economy and politics

Are Indian policy makers taking note of the climate adaptation lessons from the Delhi floods?


The areas most affected by the Delhi floods are those where the poor live and where civic services, including sewerage, are poor (Image: Amarjeet Kumar Singh / Alamy)

Delhi floods have dominated the news cycle in India over the past week, sparking political strife and intense war of words in television studios.

And yet, what is lost in the high-decibel rhetoric is a clear understanding of what is happening, and why. More importantly, politics is drowning out the main governance lessons about what can be done in the short and long term to meet the challenges.

Excessive attention to Delhi

There are several reasons why the current floods in Delhi have received disproportionate attention. This is partly because New Delhi is the capital of India and the state in which it is located. Furthermore, Delhi is governed by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) through an elected legislature, while other parts of governance – including key portfolios such as police and land allocation– are in the hands of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in power at the Union government level. Third, the presence of most of the major media in Delhi and of television studios in the National Capital Region – which includes Delhi and some surrounding parts of the states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan – means that there is a geographic bias in favor of reporting on Delhi-related issues.

This disproportionate focus on Delhi hides the fact that the current rains are a larger phenomenon, with rainfall in Delhi playing only a small role. According to the India Meteorological Department (IMD), Delhi received an excess of precipitations of 66% in the period from 1 to 16 July 2023. But Delhi is a small region: it occupies only 1,483 square kilometers. The much larger Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Uttarakhand provinces received 156%, 93% and 63% excess rainfall, respectively, in the same period. In each of these provinces, many districts are much larger than the total area of ​​Delhi, which means that excess rainfall there has a much larger impact than cumulative rainfall in Delhi.

Even this distribution by provinces hides significant anomalies. In Himachal Pradesh, Una district registered a deficit of 100%, that is, zero rainfall, while Bilaaspur district registered a deficit of 83%. Excessive rainfall was reported in the other 10 districts, and in Kullu –more than 3 times larger than Delhi– the excess was 630%.

The impact of the rains is not limited to the borders of India either. Parts of the Sutlej basin in Pakistan suffered from “moderate flood”, with more than 26,000 people evacuated and more than 1,500 rescued animals. Also in northern Bangladesh the situation is seriouswith more than 250,000 people “abandoned in Lalmonirhat, Kurigram, Nilphamari and Rangpur districts.”

Therefore, it is a mistake to view the current challenge of managing excess rainfall through the prism of provincial borders. The impact of water flow crosses man-made boundaries, and the variations within these boundaries are also extreme. Although the political opportunity to blame other parties – Himachal, Haryana and Uttarakhand are governed by parties other than the AAP – is obvious, it does not help the people of any of these provinces.

Ignore divisions within Delhi

The political dispute hides another important issue, which is the governance of water within Delhi. The last time the city suffered major flooding was in 2016, but nothing seems to have been learned from that experience. In a 2017 report For the Delhi-based Institute of Energy and Resources, Principal Investigator Sanjay Gupta notes: “Regarding the management of the stormwater drainage system in…Delhi, it is striking that there is no institution taking responsibility for it. overall responsibility for the entire system. He then lists 10 individual agencies and agents, including departments overseen by the Union government and some by the state government, as well as autonomous bodies such as the National Green Court and civil society groups, all with some part of the responsibility.

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The BJP has ruled at the union level and municipal level before the 2016 floods, and the AAP has been in power at the provincial level – sandwiched between the two – since 2013. Both political parties have had more than enough time to deal with the problems posed by the 2016 floods, and yet there is no noticeable improvement in flood management since the last flood. In fact, just before the current floods, the two have been at odds over who should manage the pollution levels of the Yamunaand now they are confronted by the supposed bad flood management. In this political dispute, public opinion does not know who exactly is responsible for the management of the drainage system.

Even this distribution by provinces hides significant anomalies. In Himachal Pradesh, Una district registered a deficit of 100%, that is, zero rainfall, while Bilaaspur district registered a deficit of 83%. Excessive rainfall was reported in the other 10 districts, and in Kullu –more than 3 times larger than Delhi– the excess was 630%.

the situation is going to get worse

There are two other issues that the post-2016 flood report highlights, both of which should make policy makers sit up and take notice. One is the rainfall pattern, and the other is the pattern of land use.

Based on IMD data for the period 1901-2016, Gupta states that “annual rainfall and the number of rainy days are increasing; the actual duration of rainfall has been reduced, which has caused a sharp increase in the intensity of rainfall, which has gone from 13.2 mm/hour in 1986 to 22.9 mm/hour in 2016, which in 2016 caused the flooding of more than 50% of the city in three hours.” This exactly matches the recent report on water, ice, society and ecosystems of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, which noted that rainfall in the western Himalayan areas is likely to increase considerably over the course of this century.

At the same time, land use patterns in Delhi have undergone a striking change, making it much more vulnerable to flooding. A study using satellite data from 1989 to 2011 shows a massive increase in Delhi’s built-up area at the cost of “watersheds, loss of forest cover and change in agricultural land.” These are the areas that would have absorbed excess water, but have been cemented over and are now contributing to flooding.

Many of these problems are of a municipal nature. For example, one solution to deal with urban flooding is the water recharge wells in the capital of Pakistan, Islamabad. It has been run by the Capital Development Authority (Islamabad), a municipal authority. In the uproar over mismanagement of floods, it is striking that the roles and responsibilities of municipal authorities are totally ignored.

The poor are always the most affected

There is also, always, the question of the unequal distribution of power. The more than 20,000 people evacuated from around the Yamuna Basin in Delhi come mainly from the poorest communities. Years ago, talking about urban resource allocation in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru, researchers from the think tank janagraaha I was told that neighborhoods in the city with poorer residents and fewer services received less attention and money. This was because the people who lived in the wealthier parts of the city had more influence and the ability to demand resources.

When the waters recede, these people will return to their homes, but will civic services improve? Will the drainage systems be fixed, or will these people and areas simply become prey to the next catastrophe to hit the city?

land use patterns in Delhi have undergone a striking change, making it much more vulnerable to flooding

Authorities have learned nothing from the last flood that devastated the city in 2016. All the science indicates that such events are likely to occur more frequently and have greater impact as the world warms. If there is one overwhelming lesson from the floods, it is this: the water cycle is changing, and governance systems urgently need to adapt. Clear lines of responsibility must be drawn. Or the policy makers can continue doing what they are doing: yelling at each other, while the poor drown.

Note: The article was originally published in English on The Third Pole. The reproduction of the same in Spanish is done with the proper authorization. Link to the original article:

Omair Ahmad is South Asia Editor-in-Chief at The Third Pole. He has worked as a political analyst and journalist, with a focus on the Himalayan region. He is the author of a political history of Bhutan and a few novels.

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