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High cost of floods in South Asia

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezMarch 6, 2015

River flooding will affect more people and cause significantly more damage by 2030, as climate change and socioeconomic development accelerate. In South Asia alone, an estimated 15 million will be affected, say experts.

Bangladesch Überschwemmungen
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

New analysis from the World Resources Institute (WRI) shows that today, river flooding could affect 21 million people and expose $96 billion in GDP worldwide each year. By 2030, those numbers could grow to 54 million people and $521 billion in GDP affected every year.

One of the hardest-hit areas is predicted to be South Asia, a region where more than 9.5 million people are already being affected every year by floods. Last year alone, unusually heavy monsoon rains triggered floods in India and Pakistan claiming more than 500 lives.

The WRI's Aqueduct Global Flood Analyzer, a new public tool designed to estimate current and future risk from river floods worldwide, found that developing countries are expected to see more of their GDP exposed to flood risks in 2030 than the developed world.

For instance, India currently has by far the most GDP at risk, at $14.3 billion, and researchers say this figure could rise more than 10-fold to $154 billion in 15 years. Bangladesh is currently a distant second, at $5.4 million.

Bildergalerie Indien Pakistan Überschwemmungen 07.09.2014
Luo: 'South Asia has an exceptionally high number of people concentrated in flood-prone areas'Image: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/Getty Images

In a DW interview, Tianyi Luo, a water researcher at the World Resources Institute (WRI) says that climate change and socio-economic development are exacerbating these flood risks and stresses that governments need to inform the people of the impending risks and start setting up the appropriate flood protection.

DW: What factors contribute to the high number of people and high GDP value exposed in South Asia?

Tianyi Luo: South Asia has an exceptionally high number of people concentrated in flood-prone areas. The region also has lower overall flood protection than high-income countries, which means that more severe floods pose a greater risk to people, GDP, and urban areas.

For example, our analysis estimates that India has 25-year flood protection on average across the country, and Bangladesh has 10-year flood protection. By contrast, the United States and the United Kingdom have 100-year flood protection, and many areas in the Netherlands have 1,000-year flood protection or greater.

How many people are affected by floods every year in the region?

An estimated 9,589,000 people are affected on average every year in India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan and we expect that number to rise in the coming years.

Climate change plays a key role, but also urbanization, as populations continue to expand in the region. In Afghanistan, however, all future changes to the population at risk will be driven by development, rather than by climate change.

What role is climate change likely to play in terms of floods?

Climate change will likely cause almost 70 percent of the change in the region, with floods likely becoming more frequent and intense by 2030. Over 15 million people across South Asia will be affected. These results indicate that, in this region, we could see shifting precipitation patterns that make flood events more frequent and more intense.

What is the economic impact of the floods?

The economic impact of the yearly floods can be profound. Across the region, $19.9 billion in GDP is exposed to river floods on average per year. The economic impact of yearly floods, in terms of GDP at risk, will likely grow dramatically in the future.

By 2030, South Asia could face $215 billion in GDP exposed annually, an increase of more than $193 billion. Development will drive the majority of floods' growing impact. India contributes more than 70 percent of the total GDP value at risk in South Asia in 2030.

Do you expect urban damage to increase in the coming years?

Yes, we expect the region to see more urban damage from flood risks by 2030, driven largely by socio-economic change. India, for example, currently faces $3.3 billion in urban damage annually. Using a middle-of-the road scenario, we estimate that urban damage in India could increase more than 18 times to $56 billion by 2030.

What must the region do to tackle this issue?

Awareness is an important first step. People, governments, businesses, and other organizations in the region must be aware of the current and future flood risks they face. Once they understand the risks, they can start to take action. Better strategic development planning and smarter land-use planning can reduce people and economic assets' exposure to river flood risks.

Flut in Asien August 2013 - Pakistan
'The economic impact of the yearly floods can be profound'Image: Reuters/Mohsin Raza

Risk-reduction infrastructure, including levees, dykes, and natural buffer areas like wetlands play an important role as well. After a certain point, planning and infrastructure that protects GDP and population from floods is not cost-efficient anymore. Insurance then becomes a viable option to compensate for flood-related damage.

Tianyi Luo is a Research Analyst in the Water Program of the World Resources Institute. He leads the data collection and analytics within the Aqueduct project. His focus mainly includes water risks for the energy industry, global flood risks, and water related issues in China.