Building resilience to extreme weather in South Asia
Shahbaz Sharif, the prime minister of Pakistan, gave an emotive address at the recent UN Climate Change Conference held in Egypt. In the aftermath of widespread floods across Pakistan, Sharif said: ‘Despite our low carbon footprint…we became a victim of something with which we had nothing to do’. Increasing greenhouse gas emissions are supercharging extreme weather events across South Asia and the world. Indeed, South Asia is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change with more than half of all South Asians already affected by at least one climate-related disaster in the last two decades. Recent extreme weather events clearly correlate with the changes expected by climate modelling, namely, variability in the timing, intensity, and location of monsoons. But, though these changes have been predicted, their impact – particularly in unprepared areas – was nonetheless devastating.
2022 saw an early, and prolonged, heatwave in India and Pakistan which contributed to subsequent flooding in wide swathes of Pakistan as well as parts of India and Bangladesh. These events appear to provide a sample of the ‘new climate normal’ in the region. Indeed, according to the World Bank, more than 800 million people across South Asia are living in climate hotspots.
On the one hand, the region is struggling with the largest global cluster of poverty, continuing high inflation, slow economic growth, and numerous marginalized communities at severe risk from the threat of climate change. On the other hand, the region’s youthful population is a source of optimism and there is potential for growth particularly regarding investment in climate resilience and adaptation. Both viewpoints are valid. But what is unquestionably true is that if the region fails to deal with climate change successfully, the ramifications will be global. In this vein, generating an effective response to climate change across South Asia should be seen as a global public good.
Climate change, South Asia and the monsoon
Climate change is expected to lead to more intense extreme weather events. Warmer air can hold more moisture, implying longer dry spells as water remains in the atmosphere, and heavier rainfall when clouds do eventually burst. But climate change is also expected to bring greater uncertainty regarding weather patterns.
The central weather event in South Asia is the monsoon, the ‘bringer of life’ to the region yet the specific ways in which climate change will affect the monsoon, which is a complex weather system, are not yet definitive, and recent extreme weather in the region cannot yet be linked to climate change with complete certainty. The monsoon is characterized by heavy rainfall concentrated in the summer months. As the land-mass heats up in summer, the wind direction changes, and moisture-laden air from the Indian Ocean is drawn towards South Asia. Subsequently, the monsoon is maintained by latent heat released by convection. But rainfall during the monsoon is affected by a range of factors such as the local topography: mountain ranges affect airflow, in turn, affecting where rainfall is concentrated and where it is not. The slopes of the Himalayas, for instance, receive significant rainfall which feeds numerous rivers which flow across South Asia.
The general assumption that South Asia will witness hotter and more prolonged heatwaves, as well as more intense rainfall, seem borne out of the events witnessed in the subcontinent in 2022.
The trajectory and strength of the monsoon has always been variable though the average arrival date of its passage across South Asia can be seen above. Historically, weak monsoons had a significant economic impact, and in extreme cases, famine. Food security has improved significantly since the Green Revolution of the 1960s, though there are widespread concerns over issues such as the over-use of fertilizer and depletion of groundwater. In such a context, greater variability in the monsoon is concerning.
While the relationship between climate change and the monsoon is not definitive, other natural and unnatural phenomena have been shown to alter monsoon patterns. These include El Niño, which is generally linked to more extreme heat and lower rainfall, and emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols, which have been linked to the decline in average rainfall in central India between the 1950s and the early 2000s. This is because aerosols scatter sunshine, causing hazy days, and absorb heat. This reduces the temperature difference between the land and the sea thereby affecting rainfall patterns. Air pollution, a challenge across the subcontinent, plays a similar cooling effect to greenhouse gases though over a much shorter timeframe. Future trends in pollution – and aerosols – will feed into the equation that determines the scale of temperature rise and consequent impact on the monsoon.
2022: a year of heatwaves and floods
In March 2022, India and Pakistan experienced a heatwave well before the usual months for peak heat across both countries. India recorded its hottest March since 1901 and temperatures peaked at close to 50oC in the Pakistan city of Nawabshah. The hottest temperature, 51oC, was recorded in Jacobabad in May. The heatwave was one of the longest for decades and it was followed by a late, and incessant, monsoon which would go on to cause widespread flooding in Pakistan. The two events are connected. Extreme heat increases the risk of subsequent flooding because warmer air can hold more moisture, drier ground is less able to absorb rainfall and, for countries in South Asia, hotter weather in the Himalayas brings the risk of increased glacial melt.
The so-called Third Pole, the Himalayan mountains, contain the most glaciers after the Arctic and Antarctic. The extreme events also coincided with two unconnected events which exacerbated the challenges: the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Restrictions associated with the pandemic affected the availability of agricultural labour while the Russia-Ukraine war raised the cost of food and fuel.
While the countries of South Asia have extensive experience of riverine flooding during the monsoon, when swollen rivers burst their bank, the floods in Pakistan in 2022 were an order of magnitude different from the past, stemming from intense rainfall, including in areas unused to heavy rainfall.
The heatwave and flooding had significant effects which cascaded across sectors and geographies because of multiple inter-dependences. These effects are both direct and indirect and demonstrate the manner in which the challenges are inter-linked. According to the World Bank, they threaten ‘Pakistan’s development ambitions and its ability to reduce poverty. The country needs fundamental shifts in its development path and policies, requiring substantial investments in people-centric climate adaptation and resilience, that will require international support.’
Direct consequences of extreme weather include heatwaves leading to increased forest fires, for instance, or flooding destroying infrastructure, eroding riverbanks, saline intrusion and the destruction of buildings and crops. The heatwave in the breadbasket of South Asia – Pakistan and northwest India – was particularly harmful for the wheat crop.
The indirect consequences range from migration within, and between, countries, food insecurity, health risks and disruption to trade and finance. While the means by which societies can become more resilient to the direct impacts are relatively well-established – if often politically difficult – resilience needs to be extended downstream into the indirect threats.
Around 3 million people were affected by the flooding in Pakistan. While the death toll was relatively low given the scale of the flooding, at around 1,700 people, the impact on property, however, was considerable. Perhaps as many as 2 million houses were destroyed along with 3 million livestock. In some areas, floodwater was unable to escape, leaving some populated areas submerged by several meters of floodwater. This standing water in turn creates serious health risks from water-borne diseases such as cholera and dysentery as well as malaria and dengue fever which was exacerbated by a shortage of mosquito nets in flood-affected areas. As sea levels rise, future floods could be even more severe since higher sea levels will slow water flow into the sea.
Along with the loss of livestock, the flooding caused widespread damage to crops and washed away topsoil, potentially harming future agricultural productivity. Agrarian distress drives migration to urban areas, in particular, the migration of men. This migration from rural areas has numerous societal impacts: it leaves women left behind vulnerable, creates additional pressure on urban infrastructure and raises concerns regarding law and order.
Climate extremes have become the norm across South Asia
Extreme heat has had wider environmental, economic and social ramifications across the region. Between 2017 and 2021, the damage done by wildfires in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand more than trebled, and between November 2021 and June 2022 the state recorded almost 13,000 wildfires. Along with industrialization and pollution, a rise in wildfires is thought to have contributed to a rise in respiratory diseases in mountain communities and has led to economic losses in agricultural communities.
The most immediate economic impact from heatwaves is a surge in demand for power for cooling which has overloaded power grids across the region and led to widespread power outages. To counter these effects, India has tried to ramp up electricity generation using coal-fired power stations. While demand for power has increased, demand for most goods have fallen, and productivity has been lower. By some estimates, India alone suffers half the 200 billion days of labour lost globally owing to heatwaves. This could account for up to 4.5 per cent of India’s GDP by 2030, while Pakistan and Bangladesh could see losses of 5 per cent of GDP due to lost labour. The impact is worse for informal workers as well as those who work outdoors in sectors such as construction, transport and agriculture.
The need for cooling extends beyond individuals. Some medicines and food products require cooling. At present, less than 4 per cent of fresh produce in India is transported by cold chain logistics (keeping foodstuffs cool along the supply chain). While the potential market for cold chain technology across South Asia is huge, if it were to develop, there would be major implications for energy demand. Demand for air conditioning is rising fast as access to energy increases but from a low base. In 2019, one study suggested just 10 per cent of India’s population had an air conditioning unit. The massive untapped market offers business opportunities – by some estimates up to $1.5 trillion by 2040 in India alone – but also indicates the need for a significant rise in energy production and/or the development of new cooling technologies. Investment in sustainable cooling solutions will be key to a just and equitable energy transition.
By some estimates, India alone suffers half the 200 billion days of labour lost globally owing to heatwaves. This could account for up to 4.5 per cent of India’s GDP by 2030, while Pakistan and Bangladesh could see losses of 5 per cent of GDP due to lost labour.
Several surveys in Bangladesh have suggested that the vast majority of those that move into urban areas cite environmental reasons as the reason for their moving including erosion, flooding and cyclones. Those that move into slums are frequently the worst affected by extreme weather being more over-crowded with less green space and less access to cooling technology. In addition, slum dwellers are often more likely to work outside whether in agriculture or construction. Water-borne diseases such as dengue and malaria affect poorer communities more than affluent communities.
Historically, migration provided one means of dealing with environmental degradation, and South Asia’s cities continue to expand because of rural distress The abandoned Moghul capital of Fatehpur Sikri stands testament to the fact that cities require a perennial water supply. But, within contemporary South Asia, the scope for mass migration within the region is less apparent. Those areas with the prerequisites for urbanization are largely already built upon.
Scientists predict that this extreme weather phenomenon, in particular ‘urban heat islands’ where 45 degree temperatures feel like 50 degrees, will become more frequent and severe. Yet, while these impacts have generated understandable anger among politicians in South Asia, not least for the region’s lack of responsibility for climate change, they do not appear to have generated widespread public demand for action nor generated concrete actions to prioritize climate action. Instead, the greater the frequency of extreme weather events, the greater the ambivalence towards them. While countries such as Pakistan highlight their lack of responsibility for climate change yet their vulnerability to its effects, many argue that this emphasis on vulnerability provides an excuse for inaction.
Building resilience at the local level
Climate change provides multi-faceted, multi-layered challenges, requiring a corresponding response. It needs societal shifts to incentivize resilience coupled with a range of technical responses. Because the risks cascade, siloed approaches are unlikely to be effective. In fact, solutions to some challenges may exacerbate other problems such as harming already marginalized communities’. Those working outdoors during a heatwave, for instance, face a choice between health risks of continued working in extreme weather and losing their livelihoods.
Every country in South Asia has a national level policy or plan to deal with the impacts of climate change. But, implementation of those plans is less apparent, and the capacity to implement plans at a local level varies dramatically across the region. Indeed, in the worst cases, it is close to non-existent. In addition, there is a need for evidence, particularly to demonstrate the economic benefits of action, not least through the likely costs of inaction.
At an individual level, without significant technological advancement, there will be a need to make do with less. In particular, water usage is likely to be needed to be minimized, requiring a focus on maintenance as well as agricultural usage of water.
At a local level, effective urban management will be paramount to deal with the various impacts effectively. Most South Asian cities, however, are suffering the effects of historic poor management and rent-seeking, making solutions now costlier than if urban expansion been better planned.
Existing governance systems are likely to come under strain in the event of significant environmental shocks. In parallel, dealing with the impacts in rural areas will be imperative. In the event of significant rural distress, migration into urban areas will hamper urban management.
Solutions to the specific impacts of climate change – more extreme heat and rainfall – are largely known and, while often simple in theory, are sometimes harder to implement in practice. Increasing vegetation in cities, for example, is one means of dealing with the urban heat island effect. Vegetation reflects, rather than absorbs, sunlight and plants release moisture helping lower temperatures. For example, as part of the Cooling Singapore project, 56 per cent of the island has been lined with shady Angsana and rain trees to reduce heat and improve outdoor thermal comfort.
The construction of more green public spaces, such as parks or playgrounds, would also serve to absorb heat and allow better circulation of air. Rising land values in cities mean that much green space is already built upon. Protecting existing green space is a significant challenge let alone demolishing existing buildings and resettling and compensating those affected. The Dhaka North City Corporation is an admirable example whereby 20 parks and playgrounds are being developed through the greening of urban open spaces.
A less costly alternative would be the construction of rooftop gardens. Traditional roofs absorb heat while heating the building below. By reflecting heat, rooftop gardens could serve to lower the cost of air conditioning, and of heating in colder months. Depending on the plants grown, additional benefits could be to filter pollutants, provide food or increase biodiversity.
An alternative to rooftop gardens is to simply paint roofs white so they reflect rather than absorb heat. Various pilot projects in India have found that this reduces indoor temperature and also helps reduce demand for power.
Early warning systems and the construction of shelters, either raised structures or built on higher ground, can save lives from flooding though not protect property or livestock. Improving drainage systems, including waste management in urban areas, is one means of preventing the build-up of water. Recent flooding in Karachi, for instance, was exacerbated by insufficient drainage, poor maintenance and the blockage of drains by plastic bags and other solid waste. These problems, in turn, can stem from the ‘verticalization’ of cities. Finite space has led to the expansion of buildings upwards. Drainage systems intended for a two-story building, for example, cannot cope with double or treble the population in the same building.
Water storage is a challenge in its own right. With 80-90 per cent of annual rainfall in the region arriving during the short monsoon season, ensuring water supplies year-round is challenging now and will not become easier in the future. Better water storage would also hold more water thereby reducing the impact of floods.
Rainwater harvesting or rooftop gardens can play a similar role in water storage. Water running-off traditional roofs adds to the volume of water to be dispersed. If water can be captured, either through storage or by feeding rooftop gardens, the volume of water on the ground will be reduced.
Urban growth has led newer migrants to many cities to live in more flood-prone areas including on riverbanks. Reducing the population living in these areas is an obvious means of reducing the numbers affected by floods. However, the challenge here is not dissimilar to retrofitting green space in inhabited areas, in other words, the cost of compensation and/or the provision of alternative housing for those affected.
Underpinning many of these issues is the question of how to tackle these impacts while ensuring equity and fairness. Providing green space, for instance, by demolishing slums, would displace, rather than resolve, the problem. Upgrading existing slums, coupled with a focus on second tier cities to reduce pressure on existing metropolises, would present a more durable and equitable pathway.
There is also scope to mainstream traditional knowledge in managing water flow. Many of the worst impacts of extreme weather are exacerbated by modern construction techniques. Traditional approaches learning to live with flooding, for instance, may prove more effective and less costly than attempting to prevent floods from occurring. In farming, this can involve techniques such as the construction of trenches and troughs to catch rainwater and allow it to soak into the ground.
The scope for nature-based solutions extends beyond urban vegetation. Mangroves, for instance, can lessen the impact of extreme weather such as cyclones, are cheaper than sea walls and can create livelihoods. In addition, mangrove forests act as carbon sinks.
Towards a regional approach
Many of the countries of South Asia are politically, socially and economically fractured, worsened by divisions between the countries themselves, which are exacerbated by India’s size compared to its neighbours. Divided societies and regions are by nature less resilient than more harmonious ones. These conditions neither serve to build resilience nor encourage working together on a common agenda.
Whether climate change serves as an opportunity for regional collaboration or works to exacerbate existing divisions remains to be determined. While there are many challenges to overcome, progress has been made in information-sharing, and regional cooperation in general between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN), has grown substantially in recent years. The South Asia Hydromet Forum has also made inroads to promoting collaboration and strengthening the capacities of regional agencies to share weather and climate data across the subcontinent.
The starting point for regional engagement in relation to disasters, particularly in regions with concerns regarding sovereignty and political tensions, has generally been through meteorological information-sharing and the development of early warning systems. For riverine floods, in particular, data held by upstream countries can warn those downstream of impending threats though sensitivities between upstream and downstream riparians regarding river-flows can stymie efforts towards information-sharing. While progress on data-sharing at a governmental level is admittedly slow, several NGOs are working across borders to provide flood warnings to those downstream. Several such projects exist between Nepal and India and between northeast India and Bangladesh.
Progress through inter-governmental regional groupings has undoubtedly been slow. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) remains stymied by tension between India and Pakistan. The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), which includes Myanmar and Thailand but excludes Pakistan and Afghanistan, has until recently been hamstrung by resource constraints. BIMSTEC offers scope to formalize and deepen cooperation between the BBIN countries at least.
But there are several arguments to justify greater cooperation across South Asia including between India and Pakistan. The first is that in the absence of cooperation, climate change will serve to heighten tension, in particular, over shared rivers.
The second is that there is scope for mutual benefit from early-warning systems and information-sharing along with learning from examples of best practices.
Finally, because the challenges are shared, so too are countries’ interests. Engaging regionally and forging joint positions in international forums, most obviously the Conference of the Parties (COP), would amplify their voices. This is particularly the case where India and Pakistan need to stand together on climate-change related issues despite their other political differences. In fact, Pakistan currently chairs the G77 and, together with China, has pushed the issue of loss and damage and climate finance onto the agenda at COP27 in Egypt.
The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has shifted from data-sharing towards a more holistic regional response to disasters driven by the collective experience of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. South Asia could feasibly follow a similar trajectory though previous shared disasters such as the 2005 Kashmir earthquake did not serve that purpose. In the absence of inter-governmental collaboration, there remains scope for interaction and peer-to-peer learning at other levels. Examples of successful rural and urban responses to climate change are likely to be replicable across the region and several initiatives, such as C40 Cities, provide a forum for urban managers to cascade successful interventions. Similarly, despite government reluctance to engage, there is scope for scientific cooperation and aspirations to maintain data secrecy have been superseded by satellites and the Internet.
Challenges to climate change must be overcome to improve lives across South Asia
But, even with the best intentions, policy frameworks and on-the-ground implementation, significant challenges will lie ahead. Changing weather patterns will present significant challenges. The floods of 2022 affected areas such as Baluchistan particularly badly: housing in Baluchistan is particularly unprepared for the effects of flooding given that average rainfall is just 5cm. If rainfall patterns continue to change, extreme weather events will affect ill-prepared areas and could hinder the development of insurance markets. However, the greater the unpredictability, the harder it will be for underwriters to accurately assess the risks.
Because the response needs to be multi-sectoral and multi-layered, this raises questions of who owns, and is responsible for, the implementation. Both India and Pakistan delineate the responsibilities of central government and the states/provinces. But this framework will not necessarily translate into effective action to counter the effects of climate change. The multi-faceted challenges do not necessarily sit squarely within the remit of one layer of government. While this is not insurmountable, the challenge is heightened if central and provincial governments are of different political hues. There are numerous precedents for governance failures to become political footballs used by political parties to blame their political opponents.
The question of finance is also imperative. Carbon markets offer one means of generating finance while tackling climate change and markets are starting to evolve in India and elsewhere but many of the examples are small scale and need to be aggregated to make them attractive to potential investors. Given the costs involved, it is understandable that there are widespread demands for those responsible for carbon emissions to bear more of the costs faced by those most immediately affected.
Dealing with climate change can become an economic and technological opportunity rather than simply a cost or burden. The region stands to benefit from a suite of international aid and trade agreements by aligning their priorities and signaling a commitment to deal with the impacts of climate change. Industries worth trillions of dollars can emerge in fields not limited to cooling, transport, agriculture and construction along with millions of other green jobs. But this will not happen by accident. It will require political will, public support, technological advances, regional cooperation and, most likely, a great deal of luck.