natural sponges that absorb the annual monsoons.

Residents of rural Bangladesh attempt to escape deadly floodwaters
Residents of rural Bangladesh attempt to escape deadly floodwaters

Mumbai, for example, is a city created by linking seven islands created through a process of "land reclamations," a term that speaks to the entitlement that capitalist developers feel with respect to the earth.

WHAT MAINSTREAM media coverage there is of these floods tends to lump together the cases of Bangladesh, Nepal, India and Pakistan into a single "South Asian" experience, perpetuating the notion that "India equals South Asia."

By treating the floods in these countries as the result of similar processes, these reports excuse the role India plays as a regional hegemon in both causing and exacerbating the effects of such disasters in smaller, neighboring countries.

Consider the fact that the most severely affected areas in Bangladesh were not cities with a concrete urban infrastructure, but rural areas in the north of the country. In other words, urban sprawl alone does not explain Bangladesh's floods.

Breaking down the figures, of the 1,400 reported killed in South Asia, around 150 died in Bangladesh, even though it suffered the worst flooding in the last 100 years, with one-third of Bangladesh under water. Note also that Bangladesh has higher population density relative to India--1,251 per square kilometer versus 445.

Due to its history of flooding (there were 200 "natural disasters" between 1980 and 2016), the many river deltas that mark its geography, and its position as the "ground zero of climate change," the Bangladeshi government has enacted reforms in the last two decades to better respond to disasters and manage relief efforts--including early warning systems, the creation of shelters at the neighborhood level utilizing schools and mosques, and deploying the military for relief efforts.

While these seem like the most basic measures, the government response to the floods in India and the U.S. shows that even these simple measures were not in place.

In fact, the severity of the floods in Houston were downplayed by city officials to prevent mass exodus and blocked highways. Similarly, there are claims that Indian government officials were slow to issue warnings about flash floods and deploy the military to help carry out relief efforts.

It is an indictment of a much wealthier country in the U.S. that Bangladesh has deployed its resources to mitigate the immediate impact of natural disasters.

UNFORTUNATELY, THAT is where the positive news ends. While Bangladesh has learned how to prevent mass deaths from floods and cyclones, the destruction to homes, livelihood and food supplies from the current disaster may well be unparalleled. Bangladesh must now brace for another humanitarian crisis, with acute shortages of food and drinking water.

Bangladesh also lacks $6 billion--the amount that Trump has earmarked for reconstruction of the Texas coast--to rebuild in the wake of the massive destruction the floods caused.

For all the institutional reforms that Bangladesh has implemented, there exist structural constraints to further progress, and unless these are resolved, "natural" disasters will remain an annual affair in Bangladesh.

The chief barrier to better flood preparation is Bangladesh's subordination to India as the latter pursues its regional imperial interests. That's a boat that Bangladesh is hesitant to rock, even as the idea that its Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is "selling Bangladesh to India" finds popularity.

The ruling Awami League has been a pro-India political party since India supported Bangladesh's War of Independence in 1971 against domination by Pakistan. In part, this is strategic--Bangladesh cannot afford bad relations with a powerful neighbor that surrounds it to the north, east and west and with which it shares 54 rivers. Bangladesh is also downstream, which means it is dependent on India for water.

India shares its water voluntarily, but there's nothing compelling it to do so. A 1996 treaty sets out guidelines for sharing the water of the Ganges River, but in the years since India has removed clauses from it that guarantee fairness. At present, River Teesta is at the heart of contention, but Indian politicians have tried to avoid discussions of the issue.

India's water policies contributed to both floods and droughts in Bangladesh. Bangladeshi activists and government officials have long claimed that India uses water as a weapon, releasing water during monsoons and shutting it down during droughts. This time around, India's opening of the Teesta Barrage worsened the floods and caused landslides and land erosion in northern Bangladesh, contributing to one-third of the country being under water.

That the Modi government has also recently revived a river-linking project to divert the Ganges and Brahmaputra--two of the four major rivers that provide most of Bangladesh's fresh water supply--does not bode well for the future. Purportedly to divert "surplus" water to "deficit" areas, the scheme has come under harsh criticism from environmentalists for the damage it is projected to cause the environment.

An India-Bangladesh joint plan to set up the Rampal Power Station in the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest, is yet another way that India exerts coercion.

Despite public opposition from activists, civil society organizations, international organizations and scientists who point to a host of environmental concerns--including the ability of the marshes to regulate water that provide natural protection again flooding--the government is set to move ahead with the planned project.

It is perhaps not surprising that the Indian energy giant Reliance Power has been given the contract to develop the power plant.

This is hardly a "benevolent" effort to provide power to an electricity-starved country, as it is often portrayed, but rather a way that India's energy sector can continue with business as usual at a time when people in India have begun protests against dirty power plants. Instead of investing in clean energy sources, India chooses to exploit its weaker neighbors in the name of benevolence.

India, too, is a victim of climate change and has to rely on the good graces of China, which is further upstream, for its own water supply. But India's own predicament has not led to a more cooperative spirit in water diplomacy.

The focus on short-term growth and profiteering not only prevents local-level cooperation to mitigate the effects of erratic weather patterns, but it also delegitimizes efforts by South Asian countries to hold accountable a system where just a hundred companies are responsible for 70 percent of the world's carbon emissions.

When governments in South Asia downplay the risks of climate change, they put the lives of millions at peril.

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