Asia's floods: Once a blessing, now a curse?
by Gwyneth Cheng
Over here, when it rains, it pours. For generations, our region has thrived under abundant rainfall. So why are our communities struggling with them now?
In any year, Asia’s floods easily outnumber any other natural disaster we face.
As weird as it sounds to the rest of the world, many communities here look forward to these floods, since we rely on them for survival. They push nutrient-filled water out onto our lands, creating fertile grounds for growing crops as well as habitats for fish.
Flooding isn’t new to us. What’s new is how many more floods have struck us in recent years. In 2020, we experienced the highest number of floods in the previous decade.
What resulted from that was devastating—2.7 million people in China were evacuated, and 4,500 landslides were triggered in Nepal. One-third of Bangladesh was submerged. Floods ravaged Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, and several parts of South Asia.
We’ve all seen it unfold. Scenes of bedraggled people wading through waist-deep water were on our news channels every few months.
Despite our reliance on floods, our people are getting less capable of handling them as they come. It’s a truth we can no longer ignore.
At this point, this narrative is practically a tale as old as time. We all know that climate change will be—and has been—particularly merciless to Asia, especially Southeast Asia. Changing climatic patterns are messing up our relationship with rain and the floods that come with it.
Many of our floods come from the heavy rainfall that our summer monsoons bring. Monsoons are changes in wind direction every few months, and their impacts are felt most in the tropics. The summer and winter monsoons dictate the climatic conditions for most of South and Southeast Asia.
Asia relies a lot on these rains. Agriculture and hydroelectric power plants in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and most of Southeast Asia require the water that moist summer monsoons, which gather water over the Indian Ocean, bring.
But climate change has pushed these monsoon patterns out of whack.
The summer monsoon has been coming increasingly late over the years, with rainfall amounts remaining the same. This means torrential rains hit us all at once, over a shorter period of time. As time passes, we’ll experience more intense rainfall and, consequently, more intense floods.
What happens is that communities that are used to floods every summer get caught off-guard when rainfall turns out to be heavier than expected. This means people aren’t able to protect their possessions and themselves.
In urban areas, the ground is usually impervious, and concrete and cement makes water flow faster. Floodwaters travel at rapid speeds through neighbourhoods, destroying homes in seconds.
These are the most dangerous floods for us. As the name suggests, flash floods occur much faster than regular floods, taking six hours or less to form instead of days or weeks.
Most of the floods that aid our agricultural activities are riverine floods, which happen when water overflows a river’s banks. But flash floods are often caused by extremely heavy rainfall in a short period. The build up of high, fast-moving water has enough energy to sweep entire houses away in a blink. The blinding speed of these floods also makes it difficult for people to evacuate in time.
In 2020, Asia experienced the highest number of flash floods in a decade. This has brought widespread suffering to several communities across the region.
As Asia urbanises, flash floods will only become more common and severe. With citizens moving to urban locations, more people will be at risk of flooding. By 2050, around 300 million people worldwide will live in areas significantly prone to flooding—and a huge proportion will live here in Asia.
Over the past two years, our region’s communities have experienced unforeseen rainfall levels and intense floods. Their devastating impacts have ripped livelihoods—and lives—away from many.
Like most natural disasters worsening due to climate change, flooding is a tricky problem. Climate change itself is a huge issue that no country can solve quickly or alone, which leaves most of us scrambling to deal with the consequences of an unpredictable climate.
But we’re sure of one thing: populations with greater inequality tend to be more vulnerable to disasters. Dealing with this inequality is the best place to start.
And this applies across many levels.
Governments need to better understand how disasters, inequality, and poverty reinforce one another. Disasters affect different population groups differently, and understanding this makes it easier to invest more in opportunities and the social protection of poorer, more vulnerable communities.
These government investments will allow people better access to education, healthcare, social, and infrastructural services. Digital identities, especially for those who lack formal identification records, will also grant them access to many public services, including social welfare programmes for people at risk of natural disasters.
Compared to the losses from disasters each year, these spendings are small.
The Asia-Pacific region gets the consequences of inequality. We’ve taken a first step with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Leaders and communities here have something valuable—we’ve ample experience dealing with natural disasters. This makes regional cooperation efforts such as the Asia-Pacific Disaster Resilience Network vital.
Other organizations are working on solutions that could benefit all, regardless of income levels.
The World Bank and the World Resources Institute are working on nature-based solutions such as natural habitat restoration, building absorbent urban foundations, and creating sponge cities. The Stimson Center has also launched its climate and ocean risk vulnerability index (CORVI) tool, to get usable and actionable data into decision makers’ hands.
However, even till today, the goals set for reducing inequality still require some work to reach. With a pandemic thrown into the mix, ramping up these efforts is essential.
On our side, we can focus our efforts on response by keeping ourselves in the loop and by donating to disaster relief efforts.
But ultimately, most effective changes occur at a leadership level. Flooding is an age-old issue, and we already have innovative and effective ways to deal with the situation. We’re just not moving fast enough.
With each wave of floods getting bigger each year, we will lose even more people, infrastructure, and development. How much time do we have left before all of our region’s progress gets swept away?