On October 4, 2023, a flash flood in India (the state of Sikkim) led to a death toll of 74, with 101 people still missing as of October 9, making it one of the worst disasters the area has seen over the last 50 years. As natural disasters like this are increasingly frequent and extreme, we will address how India is combatting this issue and how they will adapt to prevent future flash flooding.
India’s Recent History of Natural Disasters
India experiences earthquakes frequently, being on a fault line along the Himalayas. However, of the 2.5 million internal displacements in India reported in 2022, most were displaced because of water-based natural disasters, like floods and cyclones. India reported 2,227 deaths due to extreme weather in 2022, which has devastatingly increased since 2020, when there were only 1,338 deaths reported. Natural disasters both cause poverty and also impact the impoverished more than any other group.
India loses about 2% of their GDP every year due to natural disasters. On top of socio-economic issues in most of India, almost every area in the country is in a hazard zone. It is challenging to assist communities after disasters in rural areas, where, as of 2012, only 37% of homes had inpatient facilities within a five-kilometer distance, and only 68% had access to outpatient facilities. It has been proposed that “the more rustic (rural) one’s existence… the greater are the odds of disease, malnourishment, weakness, and premature death” in India.
Sikkim sees many floods, but few are as extreme as this flood in India. Many have been worried about this flood in India since a dam was built six years ago. The area has many glacial lakes, and as the weather has been getting more extreme yearly, activists have been experiencing growing concern about the hydraulic power plant sitting high up the river. In 2019, Lhonak Lake was described in a government report as “highly vulnerable” to flooding. They stated that the flooding could breach dams and cause incredible damage to the area.
The flood happened Wednesday morning, October 4, and was caused by a glacial outburst, when the water in a glacial lake rises too high or too much of the surrounding ice and land melt or fall away, causing the lake to “burst.” In this case, Lhonak lost 60% of its water content when it burst, which broke the dam downstream and came crashing into town with only 10 minutes of warning to the town Rangpo.
Despite many warnings about the risks Lhonak posed to the surrounding communities, it seems like scientists were ignored, and little was done to build preventative infrastructure in the area. In Rangpo, a Sikkim town, the mud is 15 feet high, covering entire houses. The flood carried tons of debris across cars and buildings, and with 101 people still missing, it is unclear how long it will take them to be found and how far away they could have been carried from their homes by the flood waters. This disaster has displaced so many and destroyed so much, with multiple universities and factories being impacted. It is difficult to know how Rangpo will bounce back from this and how many will face poverty. In the face of this calamity, the community has come together to create shelter spaces with food and water, and the army has come in to assist as well.
In April of 2023, there was a workshop in New Delhi organized by the Indian Water Partnership and the World Bank. The workshop was on the EPIC (Enable, Plan, Invest, Control) response framework, an idea published partially by the World Bank. This strategy states that floods and droughts do not have to be disasters but could be addressed so that they will cause minimal damage if approached thoughtfully. The preventative measures look like increased and more reliable drainage, more thought in building and a consciousness of the greenery of an area.
As of October 19, more than 2,000 citizens in the flooded area were moved to safer ground by the Indian Air Force, and 132,805 kg of relief materials were transported to Sikkim. The Indian Air Force and the state government were able to act quickly and in sync in reaction to this sudden disaster, which saved many lives.
In Sikkim, the government has a heavy focus on addressing poverty, with an initiative to make Sikkim completely poverty-free. This mission includes providing shelter and food to those who need it, focusing on those in rural areas, as rural poverty in India is much higher than urban poverty. This promise has led to Sikkim having one of the lowest poverty rates of any state in India at just below 4%.
India is still a country where many are struggling or displaced, but the government has worked hard to stabilize and gain wealth. In 2005, more than 50% of India was estimated to be experiencing poverty, whereas now, in less than twenty years, that number has dropped to only 16% of Indians. This flash flood in India displaced many families. It increased poverty in this community severely, but the World Bank seems confident that this could eventually be a thing of the past, and India seems to be more than capable of supporting those who were impacted by the flood.
– Ren Pratt