While Texas battles one of the worst storms in U.S. history, South Asia is also grappling with the devastating impact of climate change—more than a thousand people have died this summer as brutal rains pound the region, with no sign of relief in sight.
Hurricane Harvey, which has wrought devastation across the Texas Gulf Coast and killed at least 19 people, has captivated national attention. But thousands of miles away, another tragic scenario is playing out across vulnerable areas in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Monsoon rains typically begin in the region around June and continue until September, when they slowly abate. But the past few months have brought an onslaught of rain so severe that even flood-plagued South Asia has buckled under the weight.
Heavy rains have led to widespread flooding and landslides, submerging areas with minimal infrastructure and limited financial resources. In addition to the deaths of around 1,200 people, approximately 41 million have been displaced over the past few months. That situation is alarming aid officials, who say the issue is spiraling into an unprecedented disaster.
“This is the severest flooding in a number of years,” Francis Markus, a spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told the New York Times.
While flooding is common in the region, climate change has spurred dramatic weather patterns, greatly exacerbating the damage. As sea temperatures warm, moisture increases, a dynamic also at play in the record-setting rainfall in Texas. Harvey, which hit the state as a Category 4 hurricane, intensified in large part because of the Gulf of Mexico’s warming waters. The air’s ability to hold the moisture, meanwhile, allowed for it to return to the coast after going back out to sea. In South Asia, warming waters and saturated air were intensified largely by atmospheric shifts.
“This is not normal,” said Reaz Ahmed, the director-general of Bangladesh’s Department of Disaster Management. “Floods this year were bigger and more intense than the previous years.”
As global temperatures rise, South Asia has become an alarmingly vulnerable region. Climate experts are particularly concerned about Bangladesh: the low-lying country has been plagued by floods and cyclones, and rising sea levels threaten many of the nation’s poorest workers. In January, schoolteacher Nurul Hashem, who lives in Kutubdia Para, told the Guardian that locals had noticed the difference.
“We believe the water level is getting higher here,” he said. “Last year, my home was under water three or four times.”
Hashem made the observation months before the annual monsoon rains hit. With the situation now much worse, Bangladesh is facing an unfolding catastrophe. Rains this summer have submerged around one third of the country in water. Neighboring India is also in crisis; the flood plains of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers have put 500 million people in both countries in peril, something exacerbated by sprawling urbanization and poorly-built housing options.
In hubs like Mumbai, a coastal city with more than 18 million residents, the extreme weather is causing chaos. Trains and flights have been delayed, while traffic jams have turned deadly. Warnings advising workers to stay home seemed to have little impact, leading city police to request that drivers abandon their cars if need be:
If D water on D roads is heading up to the level of your tyres, please abandon the car. Being on your 2 feet may be uncomfortable but safer
— Mumbai Police (@MumbaiPolice) August 29, 2017
While India and Bangladesh are contending with disaster, some of the communities hit hardest by this summer’s weather are in nearby Nepal. The country’s flooded areas are home to some of Nepal’s poorest residents, many of whom live in mud houses. They also rely on farming, something that has exacerbated the extent of the crisis—flooding has destroyed and uprooted much of the land intended for agriculture, threatening the livelihood many of the country’s residents rely on. That financial loss is compounding with personal grief for those burying loved ones—while Nepal’s government has promised $2,000 to families who have lost relatives, many residents live too far from local government offices to collect the relief packages.
Across all three countries, diseases and food shortages have worsened the damage done by rain and flooding. In a statement released last week, the U.N. World Food Program warned that Bangladesh’s residents were in extreme danger following crop destruction and rising water.
“Many flood survivors have lost everything: their homes, their possessions, their crops,” said Christa Rader, WFP’s Bangladesh country director. “People need food right now, and the full impact on longer-term food security threatens to be devastating.”
Making matters worse is an apparent lack of global concern. Markus expressed to the Times his worry that disaster in South Asia might not get the attention it needs.
“We hope people won’t overlook the desperate needs of the people here because of the disasters closer home,” he said.
Jono Anzalone, the vice president of international services at the American Red Cross, echoed those concerns.
“If you compare the shelter conditions in Bangladesh to Texas, as dire as the condition may seem in Texas, typically, we would at least have safe structures on safe ground—not in flood plains,” Anzalone told NPR. “For better or for worse, when people look at the U.S. response system, we have a very mature federal disaster response system… You don’t see that in Nepal, Bangladesh or India. In Nepal and Bangladesh, the government simply doesn’t have the resources.”