South Asia is no stranger to horrible flooding, but the worst rains in 50 years have deluged parts of India and Pakistan, leading to dramatic rescues and heightened tensions as people question the role of government in averting such disasters and assisting those effected most. And the location of this flood–disputed Kasmhir–is making the response to this calamity all the more complicated.
One of the most militarized regions in the world, recent fighting between India and Pakistan threatened the ceasefire reached in 2003 and the flooding is doing little to ease anxiety over the possibility of renewed conflict. The militarized nature of the region is also undermining rescue efforts, as India and Pakistan exchange words of encouragement but do little to assist one another. Even as the two governments engage in disaster diplomacy, fighting at the Line of Control has not stopped, distracting the militaries of both sides from desperately needed rescue efforts.
That leaves little assistance for over a million people impacted on both sides of the border, cutting off basic services and supplies. At least 451 people have died in the floods so far as Indian officials estimate that 400,000 people remain stranded in Punjab province alone. Those fortunate enough to escape the floodwaters are facing dire conditions in displacement camps where disease is now a huge concern. As local media lauds the military as heroes, tensions on the ground between stranded villages and the Indian Air Force has scaled down rescue attempts, as angry residents who feel abandoned by the government pelted the air force with stones.
Part of the tension is due to the feeling that the governments of both India and Pakistan should be better prepared to respond to such disasters. While monsoon rains typically wreak havoc, the past decade has seen flooding on a previously unprecedented level. Consider these incidents in the past few years.
-Flooding in 2007 throughout South Asia effected Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, killing more than 2,000 and displacing an estimated 20 million
-In 2008, Western India saw monsoon flooding in several regions with a death toll of more than 2,400.
-The historic 2010 floods in Pakistan put an estimated one-fifth of the country underwater, impacting 20 million people and killing nearly 2,000. The flooding also affected Kashmir and North India, causing billions in economic damage.
-Monsoon rains in 2011 caused extensive flooding of Sindh province, Pakistan’s primary food production region, killing more than 400 and effecting 1.5 million people.
-Record rainfall in 2012 again brought floods to several regions of Pakistan, killing over 100 people but causing less damage than previous years.
-In 2013, heavy rainfall in June melted mountain snowpack and parts of the Chorabari Glacier in North India, leading to flashfloods that killed at least 3,700 people. The floods overtook popular Hindu pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand, leaving thousands missing and nearly 6,000 people presumed dead. In August, flooding affected both Pakistan and Afghanistan, killing 187 and destroying acres of farmland once again.
With this backdrop, it is clear that widespread flooding is becoming a new normal for South Asia, particularly along the India-Pakistan border. Yet neither government appears to be learning lessons from previous floods. Pakistani government structure remains horribly fragmented, making disaster preparedness and response difficult even under the best circumstances. Even as substantial amounts of money are invested in flood warning and diversion systems, they suffer from lack of trained personnel to operate them or government direction regarding when they should be used. In India, similar fragmentation between the state and federal government hinders preparedness, while corruption mars the response. The end result is billions in economic damage and substantial loss of life, which as it begins to occur annually, compounds into lost development and swaths of people who essentially become permanently displaced.
Scientists believe that climate change is a significant factor to this new reality but other immediate factors also contribute to increased flood devastation. In recent years sand mining, where sand and gravel is extracted from riverbeds for use in the construction industry, has risen substantially throughout India which shifts the paths of rivers and aids in the erosion of river plains, making new areas vulnerable to flooding. Multiple government initiatives have failed to curtail the practice and civil society organizations are concerned that unless the Indian governments gets serious about the environmental impacts of such practices, the impact of flooding will only get worse. Likewise, the prioritization of profit and industry over the environment also contributes to the devastation in Pakistan. Extensive deforestation by the timber industry in Northwest Pakistan where many of these floods originate aids in the speed of water flows, creating the perfect conditions for flash floods.
Another more politically contentious issue is the widespread construction on dams on major waterways throughout the region. India is home to an estimated 3,200 medium to large-scale dams that alter the natural course of rivers. Several of these dams sit on rivers that flow through both India and Pakistan, giving the government of one side – typically India – more power in releasing and blocking water flows in times of flooding. Hardliners in Pakistan have accused India of “water terrorism” as it releases or blocks water flows to protect their own territory, often at the expense of Pakistan. This accusation is not new; Pakistan made similar during the 2010 floods. The debate highlights the potential controversy that can come with water control and its possible consequences. As the global population grows and water becomes an increasingly scarce resource in some parts of the world, the issues seen today on the India-Pakistan border could foreshadow new debates regarding natural resources and sovereignty for the 21st century.
For many of us, Kashmir is very far away but the flooding happening there now is part of a new environmental and political reality that does not appear to be abating any time soon. Besides heightening tensions in one of the most militarized regions of the world, it also threatens the economic development of the entire South Asian region. That has wide reaching implications for Asia and in a globalized world, has implications for the rest of us as well.