South Asian Floods are the Deadliest Natural Disaster of 2017 — And You May Not Have Even Heard Of Them
Mud sloshes thick and heavy around ankles. Sheets of rain pound relentlessly against crumbling buildings. Villagers frantically scramble to save their friends and family, let alone what meager belongings they have left. As the water steadily creeps upwards above standing height, the noise of panicked residents dissipates into eerie silence. In the distance, a narrow and crowded boat floats among rooftops, dozens stranded in a city submerged.
As the world reels from a series of catastrophic natural disasters that have hit nearly every continent in 2017 alone, South Asia remains among the worst devastated anywhere.
Since the beginning of August, severe monsoon rains and widespread flooding have killed more than 1,400 people in Nepal, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh — two-thirds of which is under water. The floods have destroyed not only homes, schools, and health centers, but also agricultural lands vital for income and food security. This has affected an estimated 40 million people, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Beyond question, it is the worst flooding the monsoon region has seen in decades.
Southeast Asia relies on the yearly summer monsoons for farm irrigation and hydroelectric power. While flooding occurs quite frequently due to the area’s natural landscape, the damage caused by this year’s massive storms has reached cataclysmic proportions, even by South Asian standards. At the height of the season, nearly a week’s worth of average rainfall slammed parts of Bangladesh in a mere few hours, CNN reported.
Apart from the severity of precipitation, poor infrastructure and a lack of preventative measures in the densely populated region have dramatically compounded the wreckage. For example, Mumbai, India is the wealthiest and fastest-growing city to have been hit by flooding, but unregulated overbuilding by private developers on floodplains and other coastal areas have destroyed natural features that slow rising water levels. What’s more, lack of proper waste disposal for construction debris has exacerbated the metropolis’ outdated drainage system, clogging channels and leaving water nowhere to go but up.
As a result, entire buildings have been overwhelmed by the rainwater, including thousands more buildings over a century old at risk of collapse due to weakened bases and inadequate maintenance. Save the Children estimated that the floods have also damaged or destroyed at least 18,000 schools, leaving 1.8 million children without a place for education.
“We haven’t seen flooding on this scale in years and it’s putting the long-term education of an enormous number of children at great risk,” said Rafay Hussain, Save the Children’s General Manager in India’s Bihar state.
“We know that the longer children are out of school following a disaster like this the less likely it is that they’ll ever return.”
Unlike the mature response system developed in first-world countries, the Indian subcontinent lacks the resources necessary to implement sophisticated infrastructure for dealing with disasters. Army personnel have joined rescuers in over 2,000 relief camps to evacuate people from the area, but accessing dry land in rural areas has proven tremendously difficult. With transportation services shut down, entire communities are left helpless amidst diminishing food and water supplies. Those that are in overfilled refugee camps are susceptible to deadly waterborne illnesses such as diarrhea, malaria, and dengue. In Bangladesh, this is compounded by the tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have migrated into the country from Malaysia to escape religious persecution, where they join those currently housed in camps due to the floods.
With monsoon rains predicted to continue until the beginning of October, conditions are likely to deteriorate even further. Many of the affected regions are some of the poorest in the world where a majority of locals live below the poverty line, surviving off of subsistence farming. Even the slightest drop in crop yield could prove devastating. These threats to food security and financial stability magnify pre-existing vulnerabilities as people are left without their homes, possessions, land, and above all, their jobs. The Southeast region is in urgent need of not just health services and food, but also humanitarian relief for the long term. However, the lack of attention or interest from global funders in the developed world (where the monsoons are overshadowed by coverage on Hurricanes Harvey and Irma) have made recovery efforts that much harder.
Perhaps what’s most troubling about this environmental calamity is what it foreshadows. Climate scientists have long foretold that the world will experience more extreme weather events and increasingly unpredictable precipitation patterns, amplified by man-made pollution. The abnormal strength of this year’s monsoons, as well as the volume of severe natural disasters transpiring across the globe, are evidence that we cannot ignore the effects of climate change any longer.
Robert Glasser, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, expressed these concerns in a press statement during the peak of rainfall:
“We must realise that these disaster events are not natural phenomena but are a result of a built environment which is not fit for purpose and a failure to understand how we are intensifying the cocktail of disaster risk by not adequately addressing poverty, land use, building codes, environmental degradation, population growth in exposed in vulnerable settings and, most fundamentally, greenhouse gas emission.”
Indeed, as Glasser urges, if we are to keep treating environmental issues as partisan politics, to continue enabling ignorance and greed at the expense of the planet, we will suffer harrowing repercussions far beyond our expectations. It is imperative that we take a stance now, for the children stranded in the floods of South Asia, for the hundreds of lives lost in the Central Mexico earthquake, for the families devastated by the myriad hurricanes that have swept the world — for our future.