Navigating Cyclones, Floods and Climate Injustice in India — Global Issues


Tidal waves on Namkhana Island have inundated a house in West Bengal, India. Natural disasters. Storms, heavy rains and floods wreak havoc here. Credit: Supratim Bhattacharjee / Climate Visuals
  • by Aishwarya Bajpai (New Delhi)
  • Inter Press Service

According to global data, India ranks second as the highest risk country, with 390 million people that may be affected by flooding due to climate change, including: 4.9 million fishermen.

Venkatesh Salagrama, a Kakinada-based expert on small-scale fisheries and an independent adviser to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, was quoted as saying: ““For every boat at sea there are at least 5-20 people present.”

From 2015 to 2023, Indians have faced the devastating effects of flooding and heavy rainfall (see graph). Among the worst affected are the ‘ocean people’ or fish workers, whose lives are further threatened by rising temperatures and unpredictable weather patterns.

They are already struggling with government initiatives aimed at restricting the use of the ocean for blue economy and the corporatization of coastal areas for port development, known as the rural ‘Sagarmala Project‘ and further deny them rights to coastal areas. This leaves the rights of fishing workers insecure, without protective government laws. Climate change exacerbates their vulnerability, making their worst fears a reality.

For example, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh (southern coastal states in India) recently faced Cyclone Michaungwhich led to widespread flooding. The cyclone brought extreme rainfall, with parts of coastal Tamil Nadu experiencing more rainfall in a single day than the average annual rainfall, a consequence of climate change.

In places like Kayalpattinam and Thoothukudi, where the average the annual rainfall is about 900-950 mmmore than 1000 mm fell in one day. However, the cyclone was not the direct cause of the flooding.

“The floods were largely a result of human mismanagement. Excessive urbanisation and development in natural floodplains, coupled with inadequate preparedness, worsened the situation. The state government failed to release water from reservoirs and lakes before the cyclone, leading to flooding when the heavy rains arrived,” said S Sridhar, a coastal scientist and research scholar at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.

As a result, houses and roads were flooded, cutting off access to several villages and slowing rescue and relief efforts. The state response was hampered by damaged infrastructure, and relief efforts by both the state and NGOs were slowed by inaccessible roads and rail routes.

Before the cyclone, fishermen were already affected, as they were not allowed to go out to sea due to cyclone warnings, resulting in an initial loss of income. When the cyclone hit, flooding damaged boats both in harbours and along the coastline, affecting both small and mechanised boats. Nets and other essential fishing equipment were also damaged, resulting in significant financial loss, as nets are crucial and expensive. The fishing community experienced extensive damage, highlighting the severe impact on their livelihoods and resources.

A fish worker identified only SimhadriA cyclone victim was quoted in The New India Express as saying, “Each fisherman in Gollapudi suffered an average loss of Rs 1 lakh (approximately USD 1,200) as fishing nets, motors and boats were damaged and some drowned. The Collector should visit and provide financial help.”

There was a significant error in predicting the magnitude of rainfall. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has not issued adequate warnings, resulting in insufficient preparations where the Union blames the state government and vice versaThe state government has more than 5060 crores from the federal government for flood relief, but received only a fraction, namely 450 croresThe capacity of NGOs to provide aid has also been limited by restrictions such as the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA).

S Sridhar further added that “This highlights the need for a more participatory and democratised approach to meteorology, involving fish workers and ocean dwellers with modern scientific forecasting methods who have the traditional knowledge of the sea and weather. Moreover, proactive measures like releasing water from reservoirs ahead of the cyclone would have mitigated the floods in terms of preparedness. However, the state government failed to take these steps, blaming inadequate warnings from the IMD.”

The people who live in the ocean, or the fishermen, suffer losses every day. Their situation is therefore clearly suitable for the Loss and Damage Fund. At COP27 and COP28, world leaders recognized the need to support low-income developing countries that are struggling with the devastating effects of climate change.

The result was the creation of the Loss and Damage Fund, a financial lifeline aimed at helping these vulnerable countries recover from climate-induced natural disasters. To ensure the effective implementation of this fund, a transition committee was established, with representatives from 24 developed and developing countries. This joint effort underscores a global commitment to addressing the urgent needs of those most affected by climate change.

A compelling aspect of the Loss and Damage Fund is the recognition of both economic and non-economic losses. Non-economic losses include injuries, loss of life, health, rights, biodiversity, ecosystem services, indigenous knowledge and cultural heritage – areas where marginalised communities are most affected. For example, while economic losses might include income lost due to heat waves, non-economic losses would include the displacement of communities from coastal villages due to beach erosion.

This highlights the great vulnerability of fish workers and ocean-dependent communities, who are acutely affected by these environmental changes. Furthermore, due to the limited economic and social resources available to fish workers, some adaptive and countermeasures are beyond the fish workers’ capacities.

The Loss and Damage Fund can be attributed to those outcomes of extreme climate events that cannot be mitigated or that fall outside the scope of climate adaptation practices (activities to prepare for and adapt to climate change), for example loss of life and cultural practices. This complexity makes it more difficult for marginalised communities such as fish workers to advocate their case and access the fund.

Despite taking such measures, the global response has often been more talk than action. Experts say that pledged funds fall drastically short and are less than 0.2 percent of what developing countries need, estimated at a minimum of $400 billion per year according to the Loss and Damage Finance Landscape report. In response, members of the Transitional Committee from developing countries have proposed that the fund should allocate at least $400 billion per year USD 100 billion per year by 2030 to meet these urgent needs.

“The Loss and Damage Fund should not only be considered for immediate relief and rescue operations, but also for preparedness and knowledge dissemination. A participatory approach to meteorology can improve forecasting accuracy and disaster preparedness. Moreover, slower and more persistent disasters such as coastal erosion and declining fish catches due to climate change also require attention. Fishermen in several regions have been demanding compensation for ‘fish famines’, similar to agricultural famine relief,” Sridhar said.

The Adaptation Gap Report 2023 emphasises that “a justice perspective emphasises that loss and damage are not only the result of climate hazards, but are also influenced by multiple vulnerabilities to climate change, which are often caused by a range of socio-political processes, including racism and a history of colonialism and exploitation.”

As India continues to battle these extreme weather events, the call for tangible action and equitable solutions is growing ever more urgent. The world is watching and waiting: will the promises of climate justice be fulfilled, or will they remain empty words in the face of escalating crises?

This feature is published with the support of the Open Society Foundations.

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© Inter Press Service (2024) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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