23 September 2020

Tackling disastrous floods in South Asia during a pandemic

Even though floodwaters in South Asia have started receding since early September, related disruptions and healthcare challenges will persist in the coming months, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Ramya Dilipkumar

Every year between June and September, heavy monsoon rainfall triggers deadly floods across South Asia due to limited emergency management resources and poor infrastructure in rural areas of the countries in this region. This year, the effects of the monsoon season have been more disastrous, namely in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nepal, as preparations for and responses to the floods were affected by the widespread COVID-19 outbreak in these countries.

India and Bangladesh have been the two countries worst-affected by the floods this year, where around 1,085 people died and dozens of others remain missing. Across India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nepal, over 14 million residents have been stranded or displaced by the floods. These countries also had more than 25 COVID-cases reported per 100,000 population by late August and where emergency and healthcare resources were stretched thin, with India having the second highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world. Despite having reliable early weather warning systems, the deployment of emergency response and humanitarian aid were delayed in flood-affected areas, many of which were also under COVID-19-related lockdowns. Authorities from various emergency and health departments tried to establish contingency measures before evacuations to prevent a further spread of COVID-19. They reduced capacities and implemented social distancing measures at many emergency shelters to prevent the spread of the virus, but this resulted in a shortage of shelters. The number of people displaced from flood-affected areas were higher this year, notably in India’s Assam and Bihar, Bangladesh’s Dhaka and Chittagong, Nepal’s Terai and Pakistan’s Sindh and Punjab regions, as many are low-income contract workers who recently returned home after they lost their jobs in urban areas when lockdowns were enforced at the start of the pandemic.

Even though the floods started receding in South Asia since early September, related disruptions and healthcare challenges will persist in the coming months. Many humanitarian aid agencies have been unable to get food, water and medical supplies delivered to flood-affected areas from warehouses located in areas which are also on COVID-9 related lockdowns due to movement restrictions on logistics providers in these places. Hence, restoration and relief work in flood-hit areas of South Asia are likely to take a longer time this year. Waterlogging from floods is also likely to trigger mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue and malaria. Healthcare systems in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are already dealing with a large influx of COVID-19 patients, do not have adequate personnel and resources to deal with other medical outbreaks, as a result of which communicable diseases are likely to spread rapidly in flood-affected areas in the coming days. The floods in South Asia are also likely to worsen the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak in areas where many displaced people have been unable to follow social distancing measures and hygiene practises while trying to seek shelter in crowded areas.

The floods during the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the dire need for South Asian countries to bolster their infrastructure, emergency management services and healthcare systems. Local authorities need to build more dams, emergency shelters and better drainage systems in low-lying areas prone to floods. Emergency services and healthcare workers need to be trained on how to respond quickly to multiple disasters which occur in the same area at the same time, while their manpower and resource capacities also need to be increased in areas prone to calamities. Authorities need to increase health-awareness drives in flood-prone areas on how people can adopt some hygiene and sanitary practices to curtail the spread of infectious diseases when being forced to flee their homes during emergencies. Weather-related disasters are likely to only get worse due to climate change while the pandemic is likely to persist in South Asia for the foreseeable future.

Ramya Dilipkumar is an Australia-based political and security risk analyst covering South Asia.