Sep 19, 2016

Floods of Fury: The most frequent and costly natural disaster

by Nirma Bora:

Heavy rains have once again triggered deadly floods across the globe, with 175 people being killed in India alone (WSJ, Aug 2016). Ministry of Home Affairs in India said the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat are also among the worst affected this season. Almost 4 million people have been affected in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh alone. In Europe too, rivers are bursting their banks from Paris to the southern German state of Bavaria, killing people, trapping thousands and forcing everything from subway lines to castles to shut down. Louisiana, in the US,  is also dealing with some of the worst flooding to ever hit the state.

A 2015 report by the UN, “The Human Cost of Weather Related Disasters”, reveals that in the last 20 years, 157,000 people have died as a result of floods. Flooding alone accounted for 47% of all weather related disasters (1995-2015), affecting 2.3 billion people, the majority of whom (95%) live in Asia. Of the floods occurring globally, the ones in India, Pakistan and the Balkans have been rated the most severe (IFRC, 2015).       
The nature of disastrous floods has also changed in recent years, with flash floods, acute riverine and coastal flooding becoming increasingly frequent. In addition, urbanization has significantly increased flood run-offs, while recurrent flooding of agricultural land, particularly in Asia, has taken a heavy toll in terms of lost production, food shortages and rural under-nutrition. In rural India, for example, children living in flooded household were more likely stunted and underweight than those living in non-flooded households (Rodriguez, 2011). Children exposed to floods in their early years of life also suffer the highest levels of chronic malnutrition caused by disruptions in food supply or diarrheal illness caused by contaminated water (Kousky, 2016).

The frequency of these extreme events is likely to triple across the Indian Ocean in the coming decade as the manmade global warming is most likely to shift in the behavior of a naturally-occurring climate cycle, known as the Indian Ocean Dipole (Freedman, 2014). Like the Pacific Ocean, which gives rise to El Niño and La Niña events, the Indian Ocean has its own inherent fluctuations, like oceanic and atmospheric mood swings, can interact in reinforcing feedback cycles, leading to positive or negative Dipole events that lead to huge changes in where it rains and how frequently and heavily it does so.  

As flooding, exacerbated by climate change and inadequate preparedness has become a recurring hazard, economic losses and human hardship due to floods continues to rise. An analysis from the World Resources Institute (WRI) in 2015 shows that river flooding could affect 21 million people and expose $96 billion in GDP worldwide each year. By 2030, those numbers could grow to 54 million people and $521 billion in GDP affected every year. India currently has by far the most GDP at risk, at $14.3 billion, and researchers say this figure could rise more than 10-fold by 2015. 

In view of the serious health and socio-economic impacts of flooding and the possibility of greater losses in the future, flood control should be regarded as a development issue as well as a humanitarian concern. Priority should be given to cost-effective mitigation measures in poor regions at high risk of recurrent flooding, together with post disaster rehabilitation programmes. It is necessary to promote and harmonise changes in water policies and land-use practices, as well as environmental protection and nature conservation, in order to improve flood management in the frame of Integrated River Basin Management.

 Low like countries like Bangladesh, Malaysia and Philippines have successfully framed coping strategies to deal with destructive floods that annually paralyze businesses and work. These are a combination of structural and non structural mitigation measures. While structural measures includes physical construction to reduce or avoid possible impacts of hazards, non structural measures uses knowledge, practice or agreement to reduce risks and impacts, in particular through policies and laws, public awareness raising, training and education.  A pivotal role is played by community volunteers in minimizing damage (including fishermen, women, youth and businessmen) who are trained in vulnerability and capacity assessments, disaster management and warning dissemination.

People, governments, businesses, and other organizations in such region must be aware of the current and future flood risks they face. Once they understand the risks, they can start to take action soon. Better strategic development planning by the government at all levels most crucial. The approaches to flood management presently exercised in many flood prone developing countries need to be given a re-look to have an integrated strategy for policy and management related to floods. Replication of best practices and models followed in Bangladesh, Malaysia and Philippines can also reduce people and economic assets' exposure to river flood risks.

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