From droughts to floods: the cost of climate change for India continues to mount

From droughts to floods: the cost of climate change for India continues to mount

By Devika Singh

India is one of the most climate vulnerable countries on Earth. A land of such diverse topography and microclimates, it is exposed to a wide spectrum of climate risks. The seemingly endless oscillation from extreme heat and drought to extreme rain and floods, has left the country counting the cost of climate change in lost lives, livelihoods and in dollars. In India, economic losses from weather related events have doubled over the last thirty years. In the ten years from 2008 to 2017 the country suffered losses of US$ 45 billion, compared with US$ 20 billion from 1988-1997. In 2017, damages from climate related events globally reached a record high of US$ 330 billion, 55% higher than the year before (US$ 184 billion).

In India, most of the losses come from an increase in flood events and cyclones, which are projected to increase in magnitude and frequency with climate change. India faces high exposure to climate-related disasters, and is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to extreme weather events in the world. Its vulnerability is compounded by high population density, unplanned development and urbanisation, socioeconomic conditions, and environmental degradation.

India’s vulnerability is in part due to its sensitivity to a wide range of climate impacts including droughts, floods, storms, landslides and extreme temperatures. Droughts occur less frequently, but impact the highest number of people in the country, affecting 680 million people between in the 20 years to 2017. Floods, on the other hand, are the most economically damaging climate impact, costing more than all other disaster events combined. Between 1998-2017, 10 of the 14 extreme weather-related disasters to hit the country were floods, causing economic damage of approximately US$ 45 billion, killing over 27,000 people and affecting more than 370 million people.

Southwest monsoon and flooding in India

In 2018, a prolonged southwest monsoon over the state of Kerala resulted in one of the worst floods in 100 years, causing estimated losses of US$ 4.25 billion. Over 800,000 people were displaced and 400 lives lost over a span of 2 weeks. Up to 1% of the state’s GDP is estimated to have been lost, with the service sector, agriculture and industry all witnessing a slow down from the flood impacts.

This year, many states across the country have witnessed severe drought conditions, followed by a delayed monsoon, which made up for by spells of high intensity rainfall resulting in heavy flooding across the country. The delayed onset of the southwest monsoon and disruption caused by the formation of Cyclone Vayu over the Arabian Sea caused a country-wide monsoon deficit of 44%, and exceeding 80% in some districts till 18th June. However, by the first week of July, a number of rainfall deficit districts in the states of Bihar and Assam were hit by multiple spells of high intensity rainfall (greater than 124.4mm), resulting in flash floods.

By the first week of August, the situation was repeated across the states of Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Goa and Maharashtra. Between June and July, multiple regions in the country were affected by over 18 instances of high intensity rainfall. Kodagu district in Karnataka, home to the Cauvery river and a main component of India’s coffee economy transitioned from drought in May, to receiving more than double (920mm) of its average rainfall over a span of 9 days. Many districts in the state of Karnataka received an untimely burst of rainfall, with some crossing 3000% above its normal range in a single day – 8th August. While half the state is reeling under the impact of floods, there are districts which still have a monsoon deficit crossing 40%.

The impact


The floods in Bihar affected 7.2 million people and resulted in the death of over 100 people. Floods across the state have killed over 20 people and affected agriculture, infrastructure and property. The flooding in Kerala has claimed over 120 lives since 8th August, while Maharashtra and Gujarat lost 79 lives. Across the north Indian states of Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Uttarakhand, more than 70 lives have been lost in this year’s flooding. Millions have been evacuated and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), Army, Navy and Air Force have been deployed in rescue operations across the country.

Economic impacts

The Centre and State Disaster Relief Funds (NDRF and SDRF) have already issued over US$ 9.6 billion for flood relief across 8 of the affected states, compared to the US$ 7.7 billion released towards post-disaster relief measures between 2015-2017. Financial assistance from the government budget is directed towards relief, while banks and financial institutions also provide relief and rehabilitation support in the form of loans, rescheduling existing loans and sanctioning fresh loans in the face of natural disasters. As a result, loan recovery in the face of natural calamities becomes increasingly difficult, with the Indian banking sector reflecting an increase in agricultural and non-agricultural Non-Performing Assets (NPAs). Between 2012-2017, agricultural NPAs increased by 2.5 times, partly due to crop damage from weather-related events. After the Kashmir floods of 2014, non-agricultural NPAs increased from 8% of total NPAs in 2015 to 14% by 2016.

Apart from the direct loss of life, economic losses in 2019 from impacts on road and other transport infrastructure, water and electricity infrastructure, agriculture, and industries are yet to be estimated. Recognising the importance of building resilience in addition to relief and rehabilitation measures, the Government of India is spearheading the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI), proposed at the Hamburg G20 in 2017. The government has pledged US$ 70 million to fund the Coalition which aims to pool resources and best practices for technical and financial assistance in disaster-resilient rebuilding of core infrastructure sectors (transport, energy, construction, telecommunications and water).

Through disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation efforts, India has made significant progress in minimising mortality from natural disasters, while the economic losses from damage to property and infrastructure have been dramatically increasing. The CDRI is an important step towards building resilience and minimising losses from climate-related disasters to local infrastructure and the economy.


Cover photo by Barry Pousman from Wikimedia Commons and republished under Creative Commons 2.0 licensing.

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