The waterlevel of the swollen rivers in South Asia has returned back to normal, after early monsoon rains in the region caused one of the most devastating floods in years.
This might only bring a short term relief to the millions of people living in the flood plains of Bangladesh, India and Nepal, as flooding in the region now seems to be an annual affair. The same areas have been affected year after year, deepening the vulnerability of poor communities in the region. And this same population can expect to be hit by floods for years to come.
With some 70 million affected, the situation this year was compared to that of the 1998 floods, which were described as the worst in 60 years.
This year’s floods have killed some 1,800 people throughout the region and left millions homeless. Millions of people have also lost their means of survival, their crops and land having all but disappeared due to river erosion.
The Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies of Bangladesh, India, and Nepal provided assistance to the flood victims from the onset of the disaster.
They have been supported by the International Federation, which in late July launched appeals for more than 10 million Swiss francs to assist the worst hit population.
Monsoon rains are both a blessing and a curse for people living in the flood plains of the hundreds of rivers running through the three countries. The South Asian monsoons are crucial for agriculture and water resources. For centuries, communities have lived by the river banks, tended their fields, and coped with subsequent flooding during the rainy season.
But in recent years, serious floods have become more frequent and their magnitude has increased. As a result, the same communities are often affected year after year, and their vulnerability is deepened by each new flood.
Some scientific research show that the monsoons have been intensifying over the past decades, and that they can be expected to get worse. More intense monsoons may mean fewer crop failures in the short term but, as the latest floods have shown, it creates more flooding and erosion that damage the livelihood of millions.
The quantity and timing of rainfall have also become more uncertain, and climatic extremes such as droughts, floods and the amount of snowmelt have increased. From a purely scientific perspective, it may be too soon to confirm a direct connection between the increased strength and variability of the monsoon rainfalls, but the observed changes do conform to the projections that climate change models deliver.
On average, annual temperatures now are 0.7° Celsius above those recorded at the end of the 19th century. The ten warmest years globally since records began have occurred since 1990. Things are unlikely to improve: it is projected that temperatures will increase globally by 5.8°C by the end of this century.
A study on Impact of Climate Change on Indian Agriculture, conducted by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in 2002, states that an increase in temperature associated with climate change will increase the rate of snowmelt and consequently the area of snow cover will decrease.
In the long run, a receding snow line and the melting of glaciers will result in reduced water flow in the rivers, which is likely to lead to water shortages that will affect hundreds of millions of people in South and South-East Asia. In the short term, however, there will be increased water flow in many rivers, which will mean more frequent flooding.
With the exception of 2003, the International Federation has launched international appeals to assist flood victims in South Asia in every year since 1993. This would appear to suggest that the region is already experiencing the consequences of climate change. However, these devastating perennial floods are the result of a variety of contributing factors.
“The floods appear to be getting worse, but this is a very complex equation,” says Bob McKerrow, head of the Federation’s regional delegation for South Asia.
“Summer and spring temperatures are getting higher, which results in more melting of Himalayan snows and glaciers. That in turn fills up the major river systems.
But we also have to take into account forces such as the damning of rivers, deforestation, overgrazing, erosion and overpopulation which all add to the extent of the humanitarian crisis due to floods,” he adds.
Deforestation causes soil erosion, which reduces the ability of the land to absorb water.
It also allows people to move to traditionally uninhabitable places. Overpopulation furthermore forces people to live in higher risk areas which were not inhabited before. “The most vulnerable sections of the South Asia’s population have become even more vulnerable in recent years due to the combination of these factors,” McKerrow says.
In an opinion piece published on the Reuters AlertNet website at the end of July, Salvano Briceno, director of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), asked if it was inevitable that more and more people die every year due to floods.
“Today floods happen mainly in Asia, but climate change and overpopulation will make them real and constant threat in many other regions.” Referring to the floods in Bangladesh this summer, Briceno writes: “Despite the scale of the current floods, the disaster could have been mitigated if communities had been better prepared. Risk-reduction measures could have saved lives and protected livelihoods.”
The UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) sent out a statement at the beginning of August describing recent weather conditions in Eastern and Southern Asia as abnormal, and that with a combination of factors these abnormalities have resulted in disaster.
“It will require investigation by the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services of the countries to better understand the causes and to improve early warnings which will further decrease the damage and loss of life,” the statement read.
This is the core business of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the International Federation: to reduce the risk faced by millions of people as a result of natural disasters and to save the lives of vulnerable people throughout the world.
Some 65 percent of the world’s population lives in monsoon-affected regions. With current population growth, that figure is expected to reach 75 per cent by the 2025. By 2050, more than two billion people around the world will be at risk of flood devastation.