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India: Extreme weather fuels migration-related challenges

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
July 9, 2024

Faced with extreme weather events, people living in parts of India are "losing the ability to cope" and are forced to flee their homes, experts warn.

A man on a rickshaw driving through fully flooded street
Climate emergencies in India are growing more frequent and more dangerousImage: David Talukdar/ZUMA Press/picture alliance

Weather-related disasters such as extreme heat, droughts and massive flooding are increasing in frequency and intensity in India. While the suffering they cause is immense and wide-reaching, it usually vulnerable, impoverished communities that suffer the most.

A study conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a New Delhi-based public interest research and advocacy organization, tracked extreme weather events that occurred in India last year and found that the country, overall, experienced such events on 314 out of the 365 days.

The CSE said 2,923 people died, almost two million hectares of crops were ruined, 80,000 homes were destroyed, and more than 92,000 animals were killed. But these numbers could be even higher because the data was not complete, according to the organization.

The environmental crisis is also causing displacement and forcing people to migrate to already overcrowded megacities, Sunita Narain, head of the CSE, told DW.

She said human-induced climate change is impoverishing farmers and others in the agricultural sector.

"With increasing frequency of extreme weather events, people are losing the ability to cope and have no alternative but to migrate. The challenge is for all countries, particularly the rich, to take climate change targets seriously," Narain stressed. 

Migration challenge getting worse

India already records some of the highest numbers of population displacements in the world every year. The vast majority  of is triggered by disasters.

Torrential rain sweeps across northern India

The "State of India's Environment-2022" report puts country fourth in the world when it comes to climate change-induced migration. The study revealed that over three million people were forced to leave their homes in 2020-2021 due to environment-related catastrophes.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) in India estimates there are currently about 14 million people in total who have been forced out of their homes due to climate change.

While the state is willing to provide immediate support for disaster relief and rehabilitation, there is little long-term institutional support for the needs of those affected by these disasters.

A report published by ActionAid and Climate Action Network South Asia estimated that India alone will see 45 million people being forced to migrate from their homes by 2050 due to climate emergencies — three times the current number of people on the move as a result of extreme weather events.

The summer of 2024 has already taken its toll on parts of India, which are experiencing heavy rainfall and devastating floods. 

Massive floods affect millions in Bangladesh, India

The heavy rain followed an unbearable heat wave, which caused temperatures to hit as high as 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) in places like New Delhi and the northern states of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

Even though the main summer months — from April to June — are always hot in India, temperatures have grown more extreme in the past decade. The intensity of rain and floods has also increased.

About 80% of India's population, meanwhile, lives in regions that are considered vulnerable to disasters such as heat waves or severe flooding.

Extreme weather and carbon emissions

Scientists say extreme weather and the disasters associated with it are set to worsen as the planet grows warmer with emissions of greenhouse gases on the rise.

They have called for drastic measures to reduce the emissions to control the fast-rising global temperatures.

India is currently the third-highest emitter of planet-warming gases. But its per capita carbon footprint is far lower compared to Western industrialized nations.

According to the World Bank, India emits on average about two tons of CO2 per person every year, compared to around seven tons per person in the European Union and 15 in the United States. 

And as part of India's climate change efforts, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration has vowed to cut the nation's greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2070.

Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, said India needs to develop a long-term plan to tackle the problem of climate-induced migration.

"India is experiencing a rapid pace of migration from areas with intensive agriculture, which are impacted by declining rainfall and droughts," he said.

"The affected people are moving to heavily populated megacities like Mumbai, where they face a different set of increasing climate risks, including heavy rains, cyclones, and rising sea levels," he added.

"These migrants often occupy low-elevation land susceptible to floods and may lack proper housing and resilient mechanisms, making them vulnerable to heavy rains, cyclones, and heat waves."

Call for 'climate-proofing' agriculture and rural areas

Abinash Mohanty, sector head of climate change and sustainability at IPE Global, an international development organization, said these events will cause massive unemployment.

Heat stress alone "will cause India to lose more than 34 million jobs, denting the GDP by about 4.5% by 2030. These numbers speak volumes," he told DW.

Climate change: Indians suffer scorching heat

Mohanty believes that India needs to map the impacts of climate change sector by sector, in particular the issue of climate-induced migration. Other experts have also called for "climate-proofing" agriculture and other rural economic activities to limit environmental displacement and migration.

"Many migrants are moving not only because of climate change but instead due to a combination of hard economic circumstances, further sharpened by climate change," said CSE's Narain.

She noted that policies aimed at supporting vulnerable climate migrants are currently "severely lacking."

Narain also underscored the need to invest in building local climate resilience and protecting economies.

This view is shared by Mohanty.

"While India has a robust climate action plan both at the national and sub-national level, it hardly encompasses climate-induced migration as a pivotal issue," he said.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

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Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11