Mumbai: At least 1,256 people have lost their lives in hydro-meteorological disasters, including floods, droughts and cyclones, among others, between January 1 and July 27, 2023, halfway through monsoons. Flooding leads to 1,600 deaths annually, and damages crops, houses and public utilities, amounting to Rs 1,805 crores.

Experts point to gaps in flood preparedness and the need for detailed assessment of flood risks and vulnerabilities, while calling for climate action, to help prevent destruction from floods.

As heavy rains continue to impact Himachal Pradesh–at least 71 people were reported to have died in three days to August 17, and landslides, dam overflows have caused widespread damage to life and property–we take a look at the toll of flood-related events in India.

The cost of floods

Data presented in the Lok Sabha show that extreme and severe flash floods increased in India by almost 35% from 136 such events in 2020 to 186 in 2022.

“India is a deeply flood-affected nation and highly dependent on the southwest monsoon system, which has been getting more erratic and abrupt due to climate change,” said Mohit Prakash Mohanty of IIT Roorkee’s (IITR) Department of Water Resources Development and Management and editor of Wiley’s Journal of Flood Risk Management.

India’s geographical landscape, changing weather patterns with rising temperature, more frequent and intense rainfall, as well deforestation, rapid urbanisation, poor drainage and poor agricultural practices, make it more prone to flooding, according to the Flood Affected Areas Atlas of India of the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) and the Ministry of Home Affairs’ National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).

Most of the flooding in India originates from severe rainfall over short-duration events and worsening flood patterns due to impacts of climate change, added Abinash Mohanty, Sector Head for Climate Change and Sustainability at IPE Global, an international consulting group for sustainable solutions. Other factors such as inadequate capacity of rivers to contain heavy rainfall, poor drainage systems, and erosion and silting of river beds also affect flooding, he added.

Between 2012 and 2021, over 17,000 people died due to floods and heavy rain in India, according to the Ministry of Jal Shakti.

Of the 1,256 deaths between January 1 and July 27, due to heavy rainfall, severe thunderstorms, floods, tropical cyclones and drought, Bihar was the worst affected (502 deaths) followed by Madhya Pradesh (98), Gujarat (97) and Himachal Pradesh (97).

More than 56% of Indian districts have been affected by instances of flooding over nearly 25 years (1998-2022), as per NDMA and NRSC’s flood atlas; this amounts to more than 15.75 million hectares (mha) of flood-affected land area.

In addition to tangible losses, flooding also leads to harder-to-map cascading effects. This means that, as a consequence of flooding, there is a chance of disrupted infrastructure, overwhelmed emergency services, displaced vulnerable communities and greater public health challenges.

Mohanty of IITR explains these impacts using the example of a small-scale farmer. “Disastrous floods seriously threaten agricultural production and affect their livelihood. India suffered huge crop loss on 18.2 million hectares of land, roughly 8.5% of the total gross cropped area, due to floods from 2017-2019,” said Mohanty. These floods lead to “a reduction in agricultural production, which weakens the farmer’s purchasing power and decreases their employment opportunities”, which, in turn, leads to “serious threats of poverty, hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition” for them and their families.

Floods also impact public health, as floodwaters may be contaminated with pollutants including sewage, industrial waste, etc and serve as breeding grounds for pests and mosquitos, he added. “These blood-feeding pests transmit dangerous illnesses, collectively known as vector-borne diseases and increase the likelihood of waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A, and gastroenteritis.”

Flood management and preparedness

India launched a National Programme of Flood Management in 1954. The last edition of the National Disaster Management Guidelines for Management of Floods was released in 2008 by the NDMA. The National Disaster Management Plan of 2019 also delineates measures for evacuating and rescuing people in flood-prone areas, providing relief materials and medical aid, and reconstructing damaged infrastructure for flood mitigation.

There are a range of structural and non-structural measures to restrict flood damage, experts say. Structural measures include the construction of physical infrastructure, such as dams, embankments, reservoirs, and levees to mitigate flood risks and regulate water flow, according to the United Nations Office for Disaster and Risk Reduction. Non-structural measures include early warning systems, community preparedness and education, land-use planning, afforestation, and sustainable drainage systems.

As many as 427 out of 527 works were approved and completed under the Flood Management Programme between 2007 and January 2023, for which the Union government released Rs 6,978.14 crores to states.

Experts say India needs to do more.

The umbrella term “floods” actually includes different types of floods such as riverine, coastal, flash, urban and pluvial; each one is a kind of flooding with unique characteristics, says IPE Global’s Mohanty. He added that the government fails to clearly demarcate the different kinds of floods, and map these.

Mohanty of IITR said that the efficiency of passive flood management projects at the regional and local levels is not up to the mark. He also blamed unsustainable land use planning and management, unavailability of scientific assessment of flood-prone areas and flood-risk information over vulnerable spots, lack of coordination between various stakeholders engaged in disaster management at the central and state levels, and lack of comprehensive coverage of flood forecasting systems, for the damage from floods in India.

He also suggests greater emphasis on non-structural measures, which increase resilience through the use of early warning systems, community awareness programs, sustainable land use planning, etc., while reducing reliance on physical infrastructure. Together, these measures can help the country be adaptable to dynamic and unpredictable floods, he explained.

IPE Global’s Mohanty agreed. India has a great post-recovery strategy, he said, which includes embankments, dams and reservoirs, and systems for river channelisation, but that the country lacks an understanding of floods themselves. He suggests detailed assessment of flood risks and vulnerabilities at a highly localised level, adding that a better understanding of the consequences of floods will help us know how floods impact people from different socioeconomic strata.

India also needs to increase investments in climate action, he said, such as nature-based solutions which can increase the land’s capacity to deal with floods.

IndiaSpend has written to the State Disaster Response Force of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Delhi, Jammu & Kashmir, Rajasthan and Assam on flood preparedness. We have also written to the Head of Department of the NDMA and the Secretary of the Ministry of Jal Shakti. We will update the story when they respond.

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