South Asia: millions more ‘climate refugees’

With stateside media focused on the unprecedented flooding and cascading industrial disasters from Hurricane Harvey in Texas, the far great deluges that have struck three countries in South Asia are going largely unreported. The death toll is estimated at 1,200 after weeks of unusually strong monsoon rains affecting India, Bangladesh and Nepal. According to the Red Cross, 14 million people have been affected by flooding in India; more than seven million in Bangladesh, and 1.5 million in Nepal. The United Nations puts the total number of those impacted by floods and landslides at a total nearly double that, of 41 million.

According to the Red Cross, "Vast swaths of land across all three countries are under water… Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their homes and their livelihoods. Many medical facilities, schools, markets and other essential services are submerged."

Although the monsoon is an annual event, this year's rains have been far worse than usual. In India, half the huge state of Uttar Pradesh, home to 220 million people, is under water.

In the eastern state of Bihar, "People didn't have much time to get out," said Hanna Butler at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRCRC). "More traditional homes have been wiped out and concrete homes have also been ripped from their foundations." In India's largest city, Mumbai, which is home to some 20 million people—and is largely built on reclaimed land—schools and colleges are shut, with the city's transport system "in chaos."

In Bangladesh, at least 134 people have died and 700,000 homes have been impacted, with more than eight million affected. A third of the country is now subject to flooding. "This is the severest flooding in a number of years," said Matthew Marek, head of disaster response in Bangladesh for the IFRCRC, who recently flew over the country. "I could not find a single dry patch of land. Farmers are left with nothing, not even with clean drinking water."

Reaz Ahmed, director of the Bangladesh Department of Disaster Management, told CNN, "This is not normal… Floods this year were bigger and more intense than the previous years."

In Nepal, 150 people have been killed and some 90,000 homes destroyed. An IFRCRC representative told the New York Times from Kathmandu, "We hope people won't overlook the desperate needs of the people here because of the disasters closer home."

That disaster is Superstorm Harvey. But in both cases, climate change is almost certainly exacerbating the problem. As one commentator wrote in the Pacific Standard: "Climate change appears to be intensifying the region's monsoon rains. Rising sea surface temperatures in South Asia, for example, led to more moisture in the atmosphere, providing this year's monsoon with its ammunition for torrential rainfall—much the same way abnormally high water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico intensified Harvey before it stalled over Texas." (EcoWatch, Aug. 31)

  1. ‘Climate refugees’: semantics, denialism, apocalypse

    We've been through this many times before, with "natural disasters" of escalating magnitude and only a few dissident voices making what should be the obvious connection to global climate destabilization. And what little coverage the South Asia devastation is winning now will dimish to practically nothing as millions are left to suffer in the aftermath.

    We've noted the confusion about what constitutes a "climate refugee"—a term with no legal definition, as of yet. Putting aside the legalism of the term "refugee" technically only applying to those who have crossed international borders (as opposed to the "internally displaced" within their own country), the current disaster in South Asia will probably end up contributing millions to the global figure.

    Forecasts vary from 25 million to 1 billion "environmental migrants" by 2050, moving either within their countries or across borders, on a permanent or temporary basis, with 200 million being the most widely cited estimate, according to a 2015 study by the Institute for Environment and Human Security of the United Nations University. (IPS, Aug. 28)

    Arguably, there were already millions of climate migrants in Bangladesh even before the recent disaster. Some 350,000 people each year migrate to Dhaka, the sprawling capital of Bangladesh. Most come from the Ganges Delta, where advancing water levels and increasingly frequent storms are destroying farmland. The waterways of the delta have always shifted, so it's difficult to say with certainty when farmland is lost due to the effects of climate change. However, there is no doubt that the phenomenon is hitting Bangladesh and its 157 million people hard. With its low-lying and densely populated delta, and its cyclone-battered coast, Bangladesh is one of the world's most vulnerable countries.

    And the relentless flow of migrants across the Sahel and Sahara in desperation to reach an ever less hospitable Europe may be just a trickle of what is to come in the next generations, as climate change makes North Africa and the Middle East uninhabitable. And this a mere foreshadowing of the Earth itself becoming uninhabitable.

    But the drumbeat of denialism about climate change will go on in the Western media, Harvey will be reported as a "natural disaster," and the immeasurably greater disaster in South Asia will barely be reported at all.