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Background - 04.11.2022 - 14:16

South Asia must proactively prepare to face climate change

Recent floods in Pakistan caused by a mix of record rainfall and melting glaciers, left a third of the country under water, affecting nearly 33 million people. Written by Manali Kumar.

4 November 2022. Unprecedented floods in Pakistan in recent months have caused widespread destruction, with crops as well as private and public infrastructure destroyed. The country now faces both a humanitarian and health crisis. Its government estimates that resulting losses may be as high as USD 40 billion; reconstruction will be a herculean task for this developing country, which was already struggling economically.

This is only one of several extreme climate events to afflict South Asia this year. After Bangladesh earlier this summer, Nepal is now battling floods and landslides. India and Pakistan also suffered a record-breaking heatwave, which started earlier and lasted longer than usual. In addition to destroying crops, it also caused electricity shortages and drought. Unfortunately, these events are only early indicators of what South Asia must prepare itself for in the coming years. Climate change has already become an existential crisis for this heavily populated region.

A disaster-prone region on the frontlines of climate change
By one estimate, the Indo-Pacific is four times more likely than Africa to be affected by natural disasters, and 25 times more likely than Europe. South Asia is a particularly disaster-prone region, as climate-related hydrometeorological disasters such as floods, storms, heatwaves, and droughts are becoming more frequent and more severe in the region. These, in turn, increase water scarcity, food insecurity, poverty, and often result in health crises. Apart from the severe human costs of these weather disasters, countries in the region will also face massive economic costs.

According to one report, rising heat and humidity could reduce India’s GDP by about 2.5-4.5 per cent by 2030, equivalent to roughly USD 150-250 billion. A recent report by the Asian Development Bank estimates that natural disasters displaced people 221 million times between 2010-2021 across the Asia-Pacific, including 5 million displacements by cyclone Amphan alone in 2020. This year’s numbers will undoubtedly be much higher, and the number of people exposed to natural disasters is increasing by about 3.5 per cent each year.

Climate change is also increasing internal migration. As some areas become harder to live in due to water scarcity or rising sea levels, and economic opportunities become scarcer, people move to other areas in search of a better life. Unless adequate action is taken urgently, there may be as many as 40 million internal climate migrants in South Asia. Often people move to major cities in search of economic opportunities. Unfortunately, this will further burden megapolises like Delhi and Mumbai, which already suffer from poor infrastructure, increasing pollution, and environmental degradation.

Improve policy and preparedness
South Asian countries have made some efforts to prepare for certain disasters in the aftermath of major ones, such as cyclones in the case of Bangladesh and earthquakes in the case of Pakistan. However, continuing population growth and urbanisation are increasing population density in disaster-prone areas. For example, an estimated 246 million people are expected to live in cyclone-prone areas by 2050. Early warning and evacuation can reduce fatalities, although the risk to private property and public infrastructure remains high.

In addition to developing domestic disaster preparedness and relief mechanisms, it is critically important to improve domestic policy-making — especially in urban planning. Poor infrastructure and urban development that disregards the local ecology exacerbate many problems. Anyone who has spent time on India or Pakistan’s flooded streets during the monsoon season can testify that drainage systems have not received adequate attention from the countries’ planners.

Ecological and geographical continuities in the region mean there is a compelling case for regional cooperation. Therefore, along with domestic efforts, South Asian countries must also seriously invest in multilateral humanitarian assistance and disaster relief mechanisms, which are sorely lacking. For instance, despite recognising the importance of disaster risk management and stressing the importance of intensifying regional cooperation for addressing climate change, neither the Indian Ocean Rim Association (which excludes Pakistan) nor the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation have made or implemented any concrete plans.

Build a coalition at the international level
Multilateral agencies have delivered early support to Pakistan and launched donation efforts. Early in October, the UN raised its call for funding to help the country recover from the floods to USD 816 million. While these funds would be nowhere sufficient to cover the total losses the country has to bear, even this amount may prove difficult to mobilise. The UN has so far received only USD 90 million in response. In September, the World Bank said it is envisaging support of about USD 2 billion to aid various rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts. The Asian Development Bank has committed up to USD 2.5 billion.

Support from wealthy economies has been mixed. In contrast to the US (USD 66 million), China (USD 59 million) and the UK (USD 30 million), the EU has only provided about USD 2.28 million. Aid from other major economies is less clear. While countries like Germany provided rapid assistance and immediate food aid, it will take years to recover from the widespread devastation. Pakistan will need sustained aid once it begins reconstructing after the immediate humanitarian crisis is dealt with; it is not yet clear how much support it will receive during the later phase.

South Asia’s struggles with climate change are only going to get worse. As extreme climate events become more frequent and severe, the costs of responding to and recovering from them are also going to grow. Countries in the region will find it increasingly difficult to shoulder these costs as the loss of GDP due to these disasters will further reduce their economic capabilities. The region not only faces mounting human costs and insecurity but also a slide back into poverty for millions and a rollback of hard-won developmental gains of the past few decades.

As the costs of recovering from extreme climate events increase in the future, it is unclear how willing, wealthy economies will be to continue supporting developing economies, especially as they also begin to face the consequences of climate change themselves.

Unfortunately, developing countries may find themselves increasingly alone in shouldering these burdens. On the global level, they must now collaborate to hold wealthy countries to their promises of delivering the climate finance they have promised so far and press for developing financial mechanisms to aid recovery and reconstruction at the upcoming COP27 meetings.

Fraught relations between countries in South Asia have held back bilateral relations and multilateral institutions for too long. But the political leadership of all countries in the region must recognise and accept that the existential challenges posed by climate change are far more important than persistent ideological rivalries and territorial squabbles. Seven decades of hostility is plenty. South Asian countries would do well to finally set aside their mutual animosities and start developing transnational and regional mechanisms to adapt to climate change and recover from disasters.

This article was originally published on 9DASHLINE.com, a platform offering original comment and analysis on issues affecting the Indo-Pacific — the world's most dynamic region.

Manali Kumar is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Lecturer at the University of St.Gallen and the Editor-in-Chief of 9DASHLINE. Her research focuses on India’s national identity and interests as a rising power, as well as the role of prudence in statecraft and decision-making under uncertainty.

Photo: photocase.com / Rucksackträger

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