India could see a six-fold increase in the population exposed to the risk of severe floods by 2040--to 25 million people from the 3.7 million facing this risk between 1971 and 2004--according to a new study published in Science Advances, a peer-reviewed journal.

While states such as Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Chhattisgarh will see the highest jumps in populations exposed to severe floods, states that had not experienced similar risks during the study’s historical reference period--such as Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand--will also face the risk of severe flooding.

Source: Science Advances: January 2018

To contain the flood risk to present levels, India--and other vulnerable countries--must introduce more flood protection measures, the study concluded. This central message should set alarm bells ringing in India given the potential loss of life and property that could result from more widespread flooding.

Between 1996 and 2005, India suffered flood losses worth Rs 4,745 crore ($713 million) annually. The Centre’s allocation to the Climate Change Action Plan and the National Adaptation Fund in 2018-19 (and 2017-18) was Rs 150 crore--3% of the annual loss from floods.

These losses are already mounting with single cities, such as Srinagar in 2014 and Chennai in 2015, suffering higher losses--Rs 5,000 crore and Rs 15,000 crore respectively--in a span of a few days. And these were just the immediate losses. Epidemics that break out after floods necessitate higher public and private spending on health that is mostly undocumented.

Extreme rainfall shocks will reduce farmer incomes in the kharif and rabi seasons by 13.7% and 5.5%, the Economic Survey, 2017-18 estimated.

“High losses from floods reflect India’s inadequacy to cope with the current variability in climate, let alone future climate change,” Ashvani Kumar Gosain, professor in the Department of Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, told IndiaSpend.

Globally, countries halved the casualties per flood to an average of 34 per flood event during the 10 years to 2015, down from an average of 68 during the previous 10 years, a 2015 report from the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction said, as IndiaSpend reported in October 2017. In contrast, flood mortality in India has been rising.

India’s State Action Plan on Climate Change is “the largest sub-national climate change policy effort globally”, Anu Jogesh, policy and governance lead at Acclimatise, a climate risk resilience and adaptation advisory, told IndiaSpend.

But for this to translate into action on a war-footing, as is desperately needed, “climate change in turn needs to be mainstreamed, instead of remaining an isolated effort among state climate centres with limited bureaucratic heft to implement projects”, she said.

Diversity in the risk exposure of different regions and cities also means that India needs to focus on the granular level.

“It is not a scientific question whether a country’s protection level should be regionally diverse or homogeneous, but a societal decision,” Anders Levermann, professor of Dynamics of the Climate System, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and co-author of the new study, told IndiaSpend. “A risk-averse society would aspire for greater protection and be willing to pay more.”

How states must mainstream climate change to protect vulnerable sectors

India could see, as we said, a six-fold increase in population exposed to the risk of severe floods by 2040 if no efforts are made to mitigate the circumstances.

However, with all the uncertainty around climate change science projections, “it can be challenging for policy makers to translate the science into actionable policies and access budgets for it”, said Jogesh.

This is why she advocates mainstreaming climate change by focusing on clear development co-benefits, and finding the money among existing domestic budgets.

This will involve adapting budgets of departments that are likely to be impacted by variations in climate, such as agriculture, water, urban development and forestry.

For instance, it is now clear that climate change is changing rainfall patterns. For one, the frequency of downpours has increased, exacerbating the chances of flooding and the area likely to be inundated, said Gosain. Secondly, the gaps between rainy days during the monsoon have increased, thus raising concerns for rain-fed agriculture, which is practiced on 60% of India’s cropped land. Adapting the agricultural policy to factor in this reality would help protect farmers’ income.

In consultation with the UK’s Department for International Development-funded Action on Climate Today (ACT) programme, Bihar has included special initiatives for addressing the impact of climate change in the state’s Agricultural Road Map 2017-2022, such as the promotion of crops (maize and traditional varieties of lentils) that are more resilient to the impacts of changing climate.

The ACT has also helped the government of Bihar to develop commercial strategies to ensure that this alternative crop policy is operationalised.

“Until farmers see the gain in switching to a crop, cropping patterns will not change,” said Aditya Vansh Bahadur, regional programme development manager with the ACT programme, Oxford Policy Management, India.

While states that have already suffered the effects of climate change appear to be taking the lead in climate change initiatives, such as Maharashtra (drought/water scarcity), Assam (catastrophic floods) and Kerala (coastal erosion/sea level rise), Bahadur believes it is only a matter of time before states across India feel this effect, and so, every state must demonstrate how their policies will help deal with the impact of climate change.

Varying flood exposure levels require local policies

India has a national level protection policy but none at the regional or the city levels, unlike developed countries such as UK and Germany, according to the first global database of FLOod PROtection Standards (FLOPROS), which released its first compilation in 2016.

India has an ambitious State Action Plan on Climate Change as well as District Disaster Management Plans. However, there are missing bits and the focus needs to change from responding to disasters to averting disasters through better preparedness.

Actions plans for each state are supposed to delineate regional priorities for adaptation and help mainstream adaptation decision-making, although more clarity is needed about what this involves,” according to this 2015 report by London School of Economics and Political Science Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. “Training of local stakeholders and participatory development of adaptation plans are also required.”

Differences in the likelihood of different regions and cities experiencing floods necessitate local protection policies.

For instance, in cities which have preserved their green spaces, the soil absorbs more rainfall, reducing the run-off and putting less pressure on city drains. In cities where green spaces have been encroached on, the absorption of the rainwater has dwindled from 50% of the water discharged during heavy rains 50 years ago, to 10% of the discharge today, said Gosain.

Poor drainage--a major reason for urban flooding--is city-specific, with coastal cities seeing an exacerbated risk due to rising sea waves coming in through the drains, Pradeep Kumar, Member, River Management in the water resources ministry’s Central Water Commission (CWC), told IndiaSpend.

The first step to institute city-level protection is to prepare hydraulic models of cities to examine the capacity of existing drains to cope with a deluge, said Gosain, whose team has recently completed a hydraulic model for Delhi requested by the Delhi government.

At the broader regional level, a flood plain zoning exercise would show high risk areas which are susceptible to different level of flood that can guide flood management policies, he said.

The onus is on the urban development department of state governments to commission hydraulic modelling studies for a region. At the city level, the onus is on municipal bodies.

Preparing to manage extreme events

Not all the threat of flooding that India faces and will face in the coming years is due to climate change. Some of this risk is anthropogenic--arising from human settlement in flood-prone areas.

“From the environmental perspective, flooding brings fertility to the floodplain and the landmass,” said Gosain. “But when people settle in floodplains, and suffer losses of life and property during flooding, the traditional environmental thinking switches to: how do we prevent flooding to mitigate the loss of life and property?”

For instance, 50 years ago, the same volume of water passing through the Yamuna river caused no flooding because the floodplain had not been encroached upon by an expanding population, he said.

Encroachment makes floodplain management a sensitive issue; state governments find it difficult to act tough and clear the plain of human settlements, Kumar told IndiaSpend.

Embankments can help protect people living by flood plains and in recent years, the CWC encouraged embankments manned by people from the local community who have an interest in protecting the land, he said.

But there will come a time when heavy rainfall causes the river to break its banks such as Bihar saw in August 2017, when over 150 people died and over 10 million were affected, and Rajasthan and Gujarat saw in July 2017, when the states recorded over 300 fatalities.

So the CWC is also encouraging capacity building to teach people how to live with floods and by creating inundation maps showing areas that are likely to be inundated in the eventuality of a flood, it is improving the flood alert services so that people in the path of the river get sufficient time to move themselves and their livestock to higher ground.

“We used to issue alerts for extreme events 24 hours in advance; we are now issuing these alerts 72 hours in advance,” said Kumar. “The challenge is, states do not act upon information we provide to them.”

Without concerted efforts by the Centre and proactive states, millions in India will flounder.

(Bahri is a freelance writer and editor based in Mount Abu, Rajasthan.)

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