Photo by Arif Khan

Braced for Impact: The Devastating Repercussions of Climate Disasters in South Asia

Living with the Weather: Climate Change, Ecology and Displacement in South Asia (2023), edited by Piya Srinivasan, is a collection of essays that addresses several hard and pressing questions around various aspects of climate change, delving into the social, economic, political, and spatial repercussions of climate disasters in South Asian countries.

Guided by empirical research, on the ground reporting, and rigorous documentation, the book focuses on the challenges faced by South Asians who bear the brunt of climate change. It explores how climate impacts every part of human life, and how that is felt in day-to-day life.

This excerpt has been published with permission from the publisher, Yoda Press, and is taken from an essay by Jyothi Krishnan and Abey George. In this chapter, they explore the disproportionate after effects of climate change, including systemic failures, neglect of marginalised and vulnerable communities post-disaster, environmental degradation, and more.

A glimpse of the book cover, released by Yoda Press in 2023.

Living with Floods: Coping with Livelihood Uncertainties in Post-Flood Kerala
Jyothi Krishnan and Abey George

The past few decades have witnessed an increasing incidence of disasters triggered by a range of natural hazards, taking a heavy toll on ecosystems and human communities. In addition to suffering physical losses (losses to housing and related infrastructure, access to roads, water supply and sanitation systems), livelihoods of the affected have been severely impaired. The language of disaster policy and recovery that is often focused on the analysis of ‘losses and damages’ sidelines the more intangible issue of livelihood security.

Existing literature on disaster recovery has examined restoration of housing conditions, household income, psychological health of the affected, and so on (Yang et al., 2018). Systematic evaluation of long-term changes in livelihood (particularly livelihoods of the marginalised populations) and their linkages with recovery of human well-being after disasters has received relatively lesser attention (ibid.). One possible reason for the same is that the livelihood security of marginalised sections of society is embedded in the immediate socio-economic context that is defined by social hierarchies and power relations (de Haan, 2012), which have mostly remained unchallenged. Similarly, livelihood recovery of natural resource-dependent communities is also contingent on the restoration of land (both private and common), forests and water, after a disaster, which again is a long-term process. This makes the area of livelihood recovery a difficult one.

In addition, when livelihoods are natural resource-dependent, they are affected by changes in the immediate resource base manifest in the non-availability/degradation of agricultural land, common lands, forests, water and so on. Addressing livelihood security in the post-disaster situation would therefore require an understanding of such contextual factors that shape everyday survival. In this essay, I attempt to contextualise both disasters and livelihoods within the immediate socio-economic and ecological context, and assess the extent to which livelihood recovery has been prioritised in disaster-recovery interventions. While doing so, I also try to examine the linkages between pre- and post-disaster vulnerabilities.

Disasters, Vulnerability and Justice

The concept of vulnerability has been explored in detail by scholars of political ecology, critical sociology, and livelihood studies. The emergence of political ecology was triggered by research on land degradation. Such research made contributions to the understanding of vulnerability by focussing on power relations which led to uneven exposure to hazards that precede disasters and persist long after they have occurred (Douglas and Miller, 2018). The concept has been examined in the context of disasters as well since the 1970s. It has been argued that causality is situated in systemic features (Oliver-Smith, 2013), with certain sections of society being disproportionately affected by disasters, with class, gender, age and ethnicity (O’Keefe, 1976 in Bankoff, 2007) influencing vulnerability to hazards, as a result of which hazards translate into disasters only for certain sections of society (Slettebak, 2013). Locational disadvantages also compounded vulnerability with disaster-exposed settlements being located in low-lying, flood-prone areas or steep deforested hillsides, which were largely inhabited by poorer sections of society. In the low-lying wetlands of Kuttanad in Kerala for instance, it is Dalit communities, who are actively involved in agricultural operations, who live in the most ecologically vulnerable locations, viz., bunds around the wetlands. Settlements in such places were often manifestations of poverty as people inhabiting such areas could not afford to move to safer locations (ibid.). Vulnerability was
therefore argued to be socially differentiated and manifest in variable patterns of exposure, susceptibility and the capacity to recover (Clark et al., 2013).

Such an understanding of the causative factors led to a distinction being drawn between natural hazards and disasters. Hazards may be natural in origin, but it is the way in which societies have developed that causes them to become disasters (O’Brien et al., 2006; Curato and Ong, 2015). While natural hazards are events with meteorological, geological or biological triggers (Clark et al., 2013), disasters are a result of exposure to hazards and vulnerability. Disasters were therefore seen to be caused by ‘hazardous events interacting with conditions of exposure, vulnerability and capacity’ (UNRISD, 2018). It is therefore a well-established fact in disaster research that social factors play a critical role in turning natural hazards into disasters (Wisner et al., 2004).

The phrase ‘natural disasters’, however, tends to mask the role played by these systemic features, often making it seem as though disasters are beyond human control, thereby absolving agencies from responsibility and accountability. Moreover, it reduces the likelihood of any meaningful discourse around power, class, inequality and marginalisation that should be a part of a serious understanding of disasters (Chmutina et al., 2019). This is evident in the flood discourse in Kerala, where it continues to be viewed as a once-in-a-century event, an episode.

Studies that explore the justice dimension in disaster risks and recovery echo the arguments of Environmental Justice Research that unpack the social differentiation of vulnerability (Clark et al., 2013). Akin to environmental justice scholars, they unpack the uneven distribution of risks and benefits. When applied in a disaster context, the justice framework also highlights how individuals or groups have to bear disproportionate risks without having proportionate access to the benefits of a development pathway that creates disaster risks and vulnerabilities in the long run (ibid.). Housing damage after Hurricane Katrina in the United States, for example, was found to be greater amongst racial minorities, low-income and female-headed households and less educated individuals, because they were more likely to live in low-quality housing and neighbourhoods that were prone to flooding (Fussell, 2013).

Understanding of vulnerability in the context of disasters has revealed that pre-­ disaster vulnerabilities get aggravated by disaster impacts and can result in the failure to recover from the shock and damage (Jerolleman, 2019). Operationalising justice in the post-disaster framework therefore needs to take cognisance of these structural vulnerabilities that predispose certain sections of society to disasters in the first place. The issue of post-disaster vulnerabilities and livelihood recovery, therefore, cannot be viewed as a ‘post-disaster’ phenomenon alone. Rather, it is linked to existent pre-disaster vulnerabilities and risks which are rooted in social inequalities that affect potential disaster victims’ ability to ‘escape, survive and/or bounce back from disasters’ (Wisner et al., 2004; Islam and Lim, 2015).