Houston Coverage Obscures Human Tragedy in South Asia’s Monsoon Floods
Amid the wall-to-wall news coverage in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, a few news outlets are devoting space to the continuing crisis in South Asia, where some communities have been flooded since late July and record monsoon rains have killed 1,200 and affected 40 million people.
The comparison points to disparities in planning, infrastructure, and emergency response that weigh heavily in favour of a community like Houston, devastated as Texas has been in the wake of its own record storm.
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“The rainfall was actually less extreme in India, despite the catastrophically higher death toll,” ClimateHome reports from India, one of the epicentres of the South Asia crisis. “Comparisons are largely redundant against such overwhelming tragedy, but the discrepancy between the number of lives lost here and in the U.S. is telling. The developing world remains profoundly exposed in the face extreme weather; extreme weather that is predicted to become ever more frequent as climate change advances. In the coincidence of these two disasters, we have the starkest articulation thus far of the UN climate science panel’s prediction that climate change will be disproportionately suffered by the poor world.”
Correspondent Aditi Roy Ghatak notes that “this happens for many reasons, but at its heart it is about poverty and governance. India’s National Disaster Management Authority’s budgeted expenditures in 2016-17 was $100 million. In the U.S., a country with one-quarter the population of India, the Federal Emergency Management Agency budget for 2016 was $15.5 billion. In South Asia, storms regularly kill dozens of people. When a big flood comes, people die in their thousands.”
Ghatak opens her coverage in Benai, a village 115 kilometres east of the West Bengal capital of Kolkata, where monsoons “washed out hundreds of acres of farmland, breaking every electricity pole, snapping off phone and Internet links and cutting cable connections.” The homes of 3,000 families—about 15,000 people—have been underwater since July 26, when a nearby river overflowed its banks.
“Multiply this plight by 160—the number of villages thus affected in West Bengal—and at least three million people in this part of India are now left staring at the watery graveyards of their standing paddy crop,” ClimateHome notes. “Rice is the staple for the region. The crop was destroyed across 12 districts of Bengal; the havoc spread over 1.2 million hectares. There is nothing but water anywhere you cast your eyes.”
The story is the same across at least four Indian states, with the country’s financial capital, Mumbai, reeling in knee-deep water, its transport system in chaos. “Across India’s eastern and northern borders, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Myanmar are also in the throes of watery death and destruction,” Ghatak writes. “A thousand and a half are reported to have perished in the region.”
“Vast swaths of land across all three countries are underwater,” the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRCRC) reports, referring to India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. “Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their homes and their livelihoods. Many medical facilities, schools, markets, and other essential services are submerged.”
From Kathmandu, Nepal, IFRCRC spokesperson Francis Markus told the New York Times, “we hope people won’t overlook the desperate needs of the people here because of the disasters closer home.” ClimateHome struck a similar note in its weekly news wrap-up.
“In the aftermath, many asked why Harvey got so much more coverage in international media than deadlier disasters in poorer countries. It is a familiar bias that nonetheless retains the power to outrage,” wrote Deputy Editor Megan Darby. “Just as U.S. rescue services are better equipped with boats, SUVs, and helicopters to reach people stranded by floods, so U.S. media is better equipped to find and tell human stories.” And those stories “have more resonance than a body count of any size.”
But Darby also notes that the U.S. response “has more salience for the rest of the world”, given the country’s influence over “the safety of the climate we all share. As the world’s second biggest emitter and largest economy, the U.S. has capacity to cut carbon and reduce the risk of global warming for everyone. Politics holds it back. Can Harvey be the catalyst for tough conversations? Not just about rebuilding Houston smarter, but limiting the threat to vulnerable communities and future generations?”