As Cyclone Tauktae hurtled toward India’s west coast on May 17, a grim scenario outlined in Amitav Ghosh’s eloquent meditation on climate change, The Great Derangement, suddenly loomed as a distinct possibility. A direct hit on the megapolis of Mumbai, India’s financial capital, Ghosh wrote, could wreak damage far greater than the city’s monster flood of 2005. To the prospect of massive flooding and failure of essential services, Ghosh added the spectacle of corrugated iron roofs from the city’s teeming informal settlements turning into deadly projectiles slamming into its upscale glass towers, and major radioactive leakage in the city’s decades-old nuclear complex. The scenario is only too realistic, and may presage frequent complex emergency moments in South Asia, in which multiple risks (ranging from climate change to health, geopolitics, and governance) converge in a positive feedback loop, creating extensive dislocation and damage to large human populations.
The Arabian Sea, on the coast of which Mumbai is located, has historically seen far less cyclonic activity than the more turbulent Bay of Bengal to its east. Bangladesh and the Indian states of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, for example, are no strangers to major storms and attendant evacuation of tens of millions of people – with a potential new cyclone brewing even at the time of writing. But the Arabian Sea’s major urban agglomerations in South Asia – Mumbai and Karachi – but also Goa, Kochi, Mangalore and others, have generally had an easy ride, with Mumbai not seeing a serious cyclone in its vicinity in four decades.
Climate change is changing this, and rapidly at that. Warming seas in this part of the Indian Ocean are highly likely to develop many more such storms in the coming years. Tauktae came closely on the heels of another major storm, Nisarga, in 2020. Nisarga also veered away from Mumbai. But these fortunate misses only highlight some of the dangers faced by South Asia as the planet continues to heat up.
Moreover, the climate crisis is rearing its ugly head in the time of the multi-year devastation of the pandemic, a level of complexity that even Ghosh’s dystopian scenario for Mumbai did not account for. South Asia escaped the worst effects of Covid-19 in 2020, but it has been far less lucky in 2021. The virus is raging most virulently in India, but Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh are also seeing surges. Though the official count in India is a few thousands dead per day, the real number has been estimated by one expert to be upwards of 25,000 daily casualties. A recent article in the respected health journal Lancet was only the latest analysis pointing to major complacency by the Indian state in terms of mask norms and vaccine readiness that made the wave the world’s deadliest thus far (though this characterization was challenged by the Indian government.)
Both India and Pakistan are also geopolitically and economically challenged. New Delhi is engaged in a tense, armed stand-off with Beijing on their contested border, pushing India closer to the United States. A recent in-depth report and a derived storymap published by the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) in collaboration with the Woodwell Climate Research Center lays out how climate change is further magnifying the India-China rivalry. Meanwhile, Pakistan faces uncertainties and tensions on its borders with India and Afghanistan. The looming U.S.-China “extreme competition” also casts an unhealthy pall over all of South Asia, with smaller states such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka concerned about being forced to choose between the two great powers.
As a CSR briefer on converging risks in South Asia detailed in 2020, Covid and climate change are combining with weak economies and challenging governance conditions, pushing the region closer to a complex emergency moment. Such a moment could plausibly have come this past week, had Tauktae struck, for example, Mumbai or Karachi. The pandemic would have made evacuation of upwards of ten million people even more difficult, and financially strapped governments would have struggled mightily to repair the damage and rehabilitate their citizens. If governments had made mistakes in their responses, citizen anger could easily have exploded in the form of protests and longer-term alienation from the political process.
Converging risks of this magnitude in vulnerable parts of the world require a particularly robust response – not just after the fact but well before. Forecasting and early warning tools will be needed, as will processes for evacuation, triage, governance, and managing political fallouts. It is not always true that wealthier nations do better – for instance, Sri Lanka and some states in India did a commendable job during the unforeseen 2004 Asian Tsunami, while the resource-rich state of Texas in the United States demonstrated multiple failures during the predicted deadly freeze of February 2021.
Thus, learning from other nations is also essential, as the Converging Risks Lab at CSR has detailed over the last year. Tokyo for example has stepped forward as a complex emergency leader following its catastrophic triple disaster in 2011 consisting of an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor meltdown. The government’s response includes both successes and failures, and can serve as lessons for other countries experiencing multiple crises at once.
There is little doubt that the coming decades will be layered with emergencies characterized by their converging, extreme, and cascading nature. As such, we must utilize our ability to anticipate these risks and minimize their potential destruction. Ideally in time, nations like India that are concurrently slammed by a natural disaster during a health crisis, a weak economy, and geopolitical threats, will have the necessary tools at their disposal to mitigate these potentially catastrophic risks. Incorporating a complex risk lens into national and regional emergency responses is the first step to confronting these issues.