India's poorest will be the hardest hit by climate change - through loss of land and livelihoods and adverse health impacts | Image credit:

Climate change will widen the inequality gap in India

  • 2018 Kerala floods alone caused more damage than all flooding events of 2017 combined

  • The economic and social consequences of recent droughts and flooding in India are enormous, and both the frequency and intensity of these kinds of extreme weather events are projected to rise.


A report released by Climate Trends, a Delhi based climate research firm, states that people exposed to natural hazards in low income regions are seven times more likely to die, and six times more likely to be injured or displaced, compared to equivalent populations in high income regions. The report quotes a UN disaster risk reduction report which compares economic losses from lower and higher income countries.

This analysis comes close with  the Lancet Countdown released yesterday, which showed that in last 4 years, 200pc more Indian were hit by a heatwave and that India faces the worst impacts of a changing climate.

Climate change has already caused global temperatures to rise about 1°C above pre-industrial levels. Unless emissions are rapidly reduced, temperatures are expected to rise 1.5°C by 2040, 2°C by 2065 and 4°C by 2100, leading to runaway climate change as early as next 10-12 years.

“Climate change threatens to create a vicious cycle for the world’s poor, as further warming pushes more people into poverty, increasing their vulnerability to climate impacts”, the report states. The recently published Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special 1.5c report warns that increase in global temperatures will “disproportionately affect disadvantaged and vulnerable populations through food insecurity, higher food prices, income losses, lost livelihood opportunities, adverse health impacts, and population displacements”.

Each year in India around 5,600 people, or five individuals per million, die as a result of extreme weather events – about one quarter of all accidental deaths due to natural causes, a recent study based on government data suggests. This number is likely to be an underestimate because deaths from droughts are not included,  with about 330 million people affected by the Indian drought of 2015-16, for example.

In August 2017, heavy monsoon rains caused widespread flooding across India, Bangladesh and Nepal, leading to at least 1,200 deaths. Four states in northern India were extensively affected by the flooding, which damaged some 805,183 homes and affected 18 million people. A year later in July and August of 2018 Kerala was swept by heavy monsoon rains, leading to the worst floods in the southern state since 1924. 2,378 mm (2.4m) of rain was recorded over 88 days, four times more than normal. Large parts of Kerala were devastated. According to national authorities, as of 6 November 2018 the death toll stands at 504, with 3.4 million people displaced into 12,300 relief camps, and 23 million people affected.

In 2017, the total damage due to floods / heavy rains in India, amounted to Rs.18,279.63 crores (US$ 2.5 billion), including damage to crops, houses and public utilities, according to data from the Central Water Commission.  Although 2018 national data on floods and heavy damage is not yet available, the estimated damage from the 2018 floods in Kerala alone (Rs. 20,000 crores, US$ 2.7 billion) has exceeded the damage from all the floods and heavy rains in the whole country in 2017.

In the 2018 floods in Kerala, an assessment of economic impacts in the state found that for the 4.13 million affected working individuals in the five most affected districts, around 3.3 million workers had their employment placed in jeopardy. The tourism sector’s 2019 economic projection was lowered as a result of the widespread devastation. Tourism sector workers are susceptible to indirect damage, as tourist attraction spots are destroyed by flooding and tourists avoid visiting impacted areas.

Exposure to extreme weather risks is also unevenly distributed between states. Some face heightened risks from multiple climate disasters, particularly Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.  If a state is hit by multiple extreme weather events, it can weaken the local economy and reduce its competitiveness compared with other states. As farmers leave their land, and businesses move to other states, the risk of impoverishment within the state will further increase.

The recovery of local economies can take months if not years, pushing people into deeper cycles of poverty. People living in slums are particularly at risk, as they have very limited coping capacity for dealing with the impacts of climate change,  and slums have minimal facilities.

India is heavily dependent on the summer monsoon, which accounts for about 70% of annual rainfall. As climate change alters weather patterns, access to water in India faces an uncertain future. 600 million people in India already face acute water shortage, according to government thinktank Niti Aayog, with 54% of India’s groundwater wells in decline, and 21 major cities expected to run out of groundwater as soon as 2020, affecting 100 million people.

The economic and social consequences of recent droughts and flooding in India are enormous, and both the frequency and intensity of these kinds of extreme weather events are projected to rise. Further rise in global temperatures will disproportionately affect disadvantaged and vulnerable people through food insecurity, higher food prices, income losses, lost livelihood opportunities, adverse health impacts, and population displacements. India has a large vulnerable population that may find itself particularly hard hit.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of “doubling farmers income by 2022” will be hard to deliver in a climate stricken world. Limiting climate change by cutting emissions, and investing in adaptation will bring enormous benefits for India – minimising further economic damage from climate change means less hunger, healthier people, less air pollution, more economic growth, more jobs and reduced inequality, and for a country with such overlapping vulnerabilities, climate mitigation and poverty eradication will need to go hand in hand.


Reaction from Aarti Khosla, Director, Climate Trends

“As a disaster that gripped public attention, floods of Kerala costed Rs 20000 crore to Kerala this year. From droughts to excess rains, and heat waves in between, extreme weather events are by far the biggest scam which public and the politicians need to heed.

As countries get ready to negotiate politics at another climate conference, this time in Poland, it is inevitable to not pay heed to science. If not, as a country poised to emerge as a world power, all will be in vain.

World Met Organisation’s recently released data clearly demonstrates that last four years were the world’s hottest. 200pc more Indian were exposed to heat waves in the same time period. The world doesn’t seem to be on track to achieve temperature goals which reign in runaway climate change.”


Download the research paper here: Climate_impacts_hurting_poor

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