Climate Change, Flooding & The Geopolitics Of Water

Image: Manoj Nav/ Creative Commons
Climate change, floods and the geopolitics of water are wreaking havoc on vulnerable people living below poverty line.

Across South Asia, seasonal floods are wreaking havoc. Hundreds of people – men, women and children – in India, Bangladesh and Nepal have lost their lives. Millions have lost their homes and livelihoods. This is one of the worst floods in decades, decimating every region. Each region has suffered a different consequence of this tragic environmental disaster.

In Bihar, flooding is an annual horror. Each time, it is an unmitigated disaster, affecting over 70 percent of the population living below the poverty line.

Returning to normal life is a traumatic process. The period of the South West Monsoons (July to September) is when the worst flooding takes place. The first signs of a flood to come start in Nepal. The mountainous neighbour state is a source of many of the rivers that flow into Bihar – the Kosi, Gandak, Burhi Gandak, Bagmati, Kamla Balan, Mahananda and Adhwara. When the water surges up the mountains, it brings a torrent of floodwater and sediment down into the plains.

Bihar’s 108 million residents live in the most flood-prone region in India. And both the casualties and area affected has gone up over the years. In August 2017, as the rain continues to fall, 12.6 million people are left homeless and displaced by flooding. As of writing, the death toll is 304.

The same rains have left Assam in ruins, where the worst flood in 29 years has displaced 2.6 million – leaving 148 dead. There, the river Brahmaputra, one of the largest rivers in the world, is swelling. Many other states in the North East, such as Tripura, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya and  Arunachal Pradesh are also affected – to the extent that rail services between mainland India and the seven sisters have been cut off for 11 days running. Connectivity is not expected to be restored until August 28.

The Kaziranga National Park, home to two-thirds of the world’s endangered One-Horned Rhino, has been especially hit. Over 225 animals have been killed, mostly deer, but the toll also includes a Bengal Tiger and 15 rhinos. Fleeing the floods, many animals have strayed into nearby villagers. Officials say the corridors need to be cleared of human settlements so the park’s wildlife has more safe spots to visit. In previous floods, up to 80 percent of the park had gone underwater.

Earlier in July, Gujarat too suffered from flooding – with 218 killed and 418,000 affected. There, it was a rare phenomenon that triggered the deluge – a combination of rains from both the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.

Elsewhere, in Nepal and in Bangladesh, 123 and 89 have been killed by the floodwaters respectively. The biggest killer is yet to come – the disease spread by stagnant water and insufficient resources.

Bengal, Bihar and the Farraka Barrage

In Bengal, the death toll is 152, and 15 million are affected. Bengal’s Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, has requested an aid package from the centre. But she also mentioned that the Farraka Barrage, which regulates the water of the Ganges between India and Bangladesh – had not been properly dredged.

The barrage, constructed in 1975, has long been a source of regional and international strife. Bihar’s chief minister had blamed it for the floods in 2016. But it has also soured relations between India and Bangladesh. In 1976, a year after the Barrage’s commissioning, thousands of Bangladeshis staged a “Long March” to the border with India to protest against it. India’s Eastern neighbour raised the issue in many international platforms until 1996 – when a 30-year agreement was signed.

Many of the issues caused by the barrage today – reduced river flow, silting of the Ganga, floods caused by the improper release of water – were raised in the 1960s by a Bengali engineer deeply involved with the project. Though he was later proved right, the engineer was called a Pakistani spy and forced to resign.

The geopolitics of water made South Asia an especially fraught region. It’s considered a future ‘hotspot‘ for a water war. The danger is alleviated by the region’s two major powers – India and China – having no water-sharing agreement between them. Instead, they have an agreement to share water data.

But ever since the Doklam standoff began between India and China in May, the latter has refused to share its hydrological data. This is in violation of two Memorandums of Understanding signed in 2013 and 2014. But the Chinese condition, according to experts, is that no data will be shared until India withdraws from its position in Doklam.

Need of the hour

In Assam, the spectre of war is a distant possibility for the survivors. Emergency services are stretched thin across the affected regions. The Army along with National and State Disaster Response Forces, rescued more than 721,000 in Bihar – providing them with food and shelter. In Assam, 68,000 people now live in relief camps across the state. In Tripura, nearly 10,000 families now live in relief camps.But many millions remain outside the safety net.

In the past, these understaffed, overcrowded camps have been hotbeds of disease. NGO workers are running fervent campaigns to help the situation. Even donating a toilet can make a difference, as poor sanitary conditions in the presence of stagnant water alleviate the spread of diarrhoea, cholera and dysentery.

There are many NGOs and aid agencies involved in relief at present. In India, the Centre will be relying on the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund to dispense large quantities of aid to each of the states. Oxfam India is also running an urgent appeal to provide toilets and sanitary materials. In Nepal, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has been dispensing aid kits and basic essentials.

The ongoing humanitarian crisis in South Asia is a multi-layered problem. Climate change, poor water management, geopolitics – all play a role in this ongoing natural crisis. It is only when the flood waters recede that a concrete action plan can be taken to mitigate the damage in the future – and learn from past mistakes. But until then, the immediate need is to shelter, feed and keep disease-free the tens of millions who are now without homes, food or livelihoods.


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