Mumbai: As many as 6,585 people lost their lives due to rain-related natural calamities--such as cyclone, floods and landslides--in India over three years ending July 18, 2019, a government reply to the Lok Sabha (parliament's lower house) said on July 23, 2019. This amounts to nearly 2,000 deaths every year, on average.

More than 170 people died in floods in the states of Bihar and Assam, which affected more than 10 million people, India Today reported on July 24, 2019.

The Kaziranga National Park in Assam’s Golaghat district has reported the death of 204 animals including 15 rhinoceroses since July 13, 2019.

The states of Assam and Bihar are prone to floods every year due to heavy rains and the overflowing of rivers.

Satellite images released by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the US space agency, shows how “the Brahmaputra river rose out of its banks in many locations across India and Bangladesh”, flooding huge swaths of farmland.

Source: Lok Sabha

The 2018 deluge in the southern state of Kerala--one of the worst in 94 years--claimed 477 lives or 23% of all (2,045) deaths in rain-related natural calamities reported in 2018-19.

Bihar reported the most--970 or 15% deaths--followed by Kerala (756), West Bengal (663), Maharashtra (522) and Himachal Pradesh (458) over three years. These five states account for 51% of all deaths.

More than 200,000 livestock deaths have been reported and over 3.9 million houses/huts damaged due to rain-related natural calamities over these three years, government data show.

Rain-related calamities killed 496 people between April 1, 2019, and July, 18, 2019, or about five deaths per day, on average, with Maharashtra reporting the most (137), followed by Bihar (78).

Heavy rains, floods have killed more than 100,000 over 64 years

As many as 107,487 people died due to heavy rains and floods across India over 64 years between 1953 and 2017, according to Central Water Commission data presented to the Rajya Sabha (Parliament’s upper house) on March 19, 2018, IndiaSpend reported on July 17, 2018.

“The main reasons of floods have been assessed as high intensity rainfall in short duration, poor or inadequate drainage capacity, unplanned reservoir regulation and failure of flood control structures,” according to the reply.

More than 40 million hectares (12%) of India’s land is prone to floods, official data show. India witnessed 431 major natural disasters over three decades between 1980 and 2010, leading to loss of human lives, property and resources.

“About 48% of the flood prone area has been provided with reasonable protection against flood of a low to moderate magnitude due to technological and economic constraints. It is not possible to provide protection against all magnitude of flood,” the Central Water Commission states.

India could see a six-fold increase in the number of people exposed to the risk of severe floods by 2040--to 25 million people, up from 3.7 million facing this risk between 1971 and 2004, IndiaSpend reported in February 2018, based on a study published in Science Advances, a peer-reviewed journal.

Not just India, most of South Asia prone to floods

About seven million people in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan (as much as the population of Hong Kong) have been displaced or had their lives disrupted by flooding in mid-July 2019, NASA reported on July 18, 2019.

Source: NASA Earth Observatory

The two images above, captured on June 28 (before) and July 14, 2019 (after), depict India’s eastern region showing water (navy and dark blue) out of river banks and on the floodplains. Clouds can be seen in white or cyan and vegetation-covered land in green.

Like NASA, The International Charter Space and Major Disasters depicts the before and after images of flood-affected areas in the state of Assam.

The Charter is a group of space agencies and space system operators--including the Indian Space Research Organisation--across the world that provide satellite images for disaster monitoring.

“Global climate change is likely to increase frequency and severity of flooding in South Asia threatening agricultural production and increase uncertainty for small-scale farmers whose livelihoods serve the rural economy in these regions necessitating an integrated approach to overall risk reduction,” a December 2018 article titled Flood risk assessment in South Asia to prioritize flood index insurance applications in Bihar, India said.

Cities in South Asia such as “Dhaka, Karachi, Kolkata and Mumbai—urban areas that are home to more than 50 million people—face a substantial risk of flood-related damage over the next century”, a 2018 World Bank report titled South Asia’s Hotspots—The Impact of Temperature and Precipitation Changes on Living Standards, stated.

Mumbai experienced heavy rainfall in the first week of July 2019, with some parts receiving the second-highest rainfall in July in 45 years that brought the financial capital to a halt, claiming nearly 16 lives, IndiaSpend reported on July 2, 2019.

While linking a particular event to climate change requires extensive analysis, it is clear that the increasing rate of intense rainfall events over Mumbai and the Western Ghats is due to rising temperatures, Roxy Mathew Koll, climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune, had told IndiaSpend.

Heavy rainfall events (more than 100 mm) in urban India have increased over the past 100 years; there has been an overall increasing trend of events exceeding 100, 150 and 200 mm since the 1900s, and an increasing variability in recent decades, IndiaSpend reported on August 29, 2017.

(Mallapur is a senior analyst with IndiaSpend.)

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