WORDS BY AGNEE GHOSH
Photographs by Stefan Dotter / connected archives
The Frontline sheds light on the spectrum of climate disasters India faces—and the structural change necessary to prevent such loss in the future.
Climate change is here to stay. Recent events in different corners of the world have cemented this reality. In some regions, rising temperatures will mean hotter and drier days. Elsewhere, global heating will result in monstrous floods that leave entire swaths of land underwater.
The climate crisis really will be a story of fire and water—some communities will burn, and others will drown.
Throughout all, world governments are responsible. They haven’t taken sufficient action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some may argue that, in fact, they’ve been downright negligent in preparing for and responding to disasters in order to save lives. That’s certainly been the case in India, where governments have relied heavily on rescue and relief measures when the climate crisis demands policy-level interventions.
But climate disasters are not only affecting families across India. This year has given us a glimpse of the climate crisis. A third of neighboring Pakistan remains submerged after months of erratic weather, including an extraordinary monsoon that dropped nearly three times the average amount of rain for this period. At least 1,325 people have died, and over 33 million have been impacted in some manner. Some have lost crops, others their homes. Over two months have passed since the monsoon’s early arrival, but the torrential rainfall has shown no signs of abating.
Whereas Pakistan is suffering from too much water, Europe is feeling the opposite: too little. The drought in Europe may be the worst in 500 years. Drought warnings or alerts have been issued for more than 60% of land in the European Union. This summer, the United Kingdom hit its highest temperature ever recorded at 40.3 degrees Celsius (104.5 degrees Fahrenheit). France issued heat alerts, and thousands of people in France, Portugal, Spain, and Greece were forced to leave their homes as a result of deadly wildfires.
Climate change is here, yet people rise up to survive in the face of such devastation. That’s especially true across India, where communities have no other option as they reel from both sides of the climate change coin. It’s too damn hot—and too damn wet. Climate scientists have warned that India may become uninhabitable due to climate change if world leaders don’t soon take action to reduce emissions.
India saw record-breaking temperatures this year, and the temperature climbed to almost 49 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit) across northern regions of the country. The North also saw waters rise: at least 244 have died this year from monsoon rains in the state of Himachal Pradesh. The south and eastern parts of the country saw floods, too.
Climate change is here to stay in India.
When Rivers Roar
Sanchayee Mazumdar’s parents had lived their whole life in Assam, which sits in the northeastern region of India between Bangladesh and Bhutan, but they had never witnessed anything like the floods this year. The town of Silchar, which is bordered by the Barak River in the south, saw the most rainfall in 12 years in 2022.
When the river had previously overflowed past the embankment, the wetlands of Mahisha Beel served as a natural reservoir, absorbing the water and protecting the town of Silchar. This year, the water overwhelmed the wetlands and infiltrated the town borders. In May, as nonstop rain caused the river to swell, the water began to threaten infrastructure. Elsewhere, the river’s overflow was enough to damage at least 100 villages. By late June, Silchar felt the Barak River’s wrath. It was underwater for 11 days.
“It was a pathetic situation,” Mazumdar recalled. “The biggest problem we faced in Silchar was the lack of water and the lack of electricity.”
On the first day of the floods, a government official came to Mazumdar’s house with only 1 liter of water. That’s 1 liter to bathe, cook, and drink. The second time the government came, an official brought 2 liters of water, instead—a slight improvement. Still, Mazumdar (and the rest of her neighborhood) couldn’t leave to buy essentials because of the floodwaters.
“The boats couldn’t get to my door because of the high stream and the neck-deep water,” she said. “The mobile network quickly went. Over time, the phone battery started to run out, and our phones stopped working.”
“I was angry at the government for the lack of support received during the floods.”
At least 197 people died in Assam due to the floods and the subsequent landslides. In response, the state government set up 4,075 relief camps and 5,802 relief distribution centers. Around 719,000 people in the state have been impacted by the flooding, according to estimates from the Assam Disaster Management Authority. However, Assam isn’t alone in its rains. Farther north in parts of the Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand states, dozens died in a matter of days as rainwaters overwhelmed the region. In Bangalore, the country’s IT capital that sits farther south of Assam, above-average rains have flooded homes and roads.
Preventing this level of catastrophe requires regular attention to local disaster management plans, said Abinash Mohanty, the program lead for the risks and adaptation team at the Council on Energy, Environment, and Water, a nonprofit policy research institution based in India. Unfortunately, very few Indian districts annually update their disaster management plan. What’s worse, these plans rarely include details on how to protect the most vulnerable, Mohanty said.
“We need to base our disaster management plans on the hazard, risk, and vulnerability assessment to create robust recommendations,” he said.
Fixing this will demand more of local governments, which must increase their administrative capacity to keep these plans updated and adequately save lives. But a significant gap exists in the implementation of critical investments in infrastructure, education, and health necessary to prevent disaster. The government of India must take precautions against impending disasters rather than reacting during an emergency.
However, policy won’t fix everything. Infrastructure poses a problem, too, said Dr. Nirmalya Choudhury, a professor researching disaster management studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, a school focused on higher education that centers people and justice. An embankment is built alongside a river channel to contain floodwaters and decrease their local impact. They’re meant to protect the land beyond the embankment—but that only works if they’re maintained. Otherwise, the periodic pressure of floodwater every year will continue to weaken them.
“Embankment construction alters the floodplain environment, and the people living around the floodplains had an added layer of risk this year,” Choudhury said. “Because of embankments, tributaries can no longer discharge water into the river, which causes flooding.”
Both Mohanty and Choudhury maintain that climate change will make heat waves and floods more common in the future. Right now, the best option is to improve our efforts to adapt, but infrastructure improvement efforts are currently limited by the government, which lacks the guidance of climate experts when devising policy.
“I was angry at the government for the lack of support received during the floods,” Mazumdar said. The administration failed to seal the river breach until 25 days after the floods were discovered—a delay that led to a catastrophe of epic proportions.
Mazumder is safe now that the waters have receded, but the future feels uncertain.
When Temperatures Terrorize
Deepak Saha doesn’t own an air conditioner and cannot afford to. But as the sweat pours down his back, he wishes he had a portable air conditioner that he could carry with him all the time. He is a hawker who sells goods like sweets and snacks on buses traveling across Kolkata, the capital of the West Bengal state.
“The heat was unbearable,” Saha said. “I had to rest quite frequently this year before getting on different buses.”
For low-income people like Saha, owning an air conditioner may never happen. He makes $3.77 a day on average, and bottled water in Kolkata costs $0.25. If he spends $0.75 a day on three bottles of water, he loses a sizable portion of his daily income. He tries not to spend any money by bringing water from home, but the extreme heat requires more than he can carry.
“When that runs out and there’s no available free water source, I have to work without drinking any water for hours,” he said.
The need for water or air conditioning was severe this year. Even before summer arrived, India had its hottest March in more than a century. Then, this summer was one of the hottest on record with 203 heat wave days. It’s unlikely these extremely high temperatures would’ve happened without climate change: a rapid attribution study published by climate scientists in May found that climate change made the extreme heat recorded in India this year 30 times more likely. This heat killed at least 25 people in Maharashtra, a state in western India where the maximum temperature regularly reached at least 40 degrees Celcius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) this year. The state’s death toll is the highest since 2016 when at least 19 people died.
Part of the problem is heat—but power outages are also dangerous to human health. They’re not unusual during the summer due to the immense energy demand from air conditioners. While outages are often short in major cities, they can last much longer in smaller cities and towns. People in the worst-affected areas had to make do with two hours of electricity each day this year.
“In short, heatwaves affect everyone in one form or another.”
The health crisis this presents can’t be understated, especially in urban centers where the concrete worsens the heat, said Dileep Mavalankar, director at the Indian Institute of Public Health Gandhinagar, which strives to improve the nation’s health system through education, research, and advocacy.
“The need of the hour is a separate department for climate change and health in every municipality, district, and state government,” Mavalankar said. “Only then can we know the health effects of climate change in India because the current data is quite insufficient.”
The anecdotal evidence is damning, however. Saha has seen firsthand the deadly impacts of heat. His friend who was a fellow hawker decided to rest on a bus after feeling uneasy from the heat. After a little while, Saha noticed that his friend was sitting strangely. By the time he tried to wake his friend up, he was already dead, likely from the heat.
“I went to work in the sweltering heat the next day,” Saha said. “For people like us, there is no rest.”
Since 2015, the National Disaster Management Authority, India’s governing institution for disaster management, has been organizing a nationwide response to heat extremes. During this time, several state governments have invested in extensive collaborative “climate-proof” plans to safeguard citizens, companies, and essential infrastructure that involve local heat wave workshops and researching information gaps. The national government, for instance, is working with 23 states and over 130 local jurisdictions to create and implement heat action plans.
The present heat action plans would be stronger if they were based on a heat wave index that took into account both temperature and humidity anomalies, but they are still an excellent place to start, said Mohanty of the Council on Energy, Environment, and Water. Because heat waves have such a wide-ranging impact—on health and the economy—these need to be updated and made more dynamic to help stakeholders better manage heat stress.
“In short, heatwaves affect everyone in one form or another,” Mohanty said.
Climate change is no longer a matter of the future. It’s here—that much is evident from the recent environmental disasters unfolding. What’s missing, however, is the government’s willingness to bring about structural change.
Saha and Mazumdar are two survivors. There’s also Vimal Sahu, who runs a small food joint in Delhi. She keeps her shop cool by wrapping it with a plastic sheet. Then, there’s 18-year-old Rek Sona, who gathers recyclables from the mountainous waste dump in eastern Delhi. The heat makes her work more dangerous.
There are endless stories like this—where people are learning to survive and adapt in the face of the climate emergency.
“Yes, the summer this year was brutal, but what can we do?” Saha said. “We have to fill our stomachs somehow. Come heat or flood, we daily wage earners have to work in all kinds of situations.”